Citizenship is a tricky concept to define and understand. Does citizenship mean to be a good citizen and what is a good citizen?
Throughout my own experience in K-12 schooling, there was a variety of examples of citizenship education. From K-5, we had a book that each class could add to when they did a good deed that supported our environment and community such as doing a project made of recycled material or collecting the recyclables. We had a buddy program in the older grades where we partnered up with the elementary to read with them; we read stories to the residents of our local care home; we had mandatory volunteer hours; we had town-wide clean-up days; we participated in food drives, clothing drives, walks, and fundraisers for so many different charities; and the opportunity to receive a class credit in exchange for a specific amount of volunteer hours. I remember learning briefly about government structures, but I left school not understanding the different parties in our country, how to vote, or the importance of critiquing public policies and priorities in order to support positive changes within our community, province, and country.
“What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy” by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne detailed three different ideas of what a “good citizen” is and does including personally responsible citizen, participatory citizen, and justice oriented citizen. The majority of citizenship education I received focused on being a personally responsible citizen. The idea was that if they could get the entire school involved in helping others we would develop character and responsibility, when really we did not learn more from these actions than just following directions. My extra-curriculars were where a hint of participatory citizenship was encouraged. I was on the Student Community Council and Student Representative Council. These opportunities were outside curriculum but provided me with opportunities to lead meetings; balance different perspectives; and in and plan efforts to support others, such as organizing food drives, clothing drives, and fundraisers.
Although approaching the curriculum designed to promote personally responsible citizens did help others, allow students to feel good, and give students a chance to learn about the challenges faced within the community and other places, it failed to get students actively involved in recognizing, planning support, and acting on challenges. Further, it failed to create a lasting and meaningful change that can come from asking why this problem is present, the policies in place or lacking that prevent a change, and getting down to the root cause of the problem that justice oriented citizens do. Personally responsible citizens provide a band-aide for a problem and do just enough to ease their conscious rather than challenge and fix the problem. No amount of canned food is going to fix the problem of hunger.
As mentioned by Joel Westheimer in a video interview, some individuals do not believe politics and teaching citizenship belongs in schools as perhaps schooling should only focus on job training, but really a role of schools is to create informed and democratic citizens. As citizens we should learn to be able to come together, listen to the different perspectives of others and work on our differences to be able to move forward together. Students need to learn that people have different perspectives and we need to be able to respect the perspectives of others. This describes a justice oriented citizen who can respect and learn from other perspectives while weighing the options to respectfully come to a decision.
Although learning not to break the law, not do drugs, help others and the environment, and work ethic are all fantastic things for students to learn, they should not be taught to just be obedient. A good citizen does not always need to be obedient, otherwise we would never see improvement in a society. Citizens are allowed and should be encouraged to critically reflect on the situation and rules in place for our community and take action to further benefit the community.
November 12, 2018