by Donna Krache, CNN
(CNN) - The retired Supreme Court justice is all business as she walks into our meeting room.
But inside, she’s got the heart of an educator.
Of course, Sandra Day O’Connor will always be associated with her historic “first,” as the first woman justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she also served as a judge and a state senator.
Since her retirement from the high court in 2006, she has found a new passion – civics education.
How did she decide to become a champion of that cause? O’Connor says that in her last year on the bench, she was “very much aware of the major issues and debates” being brought before the high court. There were lots of complaints about the decisions, she says, and many were directed at the judicial branch – with some blaming the justices for certain outcomes.
“As you analyzed it, it appeared to show in many cases that the concerns were misdirected: There was a tendency to blame the courts for things that were really not a judicial matter,” she told CNN.
The solution to that misunderstanding, she believes, is civics education – a subject she notes has changed through the years. She remembers her own schooling in El Paso, Texas, and how she learned about Texas government. Civics knowledge was helpful to her later in life, O’Connor says, and she’s disappointed that today, many schools have stopped teaching the subject.
But she believes young people do have a desire to learn civics because they want to participate in their government, to change things and better their lives. “There is an increasing appreciation that we do need to know how our government works: national, state and local,” says O’Connor. “And that this is part and parcel of the things that every young person wants to know because they want to have an effect.”
It’s not just about learning facts and the processes, says O’Connor. It’s about learning how to make a difference in one’s community, state, or nation. But, she adds, “Sometimes people don’t know what government entity is equipped to deal with the problem.”
“You can make a difference if you know how to bring a particular area of concern to the attention of people who can make a change. Then you’re learning to be in a position where you can cause public bodies to take action, the public bodies that have jurisdiction over that particular area. Maybe it’s a city council, maybe it’s a town planning and zoning commission… maybe it’s a state legislature… You have to be knowledgeable.”
“To understand how to define the issue, find out what level of government can have the biggest impact on it, where should you go with this problem. Lastly, how to best approach that body and make your case - but that takes some knowledge and experience to get that far,” she says.
O’Connor advocates an analytical approach to an understanding of government that includes defining the problem or issue, identifying the government entity that is best able to address it, then determining a course of citizen action to effect change.
Identifying the problem, she says, is the first step toward change.
“We need to learn how to define a problem then tackle it as a local issue, a state issue, a national issue.”
O’Connor was in Atlanta to address the Education Commission of the States and promote awareness for her project, iCivics. iCivics aims to generate civic interest and knowledge among young people and is available to all teachers, free of charge.
Students can play games and simulations on iCivics focusing on each of the three branches of government as well as individual rights and responsibilities. For example, students can test their powers of persuasion in “Argument Wars” as they argue cases before the Supreme Court. They can run for president in “Win the White House” while they learn about real campaigning, including raising funds, polling voters and crafting media campaigns. In “Immigration Nation,” students can guide newcomers through the path to citizenship.
The games are engaging and offer some opportunities for critical thinking. All the while, students are learning about the Constitution and the branches of government. There are about 70 lesson plans available for teachers, in addition to the games.
O’Connor and her team launched iCivics in 2009. She’s extremely proud of the site, and says teachers and students are “raving” about it.
O’Connor says she has always been interested in public service and wants to see young people engaged in it, too. But in an age of social media and lots of distractions, what advice does she offer to parents who want their kids to be interested in civic participation and current events?
“Encourage kids to be involved in projects that get them to interact at some government level,” she told CNN.
Parents should “engage them in projects they care about, get them to interact in ways that illustrate as a practical matter how things can work and how you can be effective in creating change or adopting some policy that matters. Get them involved!”
After all, says O’Connor, “That’s what civics is all about.”