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High School Civics is Cool Again

High school graduates don’t know enough about American government.

That’s the conclusion of a Department of Education report which highlighted the fact that less than a quarter of high school seniors scored proficient on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test. Civics learning, the department maintained, was an add-on in too many schools and was seen as a distraction from the core subjects.

“The need to revitalize and re-imagine civic education is urgent. That urgent need brings a great opportunity—the chance to improve civic education in ways that will resonate for years,” then- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011.

And the students themselves are looking to boost their knowledge of American government. The current politically charged atmosphere is drawing a record number of high school students toward current events, according to the New York Times.

Students are seeking out more information about civic engagement through social media and from their high school teachers.

To support schools as they craft their new civics classes, a wealth of online resources and curriculum content are available that present the facts and history of American government, provide an overview of the ideas and the issues that divide our nation and introduce students to the various methods for participating in American politics.

The first step in any civics or government class is to instruct students about the institutions of government. The three branches of federal government, checks and balances, the process of creating laws, federalism, the basic mechanics of elections, and the role of parties and interest groups in this country all need to be mastered. Like any good board game, students have to know the rules of government in order to play.

After students have a strong understanding of the institutions and process of government, the next step is learning about the substance of politics. Here, students learn about the issues and the values that divide our nation. They must take positions on controversial topics and state their opinions in a civil manner. They have to discuss the details of current policies, such as those related to the military, education, housing, welfare, and immigration. Research shows that students who are used to discussing current affairs are more likely to be politically active as adults.

The last step in any good civics class is to present the various ways that students can wade into politics and have their voices heard. Voting is the most basic form of participation, but citizens can also sign petitions and attend marches. They can attend local town hall meetings. Even calling an elected official to ask a question or stating your position on an issue is a way of participating. Hopefully, some students might even work on a campaign or run for office in the future, or at the very least gain an insight into and respect for the machinations of government that affect all American lives.

The following resources help teachers provide their students with deep knowledge of the institutions of government, the ability to wade into the hot buttons issues of the times, and the tools to directly participate in American politics.


  • Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook offers instruction on the structure and processes of the U.S. government through an inquiry-based learning process. It provides teachers with primary source documents, exclusive videos, and other dynamic digital content. New online-entry features check students’ understanding, allowing them to apply their learning to new situations, and contribute to classroom conversations. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook also includes interactive features in which students practice civic discourse with debates and role-playing.
  • iCivics is a set of free online educational games developed by a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Last November, the game was played roughly 3 million times, according to Education Week.
  • Newseum, a Washington-based museum about current events, provides free learning tools on media literacy and the First Amendment.
  • C-SPAN Classroom offers extensive classroom lesson plans and free videos developed by teachers and the C-SPAN staff.
  • The Center for Civic Education is an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry that is committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. It offers a variety of lesson plans related to elections on topics such as voting requirements, the power of the senior vote, and amendments. Handouts include a chart of political slogans. Did you know that Herbert Hoover’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage)”?
  • The American Bar Association has lessons plans on a variety of topics, including antitrust laws, the Second Amendment, and the environment. One lesson plan involves a discussion of the use of censorship in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451.
  • The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is an advocacy group that promotes civics education at the state and national level. Its website provides links to over 90 organizations and schools that provide teachers with free lesson plans and inspiration, including and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
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Case Study: Behind the Scenes of Virginia Beach Schools’ 5-Year Tech Plan

In 2014, Virginia Beach City Public Schools embarked on a radical digital transformation of its schools. This journey was timed to the arrival of its new superintendent, Dr. Aaron Spence, a native of the area who graduated from a Virginia Beach high school, returned to Virginia to help improve the lives of its students.

The diverse district is part of a community with strong military ties, and it has become known for being at the leading edge of sustainable education practices, entrepreneurship education, and career and workforce development. Despite these successes, Spence saw something holding the district back.

Spence is no stranger to digital transformation. He worked under former superintendent Mark Edwards as a principal during Henrico County Schools’ own digital transition, and in Moore County Public Schools, North Carolina, Spence launched a districtwide digital learning initiative. As a result, many of the first conversations Spence had with faculty members about their aspirations kept coming back to technology. Their desires for a technology plan that could provide more opportunities to students had been implanted before his arrival.

“We’re a forward-thinking organization in a forward-thinking community that really wants the best for its kids,” said Spence.

Dr. Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

At the time, the district’s technology plan focused on network infrastructure and supporting existing goals, instead of what Spence was hearing from his faculty — using technology to transform the learning environment for students.

Another impetus for the district’s digital transformation came in 2014, around the same time Spence was getting his bearings as its new superintendent. A new strategic plan for the district set a high bar for academic expectations. Built into that goal was a mandate to create more personalized learning experiences.

Through Spence’s conversations with other educators, it quickly became apparent that a new vision for integrating technology in the classroom was starting to take root, aided by the aspirations of faculty across the district, and led by Spence and his administration.

“It all pointed to a very clear direction of what we needed to do,” said Spence. “We wanted more engaging learning environments for our kids.”

Spence said one area the district had not shined was in offering equitable education opportunities.

“Virginia Beach is considered to be a great district, but when you started to turn over stones, it seems it was excellent for some, and historically hasn’t always served others well, particularly as the demographic divisions have shifted,” said Spence.

“So we identified the need to focus intensely on the need of every student having rigorous learning experiences daily — not just some, or most of our students.”

Lessons like these proved to Amy Cashwell, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, that the timing for Spence’s arrival was serendipitous. Virginia Beach City Public Schools seemed primed for change. In scrutinizing their vision, they recognized that with their current infrastructure, they had unintentionally built roadblocks for themselves without realizing it.

“We knew we weren’t seeing transformation in the classroom,” she said. “It was really a great time to have a fresh set of eyes and reexamine how we were operationalizing our instructional technology plan.”


In 2014, Spence and his team introduced a five-year strategic plan for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which included a call to transform it from a primarily BYOD district to a true digital learning environment capable of empowering students to become 21st-century learners.

Reinforcing solid instruction has been the engine that drives the transformation at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, said Spence. The devices and technology are the medium through which the transformation happens, but it begins with sound pedagogy.

“I think technology has the potential to be a game-changer with what happens in the classroom,” he said. “But you’ve got to have great Tier 1 instruction that’s thoughtfully planned out by teachers and aligned with a rigorous curriculum.”

To create the foundation for future schools, Spence tasked Cashwell with phasing technology in more significant ways, so they could understand what digital learning could become in the district. This coalesced into what Spence calls anchor schools, effectively the field sites for testing digital learning initiatives. The district currently has 13 of these anchor schools, now in their second year of operation, all in 1:1 learning environments, armed with technical support, professional learning and a cadre of Instructional Technology Specialists (ITS). These specialists work alongside educators to help model the appropriate use of technology in a classroom setting.

Throughout this process, the district has been deliberate about selecting teaching resources for their curriculum that can be taught in a non-1:1 or a 1:1 environment. This safeguard is due to the current imbalance of technology throughout the district.

Science-fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is here already, it’s just not equally distributed.” And while Gibson was speaking about the evolution of technology in general, the message rings true for the district’s non-anchor schools, where devices are used inconsistently, even with an abundance of them in a classroom.

Cashwell said the overall district ratio of devices to students is about 1.3:1. However, they aren’t equally distributed.

The modeling happening at the anchor schools is meant to ultimately help course correct the non-anchor schools, she said. They have encouraged the exploration of personalized learning and the integration of technology in more meaningful ways in non-anchor classrooms, but they have not pushed the agenda of 1:1 as a classroom environment like they have in the anchor schools.

“The idea has been that through an intense focus in our anchor schools, we can shape some of those lessons about technology usage. We can empower the non-anchor schools to move forward in the right direction alongside them, and not wait around,” said Cashwell.


Now two years into the new strategic plan, district leaders have seen some substantive changes in their anchor schools.

“I think we’re seeing a rich integration of digital tools into a daily practice of engaging students,” said Cashwell.

Discovery Education’s Techbook, a series of digital textbooks, was among the new tools brought in to help educators reshape their approach to digital curriculum. The district launched Techbook in the spring for select schools and is currently in its first full year of implementation.

Cashwell said Techbook has helped reinforce solid Tier 1 instruction, which was at the heart of the districtwide pivot being made with its strategic plan.

“You need to have the right resources in play — resources that allow teachers to put into action what we’re asking of them with personalized learning, that allow there to be choice for students, that employ different learning styles. Tools like Science Techbook do all of that and help educators operationalize that kind of teaching and learning,” she said.

To support the Techbook launch and generate a public forum for teacher usage of the new tool, district leaders took to Twitter, creating the hashtag #VBDigitext. Educators who had great experiences with Techbook would share a picture and a story of their journey with others using the hashtag. It resulted in hundreds of posts, dozens of conversations, scheduled Twitter chats among educators, and in general, created the enthusiasm district leaders were seeking.

“By the time we formally launched training over the summer, many educators already had some excitement about Techbook,” said Cashwell.


When embarking on a digital transition of the scope of Virginia Beach City Public Schools’, it’s important to realize that district leaders can learn a lot not only from each other’s successes but also their failures. Superintendents across the country have been creating professional learning communities to guide them through their own transitions. Some of these networks are developed through organizations like AASA, The School Superintendents Association, which offers leadership development courses, a national certification program, and meetings with some of the nation’s most influential superintendents.

Spence is a member of the leadership team for the Consortium of Large Countywide and Suburban School Districts, which works in partnership with AASA to provide a forum for member school divisions to collaborate on issues of practice, benchmark key data points against other districts, and collectively focus on federal advocacy.

Participation in groups like these has broadened Spence and his colleagues’ vision for their district.

“Not only do these opportunities expand my professional learning and challenge me to share my own expertise with others, but I also really appreciate the opportunity to expand my network of colleagues across the country and develop thought partners who understand the difficult nature of the work and the challenges we face in the superintendency,” said Spence. “I’ve found the networking and collaborative practice model of this consortium to be invaluable.”

AASA’s Digital Consortium, hosted this year by Discovery Education and the Horace Mann Educators Corporation, provided select superintendents with a series of informative conferences and district visits across the country.

The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.

No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge. Since it launched in 2005, thousands of educators have joined the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a passionate group of leaders who share their stories of teaching with digital media, share resources, and network at nationwide conferences.

“What I love about these experiences, including membership in the AASA Digital Consortium, is the exposure not just to what has worked but the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from those who have been in the vanguard of this work. I also appreciate that the learning doesn’t stop with what has worked, but that these conversations also focus on emerging theory and practice,” said Spence.

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Case Study: DC Everest’s Lessons from a Districtwide 1:1 Conversion

Many districts face the same challenges after choosing to embark on a 1:1 digital transition. They need to choose the right devices, the right curriculum supports, and they need to ensure their school board, every school employee, and parents, are on board with the leap. All parties involved must understand why digital is necessary to prepare students for the world they’ll face after they graduate.

D.C. Everest has lifted itself to sit alongside some of the best school districts in Wisconsin, thanks in part to its ambitious technology plan and implementation of quality professional development. But the road wasn’t easy. District leaders had to navigate their unique set of challenges in order to make their digital transition a success.

The common thread for the D.C. Everest region is the school district, which serves 11 municipalities, none with historic downtown areas. Established in 1953, D.C.Everest is one of Wisconsin’s newest school districts. That youth carries with it a scrappy demeanor that leans toward new methods of teaching and doing whatever it takes to provide the best opportunities for students. Its district leaders and teachers have proven to be innovative, taking risks to ensure students have what they needed to be successful.

Superintendent Kristine Gilmore, Ed.D., who has served as D.C. Everest’s superintendent for 14 years, helped guide the district through its digital transition over the past two years. And who better to lead the district into the future than a local girl with a long history in the region? Gilmore happens to be a graduate of D.C. Everest schools.

“It’s the ‘local girl comes home’ story,” she said. “Growing up, I had never dreamed of it, but it’s been a great place to give back to the community and raise my three kids with my husband.”

Another facet of the district that sets it apart from others in the region — the district has a large number of English Language Learners, comprising 12 percent of the school district. This is due in part to the region being home to a growing Hmong American population, who located there over the last three decades.

“We’ve become a much more diverse school district over the years, which I really think has made this community richer,” said Gilmore.


Devices have been a part of D.C. Everest classrooms for years, but in 2014, they went 1:1 with iPads and Discovery Education Techbook, a digital textbook series. Of course, devices and powerful curriculum supports weren’t enough to transform the district. They needed a plan that would allow every student to succeed.

But before making its digital leap, D.C. Everest had to ensure that every level of the district’s faculty understood why they were making such a fundamental change. A key component of that change was keeping the promise of equal access to success for their students, said Gilmore.

“Technology for us was about providing every kid with the best opportunity to be successful,” she said. “The 1:1 initiative has provided both teachers and students with more choice and voice. Students now have 24/7/365 access to educational tools and resources that allow them to explore their individual interests, learn in a manner best-suited to them, and share what they’ve learned in a format they’re most comfortable with.”

D.C. Everest is not alone. Educators across the country are using Techbook to transform their classrooms into interactive learning environments, where lessons aren’t always one-sided lectures. Students can explore concepts with hands-on labs, getting a better understanding of real-world problems. Teachers can customize their lessons to meet the needs of their students by altering the Lexile levels, or language options.

District leaders also selected iPads paired with Techbook because that combination enabled students to learn offline. If Wi-Fi access wasn’t available at a student’s home, they could download chapters of material at school and take that back home to study videos and instruction. The solution helped ensure that technology barriers wouldn’t leave students without Internet access at home behind.

“For kids, learning in digital environments isn’t a new, exciting, scary thing — this is just their life,” she said. “We need to be sure that education is where our kids’ lives are at, not where our lives as educators were at.”

In a departure from many school districts across the country, D.C. Everest students are allowed to bring their iPads home over the summer. Gilmore said it’s a way of combating the so-called “summer slide,” effect in which knowledge melts from students’ minds over the summer months. To help retain some of their learned skills, the summer brought students educational programs such as STEM camps, summer school, and current resources on their iPads.


For Gilmore, there was a spark that marked the beginning of her digital journey. She had attended a Suburban School Superintendents Conference in San Francisco, where former Mooresville superintendent Mark Edwards had spoken. His message about digital transition, helping students learn to be great learners, was influential for Gilmore.

“As he told the story of his district, I thought, ‘Why not D.C. Everest?’” said Gilmore. “Our kids deserved these resources, and it was time to roll up our sleeves and make it happen.”
The district had been discussing going 1:1 for a few years. It previously had around 5,000 devices unequally distributed across its approximately 6,000 students. But Gilmore’s experience at the conference resulted in a decisive push for D.C. Everest’s transition to 1:1.

“You don’t have full access to the benefits of a digital curriculum until you go 1:1. That really allowed us to push content to all of our kids. We don’t have to guess at what our kids have. This initiative was about providing equity for our children and countless opportunities for the future.”

Initially, her team was concerned about budgetary constraints, but Gilmore assured them that they could overcome those challenges. No one has an unlimited budget, she said, but we can prioritize. By 2014, the district had rolled out 6,000 iPads to all of its students in under two weeks.

Through its 1:1 plan, school board officials wanted to provide students with rich, innovative classroom experiences. But funding new devices alone would not pave the way to the board’s goals for innovation. To support its technology plan, the district invested $4 million in infrastructure improvements, such as routers, bandwidth, mobile device management solutions, and Wi-Fi, and began investing in solid professional development (PD) to help educators adapt to the new shift in teaching.

“More than anything you need for teachers to shift their pedagogy around the higher levels of thinking for kids, creativity, innovation, personalization,” she said.

“All of this comes down to how we can change the classroom pedagogy to meet the needs of our students. The device is a resource — never a substitute for a great teacher.”

To leverage this new priority, D.C. Everest restructured its teacher compensation around quality PD. Teachers are compensated for pursuing individually-chosen opportunities that improve their teaching and learning strategies and are empowered to use those strategies within their classrooms in creative, new ways.

The incentive strategy paid off. By the end of the 2015-2016 school year, the district’s just over 400 teachers accrued more than 25,000 hours of PD outside of the school day.
The PD consisted of teachers teaching teachers best practices in the classroom, mini-courses on specific subjects, and three-day institutes focused on teaching and learning. During these sessions, Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps played a crucial role, said Gilmore, bringing speakers such as Toni Robinson to guide educators through their transition.

“Our professional development was not just two hours of training, or reading a book. It’s about changing the way that we teach every day. And even with newer teachers, that’s often not something they’re taught in school. Doing this well requires time and hands-on training, and an environment where risk-taking with support is safe,” said Gilmore.


Technology being placed in the hands of every student has helped to open the door for them to express and share their learning in creative ways. One way this was exemplified was how a fourth-grade class at Riverside Elementary School chose to take their study of the Iditarod Race and run with it.

The students’ enthusiasm for the race evolved into a podcast series where they recorded their thoughts on the progress of the race. Their creativity paid off. The podcast drew the attention a few actual Iditarod mushers, who had been following the kids’ show. The mushers reached out to the class to congratulate them on their creation and encouraged them to keep at it.

The encounter was an affirmation for the students’ experimentation with what’s possible through a digital education.

“That kind of experience changes how kids perceive themselves as participants in their own education, as readers, writers, and authors, they have an authentic audience,” said Gilmore.

By the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the district had two years of experience in a 1:1 learning environment. They also had become well-versed with all three of Discovery Education’s Techbooks — Science Techbook, Math Techbook and Social Studies Techbook — which supplement their existing curriculum.

Gilmore said the district selected Techbook because it allowed students to experience their education in a multi-faceted way. Traditional textbook offer students textual ways to experience new places or concepts, and in Techbook, if they don’t quite understand, they can watch the video, it can be read aloud, they can change the Lexile level, and in math they can see a problem solved in multiple ways.

“Adopting Techbook was really about engaging students and giving them opportunities to grow in different ways than a flat textbook might do,” said
Gilmore. “It’s one thing to read about the desert if you’ve never been there, and another to watch a video and see it.”

Social Studies students immediately took to the benefits of Techbook. Being able to witness world-changing events in video form, and study history through multiple lenses has afforded students a more well-rounded education. But implementing Math Techbook has been more complicated, said Gilmore, because it has involved a mindset shift around how to teach it.

Math can be a touchy subject for districts. Unlike Social Studies, it is generally taught in a very concrete fashion, and there are very distinct milestones to hit for state standards. Since rolling out Math Techbook, Gilmore said she noticed a reticence of certain teachers to adapt to the changing learning styles around Math.

“We all want to provide kids with more meaningful experiences, but that often involves setting up the classroom differently, learning differently — and change is difficult,” she said.
This reluctance to change represents one of the challenges that have reared themselves since the district went 1:1, and D.C. Everest is not an island unto itself. Many districts nationwide experience resistance from educators fearful of altering the trajectory of teaching and learning, particularly when that change involves abandoning the traditional, stand-and-deliver method of teaching. Instead, modern teachers are often moving from the center of the classroom to the periphery as a support for student-driven learning, aided by the device.

To address teacher concerns, professional development courses and Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps offered educators intensive training in the new methodologies around teaching, helping them acclimate to the change in their comfort levels with technology in the classroom. Every school in the district also has learning labs, where teachers are encouraged to try new methods of teaching. Educators also bring their peers to these sessions to help solidify best practices across the district which has proven to be more effective than a supervisory model.

The same skepticism toward technology in the classroom was voiced by some parents in the community after the district announced its plans to go 1:1. To help navigate these troubled waters, D.C. Everest hosted informational panels where parents could ask questions about their children’s education. It also helped that when students brought their devices home, parents could witness what their children were learning.

“A parent told me that before, they felt clueless about what happened at school, but the devices have helped them connect with their kids’ lives in ways they just couldn’t before,” Gilmore said.


No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Gilmore is one of 40 members of AASA’s Digital Consortium, which has allowed her access to a series of conferences and district visits across the country. The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.
Among the most valuable lessons from these sessions for Gilmore was the ability to learn and share resources with her peers. Together, they supported one another through their own digital transitions, and learned from the successes and mistakes of others.

“These relationships are imperative in the work as we support each other, share resources, and learn together. While at the Digital Consortium meetings we visited schools who are living the work,” she said. Gilmore advises superintendents in need of guidance to seek help from peers and associations like AASA.

“Ask a lot of questions, take teams to visit, and learn, learn, and learn. I would also suggest finding great business partners who want to help your students succeed,” she said.

“Providing students with engaging, relevant, innovative, and personalized learning experiences is our mission — it takes some courage, but isn’t that what leadership is all about?”

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