NEW YORK - Sixth-grader Charles Simpson is both ambitious and altruistic in his intentions: “I’m trying to run for president to help America get a better future.”
The student at Harlem's Future Leaders Institute (FLI) Charter School is playing the iCivics video game, “Win the White House.”
"Win the White House" is one of more than 20 games that are part of a web-based educational project designed to reinvigorate civics (the study of the rights and duties of citizenship) being taught in America’s schools.
iCivics was the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Dreaming about bringing civics back into the classroom, O'Connor formed a nonprofit civics education group with the help of the MacArthur Foundation.
Beginning in a South Carolina school district in 2010, the iCivics program has now rolled out to more than 6 million students in all 50 states.
“iCivics has been an effective way to reach young people and to give them an enhanced capacity to have critical thinking of their own,” O'Connor said.
Sixty thousand teachers are registered to access the web and print the resources that make up the program. Filament Games, a learning games company in Wisconsin, designed the games for iCivics.
Let the games begin
In addition to “Win the White House,” a full menu of games deals with the rights of individuals, the various branches of power that make up government on all levels, immigration issues, becoming a member of Congress, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and, of course, how the Supreme Court works in a game called “Supreme Decision.”
Students who play the games may choose avatars as their representatives, either Democrat or Republican; white, brown or black; light hair or dark. No matter which issue the player supports, as a lawyer, a candidate or a citizen, the game provides neutral explanations of each decision and response.
The FLI student group from Ariel Bosworth’s sixth-grade social studies class is, for the most part, very much into the game and role-playing.
“It teaches students how to prepare for the real world and how to prepare, such as, if they want to run for president. It prepares them on what you need to learn, what you need to actually do to get yourself to that state that you want to achieve,” 11-year-old Jaylah Williams said.
“It’s giving you information on what you learn and what you have to learn more on," 12-year-old Lashonda Jones told VOA. "And, it’s helping you give the wrong and right answers. If you get it wrong, that’s what you have to work on.”
Asked if the game is hard to play, Lashonda said, “It depends on what you’ve learned already. You have to use your prior knowledge to understand the game.”
It is a building process.
Bosworth teaches both sixth- and eighth-grade social studies.
He’s been at FLI for approximately six years and has a great appreciation for the iCivics games and the teaching aids that supplement the program.
But, in a presidential election year, the games seem even more important.
“This game has been a great help in teaching them [the students] what goes into a campaign, why money is important in a campaign, and how you can’t just run negative ads and can’t just run positive ads,” Bosworth said.
He added that the game also teaches students that they have to compromise sometimes "because it’s what the people want, not necessarily what you want.”
As he supervises the game, Bosworth says, “I think civics is one of the most important elements of my teaching. I think as a social studies teacher I really have the opportunity to show them how their voice matters and why it matters."
Dani McPartlin, an effervescent and well-respected school principal, looks for a “blended” program of technology and teacher-student involvement.
“iCivics brings the real world to our kids," McPartlin said. "It really taps into their curiosity.”
She added the follow-through with the teacher, after playing the game, is key to the learning process.
“An online software program is only as good as the teacher who teaches into it and is able to make that connection with the students. Just putting a student on the computer, and putting them in front of a program isn’t going to have the impact that you want," McPartlin said.
According to iCivics, 50 percent of middle-school social studies teachers and 25 percent of high-school government and history teachers use the software providing, in iCivics' words, "equitable benefits for all students across gender, race and socioeconomic status.”
That, O’Connor said, is her most important legacy.