New York: Generation Citizen

Taking Informed Civic Action

Learn more about Generation Citizen’s approach to empowering youth as action civics below!

About Generation Citizen

Generation Citizen was founded in 2008 and currently works with middle and high school students in Providence, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan areas with the goal of engaging youth in the political process through a semester-long action civics curriculum implemented during the school day. Generation Citizen is expanding to Austin and Oklahoma City in 2017.

Generation Citizen implements action civics, a process in which students learn civics through taking civic action. Action civics is student-centered, community-driven, and action-oriented. The action civics process includes three main steps: choosing an issue, learning to take action, and taking action. In each of these phases, youth-led participatory action research (YPAR) is essential. When choosing which issue to focus on, students conduct research to first learn about and define the issue. Then, when learning to take action, students study the successes and difficulties of different approaches. Finally, when taking action, either the action itself is research-oriented (such as documenting youth perspectives about community policing to share at a meeting with a police commissioner) and/or there are opportunities to evaluate and reflect upon the process and impact of taking action.

Note: Generation Citizen uses an expansive definition of citizens to refer to all people engaged in their community, rather than in reference to an individual’s legal status.

Generation Citizen in Action: The Action Civics Process, As Applied in One Elementary Classroom

In fall of 2014, Peter Cipparone adapted the semester-long curriculum for middle and high school students into a month-long unit for his class of 4th graders at a Brooklyn, NY public school.

Fourth graders have many observations about the world around them, so their first lesson played into their ability to think about their surroundings. First, they asked students to describe their neighborhood. Then, the class composed a shared definition of communities, and students mapped their own communities onto that. Students were encouraged to include labels and details so that they could communicating their thoughts to others. After students had worked for a bit, the facilitators introduced the terms “asset” and “issue” and prompted students to include some on their map.

When they brainstormed a shared list of community issues at the end of class, their list was long. One student mentioned that cars raced down a nearby street at dangerous speeds; another noted a lack of trees in her neighborhood. Some students focused on their school community – graffiti in the bathrooms, for example. By the end of class, students were bubbling with ideas.

People don’t always know who to ask in order to make a difference on a given issue. During the second session, students learned about decision-makers and influencers. The facilitators gave students an example of a teacher who gave students a zero on tests if they were sick, and students worked in pairs to generate ideas of who could help them and who they’d want to influence. From their maps, students chose an issue, then brainstormed decision-makers and influencers for their issue. Students tailored their decision-makers to their given issues.

After two classes, students’ excitement about the prospect of taking action was palpable. One students started a “Make a Difference” club on campus that met twice weekly. Two other students wrote a letter to their Mayor about a local environmental issue of concern.

In the third session, students chose which issues to focus on as a class. Students initially discussed the differences between consensus and voting as decision-making processes, and then experienced each one of these processes. During their previous sessions, the students seemed to be most interested in four issues: (1) improving the school’s bathrooms, (2) installing an elevator or escalator at the school, (3) cleaning the nearby Gowanus Canal, and (4) reducing the risk of accidents at dangerous streets in their neighborhoods. The class put these up for a vote via secret ballot in order to pare the list down to two key issues. School bathrooms and the Gowanus Canal emerged as the finalists. Some students were momentarily crestfallen, but the team reassured them that through class work on the selected issues, they would develop the skills to work on any issue they care about.

Their team set about deciding whether they would devote their energies to improving school bathrooms or cleaning the Gowanus Canal. Students spread themselves out on a line with strongly wanting to focus on bathrooms at one end and strongly wanting to work on the Gowanus Canal on the other. Students then made oral arguments to convince others that their issue was the one most worthy of focus. One student noted that the graffiti on the walls of the bathrooms affected younger kids, teaching them inappropriate rules and setting a poor example. Another student countered his point.

Mr. Cipparone smiled and pointed out that they were contrasting the benefits of local change versus systemic change. Through the conversation, students used many strategies – from detailed descriptions of the state of the bathrooms to emotional appeals for how cleaning the Gowanus Canal could help not only people in their neighborhood, but animals as well. They ended at a stalemate. Students on either side had dug in their heels, so they decided to focus on both issues. This was unusual for the Generation Citizen curriculum but seemed to be an appropriate modification considering the dynamics of the class at that moment. Regardless, the debate provided students with a meaningful opportunity to construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and to critique explanations – all skills highlighted by the C3 Framework.

Students finally identified targets for both issues in the next session and developed arguments and questions for decision-makers who they wanted to host.

Elementary Student Outcomes

Over the course of the four-session pilot unit, students gained action civics skills based on assessments conducted before and after the unit. The first survey asked students to identify strengths and issues in their school. Then, students chose one issue, described who could help them make an impact on that issue, and wrote a persuasive letter to a decision-maker about the issue. Results revealed that after the pilot students could name more influencers and more decision-makers to approach about their desired change. Interestingly, students named more strengths of their school after the pilot and slightly fewer problems. This could be due to the class’ choice of a small number of problems to focus on. The students’ growth showed most strikingly in their writing. After the pilot, students suggested more specific actions and showed an understanding of some specific pathways to change.

Students’ enthusiasm for making a difference in their community noticeably increased as a result of participation. Students became engaged in projects from the first session and pursued much of the action work outside of the classroom. One student carried a folder with petitions to lunch and recess everyday, and parents reported their children eagerly retelling what the had worked on in class that day. The course did seem to cultivate upper elementary school students’ nascent ability to consider issues affecting their school and local community.

Finally, students engaged in a number of provocative whole-class discussions during the course. As the idea of making a difference became ore practical, students’ ability to see multiple points of view seemed to improve. The whole-class debate about the adoption of a class issue was a particularly clear example of the argumentation work that is emphasized in both the C3 standards and the Common Core. The discussions proved particularly valuable for students who struggle with written work. One such student contributed multiple opinions that influenced others’ thinking. Generation Citizen provided all students an access point for the important skills of reasoning and critiquing others’ reasoning.

Community Outcomes

Students contacted decision-makers and took action independently.

For the school bathrooms initiative, students met with the principal, which led to the bathrooms being repainted, but the students decided this was not enough in and of itself. They also used their time in art class to create signs to encourage their peers to keep the bathrooms clean.

For the Gowanus Canal initiative, the commissioner of the Department of Sanitation responded to the letter students sent to the Mayor, inviting them to join local volunteer efforts. The students enthusiastically participated in a clean-up day.

Other Examples of Action Projects

The above example illustrates the process, opportunities, and challenges that arise for many Generation Citizen participants. For example, students choose a range of issues that tend to include both school-based issues (like the school bathrooms), as well as issues affecting the broader community (like the Gowanus Canal). Recent analyses of all the action projects by Generation Citizen classes suggest that there are three overarching categories: school environment, safety, and social issues.

Lessons Learned

In addition to middle and high school students (where civic education is currently concentrated), action civics can lead to powerful learning for upper elementary school students. Schools and teachers should provide opportunities for students to take action in their community, regardless of age. Through reading, writing, and discussion, students can develop as citizens at early age.

Learn More

For more information, please visit www.generationcitizen.org and actioncivicscollaborative.org. If you have any specific questions, you may contact Alison Cohen at acohen@generationcitizen.org.

Photo taken by Laura C. Fontaine