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A Tampa Educator Encourages Students To Become Good Citizens

young girl with her hands in the dirt next to a flower
USF Gus A. Stavros Center
A young girl works in a school garden. An educator at the University of South Florida's Gus A. Stavros Center says teachers should use such hands-on activities to encourage students to become 'good citizens.'

Bickering over the presidential primary and fears of coronavirus may cause some younger people to steer clear of civic engagement.

But one Tampa Bay area educator is offering strategies to help kids get excited about making a difference in the world.

Deborah Kozdras, PhD, is with the University of South Florida's Gus A. Stavros Center. She conducts workshops for K-12 educators in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, Polk and Manatee counties about financial literacy and the global economy.

She said children generally have enthusiasm for engagement, but they need to be shown how to be good citizens.

First, she said, teachers should start with facts and root out biases.

“We are focusing a lot in our curriculum on looking for evidence," Kozdras said. “Teachers are really interested in having students read primary documents and make inferences from the evidence and search for bias.”

She points to the study of behavioral economics for an example of how bias gets in the way of clear choices.

“A lot of decisions are made based on emotions,” Kozdras said. “When you have something that causes emotion in people that makes it much more difficult for them to make decisions.”

Some issues lend themselves to student engagement better than others.

“Kids sometimes have this innate sense of fairness and kindness in them,” she said. “They hate litter, and things like hurting animals and other people.”

Kozdras adds that when problems hit close to home, kids get really incensed. For example, at Brandon High School students were concerned about food that was going to waste at lunch, so they devised a program to create compost bins and use them to raise plants for the school.

Kozdras praises the results.

“They're creating a sustainability, environmental hub in their STEM program.”

When asked what doesn't work to engage young people, Kozdras has one word: “Preaching.”

She said children are more likely to engage when they feel like they have some control over the situation.

“You give them those opportunities to talk about the things that are going on in their world, and what they would want to do about it.” 

Kozdras said kids have many options for how to take action.

“They could create a tweet or a meme or a blog or send it out on their mom's Facebook page,” she said.

For the average parent who may not have the classroom skills, Kozdras offers some suggestions.

“Talk to your children as if they're not children. Talk to them as if they're another voice that you want to talk to.”

As for what to say, Kozdras suggests some ‘magic words’ to help kids engage: “What do you think about this? And why?”

Kozdras also recommends families work together on learning projects.

“You could talk about these things around dinner with your kids,” and then maybe “create a song together, record the song, put it on your Facebook.”

She also recommends that kids tap into their artistic side and draw pictures or put their feelings into words.

“Who doesn't love a little child with their beautiful artwork?” she asked. “They could write letters to government officials about things they like or don't like.”

Because if the effort it put in with children, Kozdras said, it will someday bear fruit.

“You are creating a child who is going to be a lifelong learner; a child who will have strong social emotional learning because they're going to be thinking about the world and the people in it,” she said. “When children have the sense that there's more to life than how they feel in the present moment they get engaged with other things in their lives.

“They have a better sense of wanting to learn more, know more, and do more.”

After more than 40 years learning and helping others understand more about so many aspects of our world and living in it, I still love making connections between national news stories and our community. It's exciting when I can find a thread between a national program or greater premise and what is happening at the local or personal level. This has been true whether I’ve spun the novelty tunes of Raymond Scott or Wilmoth Houdini from a tiny outpost in a Vermont field, or shared the voices of incarcerated women about what it’s like to be behind bars on Mother’s Day with the entire state of New Hampshire.