One of the highlights of this year’s National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) convention was a session featuring student projects completed through Project Citizen. This middle-school program teaches young people how to become responsible, participating citizens.
As we walked into the room, we were all given one of those How a Bill Becomes a Law charts. You’ve all seen them–lines and arrows that purport to teach the reality of legislation.
The first speaker asked us to tear them up. “That’s not how young people learn,” she said. And she was right.
Four groups of students, all in upper-elementary or middle school, then talked about the projects they had completed. Each group had identified a problem in their area–an alley that needed a pedestrian crossing, a local recreation program that didn’t communicate with the growing Latino population, a community that didn’t recycle its trash, a watershed that was increasingly polluted because of materials dumped in storm drains.
Students selected these projects themselves. They did extensive research on possible solutions. They spoke with policymakers, including legislators, mayors, school board members, and one member of Congress.
Not only did they propose solutions, but in some cases they saw those solutions implemented. Although they recognized that politics was not the preferred activity of most people their age (“No normal kid hangs out at town meetings,” one said), they were thrilled to learn that they could make a difference. “I watched adults listen to me. I watched my ideas turn into a reality,” one said.
It’s a great program. I hope to introduce it to schools in the 44th district this year. Meanwhile, being around all those smart, committed middle school students made me more confident than ever in democracy’s next generation.