Since the beginning of the school year, Julie Seyfert-Lillis’s 4th graders have been studying U.S. government. How does a teacher keep young people engaged with “civics lessons” for months on end?
Well, it helps that Julie is a lawmaker herself, a member of the Town Board of New Paltz, where she focuses on issues of conservation, preservation, and recreation. In designing the unit, Julie approached government as she knows it: a living, breathing thing made up of living, breathing people — a few of whom the students would have the opportunity to meet.
They began with early U.S. government, learning about the founding of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and early leaders. They discussed the rationale for and structure of the three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial), and three levels of government (local, state, and federal).
When it came time to explore how laws are written and passed, Julie drew on her own experiences to make the process concrete. She invited Manna Jo Greene, Ulster County legislator (Marbletown/Rosendale) and Environmental Director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, whose mission is “to preserve and protect the Hudson River,” to explore how activism can influence legislation.
The class watched some of the PBS documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, considering the role of music and art in political change.
During the course of the unit, 4th graders themselves, divided over the best way to manage the cubby area, split into two factions. Julie offered one the option to secede from the class, which they did — briefly. Uncomfortable with the outcome, the group reconciled, building their own authentic connection to material that can seem out of reach.
“The kids had genuine disagreements,” Julie says, “they really thought deeply and supported their sides, they had an ability to talk with each other kindly, [and they] seized the power they had.”
Julie asked each student to run for an office, choosing the position they would seek. They developed their platforms, drawing on earlier research about their state and its pressing issues, then wrote full campaign speeches. This, along with many elements of the unit, crossed disciplines, both by introducing a version of the five-paragraph essay, and employing statistical data.
The class received visits from newly elected Ulster County Sheriff, Juan Figueroa, and activist and actor Tim Guinee of Marbletown, who works with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project to educate citizens about climate change.
Watching her students connect to their own roles and power in community has further deepened Julie’s connection to her work in politics and education, both: “You can’t look at a kid without thinking about what their futures will be like, and here I am, helping them to make it better.”