Poetry to Prose: Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In the aftermath of the 2016 Election, we’ve promised a pivot to the public policy processes and outcomes that follow. This post represents the frame through which we’ll pursue this work as we attempt to leverage the excitement and/ or fears of our students and translate it into the difficult work of democratic governance.

Illinois’ new civics course requirement embeds proven civic learning practices that align perfectly with teaching the public policy process, namely direct instruction on government institutions, discussions of current and controversial issues, service-learning, and simulations of democratic processes.
  • A deep understanding of government institutions is critical to engaging with them to affect policy change.
  • Public policy issues are by nature current and controversial. They are unresolved and members of our community may disagree vehemently about their very definition, much less available solutions.
  • Service-learning may assume direct or indirect forms, and also encompasses advocacy, much of which may happen within the confines of a classroom.
  • Simulations of the policy-making process in a legislative body, court system, or even administrative agency can illuminate the inner workings of government for our students.
Moreover, Illinois’ emerging social studies standards embrace an inquiry arc that begins by students developing questions. Later, they draw upon disciplinary knowledge and evaluate sources to answer them. Ultimately, students are asked to communicate conclusions and take informed action.

The inquiry arc mirrors the process of successfully engaging students in the public policy process. In the five-part series that follows, I’ll break down the template for civic engagement offered by Senator Bob Graham and Chris Hand in America: The Owner’s Manual.
  • Defining the problem
  • Gathering information to sway policymakers
  • Identifying who in government can solve the problem
  • Gauging and building public support for the cause
  • Persuading the decision makers
  • Using the calendar to achieve goals
  • Building coalitions for citizen success
  • Engaging the media
  • Finding resources to support the initiative
  • Preserving victory and learning from defeat
Elections are beginnings, not ends, and we invite you to join us on this journey to fulfill our professional obligations with respect to the course requirement and emerging standards. But more importantly, let’s empower our students to affect policy change whether or not their candidates of choice prevailed or went down in defeat.

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