Maintaining a democratic society requires the ongoing participation of all membersyoung and old. It's never too early for young people to identify and work on issues of importance to them and their communities. Here are some suggestions for activities that afterschool staff can use to integrate literacy-building with the development of young people's civic muscle.
I hope you have some read-aloud time set aside each day or several times a week. (Why? See last issue's Wire on reading poetry aloud or read excerpts from Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook.) Reading a book about democratic processes aloud is a great way not only to teach new vocabulary and concepts but also to begin lively discussions.
Younger children love to be read to; when they really like a book, they will ask you to read it over and over! This month's Bookshelf includes two books for young readers about the electoral process: Duck for President and Max for President.
Before reading aloud, be sure read the book yourself so that you will be familiar with the story and can read with feeling. When the children are gathered for read-aloud time, begin by asking questions to activate their prior knowledge, such as:
Knowing something about the topic helps listeners (or readers) understand the story better and gives them a chance to become familiar with its vocabulary and ideas.
Older children also benefit from being read to. For example, Operation Clean Sweep, which deals with women's fight for the right to vote, can help you begin a discussion about voting rights and the role of voting in a democracy.
Before read-aloud time, read the book yourself and choose a section or chapter that you think will interest your group. As with younger children, begin with pre-reading questions:
These questions can lead to an exploration of the history of voting in this and other countries. If the youngsters have questions about, for example, who can and can't vote, make a list.
After pre-reading activities, read the chapter you selected, and then be prepared with a follow-up activity such as role-playing. Assign students roles from the period represented in Operation Clean Sweep and let them play out the conversation:
After the role-plays, have students write down their reactions. Go back to the questions you listed before the reading. How would the group answer these questions now? What new questions do participants have?
Framing read-aloud time with activities such as these helps build both literacy skills and content knowledge, in this case of democratic processes.
Advocacyactive support of an idea, cause, or policyis a form of democratic participation. I'm willing to bet that every young person has an interest he or she is passionate about. Reading stories about historical figures who have served as advocates, such as Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela can help identify issues young people care about and inspire active participation.
Starting with the websites listed below, have participants select an area of interest and then research ways they can participate in that area. Have them write their reflections on the activities in a journal and share them with the group. Questions to get them started might ask, for example:
Participants might then try a new activity. Point them to YouthAction NYC's tips on effective youth advocacy. Help them select a low-risk, low-cost activity to start withwriting a letter to a policymaker, for example, rather than trying to organize a public demonstration. After they try the activity, they can describe their experience in their journals and share with the whole group.
Here are some websites with advocacy information on specific topics:
The curricula and lesson plans below will give you even more ideas for activities that combine literacy with democracy.