Engaging Young Citizens

In Washington, DC, preschool and primary educators have teamed up with the Children Are Citizens project. The results are intriguing; the methods worth replicating.

From l. to r.: Students from Seaton Elementary sketching a sculpture while in dialog with the artist (in fedora), Zachary Oxman; A portion of Oxman’s sculpture, “Symphony in DC Major,” featuring famous city resident, Duke Ellington; A finished portrait of the Duke.

As curricular priorities have fluctuated over the last few decades, one subject that has received increasingly short shrift, particularly in elementary schools, is citizenship. Working to address this pedagogical deficit, Professors Ben Mardell and Mara Krechevsky at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education research center Project Zero have been mentoring preschool and primary educators in Washington, DC, for the past four years. The results are intriguing; the methods worth replicating.

The name of their project, Children Are Citizens (CAC) , signals the Reggio Emilia [Italy] -inspired notion that children possess the capacity to notice, think about, and have an impact on the things that interest or concern them. With an aim to engage educators in curriculum exploration and professional development, CAC asks: What happens when we treat children as not only future citizens, but as current citizens?

Whether they fulfill the legal definition of citizenship or are undocumented, young people live in communities, locally and globally, and have ideas to offer and contributions to make to society. CAC firmly believes “that recognition of the rights of young children to participate in the civic discourse of their city nurtures the relationship with their surroundings and supports the development of important life skills such as critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication.” And that in doing so, “…we create communities of learners who are interested in understanding other perspectives and who desire to participate in the civic life around them.”

The DC model involves children aged three to seven who attend participating public, private, and charter schools. Classrooms are encouraged to find an “it”—a problem or subject that piques their interest during travels around the neighborhood or city. The group then investigates the topic with in-depth support from cultural partners such as the DC Public Library, National Air and Space Museum, National Gallery of Art, National Building Museum, and Imagination Stage. Each months-long exploration is documented, and every classroom contributes a chapter about their process and findings to a book printed by the National Gallery of Art (and celebrated there at an author day in the spring). Funding has been provided by PNC Bank, Fight for Children, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Topics have ranged from gridlock and a missing tree to a Duke Ellington sculpture. After bemoaning the absence of a DC monument specifically for children, the Pre-K4s at Sacred Heart Elementary School designed one and have been trying to convince the mayor to build it. Kindergartners at DC Bilingual Charter School suggested the creation of street signs with jokes to lighten the mood of the grumpy drivers they observed during traffic delays.

The investigations, although originating from student interest, are tied to curriculum goals, in this case, DC Public Schools’ Early Learning Standards, and can be worked seamlessly into existing structures. CAC projects align with a host of standards from the development of inquiry, vocabulary, and communication skills to the observation, collection, and interpretation of data. Problem-solving, decision-making, the presentation of knowledge, and basic geographical concepts, as well as the understanding of self within context of the community are also addressed.

Training and evaluation

Teachers and cultural partners attend monthly evening seminars coordinated by the Professional Development Collaborative at the Washington International School, where among other topics, they learn about developing students’ thinking strategies or “habits of mind”—patterns for observing, analyzing, and questioning. Project Zero researchers believe that these “ thinking routines,” when practiced and absorbed over time, help learners develop a disposition that they can return to in a variety of settings and situations as they approach and engage with problems, ideas, and one other.

One such strategy is titled “See, Think, Wonder” and employs the questions: What do you see? What do you think about that? What does it make you wonder? Deceptively simple and easily remembered, this versatile routine can be applied to a work of art, or something noticed on a walk or during a ride. It encourages slow looking, reflection, and curiosity across disciplines.

It was habits of mind that school administrators commented on during a panel about teacher support at the October 2018 CAC conference in Washington, DC. While classroom explorations led to a variety of positive outcomes, the increase in civic discourse and engagement were especially striking to educators—particularly in students who had been in the program for four years. All of the administrators referenced CAC students’ ability to articulate what they were thinking and wondering—and their motivation to pursue those interests.

Julia Senerchia, director of data, planning, and accountability at W.E. Stokes Public Charter School, described how “audacious” her students had become in conducting research and putting forth their ideas for a new playground design at the school. When students are listened to, its “transformative,” observed Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, principal at Van Ness Elementary School. Elise Heil, principal at Sacred Heart Bilingual School, noted the project’s impact on literacy, saying Sacred Heart’s CAC students were reading well above grade level and that teacher focus had shifted to provide for student-driven interests, increasing engagement.

When children see themselves as citizens and are empowered to act, amazing things can happen. In May 2017, after their CAC project had been submitted to the citywide book and celebrated, Georgina Ardalan’s Pre-K3s at J.O. Wilson Elementary School noticed stinky storm drains on the playground. After a classroom conversation, Ardalan compiled the students’ observations and concerns in a letter to DC Water. The utility responded with a visit; the cleaning process, complete with large trucks and a jet/vac, is documented in a second book authored by the children and on DC Water's website . It is unlikely that the children will forget this moment; their enthusiasm and efforts also impacted the utility employees, who have a new appreciation for the magic of their work. The teacher’s facilitation of the experience—and the students’ ownership—can be traced directly to the ways of thinking provided by CAC.

From l. to r.: Students from J. O. Wilson Elementary noticing the stinky, trash-filled storm drains on their playground; Young citizens get an exciting response to their playground problem.

Bringing the lessons of CAC home

What can educators outside the beltway do to facilitate these behaviors?

  • Read more about the notion of children as citizens in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and Washington, DC, in Children are Citizens: The Everyday and the Razzle-Dazzle , an article co-written by Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, Tiziana Filippini, and Maddelena Tedeschi.
  • Identify a colleague with whom to partner and share thoughts.
  • Start small, inviting children to further explore a student-initiated idea or interest that ties into existing curricula and standards.
  • Select a thinking strategy from Project Zero’s website to inspire and frame the journey.
  • Document the learning to help you, your colleagues, and students reflect on what was learned.

Project Zero’s Krechevsky has spent years investigating the manifold purposes and forms of documentation. Its importance is highlighted in a recent interview with Krechevsky titled Making Learning Visible . The variety of CAC directions taken in DC can be accessed in an electronic version of its 2016-17 book Washington, DC: “What People Like Most Is In This Book!” Chapters document the depth and breadth of the experiences of 17 classrooms in six schools.

Perhaps most importantly, provide space and time to hear what your students are thinking about. As Maru Ramirez, a Pre-K4 teacher at Sacred Heart, explains, “Listening to students, following their lead, and pushing their thinking with provocations—these are the three things that have given me an opportunity to let my students’ thinking about DC go deeper. Through all of this, I have realized that it is not how I prepare a lesson; it’s how I react to my students’ thinking.” The events of each passing day remind us how important this work on deep thinking and community building is.

Wendy Lukehart is the Youth Collections Coordinator at the Washington, DC, Public Library.

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