We the People: Project Citizen

The portions of the Project Citizen text that are presented below provide an introduction to the types of activities that will engage students as they participate in the program. Because Project Citizen is unlike programs that are unit and lesson-based, it is difficult to understand the full scope and sequence of the curriculum without viewing it in its entirety. Project Citizen uses a process approach for teaching young people how to monitor and influence public policy in their communities. To reap the greatest benefit from the instructional program the class must complete every step of the process.

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Teacher's Guide

Student Book


In the United States a public policy is an agreed upon way that our federal, state, or local government fulfills its responsibilities, such as protecting the rights of individuals and promoting the welfare of all the people. Some public policies are written into laws by legislatures. Other policies are contained in rules and regulations created by executive branches of government, the branches responsible for carrying out and enforcing laws.

The following are examples of public policies and the governmental agencies responsible for carrying them out.

School districts are responsible for making policies regarding student behavior and discipline. Teachers and school administrators enforce these policies. State legislatures are responsible for making laws that place speed limits on drivers. Police officers enforce these laws. City governments often adopt policies that prohibit people from operating liquor stores near public schools. City inspectors and zoning departments enforce these policies.

When people become aware of problems in their communities, they often want government to develop and carry out policies to deal with those problems. These may be problems for which there are

  • existing policies or laws that do not work well,
  • existing policies or laws that are not being enforced,
  • no policies or laws.

As a citizen of the United States you have a right to say what you think government should do about problems in your community. You also have a right to say what you think about problems in your state, the nation, and about international problems. You have the right to try to influence the decisions people in your government make about all of those problems.

To be able to participate effectively, however, citizens need to know which levels of government and which governmental agencies are responsible for changing, enforcing, or developing a specific public policy. For example, state legislatures may direct agencies to enact policies resulting from federal legislation. Or, local governments may create policies in order to carry out responsibilities assigned to them through laws enacted at the state or federal level. Additionally, as part of the process of developing and implementing policy, governmental agencies must determine if the new policy conflicts with existing legislation or policy.

This project is intended to help you learn how to express your opinions, how to decide which level of government and which agency is most appropriate for dealing with the problem you identify, and how to influence policy decisions at that level of government. It calls for you to work cooperatively with others in your class and, with the help of your teacher and adult volunteers, to accomplish the following tasks:

  1. Identify a problem to study. You will begin by identifying a problem in your community that you think is important and determine which level of government is most directly responsible for dealing with the problem.

  2. Gather information. When your class has decided upon the problem you want to study, you will need to gather and evaluate information about the problem from a variety of sources.

  3. Examine solutions. Next, you will examine public policies that now are being used by your government. You also will examine policies being suggested by other people.

  4. Develop your own public policy. Next, you will develop a public policy that you think your government should adopt.

  5. Develop an action plan. Finally, you will develop a plan of action to show how you might influence the appropriate government or governmental agency to adopt your proposed public policy.

Your class will use the materials you have gathered and written as you accomplish these tasks to develop a class portfolio. The portfolio is an organized collection of information which makes up your class plan related to a public policy issue that you and your class have decided to study. The class portfolio will contain such things as written statements, charts, graphs, photographs, and original art work. These materials will portray

what you have learned about the problem you have selected;

what you have learned about alternative solutions to the problem;

what public policy you have selected or developed to deal with the problem;

the plan of action you have developed to use in attempting to get your government to adopt your policy.

This instructional guide will provide step-by-step instructions for identifying and studying a public policy problem and for developing your class portfolio.

Your class is encouraged to present its portfolio orally to other classes in your school or to community groups. Your class may enter its portfolio in a competition with other classes who have also developed portfolios.

The knowledge you gain in studying a problem in your community is valuable. It should be shared with others for their benefit. Sharing your knowledge and understanding also will benefit you. It will help you develop skills important for participation in a self-governing society. See Step V: Presenting Your Portfoliofor more details on making oral presentations.

Step I: Identifying Public Policy
Problems in Your Community

Purpose of Step I

In this step you will read a short list of problems found in many communities in the United States. These represent problems people often think should be dealt with by their government. After reading the list, you will

  • Tell your class what you already know about these problems or what you have heard in discussions about them.

  • Interview your parents and others in your community to learn and record what they know about these problems and their attitudes towards them.

The purpose of this step is for you to share what you, your classmates, and others already know about problems in your community. This should help your class gain enough information to make an intelligent choice of one specific problem to study.

A. Class Discussion

Sharing what you know about problems in your community

To complete this activity, your entire class should

  1. Read and discuss the problems listed that might be found in your community.

  2. Divide into groups of two to three students. Each group should be assigned to discuss one of the problems. Then, the group should write its answers to the questions about the problem that are listed on the Problem Identification and Analysis Form.

  3. Share the answers of each group with the entire class.

  4. Keep the completed forms of all groups for later use.

Common problems in communities

Communities across the United States have many problems in common. Some problems may be more serious in some communities than in others. People often think that government should be responsible for adopting policies to help solve these problems.

Problems in schools

  1. Many people claim that schools do not teach skills that adequately prepare students to get jobs when they graduate.

  2. Some students use language and other forms of expression that are insulting to certain groups.

  3. Gang activity both in and out of school makes many students afraid for their personal safety.

Problems regarding young people

  1. Young people sometimes work long hours in after-school or weekend jobs. This often makes it difficult for them to do well in school.

  2. Some working parents do not have enough money to pay for adequate care for their children during working hours. As a result, young children may be left home alone, sometimes in dangerous circumstances.

Problems involving community standards

  1. Some stores advertise and sell tobacco and alcohol near schools. Others sell materials that some people might think obscene, near schools.

  2. Some facilities or group homes for elderly persons or persons with disabilities do not meet health or safety standards. Some may treat residents poorly.

Problems involving basic liberties

  1. Large numbers of people do not vote in elections. This is especially true in local elections.

  2. Many people argue that money plays too great a role in the election of government officials.

Problems concerning the environment

  1. Some communities have problems that involve conflicts about the protection of the environment and the protection of jobs.

  2. Some communities do not have recycling programs, or those they have do not work well.

B. Small Group Activity

Work with one or two other students to discuss the problem you have been assigned. Then write your answers to the questions on the Problem Identification and Analysis Form.

If your class wishes to investigate a problem not listed, it may do so.

C. Homework Assignments

Finding out more about problems in your community

The three assignments which follow should help you learn more about problems in your community and the public policies designed to deal with them. Use the forms provided to record the information you gather. Save all the information you collect during these assignments. You may want to include some of it in your class portfolio.

  1. Interview Assignment. Select one problem from the suggestions on above, or a problem your class has identified, to discuss with your family, friends, neighbors, or others. Find out what they know about that problem in your community and how they feel about it. Use the Interview Form to record the information you receive.

  2. Printed Sources Assignment. Look in newspapers and other printed sources of information for evidence of the problem and policies designed to deal with it in your community. Bring materials you find to your class. Share them with your teacher and your classmates. Use the Printed Sources Form to record the printed information you have looked at.

  3. Radio and TV Assignment. Look or listen for news reports on television or radio concerning the problem and related policies. Bring the information to class to share with your teacher and other classmates. Use the Radio/Television Observation Form to record the information you have gathered.

Step III: Gathering Information on the Problem Your Class Will Study

Purpose of Step III

Now that your class has selected a problem, you must decide where to get additional information. You will find that some sources of information will be better than others. For example, if you have selected an environmental problem, you will find certain individuals and groups know more about that problem than others.

A. Class Activity

Identifying sources of information

The following is a list of some sources of information you might explore. Read and discuss the list. Decide which sources to contact. Then divide intoresearch teams.

Each research team should gather information from one of the sources listed or others your class identifies. Forms to use in gathering and recording information are included. Refer to the appendices for examples of sources of information and how to contact them.

Adult volunteers may assist your team in gathering information, but they should not do your work for you. Save all the information you gather for use in the development of the class portfolio.

You might wish to invite people to visit your class to share what they know about the problem you are studying.

Examples of sources of information

  1. LIBRARIES - School, public, college, and university libraries in your community have newspapers and other publications with information about the problem you are researching. Librarians are there to help you find the information you need. Libraries may have coin operated machines for making photocopies of the information you may wish to use in your portfolio.

  2. NEWSPAPER OFFICES - You may wish to contact the offices of newspapers in your community. Newspaper reporters gather information on problems in their communities and what government is doing about them. Newspaper offices and reporters may be able to provide your class with clippings on the problem you are studying. They can also provide photographs for which they may charge a small fee.

  3. PROFESSORS AND SCHOLARS - Professors in local colleges or universities may be experts on the problem you are studying. Your phone book will list the public information offices of nearby colleges and universities. You can call those offices for help in locating scholars who might be helpful. You also could contact high school teachers of government in your community.

  4. LAWYERS OR JUDGES - Most lawyers and judges belong to bar associations that provide some free services to the public. Both lawyers and judges are excellent sources of information on many problems in communities. Ask the principal if there are parents of students at your school who are lawyers. Use a telephone directory to find the bar association nearest you.

  5. COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS AND INTEREST GROUPS - Many groups take an interest in problems found in our communities and the nation. These are called interest groups. Some may be found in your community or area. Use a telephone directory to find their offices.Your class may have identified some interest groups dealing with the problem you are studying when you did the first homework assignment. Your teacher or an adult volunteer can help you call or write to them for information.

  6. LEGISLATIVE OFFICES - Your representatives in the legislative or law-making branches of your local government, state government, and the United States Congress are responsible for identifying problems and suggesting or supporting public policies to deal with them.

    Your member of Congress and your representative in your state legislature each has an office in your community, area, or state. You can find the address and phone numbers of these offices in a telephone book. Each office will have one or more people on its staff responsible for helping you and other citizens gain information about problems in your community, state, or the nation.

    Members of Congress may be able to obtain briefing papers on the problem you are studying from the Congressional Research Service, a part of the Library of Congress.

  7. ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCIES - People working in the administrative agencies of your local, state, and national government may deal with the problem your class has chosen to study. Public information offices can provide information on the problem and what the government is doing about it. For example, your local government may have a health department or a building safety department. Use your phone book to find these or other appropriate offices.

  8. ELECTRONIC INFORMATION NETWORKS - Many of the above sources as well as numerous others are available online through the Internet. If your school does not have access to this service, check with libraries in your area.

B.Guidelines for Obtaining and Documenting Information

Most people working in the places where you can find information are very busy people. It is important to follow the suggestions given below to avoid having the class place too much of a burden on the offices and individuals being asked for information.

  1. Visiting libraries and other places where information can be found. Individually or in small groups you may visit libraries or offices of various public and private groups that have information on the problem. (Use the Information from Publications Documentation Form.)

  2. Calling sources on the phone. No more than one student should be given the assignment of calling any office for information. It is important, therefore, that the student who calls clearly records the information gained during a phone interview. (Use the Information from Letters or Interviews Documentation Form to record the information you receive.)

  3. Making appointments and interviewing people. One student should call to arrange for an appointment. A small group may visit an office or person to conduct a personal interview. (Use the Information from Letters or Interviews Documentation Form to record the information you receive.)

  4. Writing and requesting information. One or more students may write a letter requesting information from each office or person. Including a self-addressed stamped envelope may help you get a response. (Use appropriate Documentation Forms to record the information you receive.)

C. Homework Assignment

Researching the problem in your community

After deciding what sources of information to use, your class should be divided into research teams. Each team should be responsible for gathering information from a different source.

If you are the person in your research team who is assigned to contact one of the sources of information described above, begin by introducing yourself. Then inform the person of your purpose or why you are contacting him or her. Use the following guidelines for introducing yourself by letter or in person. (Use the Information from Letters or Interviews Documentation Form to record the answers you receive.)

Step V: Presenting Your Portfolio

Purpose of Step V

When your class portfolio is completed, you can present your project before an audience. Your presentation can be made to a three- or four-person panel representing your school and community. These panel members will "judge" your presentation based on the same criteria you used to develop your portfolio. This activity will give you valuable experience in presenting important ideas to others and convincing them of your position.

There are four basic goals of the presentation:

  1. To inform an audience of the importance of the problem identified in your community.

  2. To explain and evaluate alternative polices so that an audience can understand the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  3. To discuss your class's choice as the best policy to deal with the problem and make the case for that policy. To make and support your class's view that the proposed policy does not violate your federal and state constitutions.

  4. To demonstrate how your class could develop support for its policy in your community, as well as in the legislative and executive branches of the appropriate level of government.

Each of these goals matches the four groups that had responsibility for your portfolio display. During the portfolio presentation, each group will be responsible for the appropriate goal using the following guidelines.

A. Opening Oral Presentation

The first four minutes will be the opening presentation during which the group will present orally the most significant information from its part of the portfolio.

  1. It should be based on the portfolio display and documentation section, but should not be a word for word reading from the display.

  2. Use graphics from the portfolio to help you explain or emphasize a point.

  3. Only materials included in your portfolio may be used during the oral presentation. You may not introduce additional materials such as videotapes, slides, computer demonstrations, etc.

B. Follow-up Questions

The next six minutes will be the follow-up question period during which a panel of judges will ask the group about its portfolio presentation. During this period the judges might ask you to

  1. explain further or clarify points you have made.

  2. give examples of specific points you have made.

  3. defend some of your statements or positions.

  4. answer questions about what you learned from your experience. What problems did you have? What were the most important things you learned as you studied this community problem?

C. Preparation

You might ask parents or other community members experienced in making public presentations to coach your group. People involved in local government or in civic and community organizations can be very helpful.

Practice your oral presentation prior to giving it to an adult audience. Try it out in front of your classmates or students from other classes.

D. Guidelines

As many members of each group as possible should participate in the opening presentation and follow-up question period. The oral presentation should not be dominated by one or two students. It should demonstrate the cooperative learning that went into the portfolio preparation.

Do not read to the judges from your portfolio display. Select the most important information and arguments and present them in a conversational style.

You may use notes during the opening presentation but not during the follow-up question period.

If you do not use the full four minutes allowed for the opening presentation, the unused time will be added to the follow-up question period. Each group is entitled to ten minutes before the judges.

You may use only those materials included in your groups portfolio during your oral presentation.

E. Evaluation Criteria

If your class decides to enter a competition in which there is an oral presentation, your presentation will be scored by a panel of judges. Your teacher will explain the criteria to be used in judging those presentations.


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