[ Teaching & Learning ]

Educators embrace innovative approaches to civic readiness

By Molly Belmont



hen educators Matt Haynes and Tyler Eckhoff developed the “Civics and Social Justice” elective, they were initially attracted to the content.

“We were just excited about the content in general, but then when we sat down and started to plan it out, we realized what this course could be,” said Eckhoff, a social studies teacher at Tri-Valley High School and member of the Tri-Valley Teachers Association. “This course could be a way to get kids engaged in the community and empower them to make a difference.”

Haynes and Eckhoff’s new class, launched in 2021 as part of the State Education Department’s Seal of Civic Readiness pilot, prompted juniors and seniors to identify a local issue, research its history, analyze past attempts to solve it and then formulate an action plan for tackling it. All semester, students worked on issues they cared about, including the opioid epidemic, lack of public transit, immigration and income inequality.

Having students select their topic contributed to their success, Haynes said, “because they chose things that mattered to them personally.”

Onteora elementary students sitting on a classroom floor holding bags of polyethylene plastic, the Seal of Civic Readiness floats in the left corner

Twitter/onteora CSD

Inset: New York students can now graduate with a Seal of Civic Readiness distinction. Civics education is not just for high school students. Read the latest edition of Educator’s Voice to learn how Onteora elementary students, above, successfully diverted two tons of polyethylene plastics from landfills.

Across the state, educators like Eckhoff and Haynes are on a mission to encourage civic participation, and the stakes could not be higher:
In 2019, only 22.7 percent of New Yorkers cast their ballots in the November election, and the Empire State ranked 47th in the nation for voter turnout.

“Students should be equipped with the skills and mindset necessary to be ready for action so they can make a positive difference in our communities,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “We want to elevate the discourse around government, democracy, history and civil rights.”

NYSUT is doing just that with its latest issue of Educator’s Voice, themed “Sustaining Democracy through Civics Education,” available this month.

While civics education can motivate students to vote and engage in public life, social studies often falls to the wayside. To address that shortfall, NYSED in 2019 launched an ambitious project to redefine civics education. A task force of educators, civics advocates and other stakeholders was convened. After more than a year of meetings, the group emerged with a new pathway to graduation, the Seal of Civic Readiness.

A pilot program was rolled out in the fall of 2021, and students began graduating with the seal in 2022.

Oceanside High School was one of 117 schools that participated in the pilot program. Led by 2021 New York State Teacher of the Year Jennifer Wolfe, a social studies teacher and member of the Oceanside Federation of Teachers, these Long Island students created a “brave space” in their classroom, where they could openly discuss their perspectives on current issues. These respectful dialogues ultimately helped students choose a capstone project.

Read about Wolfe’s students and different approaches other educators are taking to civics education in the latest Educator’s Voice. Visit nysut.org/EducatorsVoice.