Last week, at the Newseum in Washington, DC, the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida, in collaboration with our friends at iCivics, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, hosted the Democracy at a Crossroads: Our Nation’s Future Needs Innovative Civic Learning Now meeting of civic educators, thinkers, and leaders from across the country (including a number of high school and college students!). Better known, perhaps, as the CivX Summit, the event featured speakers from across the political spectrum and the civics education community.

What was the point of the summit? Why did all of these smart, dedicated people get together to talk about civics? The point, really, was to stress, on a national stage, why civics matters, and to encourage those with the power and ability to do something about civics to actually do it. The summit’s ‘jumping off point’ was the recently released white paper from Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of Tisch’s College of Civic Life. Throughout the day, speakers discussed the idea of ‘civic deserts’ and the impact they have on our society and on generations of Americans. They discussed why our discourse has perhaps become so degraded, pointing to a growing ‘Big Sort’ as a reason why Americans increasingly demand so-called ‘safe spaces’ for their views, left or right, and view ‘the other side’ as an obstacle and potential enemy, instead of just another American with a different idea.

A significant element of the ongoing conversation was what 21st century civics should look like. We know what it looks like; research has shown, consistently, what most engages students in civic life and civic learning: the Six Proven Practices. These practices (classroom instruction on relevant topics, deliberations on current events and controversial issues, service learning, student-led groups, student voice in schools, and simulations of democratic practices), however, demand additions. To address the severe issues we face in teaching and learning civics, the discussion at the summit emphasized the importance of 21st century news media literacy education, an action civics model, a consideration of social and emotional learning, and school climate reform.  You can read more about these important additions to the Six Proven Practices in the white paper.

Let’s consider that idea of school climate for a moment. It is, indeed, an area that has gotten a great deal of attention lately, and not always for the better. And in many cases, we do not often think about the connection between civics instruction and school climate. But one of the most powerful moments in the entire day was when we listened to the voice of a student. A young African American woman from a local DC high school, during a heated discussion of ‘the realities of school discipline and climate’, stood up and shared, with a great deal of power and emotion, why her peers are afraid to speak up, afraid to be involved in civic life in their schools and communities, afraid to be the active citizens they deserve to be. It was a powerful moment, and emphasized the importance of student voice in any consideration of civic education reform.

An additional important focus, especially relevant here in Florida, was the role of stakeholders within the state policy apparatus. Both Florida and Illinois were held up as examples of what can happen when the stakeholders get heard and when civics is given the priority it deserves. The recent work of our friends at McCormick, spearheaded by the incredible Dr. Shawn Healy, placed civic education well up the educational ladder in Illinois. At the same time, the work of Congressman Lou Frey and Senator Bob Graham in Florida, in collaboration with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Dr. Doug Dobson (Executive Director of the Lou Frey Institute) and educators across the state to establish civics as a legislative and educational priority was featured. It was a proud moment for us here at the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, as Congressman Frey and Senator Graham were recognized for their work. You can view the video below to get some sense of the work that has been done in this state. Civics matters in Florida.

The highlight of the event was without a doubt a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It was a powerful conversation, wide ranging over a number of civic topics, from cameras in the courtroom to engaging in civil discourse across ideological divides, and the justice was sure to engage directly with the high school and college students in the audience. It was a powerful moment, and emphasized for us the importance and impact of government officials engaging with students. 

It was, truly, an exciting opportunity to discuss the future of civics education in the United States. Now, the next step is to ensure that the conversation does not stop, and that it results in action. Let us all make that happen. Take the CivX Pledge, and commit to making a difference in your community and in civic life.

You can read more about the CivX Summit in the articles below:

Education Week: Justice Sotomayor at the Summit