Stage 1: Exploration

Stage 1: Exploration and Discovery


The goal of the exploration stage is to introduce students to the essential elements of the Public Achievement process and to expose them to the skills they will need to successfully work together to engage in public work. It is also an important time for students to develop their passions and begin connecting them to larger public issues. It is crucial during this stage to develop student ownership and to create an atmosphere of student empowerment. The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion process and to encourage involvement through mutual exploration and discovery.

With guidance from their teacher, students:

  • become familiar with the philosophy and process of PA;
  • begin exploring community and self-interests;
  • identify skills and knowledge they already have;
  • acquire new information through a variety of means and methods;
  • collaborate with community partners; and
  • develop self-awareness and a sense of personal accountability.

Before You Begin

Before Public Achievement teams form, the host institution, teachers, or coaches should plant seeds to get the students thinking about public and community issues. In the classroom or Public Achievement space, post newspaper stories and magazine articles about neighborhood, city, national, and world issues that will stimulate interest and generate discussion topics for students.

The first few sessions lay the groundwork for your student’s Public Achievement experience. These sessions will set the tone for the way democracy will be practiced in the classroom through a curriculum that explores the student’s own interests while also: establishing high expectations for conduct and work; engaging issues on a theoretical and practical level; introducing core concepts; practicing team-building; and establishing evaluation procedures.

A good way to begin is to present the video: We the (Young) People. Most students are amazed by the work in this video, which documents four Public Achievement projects from start to finish. The video and the accompanying case studies (Case 1, Case 2, Case 3) are useful vehicles for providing an overview of PA and introducing the concepts of freedom and authority, and community and accountability.

  • Have general discussions with students about these issues as well as other interesting news stories and political events.
  • Make sure to employ the language of Public Achievement, citizenship, and public work. Start introducing the skills and concepts prevalent in public work. This will lead to the introduction of the eleven Core Concepts in PA.
  • Have the students name the skills and talents they bring to these problems and issues. (See Personal Inventory)
  • When students have spent enough time thinking and discussing, help them fill out the worksheet Let’s Make History: Welcome to Public Achievement Part I. Keep completed sheets as they will be used in different ways during Public Achievement.
  • Teachers will assist students in filling out Let’s Make History: Welcome to Public Achievement Part II .

Introducing The Core Concepts

“The core concepts are the anchor to all work and learning in Public Achievement. Throughout their work, students will be interacting with, shaping and rethinking concepts like freedom, democracy, power, and citizenship. Students need ownership of these words to become better political actors and to more clearly express their goals, achievements, and frustrations. Establishing this vocabulary early is integral to unifying the class and maintaining some course of direction.
–Jason Becker, Teacher and Coach

Many people do not take the time to contemplate the concepts they use everyday. They might use words such as power,interest, or public in conversation without ever examining what they mean. Public Achievement provides people with the opportunity to learn key conceptual skills in order to think about, debate, and call into question the underlying ideas and principles that organize their environments. Public Achievement not only introduces young people to immediate practical political skills, it also encourages them to engage intellectually the big questions of politics and public life.

Concepts are the foundation for imagination, flexibility, transformation, and engagement with the world. Concepts are not just words and their definitions; they are ideas and ways of thinking about the world. They provide the tools to discuss, debate, and reach mutual understanding with others. The ability to generalize or conceptualize from one’s personal experience gives all people, not just an educated elite, the power to link their work to broader categories, issues, and goals.

How concepts are framed influences how we think. Conceptual and reflective thinking is not a luxury, but is essential to effective public work. Civic renewal thus depends on changing the concepts and patterns of thought. In the work of Public Achievement, there is a mutually enforcing relationship between action and concepts. PA involves action that has been discussed and thought out in advance, and is evaluated once it is done.

It is not enough to just know these concepts. If they are to have any relevance and meaning, they must be incorporated into the work of Public Achievement. It is a good idea for you and your team to familiarize yourselves with the core concepts at the beginning of your PA experience. Then, as your team progresses in its work, continually name and discuss the connections between concepts and practice in order to deepen the students’ understanding of public work, and engage the big questions of public life. You may find that some of our definitions are inadequate to your experience and need to be modified. Throughout your coaching experience, review with your team to see how the meanings of these concepts may have changed and assess what they have learned. Here are a few tips to include in your weekly sessions:

  • Always use concepts in discussions with your team;
  • Ask team members what ideas like democracy and public work mean;
  • Whenever a concept connects with your group’s work, name and discuss that connection;
  • Have a focus concept each meeting;
  • Try some of the games and exercises that explore the core concepts.

Public Achievement is founded on eleven core concepts that inform the practice of PA. These concepts are dynamic and ever evolving. Students should keep in mind that these concepts have been discussed, debated, and adapted over the years by various groups and that they should also adapt them to their own needs, and add to them, making them their own. And keep in mind that all of the concepts are essentially contested, meaning there is no one common agreement about their true meaning. Click on the following links for concept definitions and example activities:
Core Concept Definitions
Suggested Activities

Meeting Structure and the Democratic Process

Whether you follow the agenda example or not, make sure to provide students with an overview of what to expect during PA meetings by introducing the following elements during the first few weeks:

  1. Create a Democratic Space
    Sit in a democratic fashion, normally in a circle. Make sure everyone is included. Watch for self-exclusion though posture or positioning. Aim for equal speaking and listening. Begin each meeting with a “circle go round”. Sit in a circle and have each person respond to what they have experienced in relation to the project and work recently done. Keep it brief; the idea is to be inclusive but succinct, allowing everyone to stay apprised of one another’s actions. In a truly democratic group, everyone shares equally -equal speaking, equal listening.
  2. Team Building Exercises
    Use games, exercises and activities to break the ice, get acquainted, build team spirit, rebuild fractured team unity, and learn valuable lessons. Team building exercises should be fun and selected for a specific goal. Always debrief after the team building activity to discuss its lesson. Teams also like to adopt a name. It can be fun and should explain the team’s goal.
  3. Roles
    Explain, name and rotate roles such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, and others you or your team can designate. But keep in mind that shared leadership is an essential element in a democratic group.
  4. Agenda/Record
    Use a written agenda for each meeting. Initially the teacher/coach will prepare this. But based on the end-of-meeting evaluation, teams should plan the next meeting’s agenda. Effective teams keep a record of what they did and what they plan to do. If you can use the role of record keeper and build a written record, you can accomplish much more. If you forget or have to take time to remember each week, you are continually starting over.
  5. Ask Questions, Listen to Answers
    The teachers and coaches should be Socratic questioners and listeners, prodding the group forward. Don’t be diverted from important items that arise. (See Art of Questioning Lesson)
  6. Skills
    Think, talk about, and take actions designed to develop both internal and external skills. Internal skills have to do with the ability to function and work democratically within a team. External skills have to do with actions taken to try to influence or interact with the world and power structure outside the team.
  7. Mind Mapping
    Mind mapping is a method of generating ideas and organizing information that can be used throughout PA. To be effective mind mapping is not a one-shot activity. It involves pre-mapping as a kind of brainstorming. Followed up by interviews or research and continual re-mapping to illustrate and organize what has been learned.
  8. Evaluation/Debriefing
    Evaluate every meeting. If evaluation becomes stale, find different and fun ways to encourage reflection. Ongoing evaluation and debriefing are what make PA a “learning by doing” approach. Without evaluation, it is simply “doing.”

Establishing Rules and Procedures

During an initial meeting students should develop their own rules and guidelines for their PA sessions (sometimes it is better to introduce the idea of making rules during the first meeting, and actually develop them on the second meeting). It may first be necessary to discuss the purpose and function of rules in society and why a set of agreed upon rules are necessary/beneficial to the democratic process. (See The Value of Rules). Shiver, Gobble and Snore by Marie Winn (1972) is a good book for introducing the importance of rules. The three title characters leave their own tyrant-led country for a land where there are no laws. And then they discover why laws are needed. After exploring rules in general, have the students identify and discuss the rules of conduct in different communities such as school, home, the mall, the theatre, the car, etc.

The process of making rules is also a good opportunity to discuss the concept of freedom. How are rules related to freedom? Don’t rules restrict people? What is the significance of your team making its own rules? Are the students free because they follow the rules they have made?

Emphasize the importance of having a public environment where people are respectful of each other. While the rules should be made by the members of the team, challenge the students to make a workable set of rules- make sure that they are simple, coherent, can easily be followed, and are enforceable. Should people raise their hands? How will the team ensure that work gets done? To make sure that everyone agrees, it may be a good idea to have your team members give examples of what constitutes breaking a rule. The team will also need to create a set of reasonable consequences if the rules are broken (you can discuss the concepts of deterrence and related consequences).

Reinforce to your team members that because they made these rules, they are expected to follow and enforce them consistently as a group. Have each member of the group sign the rules, publicly demonstrating that he or she has agreed to abide by them.

Developing Assessment Measures

Have students help you throughout the project in creating grading rubrics to ensure they understand what is expected of them and on what specific activities they will be measured. Many teachers find it works best to allow the students to give themselves a grade for the project and to defend it.

Leave time at the end of every meeting to have your team sit in a circle and answer a series of evaluative questions. Try having the members evaluate their individual and collective work as well as the impact of their project on the community. During this debriefing time, you can also focus on an individual core concept to reinforce it and begin to add to the students’ understanding.

Evaluation improves the quality of your team’s work because it ensures they are staying true to their initial goals, provides space for learning and strategic thinking, and develops accountability. It requires the team members to think critically about what they have done personally, and then collectively as a team. For evaluation to be truly effective, the team should do it every step of the way. It helps them operate smoothly, examine how their work is progressing, prevent misunderstandings, clarify roles, and assess the overall impact of their project. Evaluation is also the time to identify and reinforce things that a group has learned from the session, work, or event.

Here are some sample evaluative questions:

  • What did we set out to accomplish today? Did we complete that? Why or why not?
  • What part of our strategy worked well and what didn’t? How can we build on the successes and minimize the failures?
  • What can we do differently? Are there any needed changes?
  • What did I learn about PA, myself, the community?
  • What do we need to do next time?

It is also useful to evaluate how individuals and teams performed specific assignments – focusing the critique on the work, problem, event or goal (not the person’s character). This type of formative evaluation not only reinforces accountability, but helps improve future work.

Challenge the direction of the team’s work and end goals by asking and recording questions such as:

  • What is being done or created that has long lasting civic value, is it sustainable, do people know about it, is it visible?
  • Are we tapping new resources and making strong efforts to collaborate in new ways? Are we building new relationships?
  • What civic skills and capacities are being developed both individually and for the team? How can they be improved?
  • Is real change happening on an institutional level? Are we breaking down barriers?

While evaluation helps your team move forward on its project, it is also important to reflect upon what has been learned. You need to provide the space so that individual team members can link their experiences to the broader world, ways of thinking, and ways of being. This is a good opportunity to question the assumptions of your work, and even the assumptions of Public Achievement itself. Taking the discussion to a higher level will enable you go beyond everyday ways of thinking. This is the perfect time to talk about concepts, how they relate to your work and the broader world. Nonetheless, this type of reflection will not occur if space is not given for it. Periodically take the time to engage society’s big questions, and you will be surprised what you find.

Individual Journaling
Journaling is an effective form of documentation and a good resource for assessment. It has proven to be an important element of the discovery and learning process in PA as it allows both student and teacher/coach to review the student’s personal development. It gives the student the space for reflection and expression and allows him/her to place experiences within a larger context. Students should write about problems that they face, what they do to deal with them, sources of inspiration and any other thoughts regarding PA, as well as any research regarding projects.

Encourage your students to be creative in designing their journals. They can include sketches, quotes, poems, songs, photographs and news clippings, but students should explain how each item is relevant. Include specific reflection questions throughout the project.

Group Portfolio
In addition to individual journals, have the students create a group folder/portfolio. The folder should include all group information, forms, and notes so they can gauge what work has been finished and what work needs to be done, along with what skills and areas need further emphasis. The activities section also includes handouts, forms, and examples for students to use throughout the project.

“In the beginning of the year I thought this class was going to be boring and I thought we wouldn’t be able to do anything or change anything. I just thought that we would do a bunch of paper work in the class. Just then in the middle of the year I realized that we were working hard on our project. My mind was changed about what I thought of this class in the beginning of the year. But then now I think this class is great and we made a change is this school.”
–Fatomo Abdi, PA team member

Reflection is not only a defining characteristic of learning; it is one of the most powerful components of the PA process. It is a conscious examination of time spent, actions taken, and an articulation of both personal and academic lessons learned. It provides structured time in which students move from participation in the project to a deeper understanding, from thinking about their experience in the context of their own lives, to how it relates to public life in a broader sense and the decisions they will make in the future.

For reflection to be most effective, it should be a standard expectation from the very beginning.

Pre-Project Reflection
Pre-Project reflection activities should assist students in looking at their assumptions and biases, as well as expectations of what they hope to accomplish–why they chose to join the particular group they belong to.

  • Have students write a letter to themselves describing their feelings, their expectations, and what they hope to gain from this process. The teacher/facilitator should keep the letters and return them at the end of the program during the final reflection stage.
  • As a group, create a list of expectations and hoped for outcomes from the program. Write the list on chart paper and refer back to it at the end of the program during the final reflection phase.

During-Project Reflection
Reflection activities carried out during projects should enable students to process their feelings and revisit their expectations in light of what they have done so far. Reflection is also useful at this point to help students look at the direction they are going, identify next steps, and make adjustments if needed.

Possible activities:

  • Hold a mock debate where students defend various sides relating to the issue they are pursuing.
  • Have students write a letter to their family or friends explaining the project they are working on and what their goals are.
  • Have students write a letter to the editor or an editorial explaining the problem and their project.
  • Write a letter to a community member, or to a politician.
  • Write a poem or song that reflects your experience for that week.
  • Role-play something that happened during the project that was challenging.

Additional discussion-based activities:

  • As a lead-in to a reflective discussion, pose a question and have students do five minutes of silent reflection before the discussion begins.
  • Write a quote on the board and have students respond.
  • Use metaphors, (i.e. doing this project is like wrestling an alligator)
  • Create a continuum representing various views of an issue. Have students stand at a point on the continuum and explain why they chose to stand there.
  • Pose a question then think, pair, share (have students pair off, discuss the question, then report back to the group).
  • Skittle game– pass out a Skittle to each student. Have a list of reflection questions prepared and link each question to a color. Go around the room and have each student answer a question based on the color of the Skittle they received.

Additional writing-based activities:

  • Round Robin Poetry – Pose a reflection question or a theme and have each student write two lines of poetry relating to that question or theme. As the poem goes around the room, fold the paper so that each student can only see the lines written by the previous student. At the end, read the full poem to the group. Rewrite the poem onto a poster board.
  • As students are preparing to leave, pose a question (i.e. what did you find out today that you did not know before?) and write the question on a piece of chart paper. Before each student leaves, have him/her write a one-sentence response to the question.
  • Instead of keeping individual journals, the group could create a group journal where students could jot down ideas and feelings throughout the program.

Post-Project Reflection
Post-project reflection activities should assist students in evaluating and drawing conclusions from their experiences. They should also provide meaning and help students to understand what they found out about themselves during the PA experience.
Reflection can take a myriad of forms from journaling, discussing, and completing evaluation forms, to creating collages, writing poems, or giving presentations. Allowing for the different ways through which people best process experiences ensures that all students can engage in thoughtful consideration of their activities and roles.

Some possible Final Reflection Activities:

  • Have the students take photographs throughout the process. At the end, tell each student to select a group of photographs that most accurately portrays the experience they had. Have them create a poster using these photographs with captions explaining why they chose particular pictures.
  • Have the group save items throughout the process then use these to make a project scrapbook at the end. Items that could be included – letters, meeting agendas, research data, surveys, photographs, journal entries, etc.
  • Ask students to choose one word that best describes their PA experience. Have them make a poster based around this word. (This poster could be combined with the photo poster. Students could choose their word, then select photographs that represent it.)
  • Individually or in groups, have students create an artistic representation of their experience. It could be a collage, a drawing, a painting, or a mural.
  • To facilitate a final reflection discussion, create reflection stations by writing questions on chart paper, posting them around the room, and having students write answers to the questions on each chart. Use responses to lead a class discussion. Questions could include:
    1. What was your most memorable experience?
    2. What do you feel best about?
    3. What disturbs or puzzles you about your experience?
    4. How has this experience changed the way you think?
    5. What was the intended outcome? Was it accomplished?
    6. Was something else accomplished that was not anticipated?
    7. Who is different as a result of your work? How?
    8. Was it worthwhile?
    9. What would have made it more effective?
    10. What have you learned and how has it changed you?
  • Have students videotape the process throughout, and then create a documentary at the end. If discussion was the primary mode of reflection, students could record discussions on an audiotape then edit sections to create an audio documentary.
  • Have students create a resume listing the skills they developed or improved through their experience.

Suggested Lessons


Citizenship City  |  Class Bill of Rights  |  Class Citizenship Tree  |  Identifying Rights at Home  |  Know Your Local Government  |  Meet the Candidate  |  My Bill of Rights  |  Right and Responsibility to Vote  |  Rights and Responsibilities  |  You and Government

Exploration of Self

Hands Around the World  |  My Timeline  |  Public Autobiography  |  Self Inventory Matrix  |  Self Portraits  |  Spheres of Influence

Exploration of Community

Community Clue  |  Community Mapping  |  Community Photo  |  Create a Community  |  Features of Culture  |  Our Puzzling Community  |  Where Do You Live

Democratic Process/Small Group

Competing Responsibilities   |  How to Make Decisions Democratically  |  Take a Stand  |  Value of Rules  |  Who Works for the Common Good

Core Concepts

Core Concepts Poster Project  |  Reading Current Events Concepts  |  Power Analysis  |  Rank the Core Concepts

Moving Forward

When students have fully explored and discovered the many possibilities of PA, it is time for them to turn their energies toward Issue Development. They will refer to and use the many foundational skills and experiences they have had in this beginning phase, but they are prepared to begin focusing on an issue.