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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Civic Engagement Civic Engagement — Lesson Plan

The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:

  • Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
  • Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
  • Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
  • Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
  • Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
  • Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.


Since 1973, Bill Mittlefehldt has worked at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota, teaching civics, economics, geography, American history, law, futuristics, psychology, Western civilization, community service, applied problem solving, environmental issues, and quality training. Prior to Anoka, he taught for several years in Riverside, Illinois. Bill Mittlefehldt has made numerous professional presentations at conferences and has published several articles about his service-learning experiences in Anoka. He also has been recognized with many awards, including having been twice nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. In the summer of 2000, Bill Mittlefehldt and his daughter paddled for 65 days from Duluth to New York City, a distance of 1,650 miles, to gather stories of civic and sustainable collaboration. Bill Mittlefehldt holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Lawrence University in Wisconsin, a Master of Arts in religious studies and a Master of Divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary, and a Master of Arts in curriculum and instructional systems from the College of Education at the University of Minnesota.

Anoka High School is the largest high school in the state of Minnesota. Its current enrollment is about 3,300 students and it is still growing. The school was recognized nationally as an Excellence in Action site in 1993.

Anoka is a suburban city of approximately 17,600 people, located at the convergence of the Rum and Mississippi Rivers. The Rum River runs right behind the school. The city is about 18 miles northwest of Minneapolis and 25 miles from St. Paul. Anoka is located in one of the fastest-growing counties in Minnesota with a population of over 270,000. The city was originally a farm community and has maintained its historic downtown main street. Around 1900, Anoka began to be swallowed up by the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

Human Geography is a nine-week course that meets four times a week for 85 minutes per class period. It is a social studies elective for 11th- and 12th-graders and includes students of all ability levels, including students with special needs. The course curriculum has nine major units and an applied civics project, which is the lesson focused upon in this program. The focus of the course is on how people interact with the land, the region, the culture, and the landscape over time. Students use maps extensively to help understand the key components of change in their community.

The nine units are as follows: Geography and Human Geography; Maps, Perspectives, and Technical Tools; Earth and Changing Geographic Environments; Human Origins: Family Tree and Population; Civilization and Urbanization: Designs for Living; Regional Issues and Environmental Stress: Air, Water, Land, Biodiversity, Energy (AWLBE); Regional Issues, Environment, and AWLBE; Sustainable Minnesota: Learning Our Way; and Sustainable U.S.: Learning Our Way.

The Applied Civics Project, in which students identify and work on a community issue related to what they are learning, also has a nine-week sequence: Introduction to Task and Total Community Quality; Select Team, Topic, and Partner; Research Team Topic: Begin Defining Problem; Research Team Topic: Begin Articulating Solutions; Research Team Topic: Improve Problem-Solution; Prepare for Presentation: Rehearse Teamwork for Presenting; Final Class Presentation and Written Report.

Lesson-Specific Standards

This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.

From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government:

What are the distinctive characteristics of American society?
Students will be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on:

  • The importance of volunteerism in American society.
  • The contemporary role of organized groups in American social and political life.

What is American political culture?
Students will be able to explain the importance of shared political and civic beliefs and values to the maintenance of constitutional democracy in an increasingly diverse American society.

How are state and local governments organized and what do they do?
Students will be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the relationships between state and local governments, and citizen access to those governments.

How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?
Students will be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about:

  • How the public agenda is set.
  • The formation and implementation of public policy.

What are the responsibilities of citizens?
Students will be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the personal and civic responsibilities of citizens in American constitutional democracy.

What civic dispositions or traits of private and public character are important to the presentation and improvement of American constitutional democracy?
Students will be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on the importance to American constitutional democracy of dispositions that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs.

How can citizens take part in civic life?
Students will be able to:

  • Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the means that citizens should use to monitor and influence the formation and implementation of public policy.
  • Explain the importance of knowledge to competent and responsible participation in American democracy.

From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994)

  • Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
  • Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Teaching the Lesson: Overview, Goals, and Planning

This program shows a group of 11th- and 12th-grade students at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, engaging in a significant way to improve the quality of their community. All students in Anoka are required to participate in service learning in order to graduate from high school. Students begin with simple teacher-defined activities in the ninth grade and become progressively more involved and self-directed as they progress through their high school years. In this human geography class taught by Bill Mittlefehldt, a 30-year veteran of the classroom, students work in teams to define a project, choose and meet with a community partner who can help educate them about the seriousness of the issue and its current status, conduct further research on the identified problem, and present the problem and their proposed solutions first to their peers, and then to a special session of the Anoka City Council. This lesson satisfies state and national standards while helping deal simultaneously with the needs of today’s teens and today’s communities.

The goal of the human geography course is to help students understand how their region is changing historically, economically, and environmentally, and how these forces are shaping the future. In this applied civics unit, students are challenged to become involved in a project that can have a positive impact on their own communities. A major component of the lesson is a special session of the Anoka City Council, at which student teams present the issues they have researched and the solutions they are proposing. (See also, Teacher Perspectives section on Lesson Goal.)

The lesson follows units of study on a variety of themes in human geography, including where and why people live as they do in the world; human relationships in terms of space, population, and other features of human interaction with the physical features of their community; origins of students in the class; the impact of civilization and urban development on the community in which students live; and the concept that people have a responsibility as citizens to work for the common good, as opposed to being disengaged, disconnected, ungrounded learners who are inclined to be passive consumers rather than active, democratic citizens.

The lesson seen in this program takes place in week six of a nine-week Sequence of Learning Activities. Prior to the lesson seen in the video, students identified particular issues or problems they wished to address in the community and began working in small groups, applying the knowledge and skills gained from the course to identify and describe the concern they wish to address. They’ve also begun researching the identified problem and developing potential solutions, working with community partners on the research and proposed solutions, and identifying the most feasible solution based on their research and understanding of the economic and political realities of the community within which the problem exists.

Role of the Teacher
Bill Mittlefehldt has included this civic action project in his course for a dozen years. Over that period of time, he has developed relationships with many of the professionals in the city who are potential community partners for his students. Thus, they understand their role in the process as well as that of the student. He also has developed a relationship with the City Council (the current mayor is a former student), whose agreement to hear the students’ presentations at a special session is very important to the project because it truly gives students an opportunity to have an impact on important community issues. The attendance at the special session by numerous local dignitaries, the cablecasting of the session, and the newspaper coverage of the session are other areas of community participation that enhance the success of the project. These may not all happen during the first year such a project is undertaken. Teachers contemplating this lesson may find it helpful to form a parent committee to help with this phase of planning.


As the sixth week of this nine-week unit starts, review the ground rules for the presentations that students are preparing (see Sequence of Learning Activities and Applying Geographic Information to Analyze Public Policy Issues) and provide time for students to organize their presentations. (Bill Mittlefehldt provided 45 minutes for this purpose.) Give each team up to 10 minutes to make their presentation and then another three to five minutes for questions and answers. Review the order in which the teams will be making their presentations and the Team Rubric that will be used by their peers to evaluate their presentations. Troubleshoot to make sure all teams are on track and working with an appropriate community partner. Intervene, if necessary, to ensure that teams schedule meetings with their community partners and can get to them, e.g., Bill Mittlefehldt offers to call the manager at a student’s after-school job to ask him to allow the student to miss work on the day of the student’s presentation to the City Council.

For homework, assign students to read about regional issues and environmental stress. The text used in Bill Mittlefehldt’s course is Human Geography: Culture, Society, and Space (Fourth Edition) by H.J. de Blij (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993). For this week, he assigns Chapter 11 and instructs students to look for the impact in their community of environmental stress on Air, Water, Land, Biodiversity, and Energy, which he shortens to the acronym AWLBE.

Activity 1: Discussion of Text Reading

In the class discussion, Bill Mittlefehldt focuses mainly on energy issues and helps students connect the theoretical concept of the relationships among energy, the economy, and the environment to situations in their own communities and lives in which these relationships can have a significant impact. He stresses the need for personal involvement. (See also Connection Points.)

Activity 2: Student Field Research

Student field research can take any number of forms, including searches on the Internet, but in Bill Mittlefehldt’s class, there are some givens (see Applied Civics Project: Total Community Quality). Students must select a community partner, an individual who is professionally involved in some way in the problem they have identified and who is in a position to provide them with information, maps, and other resources that will assist them to understand the problem, evaluate potential solutions, and become directly involved in working toward a solution. Bill Mittlefehldt’s students have checked the progress of legislation, lobbied members of the legislature, increased awareness of an issue by constructing a large sign at a key intersection, written letters to newspapers, and circulated a petition.

Activity 3: Small Group Project Work

This activity gives students a chance to synthesize what they have learned in their research and determine what to include in their presentations. You may find it useful to help students think about a three-part presentation in which they 1) present an opening statement that describes the problem and tells why they became interested in it; 2) desribe the various things they have done to educate themselves and the community about the problem, and 3) end with a clear statement of what action they are seeking from the City Council. Students also will need time to prepare any visual aids they want to use in their presentations. It is also a good time to review the rubric you and members of the community will use to assess their work.

Activity 4: Presentation Rehearsal

This process gives students an opportunity to go through their presentations and receive feedback from their peers before they make the presentation to the City Council. Based on his having conducted this project for a dozen years, Bill Mittlefehldt is in a position to provide sound advice to the student teams, including the fact that the City Council generally wants students to be very clear about what they want the Council to do. Distribute the Team Rubric and instruct the class to complete one sheet for each presentation, stressing that the purpose of the assessment is to provide team members with constructive criticism that can help improve their performance before the City Council. Students can hand these sheets directly to team members.

Activity 5: Presentations to the community

This activity will clearly involve some advance work. In Anoka, the 23-year-old mayor is a former student of Bill Mittlefehldt’s and a firm believer in service learning. Not only has the mayor scheduled a special session of the City Council to hear students’ presentations, Bill Mittlefehldt has arranged for the presentations to be cablecast to the whole community, organized press coverage of the event, and invited community dignitaries to the proceedings. Bill Mittlefehldt serves as the moderator of the forum, introducing the goal of the activity and inviting the audience to participate in the assessment of the presentations using the Assessment Rubric.


What you see in this video program took place over several days but in fact, the complete lesson takes place over the entire nine-week semester. Early in the semester, Bill Mittlefehldt tends to spend the majority of the 85-minute class periods on content presentation and discussion. Typically, students are assigned a chapter to read over the weekend. During the early part of the week, the teacher discusses this material with the students, providing additional information as needed, and focuses the discussion to how the content relates to the students’ lives (see Connection Points) and to current issues in the news. At the end of the week, students take a test based on the material discussed.

As the semester progresses, the class moves toward greater applications of knowledge, understanding, and initiative as students demonstrate their engagement through the development and presentation of their projects. In schools with more traditional class-period lengths, teachers might have to either devote certain days to out-of-class activities or have meetings with community partners take place before or after school hours.


Students in Bill Mittlefehldt’s class are assessed in a number of ways and by a number of different people. Initially, the dress rehearsal of their presentation is assessed by their fellow students using the Team Rubric (PDF). The same rubric is used by the team to assess itself. At the students’ presentation to the Anoka City Council, both council members and members of the audience are asked to complete the Assessment Rubric: Anoka’s Civic Leadership (PDF) and return it to the students or their teacher.

In all cases, four skills are measured:

  • Descriptions: Identifies simple elements of the issue or problem; describes problem accurately.
  • Understanding: Organizes and relates basic elements; sees relationships between vocabulary and variables.
  • Synthesis: works well in all modes; responds and integrates all ideas. Accepts responsibility for improving teamwork, information, and understanding for presentation.
  • Application: Applies data, information, maps, and vocabulary in presentation. Puts commitment into action.

Students also are expected to write a five- to nine-page (typed, double-spaced) summary of their team project (see Applying Geographic Information to Analyze Public Policy Issues). This assignment is not intended to be a research paper but rather a report on what they did and how they did it. Students are told to describe their progress in defining the problem, developing a solution, and presenting the solution to the community. They are directed to include the following considerations:

  • How they got interested in this topic. What issues were related to the topic?
  • What are the social, economic, or environmental costs of the problem?.
  • What did they learn from their community partner?
  • What do they propose for a solution to the problem?
  • What are their specific recommendations?

They also make a final presentation to the class during the last week of the semester.

Assessment Rubric: Anoka’s Civic Leadership (PDF)

Team Rubric (PDF)

Lesson Materials

Below you will find the materials Bill Mittlefehldt used for his lesson on civic engagement. You can download these documents and print them out for your own use.

The course text is Human Geography: Culture, Society, and Space (Fourth Edition) by H.J. de Blij (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993).

In addition, students receive the following handouts:


Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

Center for Civic Education. Project Citizen. A middle school civic education program designed to develop interest in public policymaking as well as the ability to participate competently and responsibly in state and local government. The project is administered by the Center in cooperation with the National Conference of State Legislatures. See

National Council for the Social Studies. Democratization of Schools. Policy Statement approved by the NCSS Board of Directors in 1979. Available on the NCSS Web site in the Databank section (

National Council for the Social Studies. Service-Learning: An Essential Component of Citizenship Education. Policy statement prepared by the NCSS Citizenship Select Subcommittee and approved by the NCSS Board of Directors in May 2000. Available on the NCSS Web site in the Databank section (

Project 540, sponsored by Providence College and the Pew Charitable Trust, gives 100,000 students nationwide the opportunity to talk about issues that matter to them and to turn these conversations into real school and community change. Check out the leadership area for project guides, important updates, and ways to keep in touch. To hear what’s on students’ minds, check out the Project 540 Promotional Video shot by students in participating schools last spring.

Thiesen, Rick. “Student Government: As Real As It Gets,” in Principal Leadership, Vol. 1, No. 2, October 2000, pp. 10-17.

Wade, Rahima, Ed. Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community Through Service Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 2000.

Wade, Rahima C. and David W. Saxe. “Community Service-Learning in the Social Studies: Historical Roots, Empirical Evidence, Critical Issues,” in Theory & Research in Social Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 331-359.

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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
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  • ISBN: ISBN: 1-57680-679-0