Columnist Johanna Neumann: The most interesting thing you didn’t know our kids learn at school

  • Electric assist bicycles at the ValleyBike Share launch event in Northampton, June 28, 2018. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 2/21/2019 10:28:53 AM

This spring, Amherst’s Fort River Elementary School sixth-graders will immerse themselves in exploring the question “How Does Social Change Happen?” as part of their civic literacy curriculum.

The need to educate the next generation on civics has never been greater. A 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. In 2014, only 23 percent of eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam.

Startling scores like these spurred our state Legislature to act last year to require civics education and to promote opportunities for project-based learning in schools. Former state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose championed this bill in part because of his experience witnessing the impact of Fort River’s experiential civics curriculum.

There’s hope that experiential learning in civics can help turn the tide and encourage a civically engaged and knowledgeable next generation.

The recent experiences of 12-year-old Amherst native Zach Tuohy drive home the point. Zach is an avid BMX rider with a strong moral compass. He believed a local bike-share program would reduce air pollution and show people that they can help make the future better.

As part of the civic literacy program, Zach researched who could make a bike-share program in Amherst a reality. He wrote letters to officials. He met directly with Select Board members. And he saw the impact of his engagement firsthand last summer, when he cut the ribbon to officially unveil ValleyBike, the Pioneer Valley’s electric bike-sharing program. Now Zach wants to stay involved.

Most students won’t experience the instant gratification that Zach did, because most societal problems take years or even generations to overcome. In preparation for this spring’s unit at Fort River, students have already read an adapted version of Paul Rogat Loeb’s article “The Real Rosa Parks,” which describes the decade of grassroots organizing by Parks and others leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott.

Students will learn that social movements are built on incremental victories like hitting a recruitment goal or training volunteers who will then pass along their skills.

“Many sixth-graders see real problems in the world, and don’t know how to impact them. This program is designed to help students exercise their voices as citizens and attempt to make real change,” Fort River Principal Diane Chamberlain said. “We want to graduate sixth-graders who have developed a sense of agency for themselves and see themselves as actors in the broader community when they enter middle school.”

The experiential aspects of Amherst’s civics literacy curriculum have evolved over time. According to sixth-grade teacher Tim Austin, students first wrote letters to officials 10 years ago. Six years later, decision-makers from all levels of government — including Chamberlain, Select Board members Alisa Brewer and Andy Steinberg (now both at-large town councilors in Amherst), former state reps. Ellen Story and Goldstein-Rose, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern — regularly stop by the classroom to be lobbied by students.

This year, thanks to a grant from Teaching Tolerance, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, teachers and staff will take the curriculum to the next level, by layering grassroots organizing training.

As part of the organizing curriculum, students will actually experience what it feels like to work to build public support behind their position. They will read copies of Phillip Hoose’s book “It’s Our World, Too!: Young People Who Are Making a Difference: How They Do It — How You Can, Too!,” which shares inspiring stories of young change-makers and offers students practical tools for recruiting, messaging, fundraising and all the other key building blocks of running effective grassroots campaigns.

Stephanie Jo Kent and Lindsey Peterson, two organizers-in-residence, will help the students develop goals, craft strategies and select tactics that will help them win their campaigns. Together with the teachers and staff, Kent and Peterson will guide the students in how to craft a grassroots action plan — and carry it out — together. Each class will also have a $200 budget to kickstart its plans.

Whether the campaigns achieve their short-term goals or contribute to a longer-term movement for change, I think there’s a good chance the post-project survey will show an uptick in the number of students who believe that they have the power to change the world.

The Fort River staff and teachers are giving Amherst’s students the opportunity to shape how decisions in our democracy get made, which is critical knowledge they will need to shape their future.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at


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