Secretary of the State Denise Merrill wants to use this year’s presidential election as a “teachable moment” for Connecticut kids to learn about civic engagement and our system of government.
Merrill’s office is planning on launching a series of online seminars that teachers can use to teach civics lessons. The goal is to tap into the interest and excitement generated by the presidential race.
“One of the most important things we can do is bring our students into the democracy,” Merrill said Tuesday. “This is the moment everyone’s paying attention to the government system because it’s an election year for the president. I think it’s a teachable moment if you will.”
The “webinars” are designed so teachers will be able to use them in the classroom, and will feature interesting people talking about why they chose to become involved in government, she said.
“This way a teacher doesn’t have to reinvent all this. Teachers are always looking for material, this year in particular, they’re all looking for material on the election,” Merrill said.
The secretary of the state spoke about the program at a Tuesday meeting of the Connecticut Civic Health Advisory Group. She told the group her office developed the curriculum to coincide with the fall election when teachers may be inclined to teach civics.
“It’s all around this presidential election . . . The theory is it might get used because there’s sort of a motivating date there and this would be the time they would mostly likely want to teach something like that,” she said.
Merrill said there’s a huge need for more civic engagement on the part of young people. Democracy rests on it’s citizens being engaged on the issues and despite a law requiring civics be taught in schools, it’s an area that’s fallen by the wayside in recent years, she said.
“Survey after survey shows dismal results in terms of students knowing the most basic things about government, you know, even that there are three branches of government, even the structural things much less the critical thinking you need to be a citizen in a democracy,” Merrill said.
In Connecticut, teachers have quite a bit of leeway when it comes to what they teach, Merrill said. So how much a student learns about civics and government depends in large part on how much interest the teacher has in the subject and how creative they are, particularly at the elementary school level, she said.
The webinars are being developed at three different grade levels and will be available online. Merrill said the curriculum for the courses was developed with the help of the Connecticut Council on Social Studies and Berlin High School teacher David Bosso, who was named the state teacher of the year.
“If you have creative teachers involved, that’s where you get the good ideas on how to do this,” she said.
The lessons will include topics like the electoral college, how votes are calculated, as well as how to assess arguments and the news media. They also include a model for schools to set up mock elections.
Over the summer, Merrill’s office conducted four webinars designed to give teachers the tools to teach civics lessons. Her staff said around 20 teachers participated in the live events, but more have accessed the videos on her website.
Now that kids are back in school, Merrill’s office is beginning to launch the seminars aimed directly at students. The first event will take place on Sept. 27 and will feature a lesson on election history.