Civic Action: Then and Now
This activity can be used in a social studies, history, civics or citizenship class. It can also be used to launch a student-led civic action or service learning project.
In this activity, students think about something they would like to change in their school or community. Then they examine one or two historical case studies that resulted in real change: women getting the right to vote in Manitoba, and the inclusion of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada’s Constitution. Both were the result of citizens taking action.
This activity asks students to examine the different types of actions that citizens took in these historical case studies to help students understand how political change happens. They can then apply that understanding as a model for their own civic action on a present-day issue that they care about.
Actions taken by citizens have resulted in change. Citizens can act in a number of ways both inside and outside of the formal political process.
How can you take action to make a difference?
Competencies and skills
- Students will think critically in determining relationships between cause and effect to understand historical events.
- Students will manage information by sorting and categorizing relevant historical facts.
- Students may work collaboratively and use problem-solving skills to explore the citizenship issues in each of the case studies, or they may work independently.
- Students will communicate their ideas in small-group discussions to clarify understanding. They will express their conclusions in whole-class discussions and personal reflection to become self-aware of any changes in their thinking since the start of the activity.
The following materials are provided in HTML for accessibility purposes. For the hands-on classroom experience, download the printable version (PDF).
- Activity board
- Case Study 1: Women and the Vote
- Case Study2: Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada’s Constitution
- Blank cards: Create your own activity cards
- Thinking guide
- Graphic organizer: Ways to Take Civic Action
- Optional assessment rubric
Before beginning the lesson, decide whether your class will do one or both case studies. If you would like students to complete both case studies, you will probably need more than one class period.
Ask students to write quietly for two minutes, answering these questions on their thinking guide:
- What is one thing you would like to change in your school, community or society?
- What could you do to change it?
They then find a partner and share their ideas.
Alternatively, teachers can collect and display student responses using sticky notes or a collaborative document (such as Google Docs, Google Forms, Padlet or a polling app). Or simply collect the handouts to analyze later.
Explain that students will now analyze a historical case study in civic action to see reallife examples of people working for lasting change.
Begin by showing the video related to the case study you are exploring. Ask students to observe the kinds of civic actions citizens are taking in the video. After watching the video, have a brief class discussion identifying some of the actions that students noticed.
Part 1: Getting started
Place students in small groups. Distribute a set of case study cards and an activity board to each small group.
Before beginning the activity, take about five minutes to go through the definitions on the activity board.
Explain that the activity board outlines four ways to take civic action. This model demonstrates that any person can take action to make a difference on something that matters to them, but for real change to happen, actions must be taken in all quadrants:
Participating as an individual
Personal actions like volunteering, signing a petition, attending a meeting or expressing your opinion.
Working together as a group
Collective actions such as joining or forming a group with like-minded people to plan and organize activities.
Building public support
Outreach actions like holding a rally or starting a communications campaign to convince others to support your cause.
Working through the political system
Actions like contacting a politician or presenting a petition to bring an issue to elected officials and others involved in politics and government.
Then explain the categories in more detail by talking through the example of a petition, which can go through all four categories:
- A person who signs a petition is participating as an individual
- When many people decide to create and circulate a petition, that is working together as a group.
- When a petition draws widespread attention to an issue, that is building public support.
- When a petition is presented to an elected official, that is working through the political system.
You can also model the activity by placing one card on each quadrant.
Part 2: Placing the cards
Working together, students will analyze the case study cards and place them in the appropriate quadrants on the activity board.
Give students time to discuss and come to a consensus on where to place the remaining cards.
Note: Each case study card demonstrates one historical action that, when combined with all the other actions, resulted in change. There is no single set of correct answers for where to place the cards, as many cards could fit comfortably in more than one category. The discussions and reasoning are more important than the answers.
Here are some options to build broader consensus within the class:
- Pair up like groups (such as two groups that did the same case study) so students can continue to build consensus across groups.
- Pair up unlike groups (such as two groups that did different case studies). Ask: What similarities and differences do you notice in the two groups? Have groups share and record their observations on the board or on chart paper.
Discuss in small groups or as a whole class the following questions (from the thinking guide):
- What could happen if you removed one of the quadrants?
- Would the events of the case study be similar or different today?
Then invite students to reflect individually on the following questions:
- Consider the action you wrote down at the start of this activity. What kind of civic action is it? How has your thinking changed since the beginning?
- Consider the thing you would like to change. What would it look like if you changed it for the better? What results would you like to see?
- What else could you do to take action on the thing you would like to change? Create a civic action plan using the activity board as a template.
Have students share their reflections in pairs or small groups. (Teachers can facilitate the forming of civic action groups.) Students then work together to brainstorm ways they could take action to get the civic results they would like to see, using the activity board as a template.
Optional extension activity
After they have completed the case study activity, invite students to work together (as a whole class or in small groups) to plan and take action on a civic issue that matters to the group. You can assign many of the roles based on the Ways to Take Civic Action template. For example, students can research existing groups working on this issue (working together as a group), work on media relations (building public support) or draft emails to members of Parliament or school trustees (working through the political system).
This activity can also be used in a history class to examine the actions of individuals in the past, and then to launch an exploration or investigation using the following historical thinking concepts:
- Change and continuity: What has changed since then? What has remained the same?
- Cause and consequence: What were the most important factors in creating this historical change? What are the consequences of that change, in the short term and in the long term? Were there any unintended consequences?
- Ethical dimension: What is my responsibility, now that I understand this historical event?
- It is good practice and time well spent for engagement to establish norms or cocreate success criteria for a civic discussion. You may wish to start by referring to guidelines in your provincial/territorial curricula.
- This activity offers you an opportunity to give students feedback on their discussion skills, or to have them reflect on the norms and how they are progressing.
- Some students may struggle to find a civic action that they care about personally. You may need to spend more time with them in personal reflection, conversation or prompting to help them to connect their own passions and sense of justice to a civic action.
- Discussion protocols are a helpful way to engage all students and provide support for academic conversations. Think-Pair-Share is used in this activity as a simple talk protocol. Students think and write individually, share with a partner, then share in a small group or with the whole class. This gives time for thinking, builds confidence, and ensures that all students have the opportunity to have their voice heard.