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State looks to O’Connor House for help teaching Arizona kids civics

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal discuss the iCivics program developed by the O’Connor House. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Kirsten Adams)

As expectations for reading, writing and math have increased, emphasis on civic awareness among Arizona students has dropped, according to the state’s top education official.

“These processes that our founding fathers established created such unbelievable progress that we take it for granted, but we can lose it,” Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said. “We tend to think it always has been so it will always be.”

To address this, the Arizona Department of Education has introduced an Excellence in Civic Engagement program to recognize and support schools teaching students to participate in government.

As part of that program, Huppenthal and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are urging schools to take advantage of Web-based civics education offered through the O’Connor House.

At a news conference last week, the two promoted, which provides free interactive games and teaching materials and meets requirements for the Excellence in Civic Engagement program and for Arizona’s Common Core Standards.

O’Connor said she proposed the website after learning about a drop in social studies and civics courses in schools around the country.

In Arizona, the high school graduation requirement is one-half a credit of government.

“I care about my country, I care about my state and I want young people to learn how (government) works and how they are a part of it,” she said. “We want our country to be a success and they are going to be in charge.”

The iCivics team has developed 18 games allowing students to make the decisions of Supreme Court justices, jury members, politicians, voters and presidential candidates.

O’Connor said the lesson in iCivics is similar to that in democracy: “Participate, or you’re not going to be heard.”

Nancy Haas, an emeritus Arizona State University education professor who helped develop iCivics, said few online games both educate and engage students.

“Today’s learners, the students, embrace technology much more than people my age, and they really get into playing games,” she said. “When you ask them about iCivics … it changes the conversation about what they talk about and what they know about government.”

Alan Gershenfeld, co-founder of ASU’s Center for Games and Impact, said research is beginning to show the medium of games is uniquely set up for learning, forming skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

Members of the first generation of gamers are becoming parents and teachers and are interested in incorporating games in the classroom, he said.

“Games can be an incredible gateway – they can fire your imagination to want to deepen an interest in an area, much the way a movie or book could fire an interest,” Gershenfeld said. “They can also be effective to teach or reinforce a concept or a lesson.”

The Center for Games and Impact, which develops games to solve social and educational challenges, is partnering with iCivics to create player guides for teachers and parents.

John Balentine, director of K-12 social studies with the Arizona Department of Education, said the civic engagement program will provide community-building tools and recognition for civic engagement.

“We want to recognize schools in Arizona that are doing a tremendous job in civic learning,” he said.

The program emphasizes six proven practices: instruction of democracy and law, incorporation of current events, participation in extracurricular activities and service learning programs, simulations of democratic processes and opportunities for school governance.

To be recognized for excellence in civic engagement, Balentine said schools must apply for the program by May 1. Schools earning the distinction will be recognized on Sept. 17 for Constitution Day.

Huppenthal said he hopes students and citizens learn to become advocates for change in their communities.

“President Reagan once said the loss of it all is only one generation away, and this is key for them to understand,” he said. “These programs are our part in passing on to the next generation that this incredible and powerful process is a very good process.”


  1. John Huppenthal…give me a break…here is a guy who is directly and indirectly responsible for massive cuts in an already inadequate educational funding system and he has the gall to talk about civic engagement in the public schools. The Huppenthal cuts are the reason Arizona schools cut back this kind of instruction to begin with and that Arizona students and schools rank at the bottom of the educational pool in the US and around the world.

    The faster we get rid of these activist, Tea Party bureaucrats who advocate for the dismantling of our government and our schools the better of Arizona will be.

  2. The Boy Scouts already are addressing this problem, they have 3, not 1, Eagle rank required merit badges on citizenship, and I am pleased to a counselor for all three in the program. Promote Boy Scouts, a real alternative to more government programs.

  3. Yeah Jeffrey: I love the idea of signing my gay son up for boy scouts… not!

    I think I will pass on that and continue my personal involvement with my sons PUBLIC education. Thanks.

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