If we care about our democracy, about the environment, our future Supreme Court or who will be our next president we should all care about Civic Education.
For the past 7 years, my colleague filmmakers and educators and I have worked in the classroom with students and teachers to find ways to make civic education alive and engaging.
I am not a teacher and my job of the past thirty years has been documentary filmmaking mostly for Public Television. As I witnessed my two usually engaged sons struggling to connect with their civics class, I imagined that I might use my professional expertise to engage students in their civic education. After all, many of the skills that you need to be a good documentary filmmaker; curiosity, empathy, ability to understand and present both sides of an issue; are the qualities you need to be a good citizen.
So, we set out to meet with educators and students to research how I could use my skills to find ways to foster civic engagement and education. After speaking to many educators and students it became clear that producing a PBS series on democracy and civic engagement was not the way to capture teenagers’ attention. Our goal became to give students the skills and opportunity to make films themselves about civic issues of their choice. After being cautioned that public schools don’t easily embark on untested programs we conducted our first pilot project at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. This first student film explored how democracy deals with a complex local issue: the PCB pollution of the local Housatonic River by the General Electric company. Students first did extensive research about the subject, identified who were the main players involved and developed questions. They went through the complete film production process from writing a treatment to conducting interviews and editing their final film. The culmination of the project was a public screening and community conversation led by the students about an issue deeply affecting the area. In addition to learning about the involvement of both local and federal government, they examined the role of the press, understood the importance of community engagement and grasped the complexity of our democracy.
After the success of this first pilot program, we created a not-for-profit, The Civic Life Project with the goal of using digital media storytelling to engage young people in our democracy and their civic education. Civic Life students have now produced more than eighty films about a wide range of subjects including the Death Penalty, LGBT bullying, Students’ First Amendment Rights, Campaign Financing and many more. Students have led dozens of community screenings and dialogues about the issues they chose to explore in their films.
So, what have we learned from our work so far.
Civic Education should not be limited to the rote learning of the three branches of the government but bring students to Civics by first connecting them with contemporary issues and stories they care about. One example is a group of Connecticut Region One students who wanted to make a film (“The D Word”) about their First Amendment Rights which they felt was unfairly curtailed. They found and researched a local story of a high school student who had been punished for using her private blog to call her superintendent a derogatory term. Students were able to interview both sides of that story. They analyzed the court proceedings resulting from the student having filed a lawsuit against the School District and learned about Supreme Court precedents that would impact the judge’s decision in the case. Because they had a personal connection with the story they learned more about the First Amendment than if they had had to read from a book. The ACLU State Representative interviewed by the students for their film was so impressed that they knew all the Court Cases and precedents relevant to the story they wanted to tell.
Yes, Civic literacy is essential to our democracy and it is terrifying to know that only one out of three Americans can name the three branches of government. But based on our experience with Civic Life, I would argue that Civic Skills are equally important for us to impart to young people. In the process of producing their Civic Life films students acquire what we could call “intellectual” civic skills such as knowing how to identify, assess, interpret, describe, analyze, and explain matters of concern in civic life. These skills encompass among others critical thinking, perspective-taking, understanding, interpreting, and critiquing various media, etc.
Another valuable set of skills related to civics we could call “participatory” civic skills. Documentary filmmaking is essentially about collaboration and interaction. Young filmmakers must learn how to work in small groups to develop their film. They interact with adults and members of their community as they conduct interviews and lead public screenings of their films. In the process, they develop skills that include: Knowing how to cope in groups and organizational settings, how to interact with elected officials and community leaders and representatives; Learning how to engage in dialogue with those who hold different perspectives and develop skills of active listening; Practicing public speaking; Learning to manage, organize and participate in groups.
Youth Media creation is a powerful tool to engage diverse students including those who have difficulty functioning in a more conventional academic environment. Our anecdotal experience has shown us that many of our students, some in danger of failing or dropping out, found a new way to connect with their studying by using a medium they feel most comfortable with. Youth Media is an important part of what has been called the new Action Civics movement, described as an experiential, youth-centered approach to civic education–to create a world that invites young people to take collective action inside and outside the classroom–transforming their schools, neighborhoods and cities. A study commissioned by The Robert R. McCormick Foundation shows the lasting impact of youth media programs on adult civic engagement.
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