Getting a grip on government

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2011 - 9:36 PM

A Minneapolis middle school is testing a program to help close a perceived gap in civics education.

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Ian Brauer, 13, is taking part in the trial run of iCivics, pioneered by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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For more than a month, aisle-crossing Democrats and Republicans, constitutional scholars, and skinny jeans-wearing jurists have filled Annie Ellingham's fifth-hour class.

The eighth-grade students at Minneapolis' Anthony Middle School have something that many of their peers across the country don't: a grasp of the power and purpose of government.

Leo Hanneman is among 300 Anthony students participating in the Minneapolis schools' trial run of iCivics, a civics curriculum founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Fewer than half of American eighth-graders know the purpose of the Bill of Rights, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and only one in 10 has a high-level understanding of the checks and balances of the three branches of government.

The results "confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education," O'Connor said this month.

To help combat that crisis, O'Connor founded icivics.org. The online video games and tutorials help students understand government and its relevance and importance to their lives.

Hanneman and his classmates are willing learners. The importance of checks and balance and government's broad role in his life have piqued the 13-year-old's curiosity.

"There are things that you take for granted that government is involved in," Hanneman said.

Minnesota's new social studies standards will expose middle school students to more rigorous education in civics, economics, geography and U.S. and world history, said Beth Aune, director of academic standards for the state Department of Education.

Social studies teachers will incorporate each of the subjects in lesson plans throughout middle school, tackling state subjects in sixth grade, federal issues in seventh grade and global affairs in eighth grade.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius could unveil standards by early June. The changes won't take effect until fall 2013.

Unpainful learning

Right now, middle school teachers squeeze in crash courses on government, Ellingham said. Her eighth-graders are so intrigued by the political process that they're logging on and playing the games on nights and weekends.

"It's learning, but it's not very painful learning," she said.

The games and instructional videos shy away from partisan politics, said Paul Sommers, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Anthony.

"It's not about what side of the fence you're on or putting people in a box," said Sommers, whose students also are using iCivics.

Middle schoolers want to assert their independence and know their rights, Ellingham said. Feeding that appetite for knowledge could channel their energy toward civic engagement, she said.

"Unless you understand how it works and participate in it, you don't have power," Ellingham said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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