What do citizenship, social justice, empathy, social networking and a high school classroom have to do with each other? In my classroom the answer is EVERYTHING. My mission is simple yet absolutely necessary to helping my students prepare for their futures.
Mission statement: Support my students to become not only informed but aware, not only aware but empathetic, not only empathetic but active, not only active but connected, not only connected but reflective and ready to create real life solutions to real life problems.
In a time when the global community is literally in our backyard, it becomes our duty (and privilege, I think) as educators to not only open the door to important questions and information but give our students access to tools and technologies that will help them connect to the global community, share their work, have relevant discussions, discover, learn, grow and develop. We need to help them become knowledgeable people, fitted out with the skills and tools they require to travel any path they choose to take outside of the classroom -- and to cope with whatever they come across.
I began this school year with a list of questions that could help me envision, plan, reflect and maintain focus on where my students and I needed to be when the last bell rings in late May.
Some questions especially relevant to this post are:
• How can I ensure my students are gaining purposeful and relevant 21st century knowledge and skills every day?
• How can 20th century standards be adapted to support 21st century students?
• How can I embed empathy, adaptability, and problem solving into every class I teach?
• How can I create a global environment in my local classroom?
Out of my personal questioning and reflection came what would be the essential question for my 11th grade social studies students during our time together: What does it mean to be a citizen nationally, globally and digitally?
To support my Tarrant (AL) High School students in pursuit of this question, we created and engaged in the iCitizenship project, a collaborative effort (with Dr. Marialice Curran’s freshman seminar at St. Joseph’s College) to create a variety of public service announcements (PSAs) in various media. Through this project, my soon-to-be-voters are helping inform many audiences about what a 21st century citizen is and how a 21st century person should practice citizenship in national, global and digital contexts.
As students work to inform a larger, global audience about iCitizenship, they are simultaneously equipping themselves to be advocates and putting their definitions into action. It's crucial that we help them understand the clear difference between the bare-bones qualifications to be a citizen and what it means to be an active, empathetic, aware person practicing citizenship. Then we need to support them as they work through the complexities of citizenship today from a school, city, state, regional, national, global and (increasingly important) digital or "connected" perspective.
One thing often left out of state standards and curriculum is character building. Yet it's a clear component of citizenship at every level. As a social studies teacher, it becomes nearly second nature for me to tie every lesson back to humanity, humility, civility, and right versus wrong. I know many other teachers (and not just in social studies) share this view. But because "character" is seldom a required learning target, it's being left out of a lot of public school classrooms, creating serious problems.
Many students simply do not understand the who, what, when, where, why and how of citizenship. The iCitizenship project both supports students in understanding 21st century citizenship and creates opportunities for young adults to take ownership and practice it on multiple levels. My students skyped, tweeted, blogged and connected with people, young and old, from all over the world during this project.
They also facilitated and lead a twitter chat about iCitizenship and skyped into an iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting at St. Joseph's College and engaged with a physical and virtual crowd of several hundred people. The event was also live streamed over the internet and generated nearly 1000 tweets.
My students were totally energized by the event. I could not get them to leave school or stop tweeting about it! They saw the changes they could make in people's perceptions and understanding. And they realized how possible, even easy, it is to connect with people from anywhere and everywhere. They believed what they were doing was not only purposeful, it was necessary. They began to realize that they could literally “be the change they wished to see in the world.”
I saw attitudes transform, heard critical ideas being voiced, and read the most thoughtful 140-character twitter speech bubbles I have ever seen. I saw passions being born right before my eyes because they not only were committed to the project, they believed in its ability to bring about positive change in themselves, their community, and yes even the world.
Preparing our students to be active, empathetic, aware citizens and participants of our society is completely possible but we have to start making citizenship something that is embedded into every curriculum and classroom. If we don't, we are going to continue seeing a generation of Americans who are not only disengaged from what goes on in the world around them but have no idea how to approach or solve problems that need the attention of active citizens.
The iCitizen project is proof that not only can students of today understand national, global and digital citizenship, they can embrace it, take ownership of it, and make it their personal mission to support and educate others to be upstanding national, global and digital citizens of today.
If that's not the purpose of public schooling, then I don’t know what is.
My Students' Questions
I asked my students: "What would you ask other students and teachers after they learned about the iCitizen project?” They came up with three questions:
How do you promote citizenship in your classroom?
How are you and your students getting connected to the world to practice and promote 21st century citizenship?
What does being an iCitizen mean to you?