In 2010, only 24 percent of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics, fewer than ever before. In the same year, only 10 percent of Americans contacted a public official and the US ranks 139th in voter participation out of the world's 172 democracies.
As documentary filmmakers, we have put much thought into how to motivate young people to become fully engaged citizens. We believe that the most effective method is to make students passionate about their civic education by using 21st Century technology and explore issues that are both important and accessible to students.
We have created the Civic Life Project as a unique educational initiative that challenges students to learn about civics and democracy in an innovative and exciting way. The program starts in the classroom, where students study the structure of our democracy, and ends in the theater, where students showcase a short documentary of their own creation about a civic issue in their community. Our goal is to encourage young people to become active citizens, to collaborate, deliberate, and work to improve their communities and their democracy, and we hope that you will be willing to help.
The CLP team has an extensive background in documentary film production and is working with educational experts to develop a curriculum that teaches civic participation through the camera lens. Students embark on the first stage of their project by seeking out local civic issues that spark their curiosity. Following a benchmarked curriculum, they initiate research, conduct interviews, and investigate news reports to uncover all sides of a story. With all the facts gathered, they begin producing an eight to twelve minute video for viewing by their peers, teachers, and all project participants. Over the course of their project, students benefit from peer-to-peer interaction through intrastate student workshops and multiple on-site work sessions with CLP staff, including directors, cinematographers, and journalists.
CLP has already begun achieving many of its objectives. Since its beginning at a small high school in northwest Connecticut, CLP has expanded to include seven highly diverse schools across the state. Teachers working with CLP are excited to have the opportunity to “turn the classroom into a laboratory for civics,” and students have found a new “obligation to speak up.” Now our goal is to develop distance learning and web-based resources so that we can expand the project to the rest of Connecticut and, eventually, the nation. This fall we will be conducting a pilot program for college students at Lawrence University in Appleton (WI).
An educated and critical electorate is essential to maintaining the health of our democracy. With such an alarmingly low level of civic literacy, it is not hyperbole to suggest that time is of the essence.