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April 19, 2022

A picture of a city hall building.Citizens young and old are so focused on national politics, they often don’t realize that their neighborhood or town government officials make just as many decisions that impact daily life — or more! Taking tips from two Y4Y courses, Civic Learning and Engagement and Project-Based Learning, discover how even the youngest elementary students can meet their local representatives, learn about the problems impacting their community, and make a difference in the place where they live.

From the Rocks to the Politics

The significant role of local government is coming into sharper focus for communities around the country. From small-town courthouses to the governor’s office, what basic government functions can help students better understand their place? Sarah Johnson, an environmental educator and Y4Y Voices From the Field guest, colorfully describes “learning a place” as involving investigations, “from the rocks to the politics.” This illustrates that learning a place ranges from something as unchanging and objective as a rock to something as fluid and subjective as politics. That fluidity is a good place to start! Why are politics so fluid? Elections! To help students get to know about elections in your area:

  • Arrange to visit a polling place during school board, primary, or local elections. Have a polling official ready to answer student questions about what’s being voted on and what the different outcomes mean.
  • Invite elected officials to come and talk about what they did to be elected and why they decided it was important for them to serve. Start with your local school board members, who’ll likely tell your students it was to see them succeed!
  • Hold an election in your own program for a leadership position that carries some meaning. Even down to your youngest students, if you have a student role or responsibility that the students fight for, make it a monthly elected position and emphasize how important it is to change each month, and the value of having someone who’s an active participant in the program to serve in that role.

Beyond Politics: Governing!

Under that superficial layer of “politicians” — elected officials — lie many layers of government employees who work hard, often without recognition. Recognizing the essential role of these people is an important part of students’ civic learning and engagement. Y4Y developed the Civic Learning and Engagement course specifically to help your program involve students in local governing. Check out these Y4Y tools:

More broadly, you can tailor Y4Y Project-Based Learning course tools by working with partners such as state and local government, courthouse, urban planning, and law enforcement offices; organizations like the Bar Association and Women’s Council; and elected officials at all levels of government including school boards. Ask these professionals to help direct students to real work they can do to contribute as citizens. Check out Y4Y’s:

For additional ideas and guidance on directing students through place-based civics learning, check out Y4Y’s Voices From the Field podcast, The Smithsonian, Sustainable Communities, and Your 21st CCLC Program, with Heidi Gibson, a science curriculum developer. The Smithsonian community research guide for 8- to 17-year-old students, Sustainable Communities? How will we help our community thrive?, is a great, low-tech resource for helping your students gain a deep understanding of the place where they live. All of your students’ place-based learning — in the arts, literacy, human and natural history, STEM, and careers — will ideally culminate in their development as amazing, curious, and contributing citizens of the world. And maybe even more important: citizens of their own community.