American libraries are a vital part of the machinery of our democracy, but report after report indicates that trust, understanding, and participation in democracy itself is eroding, especially among youth. One thing librarians, educators, and kidcasters can agree on is the need for more civics education.
A 2018 Project Literacy report found 45 percent of students have difficulty separating “real news” from the “fake news,” but 82 percent still believed news is important in a democracy. That makes a compelling case for engaging students in year-round civics discussions to restore trust and foster involvement. Kids of all ages are more active and aware of events impacting democracy, and podcasters are responding with age-appropriate interviews, valuable information, and dramas.
This selection includes entertaining civics-based dramas, episodes about civic leaders Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis, and a show that time travels with two fifth graders who learn about the women’s suffrage movement. Share, listen, and take a vote on which episodes or podcasts inspire kids the most.
Ear Snacks, “The Notorious RBG”
Ages 4 to 7
A solid biographical episode about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is easy to understand and enjoy. Kid contributors Darius and Lucy offer playful, informative answers to questions about Ginsburg’s life and the legal system. This episode includes a catchy single by Joaine Leeds, “RBG,” from the children’s album All the Ladies, a tribute to women, motherhood, and empowerment. It also highlights kid podcaster extraordinaire Nate, whose TheShow About Politics and History includes the episode “ The Supreme Court with Nina Totenberg.”
But Why "Why Kids Can’t Vote?"
Ages 5 to 12
This Vermont Public Radio Show invites experts to answer questions from kids. Recently, the podcast has received an abundance of questions about the presidency, elections, and voting. Host Jane Lindholm interviews reporter Erin Geiger Smith, author of Thank You for Voting and Thank You For Voting: Young Readers' Edition, in this timely episode. The hosts confirm that kids can’t vote in the 2020 election, but also discuss how kids can make their opinions and needs known, including writing postcards to elected officials.
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls “In Memory: Ruth Bader Ginsburg read by Pricilla Chan”
Ages 7 to 12
This show includes excellent short, impactful audio biographies of influential women. Here, it spotlights pivotal moments in Ginsburg’s career and life as she battles gender discrimination in the United States. The episode is narrated by Pricilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, whose mission is in alignment with Ginsburg’s values to “promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy.” The podcast is a great accompaniment to the book series by the same name.
US vs UK Slamdown: Kids Guide to American and British Politics “ Elections”
Ages 7 to 12
From the British Fun Kids Network, these U.S. vs U.K. Slamdown episodes are fast-paced and packed with fascinating information that breaks down and compares two government systems. Fictitious students and student council representatives Ella and Mason look at the similarities and differences in U.K. and U.S. elections. For example, did you know that in the U.K., the election process only take six weeks, and in the U.S. it takes 18 months? What a difference! A great way to get a broader perspective on the process and help future generations consider other ways of running our governments.
Children’s Hour “Bill of Rights Part 1”
Ages 8 to 12
This nonprofit, community-based radio and podcast from New Mexico is syndicated on over 100 stations around the country; kids create much of its content. Episodes are from the radio program and feature great music for kids. This one is from a four-part series covering the Bill of Rights. Host Katy Stone begins by speaking with Micah McCoy from the American Civil Liberties Union about the first amendment; kids ask questions about the Federal government and freedom of speech. Hamilton-loving listeners will enjoy hearing connections made between the musical and the Bill of Rights. Several episodes in the archives address civics topics, focusing on elections, the post office, civic leaders, and more.
Electoral Elementary “The Government Doesn’t Do Anything...”
Ages 9 to 12
Launched in September, this show bills itself as a civics podcast that teaches through storytelling and song. It opens with a six-part audio drama series following 10-year-old Gloria Martinez as she tries to make change in her elementary school. Gloria learns from a talking civics book about how to maneuver her school’s systems of student government. Along with the drama, there’s a lot of civics vocabulary and context-based discussions about the workings of elections, representative government, debates, and rules. Written and produced by Jessica Marshall, the show features voices from a diverse cast. Kids will love the storytelling; a few personalities may make grownups cringe: a bubbling, bureaucratic principal; an elected bully kid; an old careless crossing guard. Still, these caricatures are recognizable and humorous to kids, which is the point! There’s a lot to talk about regarding civic behavior and responsibilities. Who knows, the catchy songs may have us all singing about democracy, as some of us did with SchoolHouse Rock.
The Magic Sash, “The Sash”
Ages 9 to 12
This scripted historical journey takes two fifth graders, Lotty and Isaiah, back in time to relive the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The first episode’s title refers to the sashes worn by the women suffragettes during rallies. Lotty and Isaiah find a sash that transports them to before women had the right to vote. Their journey ends with women voting in their first presidential election. The episodes explore civic leadership and what civic behavior looks like for a kid audience. This one is hosted by women’s rights activist and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman. The podcast includes study guides .
The Fina Mendoza Mysteries “Let Kids Vote! and Episode 1: Welcome to Washington Fina Mendoza”
Ages 10 to 14
This realistic-fiction audio drama explores life as the child of a congressperson. The serial audio drama follows 10-year-old Fina Mendoza’s quest to find out about the demon cat of Capitol Hill. Through Fina’s story, students learn how representative government works, why the halls of congress and congressional workers are necessary to keep the government running, how our values bind us, and why compromise is necessary to make the machinery of government run. But all that is wrapped up in Fina’s journey to solve the mystery of the cat. Another short episode, “Let Kids Vote!”, explores that very proposition with someone who approves lowering the voting age to 16, Congressman Mark Takano (D-California). Students who enjoy this audio drama can also read Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza by Kitty Felde; teachers can find civics-related class activities at finamendozamysteries.com.
Listenwise News Bites
Listenwise launched this free weekly podcast in May. This show offers middle and high school students a brief scope on big news stories of the week from NPR, with some weird news thrown in for good measure. Host Monica Brady-Myerov opens each episode by summarizing what’s included in the news of the week and ends with an open-ended question. Listenwise, a for-profit educational service, provides lesson plans with curated, edited audio from a variety of sources, but this feed is free. It’s a high-quality resource to add to your middle and high school library or media literacy class. Here are two examples of recent episodes on voting and civic leadership:
“Voting During a Pandemic and A Football Team Renamed”
Ages 10 to 17
In this episode, students will hear about systems we use to carry out voting. From a NPR interview with a Republican election administrator who acts as a nonpartisan official, students learn that balancing access and security is key to monitoring elections in order to make sure citizens, not cats, are voting! At the end, the host asks why it's important that citizens believe in election results.
“ Remembering Civil Rights Leader and the Silent Spread of COVID”
Ages 13 to 17
This episode includes an NPR remembrance for civic leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Students hear excerpts of Lewis’s strong voice on the floor of the House in a rallying cry for gun control. It includes an earlier interview in which Lewis talks about how he practiced public speaking with the chickens on his farm and how Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to make change. Lewis reflects on the march from Selma to Montgomery in a protest for voter rights. Students hear how this leader developed his civic behavior, which got him into “good trouble.” Then there’s his two guiding questions when it comes to justice: “If not us, then who?” and “If not not now, then when?” The episode also includes news about how the corona virus silently spreads. While this information is from August, it’s still relevant and valuable.
These episodes offer facts, fiction, humor, song, and mystery, all toward helping kids build interest and understanding of civic life and democracy. Grownups looking to brush up on civics knowledge, can tune into many shows doing episodes about voting, elections, democracy and civic life, including Vote, produced by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Vote.org, and NPR’s LifeKit.
For more listening about the foundations of U.S. democracy, check out Kidcasts: 8 Pocasts About Civics and U.S. History. For more civics-related resources, visit American Libraries' “Democracy in Action.”CivXNOW, and iCivics.
Youth technology integration consultant Anne Bensfield helps libraries and schools implement new models for innovation. Librarian and Buttons & Figs podcast creator Pamela Rogers inspires creative expression from elementary school kids by reading, writing, and playing with words.