Elizabeth Matto, Director, Youth Political Participation Program Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2014 issue.
As teacher-‐scholars of civic engagement, we always are looking for ways to offer students learning opportunities that foster the political skills, attitudes, and knowledge that are conducive to future participation. The mission of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University is to link the study of politics with its practice through research, education, and service. Through our program RU ReadyTM, we’ve offered students an opportunity not only to enhance their own appreciation of politics but to share this appreciation with young people in our community.
Initiated in 2007, RU ReadyTM is an effort designed to provide high school students with the tools and encouragement to be active members of their community. Since its inception, we have consistently administered the project in the area’s local public high school. RU ReadyTM is meant to supplement the social studies curriculum in place and provide lessons in active citizenship that often are lost due to time or curricular constraints. Working in collaboration with the social studies supervisor, the project is administered yearly to all sections of U.S. History I -‐ including special education sections.
RU ReadyTM consists of a series of in-‐class workshops on such themes as the unique features of the Millennial Generation, the prevalence of politics in one’s life, the forms of engagement available to young people, influencing the legislative process, and participating in a campaign. Instructional techniques utilized are those that have been
demonstrated to be effective such as discussion, debate, and simulation. All lessons and activities are non-‐partisan and focus on understanding the political system, developing leadership skills, and problem-‐solving. For example, in one workshop, high school students generate a list of problems they face either in their school or in their community with problems ranging from poor food choices in the cafeteria to crime and violence. After instructing them on the range of options available to them to affect change from forming a community organization, to attending a rally, to running for office, students work in small groups and devise a plan for tackling one of these problems.1 They are instructed to utilizea combination of these methods and to share their plan in an engaging way with their fellow classmates such in a skit or role-‐play.
The hallmark of RU ReadyTM is the role played by a team of Rutgers students who prepare the workshops, work directly with the high school students, and administer the sessions. The team of students participates in the program either via a 3-‐credit internship offered by the political science department or a 1.5 credit topics course offered as part a learning community. As project director, I provide a great deal of supervision prior to their classroom visits and after they’ve administered the sessions. In preparation, students are exposed to a range of literature on youth political participation and civic education, engage in group discussion, work closely with me and each other to prepare their lessons, observe the classroom setting and hear from teachers, and practice their workshops and receive constructive criticism from each other and myself. After the sessions, we debrief as a group, students reflect on their experiences in journals and make public presentations to faculty, staff, and supporters.
Over the years, we’ve utilized various qualitative and quantitative tools (with varying success) to measure the impact of the program. For the most part, the feedback we receive is positive. In one evaluation, the vast majority of the students reported that they felt “very” or “somewhat” prepared to participate in the political process and “very” or “somewhat” interested in participating in the political process after experiencing RU ReadyTM. After being exposed to our session on voting, one student commented, “Thanks to you guys, now that I am 18, I will vote, and I will be the 1st one in my family ever to vote!”
Rutgers students also have responded positively. This past spring, the experience was particularly eye opening for the Rutgers students who expected the children with special needs to be less interested in their lessons. They were surprised to find the situation quite to the contrary. As one student noted,
“To me this was the perfect example of how some students can be overlooked for any given reason. Perhaps because they belong to a special education program people might now feel that they would not be interested in civic engagement, but to my surprise they were very eager to hear about it, and I am pretty confident that they will attend some [civics club] meetings.”
Needless to say, launching and administering an experience such as RU ReadyTM can be challenging and time-‐consuming. It requires a great deal of preparation and oversight. Additionally, there are obstacles to conducting solid research regarding the effects of the project. That being said, the issuance of A Crucible Moment by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2012 and the recent publication of Teaching Civic Engagement by the American Political Science Association reminds us that preparing students to engage in their communities and participate in the life of the body politic is our responsibility as political scientists. Hence, the hard work is well worth the effort.
- RU ReadyTM employs the typology of engagement outlined in Zukin et al.’s A New Engagement and utilized by the Center for Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) that includes cognitive, civic, political, and expressive engagement.
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