Educating Youth to be Active Citizens

When I saw the list of topics for the German Marshall Fund’s Triennial Transatlantic Leaders Retreat, I was intrigued. Halfway down the list was a topic on which I have previously written- “Youth quake: Engaging youth worldwide in learning and service.” I immediately  began thinking about what I’ve written and what I might add to those ideas to create something as if I were there as a guest speaker on that panel.  My overall premise is that if we want to engage youth, they need to have a framework around which they can build, and they absolutely must have opportunities for political participation.

A Framework
For the past four years I have used the Millennium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals, in my classes.  Seeing as how the SDGs constitute a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” they are ideal for giving youth opportunities to be active citizens.  As a framework in class, not only do they help us learn about the work of the UN and NGOs, we also come back to them when we discuss current issues.  Giving the students a framework they can reference throughout the year makes increases their retention of the material and provides them with a base for their political participation.

Opportunities for Political Participation
While there are a number a ways citizens can participate in the political process, I want to focus on three- writing letters, presenting policy proposals, and volunteering.

When it comes to the MDGs and SDGs, I’ve given the students numerous opportunities to research a variety of those goals and then to write letters to UN officials with their opinions about addressing those problems (see my previous post about this activity here).  When we get a response from those officials, it lets the students know that their voice matters.  This year for example, we heard from Laurent Thomas of the FAO in response to the students’ letters about food security.

A second idea is to give students the opportunity to present policy ideas to their elected officials.  The U.S. can learn much from our friends across the Atlantic in these regards, especially with their children’s parliaments and the European Youth Event (see my previous post about this idea here).  If our youth feel they have a say in the process, then perhaps it will lead to increased political participation.

Finally, besides voicing their opinions on how to best cure the ills of society, students should actually have opportunities to work improving society.  This year, my students and I started VeronaAid, a student-driven charity whose “mission is to deliver aid to the impoverished citizens of Dane County and to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.” We meet once a week to work on spreading our message and coming up with ideas for fundraising.  Because the students have a voice in this venture, they have an interest in seeing it succeed.  If you would like to see examples of their activities, please check out the website and our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).  If we tie this back to my idea of a framework, SDG 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere;” the students of VeronaAid are working towards this goal with every diaper bag or backpack they fill and every presentation they give.

Questions
What do other teachers do to encourage their students to engage in political participation?  How can we coordinate our actions at my high school with those of other schools in the area and even around the world?  Are politicians ready to listen to students’ policy ideas and give them serious consideration?

Thanks for reading.

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