Civics Education for Educators

For three days in June, I had the pleasure of teaching in Western State Colorado University's Summer Teacher Institute.  I taught American Government and Effective Advocacy for 2 graduate credits.  The course participants were educators in a variety of settings--two elementary school teachers, two high school civics teachers, and one environmental studies college professor.  The participants came in with a pretty wide range of knowledge about civics and government, but all agreed that we need to prioritize civics in schools and society. 

We focused on three concepts: civic knowledge, civic values, and civic skills.  We agreed that schools primarily focus on civic knowledge (the structure and function of the government), but that the general public demonstrates a low level of understanding. 

In the course, we examined federalism (enumerated powers v. police powers; the 10th Amendment; the supremacy clause and preemption), Congress (structure and organization; the legislative path; enumerated powers, specifically the necessary and proper clause, tax and spend clause, and the commerce clause; post-Civil War Amendments), the judicial branch (structure and organization; federal jurisdiction; judicial review; limitations such as standing, ripeness, and mootness), the President (the Electoral College; inherent and Congressionally-granted powers; foreign policy; impeachment and civil suits), administrative agencies (structure and organization; creation; rulemaking and adjudications; limitations on agency action; judicial review), procedural due process (sources; meaning; personal jurisdiction; notice and opportunity; important components of a civil lawsuit), fundamental rights (Bill of Rights; incorporation; state actor requirement; recognition of new rights), and equal protection (levels of scrutiny).   We also discussed strategies for legal reading and analysis and briefed a case as a class exercise. 

We also discussed the principles of effective advocacy and ran through a hypothetical involving potential legislation and regulations around public lands.  

The course participants brainstormed with each other and generated several ideas for lesson plans, class exercises, or school-wide clubs, activities, or policies to promote civic knowledge, values, and skills. 

I strongly believe that lawyers have an important role to play in educating the public about civics and good government.  I left the course more energized and committed to promoting civics education as a core value of the legal profession.  The Summer Institute is a fabulous program that gives educators the opportunity to earn professional credit through a really wide variety of course offerings.  I look forward to working with Western State and the Summer Teacher Institute to expand future course offerings in civics, government, law, and advocacy. 

Next Steps in Civics Education

My dream is to put a lawyer in every public library in Colorado to teach civics and government to community members for free.  I would love to see lawyers get formal professional credit for teaching these types of programs, such as CLE credit.

I am teaching this course again at the Crested Butte library in January 2018.  The Crested Butte library and I are using video conferencing to share the course with libraries throughout Colorado, especially those in rural, remote, and underserved areas of the state.   As of now, I will be live broadcasting to six libraries throughout Colorado!

I have shared the course syllabus and lectures with many lawyers interested in replicating this program in their own communities.  I would be happy (ecstatic! thrilled! overjoyed!) to share the materials with any lawyer—just contact me.  I would be happy (ecstatic! thrilled! overjoyed!) to talk with any lawyer, bar association, professional group, library district (basically anyone under the sun) about the importance of civics education, the role that lawyers can play in providing this service, and how to replicate or improve the program.

Truly, teaching this class is one of the more rewarding things I have done with my law school education.   I hope other lawyers will join me!  I look forward to teaching civics education in 2018!





American Government Primer Survey Results

I taught the American Government Primer course over eight weeks (two four-part lectures) in winter/spring 2017 at my local libraries.  Going into it, I expected a few bored individuals to wander into one or two of the classes.  Happily, both course attendance and participation far exceeded my expectations.  For each of the lectures, 20-30 people showed up and peppered me with questions about the course materials and things that they heard on the news.  

After the course, I asked attendees to take a survey so I could gauge how much they learned in the course.  Here are the results: 

100% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the Constitution


·       100% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the relationship between the state and federal government; 

·       92% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the structure and function of the judicial branch; 

·       92% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the powers and limitations of the President;

·       77% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the powers and limitations of administrative agencies and how regulations are passed;

·       92% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of procedural due process;

·       76% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of the Bill of Rights and fundamental rights;

·       92% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they increased their understanding of equal protection;

·       100% indicated that they learned quite a bit or that most of the material was new to them;

·       92% indicated that they strongly or somewhat agreed that they felt more confident in engaging with their government;

·       100% would recommend the course to a friend.

Course participants provided the following comments:


·       “I enjoyed reference to, and discussion of, current events the most.”

·       “I really loved and appreciated this opportunity and feel its offering through the public library is essential.”

·       “I would encourage everyone interested in understanding and being more participatory in their governmental process to make the time to take this free class.  It is empowering.” 

·       “Great course, thank you! I really can’t recall having a class in govt/civics ever—maybe in elementary school.  My grasp on govt function/judicial function has been very thin and this class helped immensely.”

·       “Well done class. I learned a lot and it has made me more interested in even more classes.  Top notch.”

·       “THANK YOU!  I think EVERYONE should take this class.”

·       “This class was timely and relevant to what is going on in our government now and I am so pleased that Sarah took the time to educate all of us and open our eyes and minds to the what is and the process.”

·       “I thought it was great.”

·       “I’m just so glad you offered this—it demystified a lot of government process for me.”

·       “I was a Political Science major undergrad, have a Masters in Public Administration, and worked for legislative and executive branches for a total of 35 years.  I thought I knew all there was to know about government but I learned a lot in each session.  This class is a terrific public service.”

·       “This was a fantastic and engaging course.  Sarah’s knowledge and expertise was evident while the class remained (for the most part) on a level I was interested in and could understand.”

Community members are hungry for this information and grateful to those who teach it.  A few hours of a lawyer’s time can truly educate and empower citizens.

In the next post, I will discuss my thoughts on the next steps.

Why community-based civics education?

I strongly believe that lawyers should share our knowledge and unique perspective to educate citizens about civics, American government, and the Constitution.  To that end, I designed and taught a four-part lecture series at my local libraries on American government, which I offered for free to community members. 

I was inspired to design a civics education course following dismal election turnouts and because I saw widespread misunderstanding about basic governmental functions.  During and after the 2016 election cycle, I talked with many non-lawyer friends and was asked some startling questions that indicated serious gaps in civics education.  Some very well-educated, intelligent, successful people asked me questions like:

·       Is the House of Representatives state and the Senate federal?

·       Are there three parts to the legislative branch: Congress, the House, and the Senate? I don’t understand how that works.

·       How many court systems do we have?

·       And, because we are in Colorado, the perennial favorite: why is pot legal in Colorado but illegal under federal law?

I knew that if these otherwise well-educated people were asking these questions, others would be too.  I decided that even if I only helped one person to better understand our government, it would be worth designing a course.  “American Government Primer” was born.

I asked participants to describe their familiarity with American government prior to the course.  61% of people indicated that they were either not at all familiar or somewhat unfamiliar with American government.  Some participants commented that they were “coming from near zero knowledge on the subject,” and that they couldn’t “recall having a class in govt/civics ever—maybe in elementary school,” and that “government process” was mystifying.

This prescient interview by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter about eroding civic knowledge and the death of democracy inspired me to do something:

I chose to work with my local libraries to deliver the American Government course for a few reasons.  Libraries and library staff are deeply committed to sharing knowledge and serving a resource to the community.  Libraries already have the tools and resources to advertise the course and host the lectures.  Also, I love my local libraries and would do anything to support this valuable institution.

I saw an opportunity to work in my community to change the landscape of civics education.  In the next post, I will discuss why lawyers are perfect for the job of teaching community-based civics education.