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Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems, Grades 4-12

reviewed by Andrea S. Libresco - July 06, 2015

coverTitle: Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems, Grades 4-12
Author(s): Shira Eve Epstein
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755753, Pages: 176, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

I wish I had read Teaching Civic Literacy Projects back in the 1980s when I was developing a curriculum for a new required 12th grade participation in government course, and again a few years ago when I was designing an introduction to a civic engagement course at the college level. Heck, I wish I had written this book. It effectively combines the philosophical and the practical, the prose and the passion, the skills and the action, in developing civic engagement projects for a wide range of students.

Appropriate for teachers, youth educators, professional developers, school administrators, and teacher educators, the book’s purpose is to inspire and instruct teachers in crafting curriculum to address civic topics. The author begins with an introduction to and rationale for civic engagement (Chapter One). The next three chapters (Two through Four) examine what Epstein has identified as the three components of civic literacy projects: problem identification, problem exploration, and action; they provide authentic examples from classrooms when analyzing each component. Chapter Five addresses the tensions that can arise in the course of carrying out projects and how to find the balance among students’ independence and collaboration with classmates, students working in solidarity with others and working for self-advocacy, and the different types of controversies that civic issues raise. Chapter Six outlines a curriculum design process for teachers to use, which includes practical tools like a pacing chart and worksheets—appropriate for and easily modified by both beginning and veteran teachers. All of the chapters are grounded by the work of the giants of civic education (Barber, Bomer, Dewey, Hess, Kahne & Westheimer, Levine, the National Issues Forum, Parker, Rugg, Wade, to name a few).

Epstein makes effective use of four anchor cases throughout the book: (a) the social justice writing assignment, in which eighth grade English and social studies classes develop texts on a variety of issues of social concern; (b) the safe sex health project, where ninth grade advisory teachers and youth workers from a non-profit organization organize a one-day informational fair; (c) the race awareness after school program, which brought together fourth and fifth graders from de facto segregated schools, who created videos and PSAs on inequity; and (d) the park project, where seventh graders protested budget cuts to a local park by writing letters to their assemblyperson.

Through examples from these extremely different cases, Epstein is able to show teachers, who may have some trepidation about taking on civic literacy projects in their own classrooms—that careful planning, a commitment to process over particular results, and a willingness to be flexible will lead to rich opportunities for contextual student learning. In all of these cases, students engage in authentic civic action, as opposed to symbolic simulations, Dewey would certainly applaud this experiencing of the civic life as opposed to merely preparing for it. As one student put it, “I absorbed all this information, and now I go around and I’m telling people what happened, and they’re passing it on. And more people are being aware of it and they’re wanting to do more about it.”

For the most part, the book feels as though it was written in our current time, in that it acknowledges the real world in which most teachers work, a world that emphasizes literacy (too often at the expense of civic engagement), standards-based curriculum and instruction, and assessments linked directly to behavioral objectives.

Epstein takes care to show how the standards make room for the skills and projects of civic literacy, to link the projects to specific NCTE and Common Core standards, and to show how the projects address particular objectives. Students should be able to: (a) identify pressing social problems in their community and in the world; (b) evaluate multiple perspectives concerning a specific social problem and critique public service announcements and persuasive letters; and (c) compose personal narratives and persuasive texts. The only aspect of the book that feels more like it was written in the elective-rich, state assessment-less 1970s is the suggested time frame for the projects. Certainly, in-depth, upper level, student-driven projects take time and are worthy of that time; however, reading that the first project described took seven weeks may be off-putting to teachers who feel time pressures from their principals. Of course, when they read into the book, they will discover that the projects address a whole host of vital literacy skills.

Just as teachers who assign oral history projects to their students need to model and scaffold the skills of interviewing, teachers of civic literacy projects need to model and provide practice in skills that will support their projects. Epstein dedicates ample space to both listing the skills embedded in civic literacy projects (e.g., engaging in investigative research, delivering speeches, writing to persuade, giving workshops, making films, lobbying), and providing detailed suggestions for teaching them (including the use of word walls, concept maps, think-alouds, and multi-modal texts).

Teachers are likely to be most grateful for the templates found in Chapter Six, as they operationalize some of the strategies that Epstein discusses in the civic literacy project process. The teacher resources and sample questions on the templates include: (a) Community Walk Reflection Sheet; (b) What’s Your Opinion? (a series of statements on a single topic with agree/disagree choices for each); (c) Reading and Reflecting on the Media; (d) Crafting a Persuasive Letter; (e) Moving Toward Action (identify an instance where you could not provide the help that was needed by someone); and (f) Describe What Happened (answer questions like: Would it help if the site had more funding from the government? Would it help if the staff had different training? Would it help if people’s experiences outside of the site were different?).

The book is also full of excellent discussion questions embedded in the prose of the chapters, like:

Who has the power to rectify the problem for many and make the change we want to see?

Whose voices are missing, silenced, or discounted?

Which modality is most likely to reach our target audience?

How will we define success for our civic project?

Who did and didn’t we influence?

What made us strong, and what limited our strength?

The only quibbles I have with the book are minor ones. I wish that Epstein had also pulled out those questions and organized them in a separate appendix, so that teachers would not have to hunt around for these conversation deepeners. I also would have appreciated more examples of texts that can be read in conjunction with the civics projects that students undertake. Epstein cites a few secondary and elementary books within the chapters, but an annotated bibliography of texts at a variety of levels would be of value.

These are minor critiques. When you look up from this book, your notion of what civics can be, in a variety of classrooms and at a variety of grade levels, has been expanded. Equally important, this expanded conception of civics has been amply supported by sample worksheets, thoughtful discussion questions, and a detailed timeline that make civic literacy projects do-able for beginning and veteran teachers. Just as Epstein indicates that teachers need to model and scaffold the skills of civic literacy for their students, she has modeled and scaffolded these skills for the teachers who will read this book—our students, our communities, and our democracy will be the beneficiaries.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18012, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:25:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Andrea S. Libresco
    Hofstra University
    E-mail Author
    ANDREA S. LIBRESCO is Professor of Social Studies Education and Director of the Minor in Civic Engagement at Hofstra University. She has written on a variety of topics, including: exemplary social studies teachers, standardized testing, children’s literature, civic engagement, and women’s history. Books include: Every Book is a Social Studies Book: How to Meet Standards with Picture Books, K-6 (lead author) and Exemplary Elementary Social Studies: Case Studies in Practice (co-editor). She is currently co-editor of the national journal, Social Studies and the Young Learner.
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