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Civic engagement:
More than a buzz word

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by Candace Bowen
Civic engagement is one of the pluses we name when talking about the value of scholastic media. But what do we mean by that line and what in our activities gives our students that experience? First let’s think about what it does NOT…

At the risk of rattling some cages, here goes: To me, writing about football team wins and the upcoming Christmas formal doesn’t do it. Jazzy infographics chosen for the colorful variety they add to the layout doesn’t do it. The most candid, colorful shots of the Homecoming queen, even if they capture the excitement and surprise on her face as she’s being crowned, doesn’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with these parts of student media. They’re fine, and they have a place in publications or online. But do they teach our students more about civic engagement?

Let’s define what that means.  The American Democracy Project for Civic Engagement, supported by the New York Times, was a three-year national project to further civic engagement within a network of 199 public colleges and universities. Basically that group’s definition of civic engagement is “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.”

Using that fairly typical definition, let’s think about what our student media need to include to accomplish teaching that.  JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission illustrated this with the “Making a Difference” e-book that shows examples of the impact of topics students can cover. It includes such stories as “A matter of safety,” the Newton South High School publication’s exploration of whether “using replica firearms was more than just fun and games,” and Redondo Union High School’s magazine series of narratives and commentary from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens.

This year, Making a Difference continues in a slightly different form — an 8-part series on the JEA Press Rights Commission blog, including a Pflugerville, Texas, story about the school district’s domestic partner rights. The first was a Renton, Wash., project about student voices, especially those who are English language learners. Six more examples will follow.

In other words, these show work that pushed student staffers AND readers to think about and speak about the world around them. That kind of journalism demonstrates the power of student thoughts and ideas and how they can indeed make a difference, even if they are “only” kids.

As the new semester begins, think of ways to push your students to do this (see sidebar below). It is, after all, their media, but, with the right nudge, you can help them think about the possibilities.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student get really excited about a football game coverage story, but the look in the eyes of those who went beyond their comfort zones, interviewed some experts and presented information their audience didn’t know but could use to deal with matters of public concern – now THAT is the look of excitement that epitomizes civic engagement.

Civic Engagement sidebar

• Have students ask themselves What has worried me lately? What has angered me lately? What have I thought was unfair? • Then use those answers to investigate issues. • Localize and “teen-ize” issues that are in the news • Follow @candacepb on Twitter or search for #YourStories • Look for good lists of ideas, like those of The ASNE fellows at Kent State

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