Necessary Sources for Informed Discourses

Informed and civil discourse is a necessary part of our representative democracy. The honest exchange of ideas is what creates the effective compromise the Founders envisioned for the country. Much of the discourse today is anything but civil, or as Meryl Streep has described it, “Grace, respect, reassurance, and empathetic listening are qualities sorely missing from the public discourse now.” So is the informed part of the equation.

 Despite calls for more inclusion, civics is not an academic priority in schools. Many high school graduates leave their institutions ignorant of the founding documents and how they prescribe the operation of their government in the form of checks and balances. This is a travesty when the tools to engage the public are available online in the form of interactive “games” and activities. Two of these tools geared to the classroom and a student’s sense of play are iCivics and Mission US.

 iCivics began as a free website with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner in 2006. After retiring, she kept her hand in the justice system by serving on district and appeals courts as a visiting judge. In 2009, she helped create a website called Our Courts. On the site were two interactive games centered on the court system. It was the beginning of iCivics. Now the site has over 20 games where students can run for the presidency, relive the ratification process for the Constitution, explore the inner workings of local government, and discover how their government works.

Each of the games is created to be played during a single class period of about 45 minutes. Tutorials are included, though most students learn to play on the fly. Scores are posted and students can compete against iCivics gamers from around the globe. Games are not the only content on the website; there is an entire section devoted to the curriculum which is also centered on the workings of the American Government.

Many of the curriculum units are tied to the gaming content, but there are stand-alone units with full content, practice material, and readings, all tied to individual state standards. The skill activities are embedded in the curriculum and include persuasive writing, DBQs, and Webquests. Students can access the content and the games from home by creating their own free accounts.

Over the years, I have seen my students engage their parents and siblings in the games though I never assigned them as homework. I have had the same experience with students who have engaged in the interactive storytelling of Mission US.

Mission US began with a single story, For Crown or Colony, almost a decade ago. The settings and the characters in the story are historically accurate. In the case of For Crown or Colony, one of the centerpieces of the game is the search for a dog. The canine appears in Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. The inventory of games has grown from colonial America to the Dust Bowl, with each story meticulously created to be historically accurate.

In the course of the story, students are given options to select the next move a central character makes. These choices determine the direction the story takes and the consequences the main characters face as they progress. These stories unfold within the length of a class period and engage students at a high level. Students are not only learning about the period and geography of the story; they are also learning how stories and characters are developed.

As my students utilized more of the games, they accumulated more factual knowledge about history, their government, judicial decisions, and the Constitution. When they arrived at the debate portion of the class, they had an intense opportunity to apply this knowledge to form their opinions preparing for team Lincoln/Douglas debates. Their opening statements, probing questions, and rebuttals became more pointed and relevant because they were more fact-based. The full class understood the debates at a deeper level because they shared the same fact-pool, and the post-debate class critiques became more meaningful.

These tools are not just for the social studies classroom as they can be used in other academic disciplines. In science, iCivics could be used to inform students about the legislative priorities and the funding process. In ELA classes, Mission US could be used to work with students improving plot development and twists. Both iCivics and Mission US are “free” sites,  although both will accept donations. Either source can be used in a whole class, small group, or a one-to-one setting. and they are both designed to utilize a 45-minute class period. They are both excellent interactive sources to contribute to having informed and civil discourse.

John Tierney has been a classroom teacher of civics and history for over three decades. He began his teaching career in the Bay Area of California working with “at risk” students in a variety of schools throughout the East Bay.  Although he loved the work, he sought a more rural setting and moved to Elko, Nevada after six years. Since moving to Elko, he has taught at the middle school, earned a masters degree, gone to work for PBS TeacherLine as a facilitator, and was named Nevada’s 2016 State Teacher of the Year as well as the NEA Teacher of Excellence and Global Fellow for China in 2017. Currently he is working with several state education committees, he is the president of Nevada State Teachers of the Year, and he is also chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council at Great Basin College. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa to twin girls.


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