07/31/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

It's Our Responsibility

Who's responsible for instilling in our young people an appreciation for history and citizenship? Many of us -- teachers, educators, and members of the public alike -- are very concerned about the demise of social studies. American history and civics, in particular, have been deemphasized in our curricula, victim to a host of political expedients, policy choices, and pedagogical alternatives. We just cannot allow it to continue. American history is the stories of individual citizens and how they built our republic -- decision by decision -- into the nation and freedoms we enjoy today. It is our responsibility to hand over that legacy to a new generation -- to imbue in young Americans the responsibilities of engaged citizenship.

As we turn a critical eye on our education systems, we should also look to ourselves. Each of us is responsible for ensuring the education of our young people. We can -- we must -- take up that responsibility. Education is not the exclusive province of a school. Learning does not take place only inside school buildings. We are the grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, mentors, and volunteers who help shape the lives of our young people.

Share with the children in your life your love for reading. It will open doors for them and impact their habits for years to come. Every summer, my mother set aside afternoon time for us to read. Historical fiction was my favorite. Stretched out on the cool of the living room carpet I read classics by Robert Lewis Stevenson and Ester Forbes's Johnny Tremain, and even a collection of early twentieth-century Wild West dime novels.

There's a wealth of historical reading available today in local libraries for every age group. Joan Lowery Nixon has a great series on eighteenth-century America. John's Story, 1775 takes place amongst the tumultuous political events that cause his father and older brother to take different sides in the coming Revolution. John Hunter's novel Red Thunder tells the courageous story of James Lafayette, an enslaved African American who spies for the American army on the eve of the battle of Yorktown. There are hundreds of great examples.

When your youngsters demand computer time, there are scores of online resources for American history and civics. American history museum websites and interactive experiences, such as Colonial Williamsburg's website and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's website, are engaging examples. Older students -- and adults, young and old -- may enjoy The Idea of America: Citizens Edition, a digital, interactive overview of American history that explores the enduring themes of our history and makes fascinating connections to our lives today.

Sign up for opportunities like the National Archives' @TodaysDocument twitter feed. They post a selection of primary source documents including photographs, videos, patent applications, and more. Each document is an opportunity to have a discussion with your student. Talk about events related to that document. Search the web for additional information on the events and the individuals who played a role in those events. Together you can a write story about those events, create a drawing, a political cartoon, or even a video that illustrates the events. The Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division blog is another option. They will email you one or more historic drawings or photographs every week, with lively commentary on both the blog and the related Flickr photostream.

Get out of the house and visit historic sites. Today, history museums are tactile, hands-on places. Visitors do daily chores, work simple machines, help the cook at a kitchen fireplace, tend to animals, march in a Revolutionary or Civil War army, and much more. Technology plays an increasing role. At Colonial Williamsburg, families are "questing" their way through the museum. RevQuest participants use artifacts in the museum, interviews with costumed staff, primary sources, and a secret code book to uncover clues, which they text to a Patriot spy to help save the Revolution by uncovering a British plot. The adventure begins online.

American history and civics are not just dry, textbook subjects. These are exciting stories about real people engaged in remarkable events -- world-changing events. These are stories about individuals and the way they influence their world. We need to encourage our children to find inspiration and excitement in these stories. It is not a teacher's responsibility. It's our responsibility -- each citizen -- grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle, friend, mentor, and volunteer. It's time that we all take that responsibility seriously.