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iCivics: Teaching Civics in the 21st Century

Updated on April 23, 2013
A look at the falling trends by grade level
A look at the falling trends by grade level | Source

We have two major problems facing twenty-first century America: declining rates of proficiency in civics and a class of young Americans who couldn't care less. Our fourth graders are performing stronger than ever however this success fades in grades eight and twelve. In fact it seems that knowledge about civics degenerates as an American grows older. If this was Saudi Arabia or Communist China these findings would frighten me little, but because our system depends on an informed citizenry that understands its way around our government, the graph to your right undermines my confidence in the future. Educators, especially those that are in Social Studies have the responsibility and the up-hill battle to alter how students view civics and turn around these downward trends. I may have stumbled upon something that might just do that.

iCivics: A Gem for Teachers

One evening, after a long day of teaching civics, I landed upon a gem. The internet, due to its vast prairies of useless information, rarely treats me to such an incredible find. On that day, it did, and changed my entire perception on how to teach civics. The organization was founded by Sandra Day O'Connor as a way to reinforce civics as something to enjoy rather than demonize. It fills in a huge gap that has been missing since the boom of the digital age; connecting the age old tradition of civics instruction with the use of interactive units, lesson plans, and my personal favorite, video games.

The site is split into three sections, containing 16 full units, about 100 lesson plans, and 12 video games. Of the 4 games, 10 lesson plans, and 8 units that I have researched I am fairly certain this site should be a useful resource for social studies teachers across the countries. As many educators will tell you, we live in a world where critical thinking and creativity are of the highest value, thus creating a constructive learning environment is a must. Having students learn and then utilize civics in game form gives students the opportunity to go beyond simply memorizing the facts; it allows them to participate in the system first hand.


iCivics Units

Out of respect for father time and your attention, I will focus on summarizing one of the major units. A perfect unit that connects civics and history is The Constitution which organizes lessons, games and web quests so that students receive a wide variety of learning methods. As teachers certainly know, no two students learn the same and iCivics does a fairly good job of reaching all different types of learners. It begins with a lesson focusing on the frustration colonists had about England's policies in the New World. It gradually moves into a discussion about the Articles of Confederation and the differing American opinions about how to run a government. Pushing forward into the Constitution itself, iCivics helps teachers relate how the constitution is organized and how each article defines the characteristics of a certain branch or government.

The unit ends with a game and a web quest that allows students to apply their knowledge to a real Supreme Court Case. iCivics cloaks a real-time assessment with a video game appeal. Students will have to show their knowledge about the inner working of the Constitution in order to win their case in front of the Supreme Court. How a teacher evaluates students based on the unit or the game is a choice entirely up to you, but I chose to have my students play five games. Each time is a bit different so the grade depends on the amount correct. Five right would be a 100, four correct is an 80, and so on.

iCivics Lessons

To state it simply, there are too many lessons to tackle them all here. So, to make this a bit easier for you, check them out. The important thing to know is that these lessons span a wide range of topics and modes of thinking. In today's society it is not enough to memorize information and spew it back onto multiple-choice tests. Instead, there are important intellectual tools that need to be taught. iCivcs makes this a goal. They have introduced lessons that focus on analyzing documents, working cooperatively, compromising to arrive at a common goal, and using critical thinking to solve complex civic problems. While learning these important mechanisms of thought, students are picking up on all the nuts and bolts that keep American government going.

Citizenship and Participation
Executive Command
Law Craft
Argument Wars
Win the White House
Represent Me
Court Quest
Cast Your Vote
Branches of Powers
People's Pie
Do I Have a Right?
Counties Work
Supreme Decision
Immigration Nation
We The Jury
Responsibility Launcher

Onward to iCivcs Video Gaming

Maybe because I'm still a kid at heart or because I really think it works, my favorite iCivics section is the video games. These are interactive tools that allow students to participation in a virtual United States. Because my attention in class focused on the three branches of government and because I think this a good place for students to begin, I made it easier for the readers and organized most of their games into those three branches. Some did not fit but were easily fashioned for a fourth category titled "Citizenship and Participation".

My personal favorites are Branches of Government and Do I Have a Right which comes in two forms; one for the Bill of Rights and the other for all the Constitution's amendments. In Branches of Government the player is in control of all three branches at the same time. The objective is simple in theory; create a bill that is popular among voters, that can pass the legislature, that the President won't veto and that will hold up in the Supreme Court. The game itself however throws some curve balls and forces students to compromise, restructure their bill, select the correct amendments, and think about their own reelection. It's a real time learning structure that teaches civics by participating in it.

Do I Have a Right is similar in terms of its ability to teach by doing. Each player owns a virtual law office that focuses on Constitutional law. Clients come in and out, asking for assistance in court cases they hope to win. Students have to hire lawyers who focus on different amendments and then match the right client with the right lawyer. For each case won the student receives money which can be used to hire more lawyers or purchase furniture for the office. This game creates a connection between students and the purpose of each amendment while demanding a certain amount of critical thinking to keep their virtual businesses open.

If pictures are worth thousands of words then videos might be worth millions. Below are the game trailers for both these games. To check out the rest travel to youtube.

Optimistic About the Future

Although I still have my concerns about civics education in the United States, I believe if we take a new angle and refocus our lenses we can solve this major problem. Media is a wonderful way to excite students and that's exactly what we need at this important academic crossroads. It may just determine the future of the American experiment. Budget restrictions, especially to social studies, has stunted the growth of new programs, but iCivics offers a chance to stimulate educational growth. This does not mean it's a fix-all. Like the case in all classrooms, teachers know their students best, so it's important for each teacher to utilize this material differently. Using the units as is might ignore the needs of certain students thus I prefer to use these resources as a framework that can be fitted and molded into an interactive thought provoking unit that reaches as many students as possible.


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