Conference on ‘action civics’ meets in city

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A national group hoping to redefine civics education held a conference in Philadelphia earlier this month to strategize about ways to help schools prepare students to be engaged citizens.

The effort, called the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC), is also aimed at working with schools to move civics beyond classrooms and textbooks into real-world projects and activities, especially in schools that serve less affluent, marginalized students.

More than 40 people, mostly from foundations, universities, and nonprofit organizations, attended the event.

"The idea is to work with students from high school through college, giving them the skills, knowledge and wherewithal to be leaders in their individual lives and communities," said Barbara Ferman, executive director of the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP) at Temple.

Ferman, one of the organizers of the conference, works with some city schools through UCCP.

Many students, especially in inner-city neighborhoods, "feel totally irrelevant,’ said Ferman, a professor of political science whose areas of expertise include public policy, community organizing, and race and class. "It is rational for them to turn off and tune out."

One local project is Poppyn, a youth media TV show produced by college and high school students.

"They are tired of seeing themselves portrayed negatively," Ferman said. "We want to showcase them."

In addition to these kinds of projects, NACC seeks to influence how teachers and schools can improve students’ civic awareness as part of the curriculum.

"We’ve learned that the pedagogical approach is important," Ferman said. To feel more engaged in school, students should be able to solve problems in their communities using their own voice and knowledge.

In doing this, Action Civics seeks to move beyond "service learning."

"Service learning that is high quality is engaged in action civics," Ferman said.

Attendees discussed how to measure the success of such programs — not easily done through pencil-and-paper tests — and how to tie it into larger education reform efforts.

"Few states measure what matters in civics," said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, outside Boston. He suggested devising an evaluation that would measure how well students learn to solve problems in groups.

One conference attendee was Victor Donnay, a Bryn Mawr math professor who uses math to have his students tackle projects related to environmental sustainability.

Donnay has planning-grant money from the National Science Foundation to expand the work into high schools.

"The idea was that teachers would learn about sustainability and use it in classes to make standard math more exciting," he said.

The conference was sponsored by the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation.