Lesson 4

The Power in Civic Engagement 


Lesson Overview:

This lesson focuses on the power citizens have because of their rights and freedoms. In Part 1, the students will trace the evolution of human rights and study three landmark Supreme Court cases involving students. In Part 2, they'll learn why it's important to participate and what famous people have said about making a difference. They'll read Aristotle's thoughts on good citizenship and create posters. In Part 3, the students will review ways active citizens can become involved. They'll read a real-life story about protesting, try writing a song parody, and brainstorm how they can help their community. 


Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards


Learning Objectives:

The children will:

  • Realize human rights have evolved over 4,000 years of history.
  • Identify the civil rights milestones of groups of Americans.
  • Relate fulfilling citizen obligations to empowerment.
  • List Aristotle's characteristics of good citizens.
  • Recognize ways they can become civically engaged.


Part 1: The History of Our Rights 

Reproducible: History of Human Rights Timeline

The students will complete the reproducible as they discuss the following information. The words in boldface indicate the suggested entries. They can also take notes during the discussion and write them on the lines provided below the timeline.

Laws have existed for thousands of years. One of the earliest sets of laws is the Code of Hammurabi, written by the king of Babylon around 1760 B.C. The 282 laws protected citizens from evil people and unskilled professionals. For example, dishonest judges and thieves were forced to pay back many times what they owed; doctors who made mistakes had their hands cut off. It covered everyday situations, too; for example, how family members and neighbors must treat each other.

Almost 3,000 years later, as Henry I became the new king of England in 1100 A.D., he wrote and signed the Charter of Liberties, promising to treat church officials and nobles fairly and even providing some rights to noblewomen.

Unlike the Code of Hammurabi and the Charter of Liberties, which were written by rulers, the Magna Carta ("great charter") was written by the barons of London. King John of England was an evil man who blackmailed and stole from his subjects, and, in 1215, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta or lose the throne. He pledged to give the people their rights and allow them to practice their customs, and he promised to return any property he had taken. It was a giant leap forward for citizens because it showed they could hold their rulers accountable.

Since they'd had rights as British citizens, the American colonists wanted their colony charters to provide them as well. The Virginia Charter, for example, guaranteed rights citizens had in England. When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, some states did not want to ratify (approve) it because human rights weren't mentioned. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and fourth president, did not want to add these rights, but he knew if the Constitution wasn't ratified by at least nine of the 13 states, the work he'd done would be wasted. In a compromise, Massachusetts and four other states agreed to approve the Constitution and suggested amendments, or changes, regarding citizens' rights. Hopefully, these would be added later. (For more information about the Bill of Rights, see Level 2, Lesson 4).

The Bill of Rights guarantees liberties to American citizens, but for years these rights seemed only to apply to white males. Over 200 years' time, other groups of Americans slowly gained rights and protection as well.

Blacks. The slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment in 1865. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, giving blacks their citizenship. They were granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment in 1870. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 allowed them to own property. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to discriminate against blacks and in any way deny their Constitutional right to vote.

Women. Women fought for almost a century to gain the right to vote. In the late 1800s, women who lived in Colorado, Idaho and other western states could vote, but it wasn't until August 18, 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, that all American women were given that right. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to pay women less for doing the same job, harass them, or in any other way discriminate against them in the workplace.

American Indians. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted citizenship, including the right to vote, to American Indians. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave American Indians, Eskimos and other native Americans the right to practice their religious traditions in the U.S.

Children. Children were considered family property and had no rights for much of our nation's history. Older Americans may remember children working long hours in terrible working conditions for very little money, because labor laws did not cover America's youngest workers.

Children accused of a crime didn't have the right to a lawyer, and were tried and punished as adults. In 1899, the first juvenile court system was established, and children were granted the rights to legal representation and a fair trial in 1967. 

In 1971, during the Vietnam War, it took just three months for the 26th Amendment to pass, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Two years before it was ratified, President Richard Nixon said, "I want to give you the reason why I believe that 18-year-olds should have the right to vote. Not because, as many say, if you are old enough to fight you are old enough to vote. That is one reason, but not the best reason. The reason that 18-year-olds should have the right to vote is that they are smart enough to vote. They know. They are interested and more involved than were the 21-year-olds of only 20 years ago. This is a tribute to your teachers. It is a tribute to your parents, and it is a tribute to you."

Noncitizens. They can't vote or serve on juries, but noncitizens have other rights because of the 14th Amendment, including the right to free speech, the right not to be searched and the right to be represented in court. If a noncitizen is found guilty of a very serious crime, however, he or she can be deported (sent back to his or her home country) and barred permanently from ever returning to the U.S.


Reproducible: Student Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court

Professor Michael Schudson points out that in 1935, only two of the 160 cases decided by the Supreme Court were civil rights cases; in 1989, exactly half of the 132 cases - 66 - were about civil rights. He says since the time of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955), citizens in general have become more aware of their Constitutional rights.

The handout focuses on three landmark decisions about student rights. Make copies for the students. Divide the large group into three smaller ones, and assign each a case. They will read it carefully, look for facts that may have influenced the Supreme Court in their decision-making and underline them. After they discuss the cases in their small groups, ask spokespeople to share their opinions of how the Supreme Court decided the case and why. Then read aloud the following information:

"Student Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court" background information:

Case 1 is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969): The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the students, saying there was no evidence wearing the black armbands had disrupted school activities or had interfered with other students' rights. Students are "persons" whose right are to be respected; the protest was an example of "pure speech," protected under the First Amendment.

Case 2 is Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988): The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the principal acted reasonably. The school board paid all costs associated with the newspaper; including printing. The school newspaper was not a public forum, but a part of the journalism curriculum and a regular classroom activity under the control of the journalism teacher.

Case 3 is Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982): In a very close 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students. In its decision, it said censorship must be accompanied by an explanation of the motivation behind it. The board wanted to deny access to the books solely because it disagreed with some of the ideas in the books. The Court ruled this did not justify violating the students' First Amendment rights.


Part 2: The Use of Our Rights

Many believe American citizens should participate in this democratic process because their rights and freedoms are protected by the government. Begin this section by discussing:

  • Do citizens have responsibilities to our country? Why? What are they asked to do? (Possible answers: Voting, paying taxes, serving in the military, obeying the law, etc.)

Americans have the freedom and the right to participate in the democratic process. Sadly, many don't. Ask the students to guess the number of Americans (out of 100) who will vote, on average, in any given presidential election.

In 1960, about two-thirds of those registered to vote did. This percentage has dropped to less than 50% today. When compared with other countries, the United States ranked 139th in average voter turnout for the years 1945-1998, according to the Swedish Institute International IDEA.

Young people can't vote. Is it important they be civically involved in other ways? A common complaint among those in this age group is they don't feel adults take them seriously. Civic engagement - becoming involved in the community - can counteract feelings of powerlessness and unimportance. Discuss with the group:

  • Do you ever feel adults, even your peers, don't take you seriously at times? Can anyone give an example of when they've felt that way?
  • How many of you read a daily newspaper or watch the news on TV? Do you ever feel frustrated, wondering what you can do to help?

Remind the students that even taking small steps to lend a hand makes a difference in others' lives and in their own. Taking action can help students see themselves as powerful people who can bring about change.  


Reproducible: Make a Difference!

To spark interest in this topic, make copies of the "Make A Difference!" handout. The students can read the quotes silently or take turns reading them aloud. Ask them to pick their favorite quote, write it on a large sheet of paper, decorate it and display it. An image of the speaker can be easily found on the Internet and added to the poster, if desired. 

Voting, of course, influences public officials, but they also pay attention to letters and emails, blogs, public protests and other ways citizens make their opinions known. This is especially true if the officials are seeking re-election or a higher office. They listen to young people because they are the voters of the future and also because they may influence older family members who currently vote.


Reproducible: Are You a Good Citizen?

In his book Democracy in America, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said the good character of citizens helps democracy continue. There are right and wrong ways to make a difference. Taking action in the right way is more likely to be effective; it brings people together and encourages them. Taking action in the wrong way can cause hard feelings and make change more difficult if not impossible.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle noted four qualities of a good citizen. After the students take the quiz, use the scoring key below to "grade" them.

70-80 points: If every citizen were like you, our country and the world would be better places. Encourage your family, friends, fellow students and community to follow your fine example!

60-69 points: You've got a lot of qualities of a good citizen. Aristotle would be proud. Keep up the good work. There's always room for improvement, so focus on those areas for which you gave yourself 2s and 3s.

50-59 points: Not bad. You've got a great start at being a good citizen. Do your weak areas fall into one or two categories? Make a plan to improve in those areas. For instance, if you need help taking a stand, read a book or an online article about assertiveness.

40-49 points: Alexis de Tocqueville said our democracy needs good citizens. Starting with the Level 3 "Resources" section, look at some websites, read some books. Team up with another student and encourage each other. Sometimes we just need a little motivation to get the citizenship ball rolling.

39 and below: You need some inspiration! Read an interesting, grade-appropriate book about the Founding Fathers and what they had to say about democracy. Make a pledge to be more active and involved. Your country needs you!


Activity: Research a Topic 

Sometimes change happens slowly no matter how organized or dedicated people are. Remind the students that throughout American history groups of citizens have struggled in very difficult circumstances to make things better for themselves and others. Invite them to research topics like women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.


Part 3: The Impact of Our Rights

Reproducible: 28 Ways You Can Take Action

Part 3 offers some practical ideas for becoming active as a young citizen. Invite the students to pick one or more as a wrap-up to the unit. The following ideas are summarized in the reproducible.

Support causes in unique ways.

  • The students can ask those who usually buy holiday and birthday gifts to contribute to their cause instead. For instance, if they're concerned about global poverty and malnutrition, they could ask for contributions to the Heifer Project.
  • Many companies have adopted particular causes and will contribute a certain amount when consumers buy products from them. Watch for these special promotions.


  • Volunteers meet new people, gain experience in many areas, develop leadership skills and discover gifts and talents they didn't even know they had. If the students don't know where to look, there are many websites that help people find opportunities in their areas.

Bring attention to issues. 

  • The students can hold a bake sale, candy sale, garage/yard sale, car wash, auction, etc., and donate the proceeds. Information can be made available for those who aren't familiar with the cause.
  • The students can search a bookseller website for a book on a particular issue, order some copies and form a book club. The group can read a chapter a week and get together regularly for discussions.
  • They can go to a make-a-T-shirt store in the mall. They should pick the words carefully and sketch a shirt ahead of time with a picture/photo that says exactly how they feel about an issue.
  • They can stage a silent protest with others, planning how to get the point across without saying a word. Some silent protesters carry signs or wear certain clothing. Some place tape on their mouths or wear gags of certain colors or fabrics.
  • The students can organize a drive to collect a large number of items like canned food, toiletry items or school supplies. This helps many people at once and also makes a strong statement about the need.
  • They can find out how much it costs to run an ad in the school or local paper, raise the money creatively, and then buy ad space to publicize their cause or issue. They should take photos along the way, just in case the local media decide to cover the story.
  • They can devote a whole day to making others aware, tie it in with a national day of observance or holiday, such as Arbor Day or Labor Day, and show a video on the subject.

Be inspired.

  • The students can read a book like Teen Power Politics by Sara Jane Boyers or any of Barbara A. Lewis' books, or check out websites like the Make A Difference Day teen site. The Level 3 "Resources" section has details on these and many more.
  • Many communities have volunteering agencies with special teen programs. Over 14,000 youths ages 6th grade through college serve Manatee County, Fla., through the ManaTEEN Club. The students might enjoy looking at its website

Can't vote?

  • The students can write legislators. The more unique, personalized and honest the letters or emails are the better. They should tell how they feel about issues or concerns and how they're affected personally. These are more likely to be read than those mass-produced.
  • They can talk to friends about the issues, then help them find out more on their own. Tell them how to contact candidates and public officials. (They should check with their families before providing personal information and advise their friends to do the same.)
  • They can support the right and freedom of voting by throwing an Election Day party to watch the returns. The gathering will be more interesting if the guests are from both parties! Everyone will learn a lot from the event. They can find party ideas on the Gatherings website.
  • The students can urge older siblings, family members and friends over 18 to register to vote, in person or online.

Join others in a united effort.

Interest groups - groups having a common interest or cause - have great influence over public officials and the government. Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union are examples of interest groups. Interest groups sometimes coordinate letter-writing, email or phone campaigns. They plan rallies and demonstrations. They spend money on TV and newspaper ads to influence the public and contribute to officials who support their causes. They're organized and can mobilize large numbers of people. They know how to work together to achieve goals.

We can all learn a lot from interest groups. Working together with others can be more effective and make a bigger impact than working individually. The students can share their concerns with friends and those in their neighborhood, school or church. They may find others who are interested in the same issues. Other ideas:

  • Rallies and demonstrations help people with little money make strong, very effective statements. But they should protest peacefully.
  • The students can organize others to boycott a company and its products. It's important to also let the company know of the complaints.
  • They can get behind a candidate by making phone calls, passing out leaflets, writing letters or emails, making or putting up yard signs, marching in parades, etc.

Think creatively.

If a student is skilled in a particular area, like music, art, theater, literature, sports, etc., they might consider those means to get their points across. For instance, they can:

  • Present the facts about an issue in a one-act drama or comedy.
  • Draw a poster and get permission to place it in a prominent public area.
  • Sew an armband. Get extra materials in case others want to make one, too.
  • Design a button. Make and sell them to raise money for a cause.
  • Take a course in videography online or from a local community college, then ask for permission to use the family's video camera and shoot a documentary on a local issue.
  • Submit a literary work (poem, short story) about an issue for publication in the local or school paper.
  • Do a Homerun Derby, Soccer Shootout or other sport fundraiser for a cause. Charge a certain amount to participate. Award prizes to the winners, then donate the rest of the proceeds.
  • Write a rap. Rap music appeals to many people and can be a good means of getting across information. Websites teach how to write rap songs and help with rhyming lyrics.
  • Protest songs from the 60s can be inspiring. The students may enjoy researching the lyrics of the following songs. What historical events surrounded their popularity?

- "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan

- "The Ballard of the Green Berets" by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler

- "I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy

- "War!" by Edwin Starr

- "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield


MP3: Speak Up, Speak Out, Speak Often

The song lyrics can be found here and may be reproduced. After listening, discuss the song using the following questions:

  • "Run for office, you have peaceful tools ..." Discuss the effect negative campaigning - not using tools of peace - might have on voter turnout. (According to a Stanford study, it can keep voters away from the polls. The attacked candidate's supporters are discouraged and citizens may be turned off from the election and the political process in general.)
  • "Democrat, Republican, to fit your desire ..." Why do only two political parties participate in presidential elections? (Other parties do nominate candidates, but they have little chance of winning.) If desired, divide the group and ask each subgroup to research what Democratic, Republican and third parties support.


Activity: Song Parody

"Yankee Doodle" was originally written around 1755 by British surgeon Richard Schuckburgh to ridicule the colonists, but it became a defiant Revolutionary War anthem for the Americans. (For more information about the song itself, see Level 1, Lesson 4.) During the Civil War, the song's lyrics were rewritten again by a Southern Sympathizer, Margaret Weir. The first verse of "Dixie Doodle," which was dedicated to "our dear Soldiers on the Battle Field," featured the following lyrics:

Dixie whipped Old Yankee Doodle

Early in the morning,

So Yankeedom had best look out,

And take a timely warning.

Invite the students to focus on a timely issue by writing a parody of a song. A master of this art is Weird Al Yankovic. Song lyrics are available on this website.

First pick a subject: for example, animals. Then think of a song related to it. For example, "How Much is That Doggy in the Window?" Lastly, rewrite the lyrics to get the point across. For example, if a student objects to laboratory testing of live animals, he or she could write a song about someone buying a dog in a pet store window so it won't be used for animal testing purposes.


Community Concerns​ Community Actions Community Help​

Graffiti on downtown buildings​

  • Remove graffiti and repaint walls.
  • Meet with those responsible to discuss publicly displaying their art in a more acceptable way.​
  • Bring the problem of graffiti to the attention of the city council by taking photos, then putting together a Power Point presentation.
  • Be part of a group that scrubs off and/or paints over graffiti.


Reproducible: Finding Answers to Community Concerns 

This activity helps the students consider their current community problems, what the community can do about them and how young citizens can help.

1. Ask the group of students to think of a problem the community is currently facing. Write it on the line in the first column, Community Concerns.

2. The second column, Community Actions, will show what the community can do to solve this problem. Ask the group to come up with some actions. The students will write these suggestions on a few of the lines.

3. In the third column, the students will explore how they themselves can help the community solve its problem. After brainstorming, ask them to write their ideas under Community Help.

Note: The last two columns won't necessarily have the same information. In the sample chart above, for example, it wouldn't be advisable for students themselves to meet with those responsible for the graffiti because of safety concerns. That would best be handled by city officials and/or law enforcement officers.

Now divide the larger group into smaller ones. In their groups, the students will brainstorm other problems, repeating the process above. Possible community concerns:

  • Environmental: pollution, litter, illegal dumping along highway
  • Safety: playgrounds needing upkeep, dangerous intersections
  • Youth-related: need for a skate park or additional youth programs, need for safety gear
  • Homeless, elderly or poor: need for coats and other winter clothing, meals and home/yard clean-up for the homebound and elderly, food for the jobless and their families.


Activity: The Real Story of New Coke©

The article "The Real Story of New Coke©" describes what can happen when ordinary individuals are determined to make themselves heard. Print copies from the website. Ask the students the read it silently. 

Discussion Questions:

  • What happened on April 23, 1985?

            (Coca-Cola changed its formula.)

  • Why did the company take this action?

            (Its share of soda sales was declining.)

  • Why did the Coca-Cola Company think this would be successful?

            (The new formula was preferred in taste tests.)

  • What actions did consumers take when they heard about the company's decision?

            (Some hoarded "old Coke," thousands called or wrote the company to protest, some wrote songs, some formed protest groups and carried protest signs.)

  • What was the result of the public's reaction?

             (The Coca-Cola Company brought back the original formula 79 days later; on July 11, 1985.)