Where did you learn civics? Missourians share stories from classrooms and beyond
There’s no requirement for a person to know how the government works before casting a ballot in an election. But educators say that young people need exposure to civics — especially in an election year.
Yet, there’s little public discussion of how people learn about the principles of civic participation. That includes what K-12 students learn in the classroom.
In this episode of St. Louis on the Air, three educators described the challenges of teaching civics and government in a way that both meets Missouri state standards for social studies and fosters excitement around civic participation.
Linnet Early is a social studies teacher at Nipher Middle School in the Kirkwood School District and the president of the Missouri Council for Social Studies. She said students often have a handle on the three branches of government and checks and balances but don’t feel a connection to the way they’re governed.
“Government and understanding civics is much more challenging for that age group,” Early said. “They have not really participated or engaged with government. They've never had a part-time job or gotten a W-2 form, so they really don't have a very good understanding of government or the role that everyday people play in government. I would say the trick is to make them see that at the state and local level.”
That means doing more than just quizzing students on how a bill becomes law. Chaebong Nam, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said one of the keys to civics education is beginning with what’s important to students rather than focusing on rote learning.
“Students are building their self-knowledge and self-reflection on who they are — their values,” said Nam, who also works as an Educating for American Democracy grantee in the University City School District. “Then they progressively develop this thought into bigger thoughts of government and other levers of power.”
Teachers are often unsure how to make civics and politics feel relevant to their students. Rob Good, vice president of the Missouri Council for History Education as well as education coordinator for the National Council for History and Education, said he talks with teachers about how they might help students put what they’ve learned about civic participation into action.
Teachers need to be trusted to handle these subjects, Good said. “Trust the professionalism of your teachers and provide them the support so that they can create environments where their students learn.”
Different ways to learn
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum put out a prompt on Facebook asking people about where they learned about government and civics. More than 100 people chimed in with replies.
Several people said they learned the most about civics through formal and informal education programs. Wayne Brekhus, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said his experience learning about civics in the classroom “tended to focus more on the ideal of how government works in theory than the messy realities of how it often actually works in practice.”
And Cottleville resident Meggie Biesenthal said that when she went to school, her class built a replica of the Berlin Wall out of blocks in the classroom and spent time on both sides.
“On the free side, you could play with whatever you wanted,” Biesenthal said. “On the other side, you sat at a table and drew a picture of yourself doing the career the teachers assigned you. The classroom bathroom was on the free side, so you had to have an escort to go there if you were from the not-free side. At the end of the day, we knocked the wall down to understand what happened in Germany. That was my first learning experience about how a government worked (& a revolution)!”
Others said that they learned from either working on political campaigns or working in the Missouri state Capitol. That includes Boone County resident Kelly Schultz, who charted out a long and successful career in Missouri’s legislative and executive branches.
“School teaches you process. But you can’t truly learn about people, power, and the strategy to gain power and influence people at every single step of the process until you are in the building,” Schultz said. “Policy is a lifelong learning journey. Anyone who claims to know everything about any given policy just doesn’t know what they don’t know.”
A number of people, Public Service Commission member Maida Coleman, a former state senator, learned the basics of government by watching "Schoolhouse Rock." Some respondents pointed to both popular culture and the news media for helping them become acclimated to politics and government.
“I watched 'Meet the Press' with my father before I was 10,” said Lana Stein, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “After he died in 1958 I became more of a nerd and read and read. My whole family spoke about politics frequently. How our system was not an idealized picture became clear in college and during Vietnam. And so it goes. The study of bureaucracy explained truth to power.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.