Why use digital storytelling to teach civics and foster civic engagement? And what does that have to do with Clarence Earl Gideon?

“Leading a Civic Life”: Featured in Main Street Magazine
December 6, 2017

Why use digital storytelling to teach civics and foster civic engagement? And what does that have to do with Clarence Earl Gideon?

Stories of real people and real events are most often what the Supreme Court uses to interpret the US Constitution and shape our most fundamental rights.

Take the example of Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor drifter and unlikely candidate for becoming someone who would have a major and lasting influence on how we interpret the 6th Amendment of the Constitution. Arrested for allegedly breaking a door, smashing a cigarette machine and a record player, and stealing money from a cash register, Gideon appeared in court, alone and too poor to afford counsel. The following exchange took place:

The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the court can appoint counsel to represent a defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint counsel to defend you in this case.

GIDEON: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.

Robert F. Kennedy later wrote “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”

Gideon v. Wainwright was one of a series of Supreme Court decisions that confirmed the right of defendants in criminal proceedings, upon request, to have counsel appointed both during trial and on appeal.

Stories of real people and real events is how The Civic Life Project engage high school students in learning about, and connecting with, civics education. Using digital technology which they are familiar with, Civic Life students make short video documentaries, about stories that illustrate issues of interest to them. In doing so, they acquire basic civic education and skills, learn about how our government works and become prepared for active, engaged citizenship.

Dry textbook recitation of law and amendments can be transcended when the stories come alive through the people who are affected. The ordinary people whose lives intersected with legal principles vividly illustrate a human connection students need to learn about the impact of the fundamental rights of the nation.

Civic Life documentaries tell the human stories which capture student imagination and stir their passion for learning and action. Themes have included a look at how First Amendment’s freedoms apply to students, pondered whether the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, and explored other many other constitutional controversies.

The filmmaking experience is a unique way to provides a creative outlet for young people to express their learning experiences in an authentic manner. The learning culminates with public screenings of their films and conversations about the topics they chose to explore.

We offer an exciting opportunity for educators to promote active learning and critical thinking. Educators working with this project based learning model receive online instruction with small group interactive training. They then have access to continuing support throughout their implementing the project in their classroom.

Civic Life Project and Youth Film Challenge