Be Informed, Speak Up, Act: A Lesson in Citizenship for Grades 6-8
Students deliberate on an important public policy issue, then become participatory citizens by writing editorial commentaries on it.
- Grades: 6–8
- Unit Plan:
This lesson helps students recognize that in the United States the public has the right, and responsibility, to participate in civic dialogue. It is called "participatory citizenship," and as a part of this public body, students can exert a certain amount of power. This lesson is divided into three parts:
- In Be Informed (lasting up to two hours), students deliberate on an important public policy issue. First, they select an issue that they would like to explore and conduct the research to learn more about it. Students also formulate a plan as to how the government could best respond to the problem the policy issue addresses.
- In Speak Up (lasting up to one hour), students strengthen their understanding of possible public policy directives through a class discussion.
- In Act (lasting up to two hours), students become participating citizens by taking grade-appropriate action. They learn how to generate public awareness around policy issues by creating editorial commentaries expressing their ideal resolution to this policy issue.
- Publicly state a perspective on a pressing public issue
- Support their perspective thoughtfully, using information culled from a variety of different resources
- Demonstrate listening skills and the ability to engage in civic discussion
- Show an understanding of different policy perspectives and the importance of listening to different perspectives when forming their own views towards policy
- Interactive whiteboard
- Three Steps for Civic Action (PDF)
- Notes for Civic Action (PDF)
- Policy Proposals (PDF)
- What I Learned (PDF)
- Ideas on How to Act
Set Up and Prepare
- Select one of the following public policy issues for the class to consider during the lesson: Environment, Education, the Economy, or Health Care.
- Read through all of the worksheets provided above and make copies as needed.
Day 1: Be Informed
Step 1: Write "Public Policy Issues" on the board. Ask students to explain what these words mean. Explain that a public policy issue is a subject that is important to the members of a specific community, typically a local, state, or national community. People tend to have different ideas about the types of policies that should regulate their communities.
Step 2: Ask students to write a list of as many public policy issues as they can think of (examples include determining the hours that a school day begins and ends. determining the age at which people can drive.) After a few minutes, ask the class to share their ideas. Challenge students to offer ideas that have not been previously stated. Appoint a note taker to record each response on the board.
Step 3: Now, tell students that the class will consider a specific public policy issue (the issue that you chose in the preparation phase for this lesson). Show students the sample questions below that are related to the issue you chose:
Environment: Should government expand offshore drilling? How should government balance allowing people to develop new properties with protecting wildlife and natural habitats? Should government, business, or both fund research and development of alternative energy solutions?
Education: How could government improve the overall quality of American education? What responsibilities does government have as opposed to parents for educating children? Should government have any responsibility for assisting with college costs?
Economy: Should the government regulate the country's financial industry (e.g., banks and investment firms) more, less, or the same amount? Is it fair to have different tax rates for different levels of income? Should businesses be given tax cuts?
Health Care: What should government's role and responsibility be regarding health care for individuals? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of the current way health care is handled? What should government's role and responsibility be regarding health care for the elderly?
Step 4: Post the Three Steps for Civic Action (PDF) on your interactive whiteboard and read it aloud to students. Ask students what they think each of these three steps means. Do they think that each step is important? Why or why not?
Step 5: Explain that in the United States, individual citizens can shape the ways government responds to policy issues. Community leaders, such as the mayor or town manager, expect the public to share their views on how to respond to these issues.
Step 6: Divide students into groups of three or four. Tell them that each group will develop policy proposals addressing how the government could best respond to a policy issue. Now remind students that the first step of political activism is becoming informed. Challenge each group to collect as much information as possible on the policy issue. They can answer the set of questions listed above and/or come up with questions of their own to answer. Distribute the Notes for Civic Action (PDF) worksheet for each group to document their research. While they work, review and approve the information students gather before begining the next step.
Step 7: Now, reconvene the class and distribute the Policy Proposals (PDF) worksheet to each group. Share how they might respond to public policy issues. For example, consider the policy issue, "Should government expand offshore drilling?" Students should consider that either the amount of oil available to Americans must be increased or our use of oil must be decreased because otherwise, the amount of available oil will deplete. What do students think should happen? Have each group record their policy proposals on the worksheet.
Day 2: Speak Up
Step 1: Have students reconvene in their groups. Tell them that today, they will present their proposals to the class and will brainstorm how to most effectively share ideas with policymakers.
Step 2: Ask if anybody in the class knows someone in the community who helps make ordinances (local laws) or rules that help regulate the life of the community. Suggest that in many ways individual citizens are the true policymakers within society, since citizens can support the candidates whose positions they like best. Oftentimes, citizens support policy positions themselves, as the class does in this lesson.
Step 3: Remind students that civic discourse, or the opportunity to publicly discuss specific public issues, is a very important right belonging to Americans. Students should consider that rights come with responsibilities. The responsibilities that accompany the right to engage in civic discourse include respectfully listening to other points of view. The most sophisticated, best ideas are only developed after considering multiple perspectives and taking the best ideas from each.
Step 4: Offer students a few minutes to prepare their presentations. Then invite each group to present their findings and opinions to the class, and ask those not presenting to come up with one question for the presenters. After each group has finished, have several students ask questions. Challenge the presenting groups to respond to these questions as thoughtfully as possible.
Step 5: Distribute the What I Learned (PDF) and ask all students to write one thing they have learned through the sharing of policy proposals in today's class. When they are finished and if time remains, have several students share their answers with the class.
Day 3: Act
Step 1: In a quick writing assignment, ask students to write what they think a person must do to effectively influence public discourse on specific policy issues. Remind them to back up their opinions thoughtfully.
Step 2: After a few minutes, hold a class discussion. Encourage students to share whether or not they think that their opinions really matter in the United States. Do their opinions matter in their local communities? Why or why not? Hopefully students will recognize that their opinions do matter in this country. Challenge students to think of any way that they themselves could help shape community policy decisions. Students will likely recognize that involvement in student council and in-school and out-of-school community service projects can provide students with opportunities to help shape community policy choices. Do any students help shape the opinion of students at school by writing in the school newspaper? Do they know of any students who have made presentations to the local school board? During this discussion, help students recognize that they can make a huge contribution to the community in which they live.
Step 3: Review the Ideas on How to Act article, which lists the different actions that members of a democratic society, including students, could implement to help publicize their civic ideals.
Step 4: Explain that people use many different kinds of media to communicate their perspectives about particular policy issues with others. For example, have students ever read a newspaper editorial? What is an editorial? Why would people communicate in this way? Ask if students have ever seen a community mural. What is a mural? Why would people communicate their thoughts with murals? Can students think of any other ways that people communicate their ideas?
Step 5: Provide students with an opportunity to act in support of a policy proposal. They could write an Op-Ed article, a letter to an editor, or a political cartoon to express their views or promote their policy proposal. When finished and if time allows, students can share their writings or artwork with the class.