Teaching Young Americans What it Means to be a Good Citizen
Citizenship education, to give it a name, does not simply belong to the social studies teacher. -- Peter S. Hlebowitsh, Daniel Tanner and William G. Wraga, 2000
Statement of Generative Theme.
Children born today will probably never know a day and age when mankind does not have a permanent presence in outer space, and the world is becoming a much smaller place as the result of innovations in telecommunications, international commerce and transportation. In this changing environment, it becomes increasingly important for young Americans to understand what it means to be a good citizen, and what their responsibilities and obligations are to their local communities and their country. To this end, this paper provides an educational approach for promoting improved citizenship awareness at the community level through a small group approach to learning.
The small group format is particularly appropriate for helping young people learn more citizenship and what it actually means to be an American citizen today. This exercise in citizenship has also assumed new importance today as the United States faces some of the most difficult challenges since the end of World War II in confronting a global war on terrorism while it prosecutes an active military campaign on several fronts. Young people today may never have known a day when there was no Internet, cable television or International Space Station, but likewise they have also never been subjected to the vagaries of mandatory military service either. While thousands of patriotic men and women bravely march off to confront these challenges today, the armed forces are already feeling the strain of meeting their global humanitarian responsibilities as evinced by the need to fight a war in Afghanistan and Iraq while providing aid and assistance to the enormous numbers of tsunami-related casualties in Asia.
Clearly, young people today need to learn how important it is to remain vigilant in the exercise of their constitutional rights, including the right to cast their vote when they turn 18. While the role of the public schools in America has not changed in any substantive way over the years, the curriculum certainly has; today, politically correct classrooms must avoid any mention of potentially offensive historical facts and teachers are struggling to cope with overcrowded classroom that do not seem to be getting any better.
Therefore, there is a growing need for community and church leaders to provide young people with a comprehensive assessment of just what it means to be an American citizen today -- and in the future. According to Kodrzycki, throughout the 20th century, the United States assumed a leadership position in improving the educational attainment of its general population; this notable achievement has contributed to the growth of the nation through improved productivity, as well as providing new opportunities for citizens who have previously been marginalized for whatever reason. "Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century," Kodrzycki says, "U.S. institutions of higher learning retain an excellent reputation for quality. Less confidence exists, however, in the educational system's ability to meet broad economic and social objectives adequately. This uncertainty stems in part from the shifting global economy and the evolving nature of employment" (emphasis added).
According to Marshall, citizenship as an institution emerged in the closing years of the 17th century, with its growth being a concomitant of the rise of capitalism; he writes that:
Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. There is no universal principle that determines what those rights and duties shall be, but societies in which citizenship is a developing institution create an image of an ideal citizen against which achievement can be measured and towards which aspiration can be directed.
What the country needs today, then, is a citizenship education program to augment what is currently being taught in the civics classes in schools to help ensure that the United States has an informed and thinking citizenry in the future.
According to Beckerman, Kim and Parks, many high school students only possess a superficial and rudimentary understanding of American civics; further, studies have shown that a majority of them do not have any depth of understanding of this important subject. "For example," they note, "although almost all twelfth graders had a basic knowledge of civics in terms of elections, laws, and constitutional rights, only about half understood specific government structures and functions."
Even more alarming, just 6% of these students have any sort of knowledge and understanding of governmental institutions such as the cabinet or the judiciary.
The results of the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report Card in Civics showed that only 38% of eighth graders knew that Congress makes laws in this country and Beckerman et al. caution that this paucity of civics awareness can only inhibit students' motivation to participate in civic activities. Helping these young citizens become better versed in civics, then, is in the best interests of the country as well as the students involved. When young people learn more about their country in outside settings, they will bring new and enriched ideas to the classroom that will help their classmates achieve an enhanced appreciation for both the subject matter and the part they play as well.
A small group setting will be used as the educational approach for this exercise in citizenship. The small group format has been shown time and again to be an effective method of imparting educational material, and its use in the church in particular for helping people learn was affirmed throughout the New Testament. Well-designed small group earning activities provide new opportunities for young people to think critically, to improve their communication skills, and to implement action projects.
According to Beckerman et al., "Because students lack an understanding of civics, many schools are searching for ways to improve civic education and include participatory learning in their curricula."
Others have also recommended a more balanced approach to both formal and informal citizenship education. A more balanced approach to civics education in this country would embrace outside learning opportunities such as those envisioned herein with a focus on preparing young people today to become more active citizens in the future. These authors emphasize that "a balanced approach would include a public-interest orientation, especially as it relates to discussion of current critical issues and student participation in community service or other activities that involve them in the democratic life of the community."
Citing recommendations from the National Council for the Social Studies, Beckerman and his colleagues note that this organization also supports the standards and pointed out that "social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic" (emphasis added).
Small group settings that involve a high degree of participatory components have long been recognized as an effective way to help teach young people about civics and their roles as citizens. According to Richardson, these techniques have been shown to be the most effective and are also the most likely to produce active citizens.
This educational approach is also supported by Hobson and Zack, who note that young people must understand how to actively participate in a system if they are going to make the changes they want.
"Active participation projects and service learning may supplement the existing curriculum or add new dimensions to it," Beckerman et al. add, "As a project, students could gather information on a particular issue and/or disseminate it to become better informed or to inform the public. With an action project, students could attempt 'to exert influence on public policy'" (emphasis added).
Most young people love action and computers -- and everyone loves good food, and these workshops represent a good opportunity to use them to good advantage to help young people learn more about their country and their increasingly important roles as citizens in the future.
An Image of the Event.
The small group citizenship education workshops will be held at community centers, churches, businesses or other facilities that have the equipment and resources needed for this exercise. The group leader will be an adult volunteer from a community organization or a local church that has been recruited for the purpose and provided with the materials and trained in the methodology beforehand. The small group participants will be comprised of between 10 and 25 young people ages 14 to 18 years; the small group will be divided into smaller groups of five, assigned a group number, and provided with an Internet-enabled personal computer and color-capable printer with a sufficient amount of supplies such as notepads, pencils and pens, construction paper, scissors, and other graphic art materials as resources and circumstances allow.
The individual groups will be instructed to develop a portfolio for their assigned topic and will be allotted one hour to complete this task. An introductory…