Vassal Lane Upper School eighth-grader Bodie Morein toggled her laptop mouse, marching Brianna Little, her video game heroine, to a fort in New York state during revolutionary times. A crowd formed, chanting:
“If I say, ‘This is our,’ you say ‘Petition!’ ”
“If I say ‘Stamp Act,’ you say ‘No consent!’ ”
The game, “Portrait of a Tyrant,” is a small part of a year-long civics education curriculum with high stakes — the future of civics knowledge, identity, and engagement — for Morein’s class and students across the state.
“We are working from a critical data point that found 70 percent of Americans born before World War II considered it essential to live in a democracy. For today’s millennials, it’s less than 30 percent,” said Danielle Allen, principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project (DKP) at Harvard. “Our vision in doing this work is trying to rebuild a supermajority, to get that number over 66 percent.”
The project evolved from Allen’s research work, including the Declaration Resources Project and Ten Questions for Young Changemakers framework, which she brought with her to Harvard in 2015. Urgency for a comprehensive curriculum came from a state-mandated education reform signed into Massachusetts law in 2018. Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, said, “I have had a lab for a decade with the stated purpose to identify and disseminate the bodies of knowledge, skills, and capacities citizens need to build and maintain thriving democracies. So when the policy conversation started, we had built de facto content. We had been a one-off resource creator. But we saw teachers struggling with how to take all these pieces and parts and turn them into a yearlong curriculum, and knew we could be part of the solution.”
The project found a partner in the Cambridge Public Schools with which to collaborate on creating and implementing the curriculum. According to Jenny Chung, K-8 District social studies coach for Cambridge, “Teachers were at the center from the beginning. The collaboration was so successful because the entire eighth-grade team was at the table with the project throughout the curriculum conversations. We mapped out the arc and essential questions together, then individual teachers piloted different parts of the curriculum. Change can be difficult, and our teachers feel invested and ready to tackle the bumpiness that is any new curriculum.”
Chung said the thematic and agency-centered curriculum provided a break from traditional teaching approaches. “Rather than marching through events and documents chronologically, DKP’s framework helps students engage with the past, present, and future planning in meaningful ways,” she said.
This was clear on an afternoon in Bill Folman’s class at Vassal Lane, as students like Morein played “Portrait of a Tyrant,” which the project is developing with the educational videogame production company Amplify. The game has six episodes, which are base on grievances against King George that the colonists detailed in the Declaration of Independence. The episodes give context and modern relevance to the Declaration of Independence, and are tied to the Cambridge schools’ curriculum. In the game, Brianna encounters protests, a ship-burning, and an illicit meeting that ends in a tar and feathering. The sepia-toned coloration matches copies of primary documents, like replicas of Phyllis Wheatley poems and articles from newspapers (Virginia Gazette, Georgia Gazette) of the period.
“I like all of the dialogue and the art is really cool,” said Morein.
“You need to make more decisions than in other games,” said classmate Dawit Gebresellassie.