Democratic Citizenship In Today’s Schools
Along with robust character development, a solid foundation in Democratic Citizenship Education is essential for the future success of our county. If you own a television, subscribe to a newspaper, or engage in social media, it is no secret that political campaigns and mainstream media provide learning experiences in staunch contrast to the democratic principles and ethics upon which our country was founded. Certainly, societal trends can account for this reality. However, perhaps it is the educational system which has failed to establish and embed the founding characteristics of democratic citizenship within our students, and thereby our American citizenry as a whole. If we are to change this current trajectory, we must take deliberate action.
Throughout my career, I have taken intentional steps to promote Democratic Citizenship among my students. Each of my three years as an elementary teacher, our grade level team organized, rehearsed and conducted a patriotic program for our school, parents and community. I’ll never forget the pride observed on the faces of these students as United States Marines surprised them, and stood on guard throughout their performances. Later, as an elementary principal, our team selected “An All-American School” as our year-long theme. On our first day of school, 450 students looked to the sky in awe, as members of the Army National Guard landed a Huey Helicopter at our school. The high school band then performed the National Anthem followed by an armed forces medley, while the ROTC Cadets presented the Colors. Recently as a superintendent, our team again selected “An All-American School” as an annual theme. And again, our men and women in uniform came through for our students. On our first day of school, soldiers in uniform stood at attention aside their Humvees and service vehicles at each of our school entrances. They shook hands and gave high fives to students as they returned from summer break for their first day of learning for the new school year. Later that year, the school engaged in a memorandum of understanding with the local military based to further enhance our district’s ability to service military students and the challenges faced by their frequent mobility.
These are but a few examples of how my educational teams and I have created meaningful experiences to ignite students’ interest in democracy and the founding principles of America. These experiences have been part of a comprehensive educational program designed to accomplish Democratic Citizenship among students. ASCD suggests four primary components as a foundation for a comprehensive Democratic Citizenship educational program:
To prepare for democratic citizenship, students must learn to exercise their rights and understand their responsibilities. Democratic education supports that process through policies, curriculum, organizational structures, and instructional practices that both teach relevant content and provide opportunities for students to safely practice newly developed skills. Students must be provided opportunities to express personal opinions, make meaningful choices, and solve problems together in ways that reflect democratic processes inherent to society.
Civil and constructive discourse is the language of democracy. Students must learn to communicate as thoughtful citizens by discussing school and community issues, as well as political topics, including current events and controversies. Democracy requires free and thoughtful exchange; a democratic education provides a forum for all its stakeholders—students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators—to think critically, listen actively, and express personal convictions.
Democratic education is not limited to a class lecture, an extracurricular activity, or even to the school grounds. It requires students to learn civic participation skills in critical thinking, constructive debate, problem solving, collaboration, and working in groups. These skills must be reinforced through meaningful practice: community service projects, integrated service learning, participation in student government and student courts, and involvement in school and community decision making.
We live in an increasingly global society, one in which a nation’s progress depends on understanding the world beyond its borders. Democratic education provides opportunities for students to learn about and understand other cultures and to develop a commitment to protecting the inalienable rights of all. It extends students’ perspectives on rights and responsibilities to consider those of others as well as their own.
Personally speaking, two of my most prized possessions are American Flags. On the first day of the first year of the new millennium, I was fortunate to receive assistance from a Congressman and family friend to have a United States Flag flown over the United States Capital building. On that same day, I proposed to my wife. The flag later became a wedding gift to her and now is framed and displayed in our home office. A second flag was flown over the United States Capital in 2009, when I visited Washington D.C. for the Blue Ribbon Schools Ceremony. That flag has been displayed in my school office since that time. Both flags serve as a constant reminder that it is my responsibility as both a father and as an educator to ensure my children and the students in my care are provided a solid democratic citizenship foundation.
In the personal examples listed above, one resounding theme rings true. The service men and women of our country are ready and willing to serve our country, not just on the battlefield, but in our schools, in our classrooms, and throughout our communities. It is through our efforts, and through the real-life experiences and interactions with those who serve, that our children will truly understand the democratic principles and processes upon which our country was founded, and upon which our country will prosper in the future.
For more information, visit www.ascd.org.