Teaching Opinion

Helping Students Be Active, Constructive Citizens

By Joe Nathan — May 26, 2015 5 min read
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Today Deborah and Joe discuss what‘s needed to help students develop the skills and attitudes needed for them to be active, constructive citizens. Joe begins, followed by response from Deb, and then a few comments from Joe.

Deb, when we discussed priorities for a progressive education agenda, we agreed that schools should help young people believe in, and learn to be, active participants in democracy. But we decribed somewhat different strategies. I think both what you and I suggest are needed if this is going to happen in most schools for virtually all students.

I start with ideas developed by folks associated with the “What Kids Can do” website and the National Youth Leadership Council. NYLC has summarized research supporting combining classroom work and community service. “What Kids Can Do” has a great quote here, from you: “There’s a radical--and wonderful--new idea here... that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

After studying youth/community service for more than a decade, NYLC developed standards for what it thinks must be included in effective efforts to help young people learn how and why to be actively involved in the community. These standards include “meaningful service, reflection, youth voice, progress monitoring, link to curriculum, diversity, partnerships, duration and intensity.”

I’ve tried to include these key features yearly, for more than 30 years of K-graduate school school teaching. For example, as part of class work, K-3 students and I researched, designed, gathered materials for and built a new school playground. In other classes, teenagers and I successfully challenged some polluting businesses and helped people pursue complaints with government and business groups. In a graduate school class I taught for more than 20 years, students interviewed and then summarized experience of people trying to improve Minnesota’s education laws. The compiled summaries were one of the texts for graduate students the following year. Each of these classes followed NYLC recommendations:

  • Students believed that reducing pollution or solving consumer problems was meaningful.
  • They help design the projects.
  • We monitored progress, and refined efforts based on success or lack of it.
  • Students saw how developing research, writing, reading and public speaking skills helped their efforts.
  • We often worked with other community groups, reflecting St. Paul’s considerable diversity, with similar goals. This included attorneys who volunteered to help students, other anti-pollution and other consumer protection groups.
  • Projects often lasted a semester, and sometimes an entire year.

We helped them develop the beliefs that they could be successful in challenging powerful groups, skills that they needed, and the attitudes that standing up in the face of apparent injustice is important, and finally, that it is possible to make a difference.

As I’d leave it to a school to decide details of the service/learning projects they’d, carry out, I’d suggest schools decide exactly how they would gather insights from, and include in governance, their families, students and educators. There would be some guidelines (like schools can’t decide to have admissions tests or discriminate against certain students). Details are important. The overall culture should honor the values described above.

Deborah responds:

Dear Joe,

I’m coming to it from a different emphasis--less on “doing good” perhaps. And more on the structures that make “good work” easier to do.

My focus is on immersing young people into a setting of adults who are both interesting and opinionated, and who enjoy being active and powerful actors in the world--the world of their school, neighborhood, and society. Our schools don’t presently even give the adults--parents or faculty--such opportunities, much less the students. What do we imagine students learn from the way their parents and teachers are treated?

Human beings have always learned to become adults by being apprentice adults. So my basics involve how we can create conditions in which adults can show the young what being a responsible and empowered adult entails.

Reminder: kids are hardly likely to admire powerlessness. They seek adults who enjoy, relish adulthood! Yet more and more today the faculty aren’t even treated as experts in their own fields! Teachers also must treat their students’ families in ways that do not reduce them to powerlessness. I want kids who want to grow-up!

Kids need to watch adults argue, discuss, and act on behalf of collectively decided issues. Including the curriculum and rules. They need to see well-grounded opinions honored, respected and effective.

They need an adult community that cares and respects them. One that is not threatened when they speak out, even occasionally impolitely. They need to be seen as particular individuals, not as labels or numbers or categories--SPED, IEP, Gifted, #4 reader, etc. They need to know and be known in authentic ways.

So, they need political structures that give schools the freedom to be “real life"--not just to prepare them for it. Each community needs to be able to figure out the best schedule, topics of study, projects, and assessments while also being free to revise, revise, revise. This means sufficient time -- daily, weekly, annually and over the decades - to be responsible citizens of their schools.

Joe responds:

Deb, I think both what students see, and what they do, are important. The modeling adults do is very powerful. So yes, the political structure in which schools and educators operate is important. So are the kind of learning opportunities that adults offer for students.

Well before the focus on test scores that came from NCLB, relatively few schools were carrying out comprehensive, intensive youth/community service learning projects that are discussed above. This is not just for example, “holding a Thanksgiving food drive for poor people.” It’s about studying the causes of poverty, and then taking constructive action to help reduce it in the students’ community and perhaps in their state and country. So I think it’s vital to promote more opportunities for youngsters to combine classroom work and community service.

At the same time, educators who are forced to use a scripted curriculum or pressured to devote enormous amounts of time to drilling for standardized tests, won’t be able to use these strategies. So autonomy and resources, which you stress, are important. I also think that knowledge of, and belief in, the kind of learning opportunities I’ve described, are vital. It’s both and, not either or, if we are to help young people understand how they can, as you so eloquently explained, be “makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.