Public schools were originally intended to provide students with an environment that stimulated the ideals of character, not solely as a place that promoted academic success. Recently schools have cut back on developing citizenship skills because of accountability that relies on academic test scores. In 1949 the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) included questions and observations to assess social responsibility and other behaviors, as well as academics. 1949! Student interactions can be assessed by observing learners’ personal development and well being; learners’ moral, social, and cultural development; learners’ adoption of healthy lifestyles; learners’ contribution to the school community and the greater community. Civic education is a process whereby the whole community transmits to the next generation appropriate values, traditions, skills and cultural norms. Service learning promotes good deeds and academic success. So how do we prepare students to be engaged citizens?
Celebrate the diversity of the school community. Recognize all of the intellectual levels of the students and allow them to participate in the community. Begin a recycling committee in the lunch- room allowing student monitors to assist in separating the recycled material. Sell the recyclables to a local farm or gardening center and use the proceeds to help with a community project. Incorporate mathematical concepts of weighing and measuring.
Use the school woodshop classes to build furniture for homeless shelters. Involve the art classes in designing the furniture or decorating it. The concept of learning to use tools and equipment is maintained and the end result is fewer little projects and one larger project that helps the community and builds a sense of classroom community.
Incorporate environmental literacy into all of the content areas. Teach students about the interdependence of life forms; that materials flow through our ecosystems; that we are consumers of resources; that humans have an effect on environmental systems. Read about environmentalists, visit local rivers and streams to observe ecosystems. Learning through hands-on discovery is a sensory activity that has a greater impact than learning through reading inside a classroom or watching a video screen.
Create school democracies that have real power. Allow student governments to make recommendations to parents and school leadership groups. Assist students in learning the process of decision making; if it is always done behind closed doors they will never know what questions to ask so they can learn to govern themselves. Just as we teach “think alouds” in reading, we should teach “think alouds” in decision making.
Encourage students to make small changes through group action. Write letters to the principal or the custodian about school problems. By asking questions about how an issue affects their lives, students can begin to see that they can become part of a solution. Sell student made projects and use the proceeds for a worthy cause. Some students have sent funds to schools in Louisiana to buy windows for their classrooms destroyed by the hurricanes. A penny drive can yield funds to build a room in a school in India.
“From one little pebble, the ripples go out in ways we cannot imagine. All of us can be that small pebble that starts the ripples--and we can help our students do the same.” (Miller) Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Teachers must teach social responsibility so their students understand that they become something larger than themselves, that civic action can be a solution to their own problems.
Miller, Suzanne, "The India Connection," Educational Leadership, May 2009.
Weissbourd, Richard, "The Schools We Mean to Be," Educational Leadership, May 2009.
Rothstein, R., Jacobsen, R., "Measuring Social Responsibility," Educational Leadership, May 2009.
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