Our Students as Home-Grown Citizens: Democracy is Not Fast and Easy

By SARAH ANDERSON and ANNE GURNEE

Picture this in our public schools: 1st graders learn about food scarcity and then volunteer at a local food bank; 6th graders conduct a study about banana slugs for the local state park; 8th graders testify at city hall to ask the council to ban smoking in city parks.

What do these scenarios have in common? Sure, they are all hands-on educational experiences for young people. But these examples also illustrate democracy in action, an effort to grow citizens who will be both interested and active in their communities.

Why should public schools do this? Because it is our job. Where else will children learn the important work of being active citizens?

“It can be easy for young people to focus on rights without thinking about the flip side: responsibility. Too much ‘What do I get?’ and not enough ‘What can I do?’ ”

More often than not, schools are viewed as training grounds for college and careers. Of course, we want to remain economically competitive with other countries. But in this struggle for individual achievement, we sometimes forget the other purpose of free education in a democratic society: preparing the people to govern themselves. This preparation must go far beyond teaching students the power of the vote. Voting, alone, is not what makes a strong, self-governing society. Students must learn how to be involved in civic life. More than 100 years ago, John Dewey recognized the importance of “teaching” hands-on democracy in schools. He wrote, “Edu­cation is the preparation for the social position of life, the preparation of the individual to play his proper part in the community or state of which he is a member.”1

We use real-life learning at our small charter.school in Portland, Oregon. Southwest Charter School is a K-8 place-based school, which means we use the greater community as our classroom. The place-based learning movement has been an effort to localize learning-a version of the “eat local” movement for schools. Teachers anchor their curriculum in local history, people, locations, and issues. The process requires many field trips, guest speakers, and service-learning projects. Students observe adult citizens in action as they work alongside them in real community problem-solving projects.

Our end goal is for children to learn about and love the place where they live, enough to want to become actively engaged in caring for their community. We also aim to connect our students to the “think global, act local” philosophy by inspiring our budding citizens to apply their love of this place to other places in the world, or better yet, to the world at large.

Understanding Their Rights
With place-based learning, students learn about the rights and responsi­bilities of citizenship as authentically as possible: by doing.

Teaching about rights can be a little tricky. As a society, we tend to talk more about rights than about responsi­bilities as a way to safeguard against a government gaining too much power. In schools, there is a power imbalance between students and teachers just by nature of the age difference and the teacher-student relationship. But even within these dynamics, we can create safe and respectful classrooms where students can better understand why and how these dynamics exist.

“If we neglect to prepare them to be involved and active in their communities, we have missed an important part of their development.”

For example, all of our teachers and their students create class agreements at the beginning of the year to set classroom guidelines. In some class­rooms, teachers model their agreement after the U.S. Constitution, outlining the rights and responsibilities of the teacher and the students. If the agreement explicitly states that stu­dents have the right to learn in a safe and relaxed environment, then stu­dents will better understand why they are being asked to stop talking during class. It isn’t because the teacher is merely exercising her power; it is because she is protecting the collective rights of the class (one of the teacher’s responsibilities).

Class meetings are another right students have in our school. Based on the Positive Discipline model, all our students participate in weekly class meetings as a way to solve problems. In these meetings, students learn how to voice concerns, listen to others, brainstorm solutions, and evaluate outcomes. The power of conflict reso­lution shifts from the teacher to the students. Of course, not all conflicts can be solved this way, but this process has been an effective tool for teaching students how to self-govern. By the time they are in 6th grade, our stu­dents can lead class meetings without an adult.

As students grow in our program, we connect this classroom learning about rights to the bigger picture. Stu­dents learn about the Bill of Rights, civil rights, and-on a global scale­ human rights.

Responsibility in Action
Although the discussion of rights is extremely important, it can be easy for young people to focus on them without thinking about the flip side: responsibility. Too much “What do I get?” and not enough “What can I do?” Our school strives to focus on the latter.

Southwest Charter School works on a trimester model. Every trimester, teachers plan a place-based project for their classroom. To make the learning
authentic, teachers work with community partners to identify and meet a real need through project work. This means that most units contain some element of service learning.

Here are some examples of past projects:
• Our 1st and 2nd graders used the city as their learning laboratory by studying different places that make up a neighborhood, such as the fire station and hospital. In class, students made 3D maps to understand these places. In the field, students toured a bank, journeyed on an aerial tram to a nearby hospital, traveled to a historic firehouse, and interviewed a local developer about the future of our fast-changing neighborhood.

As a culminating project, students created a welcome guide for other children, filled with colorful drawings and informative statements. We are currently partnering with the neigh­borhood association to distribute the guides to new residents.
• When our 4th and 5th graders studied geology, they learned that the Geological Society of the Oregon Country offers a walking tour in downtown Portland called “Ancient Walls.” Although this walk is geared toward adults, we learned that the society was eager to create kid-friendly materials. We proposed creating a “quest,” a self-led educational scav­enger hunt, which the society could then distribute to teachers and families.

To design these quests, students visited a dormant volcanic vent (now a city park) and local science and geology museums. They worked in small groups to research locations of geological significance and then write a quest. Students visited their locations to gather facts and test out their quest. We will hold a celebration later this year when we present the quest to the Geological Society.
• Last winter, our 7th and 8th graders studied immigration in America. Students went on two walking tours of historical immi­grant neighborhoods in Portland- Japantown and South Portland. They also invited guest speakers to the school, including a local immigration lawyer and the head of the Human Trafficking Task Force in Portland.

At the end of the unit, students hosted a naturalization ceremony in partnership with the United States Department of Citizenship and Immigration. They welcomed 10 new citizens to the country by decorating the school’s main room, providing food and drink for a reception, and singing the national anthem. After the ceremony, students inter­viewed the participants to learn more about their stories.

By integrating service learning into our curriculum, we teach children that they are powerful participants in their community and that they all have something to con­tribute. In this way, they are not just “waiting in the wings” to become active citizens; they are doing it now. This also helps students see that learning is not just something you do in school-it is part of everyday life.

Connecting to Faces and Places
Like the democratic process, the place-based learning process is not fast and easy. Building relationships, with partner organizations takes time and effort. If we want more than a superficial relationship, we need to really get to know whom we are working with, their history, and their vision for the future. In its most ideal form, place-based learning works in conjunction with partners’ long­term plans to ensure that.the school’s work is helping to accomplish the partner’s goals. In this way, a school is not a separate, isolated institution, but a more integrated part of the community.

For instance, we have an ongoing relationship with a continuing care community that sits four blocks from our school. The facility initially hosted some middle school students for service work, but the residents and activities director have enthusiastically welcomed ideas for other collabora­tions, including a reading buddies program between the residents and our 1st and 2nd graders. For years, this amazing resource was just down the street from us, but it took intent and resources to create a real two-way connection.

There is no shortage of ways that students can connect to people and places in their communities. Our school started a program called Adopt­a-Place. Every grade level has part­nered with a nearby public land, such as a neighborhood park or wildlife refuge. Each class will visit its place at least six times over the course of the year. Two of those visits are service-related, and the other four are incorporated into the curriculum in other ways, such as through language arts, science, or art. By encouraging connection and stewardship, we are teaching our students the importance of caring for our place. By the end of their nine years at our school, they will have made deeper connections with several physical locations in their city-places they will fight to protect in the future.

When our students enter 7th and 8th grades, they participate in an eight-week service internship program. Once a week, the students disperse across the city in small groups, trav­eling to different agencies, including the American Red Cross and Portland’s Children’s Book Bank. In these intern­ships, students become intimately involved in the work being done by one particular agency. They learn how community support happens, and they witness adults invested in this mean­ingful and community-driven work.

Our middle school students also take part in Project Citizen every spring. They choose and investigate a problem in our community, research policy-based solutions, and put their solutions into action. Through this program, students have helped pass a citywide ban on smoking in parks, developed a campaign to encourage dog owners to pick up after their pets, and presented to the Portland Department of Transportation on ways to deal with unpaved streets. These projects are perfect ways for students to realize their full potential as demo­cratic citizens and change agents.

As schools, we strive to prepare our students for their academic and career endeavors, but if we neglect to prepare them to be involved and active in their communities, we have missed an important part of their development. We know our students will be the problem-solvers of the future, but solving problems does not happen in a vacuum. Our most pressing societal problems are embedded within com­munities and their dynamics.
At Southwest Charter School, we work to ensure that our students expe­rience the richness of what community involvement can offer, both for them and their neighbors. We help them to see that they are already citizens of their community, even as children, and they can play a role in making it a better place to live and work. With that empowering notion, our students are prepared to become tomorrow’s leaders of our communities and stewards of our democracy.

1. Dewey,J. (1990). Educational lectures before Brigham Young Academy: Social aspects of education. In]. A. Boydston
(Ed.),John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, Vol 17 (p. 226). Carbondale & Edwardsville, IL Southern Illinois Uni­versity Press.

Sarah Anderson (sarahanderson@swcharter.org) is fieldwork and place-based education coordinator at Southwest Charter School in Portland, Oregon. Anne Gurnee was formerly the education director at the same school. This article originally appeared in Educational Leadership.

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