Students Learn about Civic Participation on the Center on Congress Web Site

By Elaine Larson

“The job of civic education is not complete if we teach only its importance; we must be shown how to engage, how to participate, how to get off the sidelines and into the action.” (Lee Hamilton)
In order to provide an impetus for getting involved -- as well as information on how to go about it -- the Center on Congress has produced a comprehensive set of resources available free of charge on its Web site at http://centeroncongress.org. The Web site section on “The Importance of Civic Participation” emphasizes the core importance of citizen participation in our system of government if it is to function properly, and it outlines several specific ways in which people could become more civically engaged, from voting and contacting legislators and staying informed, to getting involved in your local community.

Important themes are presented through two interactive e-learning modules, booklets and Time for Kids magazines, Lee Hamilton Commentaries (essays), two “Facts of Congress” short video discussion starters, and several lesson plans ready to use in the home classroom.

“The Importance of Civic Participation” e-learning module illustrates ways in which Americans can participate in the democratic process and highlights individuals who have made a difference by getting involved.

The module includes the following sections:

• Avenues of Participation
– This quiz lists several ways citizens can become involved and asks students to identify how they might become
civically involved.
• Where To Go With a Problem – In this interactive game, students decide to which level of government specific problems should be taken.
• Importance of Voting – Students hear from Patricia McGinnis, President of the Council for Excellence in Government, on why it is important for Americans -- and especially young people -- to exercise their right to vote.
• How To Follow the Work of Congress – After taking a short quiz to test students’ basic understanding of how Congress works, they hear from three experts whose job it is to follow the work of Congress on a daily basis.
• How To Contact a Legislator Effectively – Students are asked to evaluate the effectiveness of various ways of bringing an issue to the attention of elected representatives, and then students get an insider’s perspective on what works and what doesn’t.
• Individual Who Made a Difference – Hear the stories of six “relatively typical individuals who overcame cynicism to affect public well-being” in a wide range of important areas.
• Joining Interest Groups
– Students learn about the largest and most influential interest groups making a difference today.

The module includes comprehensive lesson plans for grades 6-12, all aligned with state curriculum standards, as well as lists of resources for further study. Upon completion of this module, students will have a better understanding of how to participate and make a difference.

The second e-learning module on the topic of civic participation is titled “Getting Involved”. This module takes excerpts from a Close Up Foundation/Center on Congress television series on civic involvement and puts them into an easy access format. How much is expected of us as citizens? What are the best ways for us to participate, particularly young people? Legislators, political scientists, and civic educators give their suggestions. Topics include:

• Contacting your legislators effectively,
• Getting involved in your community,
• Individuals who made a difference, and
• The civic mission of schools.

Civic participation is also the subject of several “Lee Hamilton Commentaries”. These commentaries are the text versions of radio commentaries given by Lee Hamilton. Students can read the text or listen to the radio version -- or both. The commentaries can be used to teach students in grades 7 through 12 about the relationship between Members of Congress and citizens. These commentaries can also be incorporated in lessons about representative democracy. Lessons are provided on:

• Citizen Participation in the Local Community
• Individuals Who Have Influenced Public Policy
• How Will You Participate in Government?
• Encouraging Others to Participate
• Citizen Participation in a Representative Democracy

In the “Importance of Civic Participation” section of the Center on Congress Web site educators can find downloadable versions of the “Time for Kids” mini-magazines. The three difference versions -- for three grade ranges from 2nd grade to 12th grade -- all deal with the topic “Your Ideas Count.” The mini-magazines are colorful and engaging to students, they provide solid information about the importance of citizen participation, and they encourage young people to make their voices heard.

Also provided in this section is a downloadable version of the “Understanding Congress: A Citizen’s Guide” booklet. This booklet is a comprehensive guide to the workings of Congress, and also helps citizens get involved in their government.

To access these resources on citizen participation, visit the Center on Congress Web site at http://centeroncongress.org and click on the “Learn About Congress” link in the left frame. Then, select “The Importance of Civic Participation” in the list of topics under “Browse by Topic.”

These resources are provided for all citizens to become active participants in our democratic system of government. According to Lee Hamilton, “Civic engagement is the greatest antidote for cynicism; it is also a great -- maybe the best lesson of democracy.When we become engaged in community life we no longer feel distant from the centers of power and decision-making. We come to understand our own communities, and appreciate how we can influence change. Perhaps most important, we gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy how to understand different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action towards a solution in a complex, busy and diverse society.If we engage, we lessen the distance between ourselves and those who govern. And we gain understanding and appreciation for our country that can only make it and the ongoing experiment of American democracy stronger. Our engagement brings out the very best within us. Our nation demands not only our competence, but also our passion."

For more information about the Center on Congress or the educational resources the Center provides, call 812-856-4706 or send an email to congress@indiana.edu. ■

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