Wisconsin Thinks First About Civic Education

Newspapers bemoan the demise of civic education. Wisconsin is doing something about it.

In 2021, a purposeful contest ensures the First Amendment will be explored and celebrated in Wisconsin schools. Credit the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation for boosting civic education and engaging young students with its Wisconsin Civics Games Editorial Writing & Cartoon Contest.

Only in Wisconsin can you get away with a logo that shows a cartoon drawing of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wearing a cheesehead hat.

The contest was launched in tandem with Sunshine Week in March and is open to all Wisconsin middle and high school students.

The Foundation had been building its admirable civic-engagement initiative over the last four years, with the centerpiece being the Wisconsin Civics Games that debuted in 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced a cancellation in 2020.

Undeterred, the Wisconsin Foundation moved ahead this year with a writing and cartoon contest to maintain a continuity in helping students better understand the rights set forth by the First Amendment. The hope is the full Civics Games return next year to deepen knowledge about citizens rights and responsibilities as well as the ingredients of good government.

“We didn’t want to lose the critical connections that had been made or the momentum that had been built toward fostering civic and civil engagement,” said WNA Foundation Board member Eve Galanter in an Association statement. “During this challenging time, we decided to continue these efforts with the launch of an editorial writing and cartoon contest.”

Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, confirmed during a phone interview the Civics Games “are our big thing” and credited Galanter as the “go-getter who got it done” by moving from idea to result and helping to line up support throughout the state.

The games became a major project to pull together but the Wisconsin Foundation board recognized the void and knew “people are hungry” for an initiative that brings back civic education, Bennett said. She added the impetus was further fueled by surveys in Wisconsin that noted an alarming number of local elections go uncontested.

Successful collaboration came from doing “a deep dive with the schools” and “not complicating the program,” said Bennett, acknowledging it is not easy getting traction with an idea formed outside school systems that already have full plates of requirements.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association detailed the contest requirements in a March 12 article:

For the writing contest, high school students will be asked to write a “guest column” (500 words or less) about the First Amendment, and middle school students will be asked to write a “letter to the editor” (200 words or less) on the same topic. Students can compete in the editorial cartoon contest by submitting one First Amendment-theme drawing.

The deadline is May 15. The Foundation said winners will be announced on July 1, just in time for the Fourth celebrations.

First-place winners will receive $500, second-place winners will receive $250, third-place will receive $100, and honorable mention recipients will get $50.

Winning entries will appear in newspapers across the state, as well as on the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s website.

The WNAF started planning the Civic Games in 2018. The guiding goal: “By engaging young adults in a collaborative competition, as well as through coverage of civic affairs, the Wisconsin Civics Game aims to help cultivate an understanding among future generations of their role in our democracy.”

The Foundation says more than 100 students from 25 schools participated in the first Civics Games. Participants “heard from several local officials, newspaper editors, state legislators, a state Supreme Court chief justice and the governor.” Four regional face-offs led to state finals at the Capitol. The four members of the winning high school each received a $2,000 scholarship to a Wisconsin college or university.

The Foundation’s mission is “to support programs that foster excellence in journalism, engage current and future newspaper leaders and invest in our communities.”

The Civics Games cost the Wisconsin Foundation about $40,000, an amount augmented by sponsoring government entities and in-kind contributions. The cost going forward is expected to be less without the one-time, startup expenses, Bennett said.

The success of the Civics Games prompted interest from outside of Wisconsin. Bennett said, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “contacted us about taking the model and running with it.” Other newspapers associations in states and Canadian provinces could do so, too. Bennett added that Wisconsin is willing to share its template.

Bennett said the project’s workload strain on her four-person team was worth it when “you saw the excitement of these kids who were participating. Just to see how invested the kids were in the Games made you feel just great about young people.”

It’s also an instructive example of how a press association is Relevant to its members, its state/province and to our future.

Well done, Wisconsin.

–Tom Silvestri

First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

One thought on “Wisconsin Thinks First About Civic Education

  1. Thank you Tom. The coverage is very much appreciated.

    Beth Bennett
    Executive Director
    Wisconsin Newspaper Association
    34 Schroeder Court, Suite 220, Madison, WI 53711


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: