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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Kids Around Town: Civics Lessons Leave Impressions

Through serious inquiry into local issues that interest them, even the youngest participants in the Kids Around Town program become engaged in what their government is doing.

Teaching and enabling students to be responsible citizens is an essential mission of K–12 education in a democracy. Yet the dangerous consequences of failing in this mission are all too apparent in our society. How can we motivate students to care about and get involved in civic affairs?
A model local government education program, Kids Around Town (KAT) offers some answers. The program—sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania Citizen Education Fund and cosponsored by West Chester University—has been piloted in selected Pennsylvania elementary schools and has begun expanding beyond these sites.
The KAT program provides academic support for community service activities because it is tied into curricular goals and outcome assessments. In this way, the program helps students understand the public policy implications of the projects they're engaged in.
Students select a public policy issue that affects them locally—for example, cleaning up litter in a community park. This issue then serves as a springboard for study and analysis, planning strategies, and actions. Kids Around Town is not just a project; it is a process of understanding—and participating in—the formulation of public policy. In this respect, KAT takes a dynamic view of local government.

Endless Topics and Approaches

As one might expect, KAT topics vary from school to school and from year to year. For example, during the 1994-95 pilot year, 5th graders in Sharon City, Pennsylvania, focused on juvenile crime, while their peers at Philadelphia's Leidy School voted to study the problem of abandoned housing in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, 3rd graders in the Pocono resort town of East Stroudsburg chose to study land use because they'd been noticing that certain favorite play areas were suddenly disappearing for housing developments and that many new children were enrolling in their schools.
Fifth graders in Lower Dauphin schools were moved by a visit from Hershey Medical Center's trauma team. They decided to study bicycle safety and took their proposals for a bicycle helmet ordinance to their township Board of Supervisors. Last year, children in Pittsburgh's Spring Hill School were considering the controversial proposal for a citywide curfew on juveniles. They began their civics research this year by attending a city council session at which a curfew was debated.
Kids Around Town emphasizes multiple information sources, multiple solutions, and multiple paths to growth. As in public life, legitimate participation takes as many forms as there are participants.
Significantly, children in the program don't use a textbook. The set of materials only suggests approaches and activities. It includes bibliographies, glossaries, and reproducible materials to help students navigate what may be their first experience with their local government. The materials were developed by a group of educators and public policy professionals. The project was also supported by an advisory panel composed of people serving in Pennsylvania's departments of community affairs and education and the State Association of Township Supervisors.

Teacher as Co-Explorer

In the Kids Around Town model, the teacher becomes a co-investigator, as well as a coach and facilitator of thoughtful inquiry. The teacher's job is not to sanitize and simplify the content of public policy debate, but rather to help students recognize the reasons for conflict and participate in appropriate ways to deliberate and solve problems. Teachers help students choose among the various activity suggestions. They show students that we don't always know the answers, but that we can learn to ask questions that lead to greater understanding.
As students become more engaged in their own learning, teachers occasionally fear a slip in control. This idea of co-exploration is sometimes intimidating to professionals who believe they are supposed to know it all, and even to students who are accustomed to relying on the teacher as the prime knowledge source.
Teachers may request assistance from nonpartisan civic groups, such as KAT's sponsor, the League of Women Voters. This assistance often takes the form of volunteers arranging for community speakers and the provision of government directories and community maps for classroom use. Staff support is also available from the project management team and through the KAT Resource Letter, published twice a year.
The Kids Around Town local government education model includes seven interdisciplinary steps.

1. Introducing Students to Local Government

For many students, abstract rules about how a board of supervisors differs from a mayoral form of government are meaningless. Thus KAT students learn about the purpose and operation of their local institutions in an active, memorable context. By attending commissioners meetings, for instance, students can begin to see why conflict occurs in making public policy decisions and how such conflict is resolved.
For example, the East Stroudsburg 3rd graders sat in a county courtroom and spoke with the judge. They met members of the county planning commission, and tinkered with a computer simulation of a map in the county cartographer's office. In the process, they discovered that their local government is accessible.
KAT materials also suggest open-ended questions. For example, to help make students more aware of the distinction between the public and private sectors, teachers ask students to consider what they depend on their local government to do and what changes they'd make. When Philadelphia 5th graders wrote to their mayor expressing what they expect of their city government, they were thrilled to receive a personal and comprehensive reply.
The program also captures the imagination of students with techniques that simulate government-less situations.

2. Selecting a Local Issue to Explore

Kids Around Town materials suggest ways teachers can help youngsters identify local issues by using primary sources—newspapers, maps, surveys, and simple observation. To generate legitimate issues to study, kids walk around their neighborhood, interview peers, gather data, listen, and read—methodologies that they rehearse and fine-tune.
Because students are enthusiastic about topics that they have a role in selecting, they become more involved in the project, and therefore are more apt to understand and remember what they find out. (Imagine imposing the study of land use on kids who haven't seen for themselves the impact of rapid development. Or imposing the issue of abandoned housing on suburban 9-year-olds who aren't motivated daily to do something about the problem.)

3. Researching the Issue

It's a disservice to students to expect them to express opinions on matters they have not researched. The KAT program builds serious inquiry and information gathering into civics education, even among the youngest pupils. Posing questions and developing hypotheses that can be tested are often more important skills to learn than answering the questions.
In studying the problem, kids typically meet with their municipal, county, and school district leaders. They also work with community organizations and experts who are involved with the issue. In looking into the development problem, for example, the East Stroudsburg 3rd graders visited their regional watershed and asked questions about flooding, water availability, and treatment.
Research offers kids lots of opportunities for interdisciplinary activities. They apply language arts when reading, writing letters to obtain information, interviewing, listening, taking notes, and maintaining logs. (They don't have to memorize new vocabulary: they're using it.) Students are engaged in applied mathematics and science when observing, measuring, comparing, categorizing, tabulating data, using percentages, and preparing graphs. They may be simultaneously probing jurisprudence, environmental science, public health, demographics, and behavioral science.
Research may be conducted independently, but it also offers particularly good opportunities for cooperative learning, which can sometimes engage individual students more personally than can larger class activities.

4. Analyzing the Information

All information is not equally valuable. Through Kids Around Town, students practice asking important questions about the information they collect, thereby developing critical thinking skills. They learn to distinguish between opinions and facts, to recognize propaganda techniques, to recognize when arguments are or are not supported by evidence, and to check evidence for validity. The 3rd graders in East Stroudsburg, for example, learned to recognize which speakers used scare tactics in defending new development and which ones tried to persuade them with bandwagon appeals.

5. Solving Problems

If we expect citizens to be able to weigh the pros and cons of proposed public policies, to responsibly consider the consequences of decisions, we have to give youngsters opportunities to try to do these things, receive feedback, and try again during the school day.
Part of successful problem solving involves the way the problem is defined. Just as Montessori preschoolers grow from manipulating concrete items to comprehending abstract concepts, so, with practice, do KAT students gain facility in identifying underlying problems and proposing solutions. The program also includes a variety of exercises that enable children to evaluate and compare the merits of alternative solutions.
Sometimes students pick issues that can actually be solved, but there needn't always be a solution. Thus, even though 3rd graders in East Stroudsburg didn't solve the problems of land development by the end of the year, their many field trips and interviews with experts helped them understand the complex issues involved.

6. Taking Action

Students are more likely to engage in learning when they see the role it plays in real life. For many students, finding a way to take public action on their Kids Around Town research and analysis has solidified academic gains.
Presenting proposals to school boards or township commissioners is a popular activity. Fifth graders in one school conducted research on their learning environment. The project culminated in a presentation before the school board in which they requested air conditioning for their classrooms.
Third graders in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, found another way to achieve closure on public policy issues. During their first year in the program, when they studied community vandalism, they cleaned up a playground and secured its equipment. During the second year, they identified school safety as their issue of interest and developed specific plans to improve security in lavatory areas and bus zones.
In another school district, students created public service announcements for their local media as part of their campaign to foster community pride. They also obtained pledges from citizens to support an anti-littering campaign. Elsewhere, classes have prepared booklets, videos, and fact sheets to convey the complex issues to a wider public.
To take these actions, Kids Around Town students hone their repertoire of communications skills, refine their technical understanding of the problems and solutions, and generally take responsibility for their own learning and their civic environment.

7. Assessing the Project

We've all seen practical students disengage from learning when they find out they won't be tested on the material. KAT builds assessment into the process. This doesn't mean stumping and guessing. Public policy issues do not lend themselves to true/false or good/bad categories. And just as the program teaches in its research and analysis, no single measure tells all.
Because the kids learn authentic skills and practice applying them in authentic situations, they are assessed on their ability to perform these skills and to demonstrate growth. Students are encouraged to begin the program by responding to a short public policy scenario—a baseline or pre-test situation: Some people think your town needs a new library. How could you decide whether or not you agree? How would you make your ideas known?Similar scenarios are available for culminating assessments.
Responding to these scenarios, students demonstrate what they have learned about the need to study an issue before making a decision, how to formulate inquiry and research a topic, and the importance of obtaining more than one perspective on issues.
In addition to open-ended scenarios, the program offers journals, portfolios, observational checklists, and self-assessments. The Kids Around Town materials also include a set of scoring rubrics, complete with clear goals and point systems, so that instructors as well as students can work to improve areas where growth is needed.

A Winning Design

In 1995, the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies presented KAT with its Program of Excellence award. Kids Around Town's accomplishments reflect its design, which reads like a list of best practices. The projects are pupil-selected, discovery-oriented, hands-on, interdisciplinary, and focused on tasks and problem solving. The program emphasizes active inquiry and research, helps students practice a repertoire of analytic skills, and builds bridges between the schools and the community by directly linking academic content to local concerns.
The result is illustrated by a discussion among the East Stroudsburg 3rd graders. One student defended development: "If we don't allow it, we'll have to raise taxes to buy up that property." Another added, "And then the city won't be getting new taxes from that land." Other classmates argued that if the land remained undeveloped, fewer services would be needed and taxes wouldn't have to be raised.
These students had mastered the notion of economic tradeoffs. Their experience underscored the truth of an ancient Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

Ann L. Rappoport has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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