Each year, the Jack Miller Center’s Excellence in Civic Education Award recognizes one K-12 teacher and one professor for extraordinary teaching and student engagement.
The results of teaching efforts can be difficult to quantify, so we look for actual examples of teachers engaging in the important work of engaging, educating, and inspiring students while fostering civil discourse and critical thinking.
JMC believes that excellent teaching is critically important for America’s future. Our self-governing nation is dependent upon an informed and engaged citizenry if we are to preserve our constitutional democracy.
But knowledge of America’s institutional structures is only the beginning of civic learning. We believe every generation of citizens needs to be introduced to the history and ideas behind the American founding and how to make connections to contemporary issues, and it is extraordinary teaching that makes the principles behind our founding live issues for students today.
In order to identify and recognize these great teachers, we asked educators to submit their stories of how they have engaged students in learning about America and their roles as citizens.
The 2022 K-12 civic education award was given to Adam DeSimone, an 8th grade civics teacher at Saint Agnes School in Arlington, Massachusetts. Mr. DeSimone inspires his students to think about government’s place in their own lives and how they can affect and improve society through civic participation.
His curriculum combines historical knowledge with modern-day issues, requiring “students to be involved in the real world but also command a rigorous understanding of American history and political thought.” In-class simulations “create a lot of energy and excitement, but also opportunities to demonstrate… learning in original ways.”
Mr. DeSimone aims to show students that government is not some vague concept or structure that stands over them, but is actually something that they are a meaningful part of as citizens: “I want them to see that government is not a distant entity that sits above them, but is instead supposed to respond to the will of the people and exists to protect their natural rights.”
Throughout the school year, Mr. DeSimone’s students study the workings of the Constitution and the Founders’ intentions in establishing safeguards for the people. At the same time, he focuses the class on present-day governance and issues – “…by the end of the year, it’s hard not to be optimistic when another class of adolescents leaves ready to do the work necessary to sustain the republic.”
The 2022 college civics award was given to two accomplished educators: Jacob Wolf, an Assistant Professor of Government and Honors at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Deborah O’Malley, recently the Associate Director of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Center at Assumption University and now the new Associate Director of the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government at the University of Notre Dame. Both are JMC Fellows who have participated in the Center’s summer institutes.
This past spring, Dr. Jacob Wolf developed and taught a course on “The Exceptional Country” which helped students “identify which ideals and institutions make America unique and uniquely admirable.” Open to students from all disciplines, the course focused on American political thought with readings from The Federalist Papers and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America while also creatively including studies of American art and literature. These additions from other disciplines enhanced students’ understanding and piqued the interest of non-government majors.
Dr. Wolf encourages his students to view politics as a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and informed participation in civic life. Summarizing her class experience, one student noted that she now has “a fierce appreciation for the virtues of America while maintaining a wariness of contemporary weaknesses…Because of this class, I know how important my civic duties are to the good of the American people, and my personal community.”
During her time at the Moynihan Center, Dr. O’Malley led an ongoing JMC-supported Model Senate with Dr. Greg Weiner in which students debate important contemporary topics while putting into practice the historical ideas they are learning about in class. Beyond reading the primary texts of American political thought, students engaged with these important concepts as statesmen by applying them in debate. Arguing through some of the biggest constitutional questions our nation has faced, the students learned “the complexities and challenges of politics and the necessity of prudence to its practice.”
At the end of the school year, the group was given the opportunity to debate the Electoral College:
“These young men and women were engaging in the noble work of politics: learning from the insights of the past, participating in civil yet rigorous debate with their fellow citizens, and allowing themselves to be persuaded that the good of the republic might be best supported by institutions that do not always serve their immediate desires.”
All three award winners employed innovative tactics in inspiring their students to think about founding principles, American political thought, and their own place as citizens. In an increasingly cynical world, Mr. DeSimone enthuses his 8th graders by showing them why our government matters and how it personally affects each one of them. Dr. Wolf inspires appreciation for America’s virtues and political society by showcasing not just classic political texts, but also the American art and literature influenced by our unique society. Dr. O’Malley succeeds by giving students the opportunity to debate important contemporary topics while putting into practice the historical ideas they are learning about in class.
This year’s winners each received a $1,000 prize.
“JMC is doing crucial work to resuscitate civic education in America, and, for this reason, JMC’s stamp of approval on my own undergraduate teaching efforts means a great deal to me.”
– Jacob Wolf, 2022 Excellence in Civic Education Award Winner
Meet the 2021 Winners
The inaugural K-12 civics award went to Mr. Enrico Pucci, an inspiring teacher who teaches 8th grade American History, Civic Engagement, and Speech at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Florida. Mr. Pucci describes his creative and strategic teaching process of combating growing division and disillusion by coalescing around the Constitution’s powerful phrase “to form a more perfect Union.”
Always beginning his Civics class with a review the of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he pulls out the core ideals of the United States – Equality, Liberty, and Justice. Mr. Pucci explained that “by emphasizing the process of “perfecting” our nation, I helped my students see that our founding ideals are dynamic, living concepts, and that it is our civic duty to participate in the ongoing process of their ‘perfection.’”
The inaugural college civics award went to Dr. Rita Koganzon, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia and associate director of the University’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy. Rita shows exemplary dedication to civics education in all she does at UVA, awakening students to the overwhelming impact the Constitution has had on American citizens and our ethos. Rita particularly enjoys “helping students connect the texts to their own subtle but significant experiences of American citizenship,” and witnessing “an understanding of the US as a constitutional regime dawn on them.”
Through the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy, a JMC partner program dedicated to the study of the American Founding, Rita has engaged her students in learning about American political theory through regular classes, fellowships, and evening reading groups, while also connecting them with further summer programming and internships to foster their interest in America’s founding ideals.
Both Rita and Enrico demonstrated creativity in encouraging their students to think about America’s Constitution and founding principles in new ways. In particular, Rita helps her students consider the Constitution’s effect on forming Americans’ “constitutional souls.” Enrico succeeds in instilling in his students the core founding ideals of equality, liberty, and justice, as well as a sense of civic duty.
The battle for the soul of our nation will be won or lost in our classrooms.™ –Jack Miller