Students help shape the minds of youth

by Lee Ann Jastillana / Beacon Correspondent • November 9, 2016

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As middle school students from across the country sit down in their classroom, they focus on their Generation Citizen handbooks laid out on the tops of their desks. For the next hour, these teens explore societal issues like police brutality and drug abuse. Guided by Emerson student coaches, they gear up to tackle persistent problems that are close to home.

Generation Citizen is a program that enables college student volunteers, known as “GC Democracy Coaches,” to go into local middle or high schools and teach a semester-long civics course that explores activism and student-led substantive change.

According to Generation Citizen’s 2013 report, the program aims to “strengthen our nation’s democratic future by empowering youth to become engaged and effective citizens.” The program is currently being implemented in the Bay Area, central Texas, Massachusetts, New York City, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.

The first half of the course takes a lecture format, where students learn about how different branches of government work, how a bill becomes a law, and how activism exists within each community. The second half is dedicated to raising awareness of or fundraising for a goal that addresses a specific local issue.

The Generation Citizen program culminates with a “Civics Day” event at the State House, where participating middle and high school students present their projects for local leaders.

Emerson’s Generation Citizen chapter formed in the fall of 2013 with four members. Now, Emerson has the largest Generation Citizen chapter in Boston, with 15 student democracy coaches. The students apply to become coaches online at the beginning of each semester.

Generation Citizen works with local schools in Boston, including Orchard Gardens School, Josiah Quincy School, Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, and Excel High School, and the program replaces the days’ social studies class. The classes range anywhere from eight to 30 students and are guided by two democracy coaches.

Arlene Sanchez, an eighth grade English teacher at Gardner Pilot Academy, has a democracy coach come into her classroom twice a week for an hour. Sanchez says that her students respond better to activities that integrate physical movement than the civics lectures the Generation Citizen program includes.

Though Sanchez believes Generation Citizen has allowed students to see themselves as “change-makers,” she said she would like to have more interactive activities embedded into the Generation Citizen curriculum.

Sanchez says that one of her students who had recently come from Brazil really enjoys the program because he felt he never had a chance to speak out at his former school.

“The program makes him feel like a part of something in a country new to him,” Sanchez said.

Kavita Shah, a senior communication studies major and former Beacon arts editor, leads Emerson’s chapter of Generation Citizen. As executive director, Shah ensures that democracy coaches get support in terms of pedagogy techniques and classroom management.

Shah said that the program works off a model called the “advocacy hourglass” to implement systemic change. Various community issues are boiled down, and students choose one topic to focus on. They then branch out and work to address that issue by using community resources, contacting local decision makers, and partnering with non-profit organizations.

Shah said that Emerson democracy coaches have teamed up with students to combat issues of school bullying, gang violence, and school lunches.

“We lead students to understand that they can be change-makers, even as 13 or 14-year-olds,” Shah said.

Democracy coaches undergo a weekend-long “crash-course” before they teach in classrooms. These student volunteers are given lessons on the Generation Citizen curriculum, alongside lessons on how to run an efficient, engaged, and resourceful classroom. The weekend training aims to make sure that the student coaches feel comfortable with teaching civics material.

Generation Citizen works to prevent students from thinking narrow-mindedly about their impact on society. The program initially targeted under-resourced schools and lower-income areas.

Shah said she believes there is a place for every major in Generation Citizen and recounted instances when Emerson students thrived in the classroom. Writing, literature and publishing majors get to put their skills into writing petitions or persuasive letters, and visual and media arts majors get to utilize their innovative minds.

Christine Vapsva, a freshman communication studies major, said that she was inspired to apply for Generation Citizen this semester because, as a kid, she felt like her impact on community problems would be minimal. Generation Citizen, Vapsva said, is about making kids who may not feel like they have a voice realize that they do.

As a democracy coach, Vapsva works with an eighth grade class at Gardner Pilot Academy. Her class picked child abuse as their focus issue and identified the root cause to be the lack of mental health services for student victims of abuse.

One of Vapsva’s goals as a democracy coach is to have students become more confident and critical, even in a classroom setting.

“At first it was pretty quiet and a lot of the kids who have brilliant ideas and really interesting insights—they didn’t feel comfortable sharing them,” Vapsva said. “It’s been really amazing even after just a few classes to see some of the kids believe that their opinions matter more.”

Applications for Generation Citizen are now available on their website (generationcitizen.org),  and Vapsva encourages any interested Emerson students to apply.

“It’s a big time commitment, but I’d say it’s worth every minute,” Vapsva said.