Civic Engagement: Teaching Children How to Think Instead of What to Think

Marathons and Lemonade Stands

In a recent running of the Chicago Marathon, Shawn Healy finished in 4,881-st place (with an impressive time of just over 3 hours and 30 minutes).

He’ll run again in October—not necessarily to improve his finish or time, as much as raise money for the Special Olympics.

“I think it’s important to engage in any way in your community,” Shawn says, “and model that for your children.”

His six-year-old daughter has taken his lead.

She’s also raising money for the Special Olympics by opening up a lemonade stand.

An Empowering Process

Shawn is Program Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

He’s working to foster civic engagement among kids and young people—the next generation of Americans.

“Democracy is not a solitary sport,” Shawn says. “We have to learn how to work together to solve problems in our communities.”

“The process can be transforming,” he says.

Someone who’s been transformed by the experience is Maya Branch, a freshman this year at Temple University and Youth Advocate for Mikva Challenge DC.

“It’s about removing that wall between policy-makers and the communities that are affected by policies,” she says.

“It’s so empowering,” Maya says. “I do have a voice and I can be heard.”

Over the summer, both Maya and Shawn attended the Action Civics Initiative in Philadelphia, an organization in its own words:

that is a non-partisan network of thirty-one organizations working together to expand the number of young Americans who are offered substantial, experiential, civic learning through in or out of school, and to thereby increase the quality and equity of civic learning in America.


Helping Students Start to Get Engaged

Getting involved in civic action can be more complicated than it sounds.

“Students can be overwhelmed by the political system,” says Chela Delgado, a teacher in Oakland, California.

“I try to leave space for my students to bring in what’s going on for them outside the classroom,” she says. “We let those issues take up space and breathe—we take them seriously and integrate them into our discussions.”

“Whenever my students are talking about an issue and they say ‘That’s just the way it is,'” Chela says, “we never leave it there.”

“We may not always know how to have some conversations,” she says, “what’s important is that we try.”

Empathy and Curiosity

“Civic engagement takes empathy and an open mind,” says Maya Branch.

“You have to teach people like me how to think versus what to think,” she says. “Whatever you believe, it’s so important that you understand how others got to their own point of view.”

Chela Delgado says the process begins with critical thinking.

“I want my students—and my own children—to develop the habit of questioning the status quo,” she says.

“These critical thinking skills are also needed in the workplace,” Maya says.

Starting Early

Shawn Healy says children demonstrate a sense of their role in democracy at a very young age.

“Why not take them to the voting booth?” he says. “In small ways, it helps them start to piece together the kind of community that they want to live in.”

“I tell my students that most social movements always had young people at the forefront,” says Chela Delgado.

And, she says, there are so many ways to be engaged.

“Be creative,” she says, “and take advantage of what’s around us.”

“The whole process of civic engagement creates a sense of unity,” says Maya. “When this happens, we can work together to find common ground.”

Watch Shawn, Maya, and Chela’s full discussion on Pearson’s Parents, Kids and Learning Facebook page: