"This is What Democracy Looks Like," from the cover of a comic book for teaching civics.

Teaching Civics through Comics: This Is What Democracy Looks Like

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This Is What Democracy Looks Like is a new graphic novel and comic book that you can use to teach your students about civics and civic engagement.

The project started out on Kickstarter, and it was eventually published by The Center for Cartoon Studies. You can order print copies, download a free PDF, and find a set of teaching materials on their website here.

The book provides a great overview and introduction to government and politics. It provides a traditional overview of national government, but it also emphasizes the role of state and local governments. The overall tone is one of realistic, cynical optimism. Throughout, there is an understanding that government is not perfect, but it’s better when we speak up and take part.

This would be a great tool to use as an introduction or launching point for your students. It raises a lot of questions, which you can then design other lessons and activities to answer.

Page from a civics comic book about checks and balances.

What’s In This Is What Democracy Looks Like

First, let’s take a look inside and I’ll give you a quick synopsis of the book.

The first part of the book provides a typical overview of the federal government. It describes the three branches and their roles. There is some history here, too. For example, it describes how the Senate has changed over time to move from being appointed to being elected.

You can see above a picture of the part where the book discusses checks ad balances. The graphic novel then goes on to describe the federal structure of government and the role of state, county, and municipal governments.

This is followed by a page that outlines some of the criticism of the government and politics of the United States. Things like inequality, voter suppression, and divided government.

At the end of this page is the picture above, of three people who seem disenchanted and uninspired to take action.

The last section of the comic book then segues into a call to action. It describes how things have changed over time, and more people can participate now than in the past.

There’s a good panel on the various amendments to the Constitution that affect the franchise. It’s also careful to note that part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the court, showing that things can get worse as well as better.

There’s an emphasis in this last section on taking local action – attending a meeting, writing a legislator, collecting signature petitions, and the like.

There are also two short bonus comics at the end of the book that are one or two pages each. I’ll let you pick up a copy and read those yourself.

What’s Good About This Is What Democracy Looks Like

My first impression of This Is What Democracy Looks Like is that it is potentially a very useful tool to introduce civics and government in your classes.

By virtue of being a comic book, it uses very few words. But it still conveys a lot of information. The mixture of words and images makes this easy for every student to understand – especially those who are struggling readers or English language learners.

Another thing I like is that the tone of this is not overly optimistic. When students are disillusioned, a civics text that doesn’t admit to the shortcomings of government isn’t going to connect. This is one of the main arguments of Michael Rebell’s book, Flunking Democracy. And so by admitting up front that there are some serious flaws with American democracy, I think this graphic novel will appeal more to students who are otherwise lacking in political efficacy.

The focus on local government and local activism is also great. It’s important to know how the federal government works, but it’s the least relevant and accessible part of government for our students. They can literally show up to a City Council meeting and engage with their elected leaders if they want to. The structure of the graphic novel does a good job of introducing everything about politics and then bringing it down to a local level that is relevant for the student.

The Teaching Resource Guide for This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Along with the comic book, you can download a free teacher’s guide that includes five days of lesson plans.

The first lesson focuses on the question of what democracy means. The next lesson focuses on the structure of the federal government and checks and balances. The third lesson focuses on federalism and the sharing of power between different levels of government. The fourth lesson looks at questions of equity and inequity in government and politics. Finally, the fifth lesson revolves around how students can become more involved citizens.

The timing of the lessons is a bit questionable, and I’m not sure if you can finish them all within the allotted time. Some of them add up to 50 minutes – which can be a stretch if your classes aren’t that long.

But the lessons offer a nice variety of writing prompts and questions, activities, and thought provoking videos. While you might have to adjust things a bit, there are definitely some great ideas in here to use with your students. Of course, it’s ultimately up to you whether you use all five lessons or just focus on one or two.

How Could This Is What Democracy Look Like Fit Into Your Class

This graphic novel is a great tool, and you should definitely think about how to use it in your class.

If you’re doing Project Citizen or something similar, this would be a great way to introduce things. You could spend several days reading the comic, doing some of the attached lessons, and thinking about how students can become involved. This would then springboard into their particular project.

In a regular social studies class, this could be a great introductory activity. Before you get into the main curriculum, take a week to explore the comic and have students think and write about some of these ideas. If you have struggling readers, this is a good way to get them engaged early on before they have to deal with more difficult texts, and it’s a good way to frame the rest of the course around civics and government.

You could also use this in conjunction with a unit on the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Usually, this involves some element of teaching about the branches of government and checks and balances. The first half of the graphic novel is great for that.

What Do You Think About This Is What Democracy Looks Like?

Well, what do you think?

You can download a copy of the comic book, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, here. You’ll also find a link to the teaching materials.

I’d love to hear what you think about this graphic novel, and if you’ve used it in class I definitely want to hear how your students liked it. Leave a comment below, or head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post about this comic book.

This has also gotten me thinking about the use of comic books and graphic novels in teaching civics. If you’ve used any other comics in class, please leave a comment below and share the title.

And if you’re looking for ways to engage your students around civics, you might be interested in this post about how to teach government in a fun way. Using comic books and graphic novels is only one of many ways that you can liven up your social studies class and make civics come alive.

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