Today’s students need more than strong academic skills
to be successful in the 21st century. To shape their future
and the future of our global society, they also need strong
leadership skills and a sense of social responsibility.
The Center for Civic Education and Leadership at Arizona
State University launched a week-long Summer Civic
Engagement and Leadership Camp in 2010 to give young
adolescents the opportunity to discover and develop their
leadership skills, learn about the local civic process, and be a
part of change in their local communities.
Students who were incoming fourth through eighth
graders from public district schools, charter schools, and
faith-based private schools located throughout the Phoenix
metropolitan area attended the leadership camp. They
participated in real-life, simulated, and reflective experiences
centered on their involvement in the civic process.
Deep learning experiences were concrete and
engaging and addressed contemporary issues in Arizona
neighborhoods. The goal was to have learners engage in the
civic process, not just study it.
It’s MYTown and More
One of the most popular learning experiences was MYTown,
an interactive learning simulation that got the students
excited about participating in their local communities.
First, students worked in small groups to design their own
virtual town. Then they worked collaboratively to modify a
proposed plan to enhance community centers and parks
To engage the students in the workings of the local court
system, we launched the entire camp into a mock trial that
revolved around the ubiquitous Harry Potter.
Harry was put on trial for illegally using magic outside
of Hogwarts to protect himself and others. Campers
role-played the various characters and decided the fate
of Harry. Then, we invited the presiding judge from the
Phoenix Municipal Court to talk with our campers about
actual cases brought before the local court and how the
issues in the court represented common concerns in
To continue the deep learning experience that gave
students a new understanding of what it means to be a
part of “we the people,” we carved out reflective, individual
time at the end of each day for learners to write about their
In the Community
We also brought students into the community. After a
tour of the state capitol museum, we visited the legislative
offices of Arizona representatives and their aides. There,
campers learned about the daily work and responsibilities
of legislative staffers and asked government officials
questions about community issues that were important
Representative Eric Meyer escorted our students onto
the Arizona House floor where they were able to sit in
the representatives’ chairs and try out the microphones.
Campers began to make connections between their own
desires for society (will of the people) and the role of the
local representative in serving constituents.
The highlight of the field trip was an extended visit to the
Phoenix Municipal Court. Campers visited actual courtrooms
where they watched the local judicial process unfold. A
thoughtful judge even insisted that the attorneys in the
court explain everything they were doing throughout the
An actual court case (DUI) became a concrete and
teachable moment about the importance of following the
rule of law.
Civics in Action
As students continued to build their civic engagement skills,
we invited them to create their own town hall discussion.
This culminating experience was not just the hallmark of the
camp, but also a powerful assessment and demonstration of
what the young campers had learned.
The first three days of the camp provided opportunities
for research and discussion among our wide-age group of
campers. By Wednesday afternoon, the group had decided
on a firm topic for their town hall—placing the DARE
program in every school— and spent the next two days
tending to the final touches.
On the final day of camp, each camper took on a
specific role, such as greeter, presenter, facilitator, and
closer, as they conducted a one-hour town hall discussion
attended by parents, university faculty members, and State
Representative Krysten Sinema of Arizona, who participated
by asking and answering questions.
After the town hall, parents and guests praised the
accomplishments of the campers and the overall success of
the inaugural civic engagement camp. One parent shared,
“I was looking for something to keep my daughter busy this
week while I was working. I had no idea she was going to
grow so much.”
Reflecting on Success
The camp’s success rested with the creative, supportive,
and hard-working counselors who spent an entire week with
the young adolescents. However, the doors to this unique
experience would never have opened were it not for our
Several months prior to the camp’s debut, we applied
for a small grant from the Arizona Foundation for Legal
Services and Education (AFLSE) to write curriculum for the
civic engagement camp. Because the camp tuition of $225
was not affordable for everyone, we sought donations from
small businesses, thereby creating a unique partnership with
Arizona State University’s Office of University Partnerships.
As a result, almost half of the students who otherwise could
not have afforded to participate, were able to take part in
this unique program.
An evaluation completed six weeks after the camp
revealed that 100% of parents noticed their children were
more likely to follow local issues in the media and to talk
about civics. We hope the skills and passion these young
citizens demonstrated will be honed during their upcoming
school years and beyond.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2012
Sherman Elliott is the chair of secondary education at Grand Canyon University in Arizona. He is former director of the Center for Civic Education at Arizona State University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org