I spent the last two days at the Arab Civitas conference in a hotel in Amman. The conference highlighted the projects of middle- and high-school students in a program known as Project Citizen. It’s an American civics education program that teaches children about their government, its policies, and how to become active citizens. The program and its books have been translated into Arabic and are now used in classrooms in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, and Yemen. Two pilot programs are now taking off in Saudi Arabia and in Algeria. Children and/or teachers and program directors from these countries participated in the conference by showcasing the projects they worked on.
The main structure of the program works like this: 1) students identify a problem in their school, community, country; 2) they research the problem in newspapers, books, the Internet, and in the laws of their country; 3) they examine alternative policy solutions; 4) they propose a new public policy; 5) they develop a plan of action. The students came up with such a range of wonderful projects. One group from Jordan, the one pictured above, took on the issue of tribalism in elections and suggested that political parties, and more importantly, a person’s qualifications and ideas for making Jordan a better country, should be the alternative plan. They saw this as a way to include more women in the political process as well. Another Jordanian group examined how to make Jordan TV a channel that more Jordanian people watch. They had all kinds of suggestions from increasing a Jordan TV tax to privatizing 49% of the station. The Lebanese delegation explored the issue of school backpacks, which they think are creating spinal injuries in students. They proposed creating lockers in their schools, creating CDs of textbooks, or designing a backpack that would be ergonomically correct. The Palestinian students examined environmental health hazards in the Ramallah government hospital. They worked with various Palestinian ministers to create a plan to both clean up the hospital and to create a more healthy environment to save the lives of the people using this hospital. Many of the students, in fact, worked with or communicated with their government officials to try to implement their plans and many of them have been successful in this endeavor. Others, like those who focused on environmental issues, like the students from Algeria, took it upon themselves to clean up their environment, plant trees, etc. The team from Egypt, who were trying to solve the problem of school dropouts, developed a program they called the Young Teacher program in which students find these dropouts, tutor them, and bring them back into the educational system.
When the students are done with their research, they have to create a four panel poster board to present their findings, plus they have to keep an elaborate portfolio documenting all of their research. I’ve never seen such impressive student researchers. The work these students did was absolutely incredible. Some showed us films they made of their work. Others made very clever Powerpoint presentations. Still others developed little skits to illustrate their points. All of these students obviously knew their material very well and didn’t need to look at notes when describing their projects to us. After they presented their projects, a team of teachers and project coordinators asked them questions, in a way that resembled the structure of academic conferences. Finally, the audience asked questions and made comments. One of the most delightful aspects of the conference was the way the students interacted with each other—asking questions, making excellent suggestions for future work, etc. Equally wonderful was watching the students making friends with one another rather than staying with their country’s delegation.
It’s interesting to see this project in action in an Arab context. I’ve read through all of the materials, some of which seem very American to me, but all of the students apply the concepts to their own national, political, cultural contexts in a way that makes sense for each program.
One of the most interesting things I learned is that Boise, Idaho will be partnering with Jordan on this civic education project, the first state in the U.S. to do this. I met the man from Idaho, who also used to teach at Boise State University, and he is leading this program in their state Board of Education. Small, small world.