Student working at a desk, learning remotely.

What Are Your Best Tips to Teach Civics Remotely?

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When COVID-19 prompted schools to physically close last spring, one of your first thoughts was probably, “How am I going to teach remotely?” More specifically, “How am I going to teach civics remotely?”

Virtual learning poses a lot of problems, and teachers around the country struggled to address those issues all spring. As the fall draws closer, it’s become increasingly clear that distance learning is not a thing of the past. It’s here to stay.

Throughout the country, many school districts are going remote in one way or another. Of the country’s 50 largest school district, almost all of them are re-opening with some form of remote instruction. Here in New Jersey, close to a third of the state’s school districts are starting the year completely virtual.

So clearly we’re in for at least one more school year of this craziness. And with students going back to school over the next few weeks, this is a great time to think about the challenges and opportunities this creates for teaching civics.

Challenges for Teaching Civics Remotely

First, let’s think about some of the challenges that remote teaching creates for civics education. Here are just three challenges you might face this year.

Modified schedules may mean less time for civics. Going online may make it more difficult to facilitate discussions. Your students may also have access to fewer experiential learning opportunities and extracurricular activities.

Shortened Schedules Mean Less Time

Each school and district is approaching this crisis differently, but one common approach is to reduce live instructional time. In a hybrid schedule, this might be a shortened session school day that lets out before lunch. In a virtual schedule, this might be an abbreviated day to reduce screen time.

At the elementary level, that is likely going to increase the emphasis on the “core” – a.k.a. tested – subjects and leave even less time than usual for civics and social studies. At the middle and high school level, it’s going to exacerbate the problem where there’s already too much content in the curriculum and not enough time.

So trying to find the time for civics will definitely be part of the problem.

A teacher lecturing in front of a chalkboard, pointing to the board and holding a book.

Limited Opportunities for Student Discussion

Virtual learning is also going to mean fewer opportunities for students to have discussions. In some cases, districts may limit synchronous learning opportunities. In other cases, you might encouraged to use live teaching time for lectures or direct instruction. Even if your district does allow you to use a platform like Zoom, there’s definitely a learning curve. Facilitating a discussion online is not the same as facilitating a live discussion in a classroom.

Creating a space for discussion and helping students learn how to participate in civil discourse is an important element of civics education. While you can do this online, it definitely won’t be easy.

Fewer Enrichment Opportunities

Another important element of civics education is the many forms of experiential learning available to students – be it extracurricular activities, student government, or field trips.

As schools try to limit the interactions between students, I’m sure many of these opportunities will be reduced. You can create virtual opportunities to replace some of these experiences, but not everything can be done remotely. I wonder how activities like Model U.N. and Model Congress will play out this year.

Opportunities Created by Virtual Learning

On the other hand, restructuring a class to operate virtually can create some opportunities. If you can take advantage of them, it won’t be all bad.

Here are three potential opportunities to think about. You can make up for a lack of live classroom discussion by using discussion boards. You can take advantage of videoconferencing to invite guest speakers. And you can make the most of your online learning platform by embracing the flipped classroom model.

Discussion Boards and Asynchronous Conversations

While distance learning will make it more difficult to have traditional classroom discussions, you might find it easier to incorporate asynchronous conversations through the use of discussion boards. These are a common aspect of online college courses.

In some ways, this can be even better than live discussions. Students have more time to think and compose their thoughts in writing. They won’t be put on the spot to say something. Quieter students can participate more easily, and out-going students will be less likely to dominate the conversation.

Of course, the challenge is still to make sure that there’s a real discussion going on. This is true whether you’re having a discussion online or in class.

Man in a blazer speaks to a group of students

Incorporating Guest Speakers

One great way to make things “real” is to bring in a guest speaker. For example, a government official can teach your class a lot just by showing up, talking to them, and answering their questions.

The toughest part about this in normal times is getting a guest speaker to commit the amount of time it takes them to physically come to your school and speak with your class. If your class is happening on Zoom or Google Meets, it is so much easier for that person to hop on a videoconference for 20 minutes than it is to leave their office and physically come to a school.

If you make it a priority to incorporate guest speakers in your class, I would imagine you’d have a much easier time doing this via remote learning than in person.

Flipping the Classroom

The idea of flipping the classroom isn’t new, but it can be difficult in some situations. If your students don’t all have access to technology, for example, you can’t expect them to watch videos or complete assignments at home.

But with virtual learning, you’re pretty much forced to adapt to a flipped classroom model. You’re likely going to have less time with your students, and presumably the district will have ensured that they all have access to technology.

So this can be a great opportunity to have them do something on their own schedule – i.e. watch CNN10 or play a game from iCivics – and then use the time you have together to discuss and reflect on that activity.

What Are Your Tips for Teaching Civics?

I’m curious to hear from you, though. How are you planning on teaching civics this year? How are you going to adapt to the requirements of remote learning and virtual teaching?

1 comments on “What Are Your Best Tips to Teach Civics Remotely?”

    • Jim Bzdek
    • September 10, 2020

    Each teacher and each student that lives in the United States lives in a voting neighborhood called a precinct. Each of the 200,000 precincts in the U. S. has about 1,500 residents. The precinct is the beginning of our self-government, where neighbors can meet every even-numbered year to discuss issues, recruit and nurture candidates for our nation’s 500,000 elected offices, offer resolutions for political party platforms, elect delegates to county, district, state, and national nominating conventions, appoint election judges, and campaign for the election of our candidates. Each school also is in a precinct. which could be a laboratory for teaching civics from the precinct up. Begin by contacting the local or state headquarters of each of the major political parties–Democrats and Republicans–to get the names of their precinct leaders for your school address, and contact them to help show students how the precinct process works to sustain and improve our self-government. Once the students learn the precinct process they can then apply it to their own home precincts. Civics begins where Americans have the most power and access, in the voting precincts where they live. I write from working in precincts since 1962 and teaching civics to students from Kindergarten to graduate school. Good luck.

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