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About the Institute

February 23, 2021

Your “Hopes for 2021”: Seeing the need for deeper, broader U.S. civics education

In a companion blog post, we highlighted some of the hundreds of responses the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate received when we asked friends and supporters to express their hopes for what will change in America in 2021, and how the new Senate will drive that change.

Along with both specific policy issues and a broader hope for less conflict and polarization and more bi-partisan cooperation, we noted with interest one theme that came up repeatedly: That the bitterness, rancor, and widespread acceptance and promotion of lies about election fraud in 2020 highlight a profound need for improved and expanded civics education in the United States.

“One way the Senate and House could both help improve the public conversation would be reinstalling Civics into school curricula from elementary through (and especially during) high school,” wrote Jeanne Ryder. “More efforts need to happen all over the country to get people registered to vote, with their Civics lessons having taught them how important that is to do.”

“Civics needs to be reintroduced into our public education, from 5th grade through 12th,” agreed Margaret Dragon. “It is critical for our future as a democracy!”

Every day since the Kennedy Institute opened nearly six years ago, civics education has been one of our core missions and part of our commitment to educating the public about the important role of the Senate in our government, encouraging participatory democracy, invigorating civil discourse, and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities.

While COVID-19 has forced us to close our doors to visitors for several months, we’ve pivoted to a robust offering of virtual classes conducted by online video in which students of all ages—from kindergarten through college—can learn about the Senate and legislative process generally. They can engage with major issues of the day as “senators” participating in “Today’s Vote in the Classroom” debates and votes.

Even as we were collecting your “Hopes for 2021” responses, we announced last month that we are offering slots for 10,000 students and their teachers to participate this winter and spring in virtual, interactive classes led by highly-trained Kennedy Institute staff educators. Presenting both Democratic and Republican viewpoints, Institute staff engage students by Zoom in discussion, debate, and simulated floor votes on issues such as voting rights, the Green New Deal, the Electoral College, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the confirmation of new Cabinet members.

We have spaces left for teachers who want to bring their classes —virtually — to the Kennedy Institute for a day, as well as an extensive library of downloadable resources and lesson plans teachers can use for their own civics education classes. We encourage you to take a look at our offerings and sign up!

Recognizing how difficult it can be to talk about tough issues in a politically polarized time, we also offer professional development for teachers to build their skills in leading their students through difficult political conversations that are key to civics education.

The Kennedy Institute also worked to support civic engagement and voting in this past election cycle with our #JustVote campaign to encourage young people to vote and provide resources to help them register and cast their ballot. We are looking forward to continuing to grow #JustVote as a key program in election years to come.

As Michaela Duffy put it in her #HopesFor2021 response, “Stewarding civic engagement is a key part of our elected officials’ jobs.” By helping more students better understand and connect with the work of the Senate and individual senators, the Institute looks to support and amplify senators’ efforts to build that increased civic engagement.

Finally, we particularly appreciated this encouraging note from Karen Stone, who wrote from Southern California: “Please continue to educate young people about our history and civic options. So glad you have a re-creation of the Senate! Let them also know about the work and legacy of Senator Ted Kennedy and help them identify organizations that are working to make a better U.S. and a better world.”