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Bar News - September 20, 2017

Interest in Civics Education Rising Across NH


US District Court Judge Landya McCafferty teaches civics by engaging students in mock trials at the federal court in Concord.

It was an unlikely chart-topper. On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2017, New Hampshire Public Radio launched a podcast called “Civics 101.” The locally produced program quickly drew a national audience, becoming the sixth-most downloaded podcast on iTunes in its first two weeks. Since then, the episodes have been downloaded 750,000 times.

This was just one of the recent signals of rising interest in civics education in New Hampshire as well as nationally. Several statewide organizations, including the NH Bar Association and the NH Bar Foundation, are especially focused on improving civics instruction in schools. The hope is that more civics and social studies instruction will better prepare students for participation as citizens.

In recent years, educators and some policymakers have lamented the decline in instructional time devoted to civics, social studies and history. Last year, the NH Legislature passed SB 57, which mandates a “competency assessment” for civics as a graduation requirement, joining 16 states that have made civics education a graduation requirement.

Five years ago, retired US Supreme Court Justice David Souter sounded the alarm at a rare public appearance in Concord, saying that he thought the most significant problem in American public life was “pervasive civic ignorance” of our government and constitution.

Since then, several organizations in New Hampshire have developed new initiatives to address these deficits, and they say momentum is building. Here are a few examples:

  • The overnight success of NH Public Radio’s Civics 101 podcast snagged the station a national grant to hire a curriculum expert to convert the podcast for school use.
  • The NH Institute for Civics Education has been steadily building its schedule of teacher trainings and public events, with a focus on training teachers in the lower grades, providing them with “opportunities to develop their skills and inspire [students] to be participating citizens,” says Susan Leahy, chair and founder of the NHICE. For more information about NHICE efforts and upcoming events, visit
  • This summer, the New Hampshire Historical Society launched a campaign to raise $1.2 million to bolster civics teaching in New Hampshire schools. The fundraising initiative is called “The Democracy Project: Renewing History and Civics in New Hampshire Schools.” The Historical Society hopes to update civics and history curricula and materials, and encourage state and local officials to allot more teaching time to these subjects.

In addition, a federal judge in New Hampshire has made her chambers into a civics education engine. Starting last year, US District Court Judge Landya McCafferty, a former history teacher at St. Paul’s School, began inviting middle school students to the courthouse for full-day programs that coincided with monthly swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens.

“The key to civics education is student involvement,” said McCafferty. “The day-long event at the court, which begins with this ceremony, provides the students with an experience through which they learn about many of the constitutional rights we share with the new citizens. They will learn that we did not always have these rights – rights that many of us take for granted.”

In addition to a summer teacher training, McCafferty organized a Sept. 22 educational event at the NH State House. More than 250 middle-schoolers from Manchester public schools were invited to Concord for a program that will include participants from all three branches of state government as well as the federal court.

Be Part of the Solution

The NH Bar Association’s Law Related Education programs have for many years given New Hampshire attorneys myriad opportunities to engage with students in classrooms across the state, fostering a solid foundation of knowledge in history, law and civics.

Many lawyers describe rewarding experiences working with schools and youth organizations through the following LRE programs:

We the People: the Citizen and the Constitution. Students become immersed in the founding principles of the Constitution and think about how they apply to our lives today. Several elementary, middle and high school teachers use the program materials in lesson plans. High schools have the option of opparticipating in district, state and national competitions styled as mock congressional hearings. Volunteers are needed to serve as judges and timekeepers at the district hearings Dec. 8 and state finals Jan. 5, which are usually held at the Legislative Office Building in Concord.

A Lawyer and Judge in Every School. As its name suggests, this program strives to bring a lawyer or judge into every school in New Hampshire on or around Law Day, which is observed May 4. Lawyers can set up their own visits with schools or work with the LRE staff to be matched with a school. Lesson plans for all grade levels are available from the Bar’s website.

Civics in Action Goes Viral. Based on the citizenship test that all immigrants seeking naturalization must pass, this program operates year-round to engage middle and high school students in discussions about the Constitution and government structure.

When Love Hurts. Attorneys can at any time present this pre-packaged classroom lesson that explores the warning signs and the legal and emotional consequences of dating violence.

For more information or to volunteer, contact LRE Coordinator Robin E. Knippers or visit the LRE web pages.

NH Bar Programs

For more than three decades, the NH Bar Association has organized and sponsored programming designed to increase civics knowledge among New Hampshire students, with the help of volunteer attorneys.

The Bar’s longest-running program, “A Lawyer and Judge in Every School,” pairs lawyers with teachers for classroom visits on a variety of topics related to law and government. Robin Knippers, who coordinates educational outreach programs for the NH Bar Association, says many attorneys have developed relationships with certain schools to which they return every year. Some of these attorneys opt to present “When Love Hurts,” a prepared lesson plan that explores state laws and legal processes surrounding teen dating violence. NHBA past-president Jaye Rancourt spearheaded the development of “When Love Hurts” in 2013.

Each fall, the NH Bar coordinates and sponsors “We the People: the Citizen and the Constitution,” an in-depth curriculum developed by the national Center for Civic Education. At the culminating events in Concord, high school teams demonstrate their knowledge on a range of topics related to constitutional law and government structure. Their group presentations simulate congressional hearings and are made before panels of volunteer attorneys who act as judges. Those volunteers often find themselves marveling at the students’ deep knowledge and well-formed opinions on timely constitutional issues.

Civics in Action Goes Viral, based on the citizenship test that all immigrants seeking naturalization must pass, enables lawyers to engage middle and high school students in discussions about provisions of the US Constitution and how they apply to citizens and modern life.

Earlier this year, Wilbur Glahn, a Manchester attorney and former Concord School Board member, began working with Milford High School social studies teacher David Alcox to develop other model lesson plans lawyers can use to help meet the curriculum needs of teachers.

Last fall, the NH Bar Foundation’s newly rejuvenated Foundation Fellows program made civics education a priority for volunteer activity. Concord attorney Jack Crisp chairs a Fellows committee that is assessing existing civics education initiatives to determine whether there are other areas where the legal community can help.

Glahn and Crisp believe lawyers in New Hampshire could help convert this blossoming interest in civics education into permanent gains by encouraging yearlong partnerships that enable teachers to tap lawyers’ expertise and experiences, and advance their students’ understanding of law, government, and individual rights.

William Dunlap of the NH Historical Society says a more sustained effort is needed. It has been hard for civics and history to get enough attention in the classroom due to increased emphasis on reading and language arts, career preparation, and on the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM). “Schools are eliminating or dramatically limiting social studies and history,” Dunlap says. “We must designate time in our schools for history and civics as we have done for math and English.”

Dan Wise is a communications and public outreach consultant for the NH Bar Foundation and a member of the board of the NH Institute for Civics Education.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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