Citizenship is an integral aspect of society. It’s also important in the classroom: Students who learn about citizenship early in life develop a stronger commitment to doing good in the world. So how exactly should we be teaching citizenship, and why is it so important for students to learn?
As we’ve discussed in our series on why learning matters, students who understand why they’re learning something are much more likely to engage with the material. Here’s why citizenship is important, and how to teach citizenship to students in a way that inspires and motivates positive action.
What is Citizenship and Why Does it Matter?
Citizenship is important for developing a strong moral code in individuals, but it’s also important for creating a safe, supportive society while protecting democracy, according to Young Citizens.
“Citizenship education involves developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to enable people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own lives and communities. And in many countries – where democratic society and its institutions are facing threats – citizenship education is becoming increasingly important.”
Citizenship can also be approached from a global perspective. In addition to being citizens of a specific country, all students are citizens of the world. Global citizenship is “the idea that we are one global community, and therefore our choices and actions may affect people and communities locally, nationally or even internationally,” says Ann Marie Borders at NEA Today.
She explains that global citizenship is important for nurturing respect and tolerance while building awareness and empathy for different cultures. This is equally important for schools with diverse populations and those without. If you do have diverse cultures and backgrounds in your school, this provides an opportunity for students to teach one another about their backgrounds and to foster mutual understanding and respect for one another’s differences.
Teaching citizenship also allows students to understand the difference between being a citizen and practicing citizenship. Teaching children different themes of citizenship, including honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility and courage empowers children to positively contribute to their community, according to Kaplan Early Learning.
Likewise, citizenship is important for fostering healthy discourse among people of differing viewpoints. It also helps students learn how to find common ground with people who are different from themselves, especially when it comes to upholding basic human rights. AFS Intercultural Programs explains that learning about citizenship fosters mutual respect and understanding, which in turn connects and builds a strong network of people working toward the same goal.
AFS also points out that global citizenship education promotes student advocacy by promoting active participation in economic, social, political and natural issues. This can inspire students to “look in a wider perspective, think deeper about social injustices and oppression and combat extremism through constructive discourses.”
What Does Citizenship Learning Look Like?
Citizenship is interpreted and learned differently by students of different age groups. For example, young students aren’t going to learn details about the branches of government, and will likely be confused by the constitution. This doesn’t mean that teachers should skip over teaching about citizenship, however.
Teacher Alyssa Messier points out that elementary students can still learn the basic principles of citizenship, what it means to belong to their country, and why this is important. “They can learn that they have a voice and that it matters, they can learn how critical each individual’s role in society is, and they can learn the importance of being informed,” she writes.
Citizenship learning can also mean modeling good examples of citizenship for students. Stacy D. Cooper at The Classroom explains that books showing examples of good citizenship offer points of discussion for students. They can explore how each person showed good citizenship and how that act made a difference. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Woodrow Wilson, Oprah Winfrey and Audrey Hepburn are all examples of people whose life stories demonstrate good citizenship.
Since citizenship can be displayed in many different ways, it can also be learned in many different ways. Kids Academy explains that to be a good citizen, people must attain a particular set of values and skills. In particular, students need to gain knowledge about their local, state and national governments while also learning about cultures and global issues. In addition to learning about citizenship as a governmental construct, children should also learn about citizenship as a tool for working with one another and improving humanity.
“Kids must develop deep values that make them want to be good citizens in the future. These values include responsibility, compassion, honesty, integrity, and tolerance.” While teaching these values explicitly is important, they should also become part of everyday learning. As those values become second nature, students grow into good citizens.
In today’s technology-focused classrooms, digital citizenship is also important. Specifically, students need to learn how to represent themselves and behave online in a way that is safe for everyone, especially when at school.
Paul Barnwell at TeachThought explains that digital citizenship lessons can start by asking students to consider their online personas. For high school students, this is especially important because a college admissions officer may be looking at their profile. As a teacher of citizenship, you can remind students of the responsibility they have to act appropriately online.
Tips for Teaching Citizenship
As discussed, showing students how to be empathetic and tolerant is an important part of teaching citizenship. The Bill of Rights Institute offers a lesson plan idea that helps students learn how to be a good citizen in their classroom while also setting expectations for respect in the coming year.
This lesson gives students an opportunity to define citizenship in their own terms and discuss what it means to them, which fosters healthy debate and discussion about important issues. Ultimately, this lesson can be used to create a shared bill of rights for the classroom. This moral code can be used to set expectations around how students should act and treat one another on a daily basis.
Another way to teach citizenship — while also helping students realize its importance — is to give students a voice. Ask them what things could be better in their lives if they pursued that issue and tried to make a change, suggests intermediate school counselor and character coach Barbara Gruener.
Then, have students take action towards embodying that change. For example, you might have students host a betterment campaign, deliver speeches, collect can openers for the homeless or raise money for the cause. These are all small, but tangible ways that students can learn how to make a difference in their society. You might also host a mock election to show students how they can put their opinion to work by voting and influencing positive change in society.
Another idea is to have students see real citizenship in action, writes Gail Innis at Michigan State University Extension. For example, they might go to the voting booth and watch people cast their votes while putting their own votes in a classroom ballot box. Or, they could attend a community meeting either in person or through Skype.
Teachers play a role in fostering good citizenship on a daily basis. Rebekah Gienapp at The Barefoot Mommy says teachers can model democratic dialogue by asking students to respectfully question adults and speak their opinion. If a student questions you or another student in the classroom, you can use this as an example for the entire classroom to talk about how the students can engage in varying viewpoints while remaining empathetic. “When a child questions your views or a decision you’ve made, encourage them to talk it through with you instead of shushing them,” she writes.
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