July | August 2017

Be Present in Community Throughout the Year

Kevin Cline, chair of the social studies department at Frankton High School in Indiana, is one of this year’s winners of the American Civic Education Teacher Awards. Cline said it’s not always easy to get high school students interested in how government works, but it’s important to try. Here are his tips on how to get the next generation of voters interested in the democratic process.
“I would say you have to try to let students encounter government with as many senses as possible,” Cline said. “They need to experience as much as they possibly can.” For instance, Cline’s classes regularly run an imaginary political campaign, doing everything from trying to get (fake) donors to contribute and creating a platform to making campaign ads and looking at polling data. “By the end of the week, they were exhausted, frustrated and stressed,” he said. “I said, ‘Welcome to politics!’”
Adults aren’t the only ones who have become cynical about politics, Cline said. Students are hearing cynical things at home and are bringing that to the classroom. Cline said policymakers can help break through that shell. “If legislators are not making themselves visible in a non-campaigny way to these students, then we’re going to be hard pressed for the students to ever feel they have a voice representing them at the state or federal level,” he said. “You can’t just have legislators stroll through your school in October. You’ve got to have a presence in that community throughout the entire term.”
Any major election year provides a great example of the democratic process at work. “You’ve got incredible right-here-in-the-present type examples you can draw from,” Cline said. “It makes things certainly more challenging. … One of the things you do every day is make sure you’re following the news, make sure you’re paying attention to the campaign ads out there … so you can bring those to the students’ attention.”
Many students come into Cline’s government class with preconceived notions about politics or politicians, but they can’t back up their positions with facts. He likes to make students question why they believe what they believe by giving them positions to debate that they may not agree with. “I don’t care if you ever agree with a point of view that’s different than yours,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want you to be able to appreciate a person’s ability to hold that opinion and it’s OK if they view the world a different way than you do. I don’t care if you don’t agree with it; just respect it.”
Cline said it’s important for state legislators to say yes when classes ask to meet with them for a few minutes at the capitol or when asked to make an occasional classroom visit. Rep. Terri Austin, a former teacher, has been very willing to talk to Cline’s classes. “If (legislators) don’t want to do it because it’s the right thing to do, do it because that’s the next generation to be voting,” Cline said. “One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Rep. Austin is when she gives her time, she gives it in a very objective way. She doesn’t come in toting her campaign signs in the van behind her. She comes in, sneaks in and asks students what’s important to them.”