Testimony by DeNora Getachew, New York Executive Director on Remote Learning: The Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the City’s Schools

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of Generation Citizen (“GC”) at today’s Education Committee hearing. My name is DeNora Getachew, and I am the New York Executive Director at Generation Citizen (“GCNY”). 

Overview of Generation Citizen & Action Civics 

GC is a ten year-old national, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to demystifying democracy for youth by bringing civics education back into the classroom through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. Action Civics is a “student-centered, project-based approach to civics education that develops the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st century democratic practice” (National Action Civics Collaborative). It differs from normative, knowledge-based civic education in the same way that taking any “hands-on,” project-based, or experiential course differs from reading a textbook. Students learn about democratic structures and processes by directly engaging with them, as well as with each other to address one or more issues they care about, which are impacting their community. 

During the last few election cycles, our nation has been powerfully reminded of the potential of youth political participation. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, numerous statewide races have ultimately been decided by voters under the age of 29. While this trend is encouraging, it also underlines the necessity of reinvigorating civics education in schools, particularly programs that include project-based learning and real-world opportunities to engage in democracy, a hallmark of GC’s Action Civics program. 

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, we need systems that will create sustained youth participation. Now more than ever, we cannot rely on current events to motivate reactionary civic engagement, and it is the duty of our schools and communities to prepare youth for the lifetime responsibility of active citizenship. Second, we need to ensure that young people receive an education that enables informed, effective participation, something the New York City Council has championed with tangible government support, serving as a national exemplar in public investment in civics education.

GC’s Action Civics curriculum equips youth with the knowledge and skills needed to make an intentional impact on state and local policy. Finally, GC takes deliberate steps towards closing the Civic Engagement Gap, which is defined as a structural problem that is most pronounced among young people of color and those from low-income communities, predominantly in under resourced schools. Such students are half as likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes. GC focuses on educating youth in underrepresented communities because the organization believes that our American democracy is strongest when everyone participates. As the data shows, under resourced communities in our city, state and country are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. These are the very communities that now more than ever need to understand how democracy works so that they can advocate for resources and policies to improve their lives and that of their communities. 

In GC’s Action Civics course, students debate issues directly affecting them, like affordable housing, improving the environment, gun violence, police brutality, or the impact of COVID19 on their lives, and work as a class to decide on one focus issue to address during the semester. Through GC’s student-led program, students develop strategic action plans to effect systemic change on the identified issue, implement the plan by engaging directly with influencers and decision-makers, and present their findings at Civics Day, a semester-end action project showcase. Students learn valuable academic and life skills, like public speaking, collaboration, critical thinking, and how to work through difference. They also gain firsthand experience engaging in an important lifelong habit, understanding how they can directly inform and influence change in their community through the democratic process.  

Civics Education during COVID19 

As the pandemic began to disrupt education in New York, and nationwide, GC rapidly shifted to remotely supporting teachers with implementing Action Civics through our Democracy Doesn’t Pause initiative. GC uses Google Classroom to enable teachers to access GC’s suite of curricular resources, coordinating video calls for students to interact with virtual guest speakers, as well as providing more frequent, and structured coaching support to help teachers with compiling class-specific research and resources to support student civics projects. 

GC adapted and revamped its civics education resources for educators and caregivers to engage young people and sustain high quality Action Civics education during distance learning. These free, downloadable activities/lesson plans for teachers and caregivers cover topics, such as: 

These resources are also available in Spanish here.

COVID-19 and Project Based Learning

As the nation’s largest school district navigates COVID-19 and adapts to the need for virtual learning, schools and teachers are faced with the challenge of reimagining instruction. GC recommends that the City consider using project based learning (PBL) more frequently as an educational resource. In this disrupted educational environment, PBL is effective because it maximizes learning in an efficient way, especially at a time with reduced instructional hours. 

PBL can be easily adapted to an asynchronous learning environment, which, as we have heard from an overwhelming majority of teachers, is the most effective format for virtual instruction. PBL develops the skills that promote 21st century college and career readiness, such as critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, receiving and using critical feedback, effective communication, applying knowledge and skills to real-world settings, innovation, creativity, and teamwork and collaboration skills, especially in a diverse group.

PBL provides a unique opportunity during the COVID-19 crisis to motivate and empower students by engaging them in an exploration and evaluation of their direct community and equipping them with the knowledge and skills necessary to take action.  GC believes the value of PBL, especially during this disrupted educational moment, is that it allows educators to connect and engage with students to ensure that learning does not feel so isolated, disconnected and difficult. PBL is more important than ever as a tool for students and teachers to engage with each other to take meaningful action to address issues impacting themselves and their community. 

Implementing PBL through GC’s Action Civics programming can have an incredible impact on students and teachers. In this student-centered model of civics education, students grapple with complex, authentic, real-world, community-based problems in a collaborative and action-oriented learning environment. 

This is a federalist moment – perhaps the most vivid in history – and students can clearly see how governmental systems impact their lives firsthand. GC has heard from Action Civics educators that their students want to use their voice and experiences to impact their communities during this challenging time. For example, Kelly Preston a teacher at Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women in Council Member Stephen Levin’s district recently spoke about the relevance of civics education and project based learning during this disrupted educational moment noting that despite the challenges of remote learning, students want to use their voice and be heard. She said the students have thoughts and opinions about everything happening around them from Cuomo’s policies and press conferences to the civil unrest in Michigan. 

This moment requires educators and administrators to think creatively and strategically about how to maximize learning – and project based learning is one of the most effective strategies for targeting a series of learning needs. Teachers need more tools and curriculum for project-based learning in this virtual format of learning, which must be paired with intentional and funded professional development that equips educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to teach these pedagogies. 

Long time Action Civics teacher Cynthia Muldrow from the High School for Public Service in Council Member Mathieu Eugene’s district recently remarked that remote learning has allowed for successful small group facilitation and for students to own more of the work. She has been able to divide the students up to work indepently, and in small groups and join their small group working sessions to watch them effectively collaborate without much facilitation on my part. 

In conclusion, young people are the present and the future of our democracy. And if we can actually give them the knowledge and skills they need to participate, they will make their voices heard — even in this moment, when young people are feeling so disrupted and uncertain, they want to make their voices heard. 

GC believes that all students need an effective Action Civics education in order to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in democracy. We cannot expect youth, especially young people of color and those from economically disadvantaged communities, to participate if we don’t teach them how the full contact sport of democracy works and how they can engage with democracy to make their voice heard. GC looks forward to continuing to partner with the Council to bring civics education to schools citywide during the critical 2020-21 election year to ensure democracy doesn’t pause and that the next generation of New Yorkers develops the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for them to become active and engaged stewards of our democracy for the long-term. Thank you for your consideration of this testimony.  I can be reached at dgetachew@generationcitizen.org or (917) 912-5471 with any questions.