Being a good citizen

June 22, 2010
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This post was written by IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger.

The civics education team of the Indiana Bar Foundation kicked off the weeklong “Project Citizen: Equal Justice Institute” Monday afternoon at Indiana University’s education building in Bloomington. The institute will help teachers know what their students are going through when they work on community projects that help instill a sense of pride in themselves and their communities, while teaching students what it means to be a good citizen.

This year, the institute and Project Citizen teachers in Indiana will focus on human rights, something the organizers said is rarely discussed in American classrooms. However, the subject is often talked about among students and teachers in other countries, particularly countries that have written their constitutions since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written more than 60 years ago.

While the event was slightly altered after Monday’s key speaker, an Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor had to pull out due to a family emergency, the almost two dozen registered teachers were still engaged in the conversation led by Dr. Dan Prinzing, education director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center. Prinzing, along with Indiana teachers Scott Frye and Lynnette Wallace, will serve as mentors to the teachers at the institute.

By asking the teachers questions about their own experiences teaching civics to their students, who mostly teach high school but some teach middle and elementary school students, Prinzing talked about how teachers can share with students what they need to know in terms of basic knowledge, such as laws and how policy works, how to use that knowledge to affect change through voting and other means, and why the students need to care or else the other two things don’t matter.

As an example, one teacher in the room said she had a student who was pulled over by police. As a result of that student’s experience, she rewrote her curriculum for that class and the students worked on a list of things for juveniles under 18 to know if they ever needed to interact with law enforcement. Because the students understood how a real interaction with law enforcement would affect them, she said they understood exactly why it was important.

The other teachers also weighed in on their students’ attitudes toward voting, law enforcement, and why many of them are apathetic to civics education for various reasons. In most cases, teachers who have minority students said there seemed to be a sense of fatalism and low self worth that what they did didn’t matter, even though the teachers didn’t believe that to be true. A teacher who has mostly wealthy, white students said they didn’t care because their parents took care of everything for them so they didn’t feel a need to participate.

Following Prinzing’s discussion on interacting with students, Frye explained how Project Citizen fits in with civics education while improving test scores for ISTEP social studies tests given to fifth- and seventh-graders. He said the two civics standards in Indiana were the three steps of how to excel as a citizen: voice opinion, monitor government, and effect and evoke change; and the character traits of a good citizen: participation, cooperation, responsibility, and the newest, respect for others.

Wallace also explained how the projects for Project Citizen work: first students come up with a problem, such as a littered park, they come up with a few alternative solutions, then they propose which policy would be the best, and finally come up with an action plan to present to community leaders who can help implement the project.

Throughout the week, the teachers working in small groups with their mentors will come up with their own problems, solutions, proposals, and action plans through research and working together.

Other highlights of the week include: Indiana Rep. Chester Dobis of Merrillville, who has served since 1970, will speak with the teachers about state and local government; and former Project Citizen students will talk about their experiences with the program. Other speakers for the week include the mentors; Arlene Benitez, associate director of the I.U. Center for Social Studies and International Education; Eric Steele, who directs the Project Citizen program for the Indiana Bar Foundation; and other members of the civics education team. They will all emphasize how the program can benefit students and in turn society at the local, national, and even international level.

While Project Citizen is funded by congressional spending, the civics education staff who organized the event is supported by the Indiana Bar Foundation. While their funding partly comes from IOLTA funds, which are low this year due to low interest rates, they are also receiving funds from the “An Hour for Civics” program, which will continue at least through June 30, but is likely to be extended beyond that as long as funds continue to come in. They are also always seeking help from lawyers to work with Project Citizen classrooms.
 

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