How to Teach Government in a Fun Way: 6 Ways to Bring Civics Alive
If you’re a civics or social studies teacher, then I don’t need to tell you how important it us to teach government and civics. But, unfortunately, kids can sometimes find it dry and boring.
And so, as with all things teaching, you might find yourself thinking about how to teach government in a fun way. Well here are a few suggestions – some that are both rigorous and engaging, and some that are a little lighter on the rigor and a little greater on the fun.
Six Ways to Teach Government in a Fun Way:
- Focus on Projects Instead of Branches
- Don’t Be Afraid to Talk Controversial Issues
- Use Simulations and Role Plays
- Make Time for Current Events
- What’s More Fun than Games?
- Use Movies to Spark Discussions
Teach Government in a Fun Way by Focusing on Projects Instead of Branches
If there’s one thing I’d want you to walk away with today, it’s that there is no better way to teach government and civics than project-based learning.
If students opt into an AP Government class, they might care about the nuances of Congressional procedure and the philosophy found in the founding documents. The average student could care less.
But every student cares about making his school or community better. People complain about things all the time. A project-based approach to civics is the perfect way to harness that natural tendency to complain about problems and use it to teach students how to use the process to tackle them.
There are a number of different curricula and approaches that you can take, but they all share a pretty basic common foundation. Figure out what problem kids care about and then walk them through the process of researching and advocating for solutions.
Types of Project and Problem Based Learning for Civics
Probably the most famous national curriculum is Project Citizen. In Project Citizen, students learn a bit about how governments function, and then they choose a problem to tackle throughout the course. By the end of the course, they’ve prepared a presentation about potential solutions to their problems. Check out some example presentations here, and some ideas of project ideas here.
Another curriculum, based in New Jersey but with plans to expand, is Solution Civics. Solution Civics focuses exclusively on local governments, and there’s a greater emphasis on the steps required to get your solution implemented. Project Citizen tends to focus more on the development of the presentation itself.
Finally, there’s Youth Participatory Action Research. This isn’t a fully fleshed out curriculum like Project Citizen and Solution Civics. Instead, it’s an approach to facilitating student learning. Here, the emphasis may be less on identifying potential solutions and more on understanding the root causes of the projects. But at the end, it culminates with a presentation to important stakeholders.
Another route to go is C-SPAN’s StudentCam. This is a different kind of project based approach where students create a documentary about an issue. Here are some examples of past winners of C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition.
Here’s a collection of all of the posts on this website about using project based learning to teach government in a fun way.
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Controversial Issues
Another reason why government can be boring for students is because you never talk about anything fun. Students are full of opinions, and you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about controversial issues in the classroom. You just need to be careful about structuring the conversation and helping students learn how to deliberate – not argue.
Two of my favorite methods for kicking off lessons on controversial activities are Take a Stand and A-B writing. In each of these activities, students are asked to think about the issue and defend their opinion, priming them to learn more about the topic.
If you’re looking for a set of resources to help you structure a conversation about a controversial issue, look no further than C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations. These are produced by C-SPAN’s education department, and they use C-SPAN video content to frame controversial issues. Students are learn the background of the issue as well as arguments on both sides of the issue.
Use Simulations and Role Play Activities
Simulations and role playing activities are another great way to make government seem more fun and to add a game-like feeling to the class. These can be very rigorous – requiring research on behalf of your students – or they can be a bit more superfluous – where they work off a scripted curriculum.
But either way, they engage students in acting out the ideas that they’ve been talking about.
One of my favorite types of simulation activities is a Mock Congressional Hearing. In this activity, students host a Congressional hearing on a topic. Typically, I pair this with a controversial issue that we’ve discussed.
If you can get students involved in clubs like Model Congress, Model UN, or YMCA’s Youth in Government, those can also be a ton of fun. If your school has one of these clubs, reach out to the advisor and see if they can help you create a shorter activity for use in your class – and this can also help them recruit students to their club.
Make Time for Current Events
I’m also a huge fan of teaching current events. I typically designate a full day each week to discuss current events. This automatically gives you a chance to make the material in your class more relevant, because you can connect it to what’s going on around the world today.
If you want a simple, free resource to use check out CNN10. It’s a video, which is an added bonus. It’s packaged in a format that’s naturally more appealing and engaging to students. Here are some teaching methods and assessments that I’ve used to implement CNN10 in my classroom.
What’s More Fun Than Playing Games?
I mean really, if you’re thinking about a fun way to teach government and civics – is there anything more fun than games?
Of course, the problem is finding games that are both (a) fun and (b) educational. iCivics produces a ton of games that are related to civics and government. Some of them are great, but others I’m not a huge fan of.
One of my favorite iCivics games is Do I Have a Right. In this game, students play the role of a lawyer who helps people whose rights have been violated. Potential clients bring a problem and describe a right that they think they have, and the player has to determine whether or not they have a case. It’s a great way to learn about the Bill of Rights and the other amendments to the Constitution. It’s also available in Spanish, which is really cool.
Another game that I like is the ReDistricting Game. This is an amazing way to teach gerrymandering, because it lets students literally draw Congressional maps and see what gerrymandering is. I will say that the game mechanics of the ReDistricting Game are a little more difficult to grasp than something like Do I Have a Right. I’ve used it with AP students in the past, but feel free to try it with any of your classes.
And there are also some great board games available that relate to civics and government. Some of them were even designed specifically for teaching civics – like Politicraft. Check out this list of civics board games, and you might find something useful for your class.
Use Movies to Spark Discussions
We’ll save the best, simplest, and most “fun” for last – movies. Kids always ask me when we’re going to watch a move in class. It’s not very often, but if we do, it’s something related to civics and government that will spark a great discussion.
Three of my favorites are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the President’s Men, and Wag the Dog. Here are also some suggestions for how to use movies in your class, and a longer list of movies you might want to consider watching.
And if you’re just looking for some great political and government movies to watch, here’s a list of 24 great movies about government.
How Do You Teach Government in a Fun Way?
What are your go-to methods for livening up civics and government? Are you into games, movies, role plays? Have you tried one of the suggestions above and have some feedback?
If you’re looking for ways to improve civics education in your school or community, you may also want to check out this list of six research based methods for teaching civics better.
Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think.