Last fall, when Monica Howell instructed her students to pick a vexing problem worth solving, several students did a bit of research and soon learned that the state of Florida has no sex education requirement at the high school level.
That, they thought, was worth changing.
At first, the students believed this was just another “how-government-works” exercise. But Howell, an AP government teacher at Hialeah Gardens High School near Miami, broke the news to them: This was real. If they were serious about sex ed, they would lobby the state legislature in Tallahassee and get the law changed.
“I had to keep emphasizing for them: ‘This is for real. You’re actually going to make phone calls,’” she said. “’You’re actually going to email people. You might have to attend a meeting or two.’ They were kind of nervous.”
The butterflies come courtesy of a new “effective citizenship” program for young people modeled on an unusual idea: If Americans want to learn how government works, reading about it or watching on TV isn’t sufficient. They must do something — get their hands dirty and solve intractable problems.
That is also the basic premise of America: The Owner’s Manual, a recent book co-authored by retired U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, whose work on civic engagement inspired the program. It's being piloted throughout the Miami area.
Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, noted that the union actually created a 28-page teaching guide built around the principles in Graham's book, and invited Graham to appear at recent training sessions.
“That’s been really thrilling,” Hernandez-Mats said. She said several teachers who have attended the sessions have told her afterwards, “I need to do more” in their own lives. “It’s one of those ‘practice what you preach’ moments.”
Howell, who read the book and liked Graham’s approach, said teaching civics through a textbook is like teaching basketball players with a manual. “That’s not how they learn to play — they have to get in the game.”
A Democratic Florida lawmaker who also served eight years as the state’s governor, Graham turns 81 on Thursday. He has dedicated what should be his peaceful retirement to a rather sizeable effort: saving democracy as we know it.
“I think that there is a growing concern: Will our children and grandchildren live in the same fundamental, democratic nation that we and our parents and grandparents lived in?” he said. “And will our generation be seen as the one that lost democracy for America?”
That fear is driving a group of educators who see civic education as a way to help get the USA “back on its democratic tracks,” he said.
Graham graduated from high school in 1955 and recalled that in junior high school and high school he took three full-year civics courses. “Today, it’s almost disappeared from the curriculum,” he said.
He noted that of his 11 grandchildren, most have had “no civics in their high school experience. And those who did have it, mainly it was just a one-semester course.”
While school is probably the best place to teach about how government works, Graham said he’s not ruling out other possibilities. Like many civic educators, he has embraced games like the iCivics titles, and he has even suggested that courts do their part by including a short course in civics for people called to jury duty.
“What a great opportunity that would be to do education in democracy,” he said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but you’ve got to look for opportunities that are there and take advantage of them.”
Asked whether the 2016 presidential election and the rise of President Donald Trump might prompt educators to take civics more seriously, Graham, who served in the U.S. Senate for nearly 20 years, spoke in his leisurely, characteristically diplomatic manner.
“I wish I were optimistic enough — and I consider myself to be fundamentally an optimist — to think that the Trump administration would be an educational experience for America from which we will graduate being better citizens,” he said. “But I’m afraid the lessons being learned are the rewards that come from trying to divide people.”
He noted, as an example, Trump’s rhetoric around firing NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem, in order to protest police shootings of unarmed African-American motorists and others.
Threatening African-American NFL players' livelihoods, as Trump has recommended, is no accident. It’s a way to “to pick out the weak and to make them the source of all the problems that you have," he said. "That’s been a tyrant’s game plan for a long time.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo