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4 Ways to Promote & Practice Citizenship in Your Classroom

By Dr. Peter Levine

The purpose of social studies education is to prepare students to take informed action in their communities and our democracy — throughout their lives.

Teachers empower students to find their path: a path toward higher education and a career, toward deeper learning and discovery, and even toward self-awareness and contentment. One of the most important paths is to active citizenship: using our work, our ideas, and our voices to shape the world around us.

Here are four key practices social studies teachers can implement to promote and practice citizenship in the classroom:

Practice Taking Informed Action

Citizenship requires active participation. An excellent way to learn to be an active citizen is to practice engagement in the community of the school and beyond. Students can actually collect and analyze information, express their views, influence change, and interact with governing bodies.

There are several models you can use to help your students practice taking informed action in a classroom environment:

Civics Projects. Groups of students brainstorm issues in their community (whether within or outside the school), choose an issue to work on together, investigate it, plan some type of action, implement their plan, and evaluate and present the results. This model is ambitious and time-consuming, but valuable!

Simulations. Students practice taking informed action in mock trials and simulated elections or political conventions. In a true simulation, they plan and take action in a virtual setting, whether face-to-face or online. A related approach is for students to plan strategies for addressing real-world issues without actually implementing their plans, or they may take actions that require minimal time, such as posting comments on a proposed government regulation or emailing an elected official.

School groups. In student-led clubs, teams, and organizations, students learn how to recruit members, raise funds, reach consensus, and take collective action. Meanwhile, social studies teachers can use class time to make connections between student-led groups and the social studies curriculum. For instance, they can analyze how student groups use methods that are also implemented in adult communities, such as holding elections or managing budgets.

Develop Global Competency

Becoming a fully informed and responsible citizen of the United States requires students to understand that the world is, and always has been, deeply interconnected. Students should also be aware of the world beyond the United States’ borders — of the nations, communities, and people that are inherently connected to their own lives.

To develop global competency, students need to have a thorough understanding of the following:

History. Students deepen global competency when they learn that American history and world history are closely linked. They should understand that the U.S. emerged as a result of global interactions and conflicts, grew because of conquest and global migration, and continues to influence global cultures, economies, and militaries.

Global challenges and relationships. Informed citizens know that many of the world’s most significant issues are international — such as climate change or pandemics — and solving challenges that affect all of us requires international cooperation. Nations cooperate through treaties, diplomats, and summits, while people cooperate across borders through groups and movements.

The value of nuanced comparison. Students cannot join or understand the important (and widely debated) discussion of “American Exceptionalism” without understanding some of the other systems of the world. The United States is unique in some ways but is typical in many others, including in its laws, policies, constitutions, and economic systems. Learning about other countries is a way of informing our judgments about our own system.

Types of citizenship. Being a citizen of the United States comes with specific rights and responsibilities that all students should learn. However, our citizenship doesn’t extend to our nation alone. Rather, we are citizens of all the communities to which we belong, from a child’s kindergarten classroom to a social media platform that a person uses, to the whole world.

Recognizing their own background as an asset. Many Americans have personal memories of countries from which they migrated or family members who are first-generation immigrants. When students know about their own families’ countries, cultures, and regions of origin, they can contribute that knowledge to the social studies classroom. In turn, treating all students with respect requires some understanding of their countries of origin. This is an important awareness for teachers as well.

Strengthen Digital Media Literacy Skills

Informed citizens collect information from various media sources to form opinions and make voting decisions. However, students are growing up in a far more complex digital media environment than what their teachers and parents experienced in their youth. Beyond the difference between an opinion piece and a news piece, today’s learners must navigate a vast network of misinformation — some of which is strikingly convincing (such as “deep fakes”) and some of which is generated on social media by a “bot” rather than by a human. Sorting fact from fiction in our media environment has never been more challenging.

In the social studies classroom, students should explore their own role in digital media — as consumers of news and sharers of information. Students should begin to understand how social media sites, search engines, and other digital platforms use algorithms to present content to audiences. They should be encouraged to ask questions about the source, motives, values, and factual basis of everything they choose to read or watch and share with others — and the impact of their actions within a larger media environment.

Engage in Difficult Conversations

Democracy requires discussion. It requires us to listen to opposing views, consider foreign perspectives, and respectfully work through dialogue to reach solutions. By most accounts, today’s adults are not exceptionally skilled at engaging in different conversations. In a country where people are largely ideologically divided, today’s students may struggle to find positive models of democracy in action.

It’s critical that students learn to talk about contested issues with people who disagree and gain insights, knowledge, and empathy from such conversations. They should learn to argue respectfully with their fellow students and disagree about matters of principle without despising the people with whom they disagree. Social studies classrooms are an excellent place to hone those skills.

For teachers, choosing topics for classroom discussion can be difficult. Here are a few tips for selecting challenging but productive discussion topics:

  • Select at least a few topics that are debated in the world today. Don’t limit your students to topics that were resolved in the past.
  • Topics should be presented as “issues,” or problems that people disagree about how to solve.
  • When selecting topics, consider your students’ perspectives on issues. If all students agree about something, it’s likely not a great choice for a discussion.
  • Consider how students’ backgrounds and identities will impact their views on an issue. If students are likely to be split on a topic along the lines of race or gender, it may be a difficult subject to navigate in a way that benefits all learners.

For more on how to promote and practice citizenship in your classroom, see Dr. Levine’s full guide, here:

Peter Levine, Ph.D., is Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. He was co-organizer of the Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), chair of the civics committee for the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework (2013), and one of the Principal Investigators of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap (2021).

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