How do we, as teachers, get kids to develop the habits of mind and skills to be thoughtful, participating citizens? I think about this question often. Daily, as a matter of fact, in my 5th grade classroom. Children have a great capacity for caring, an endless supply of energy and creativity, and are dauntless in their sense of duty.
The ways that I encourage civic participation are integrated into everything that I do in my classroom. It all starts with our Morning Meetings which include sharing about our lives and current events that the kids have seen and heard about at home or in the media. I question and listen. I require my students to question and be active listeners. We read books together that have themes of caring and civic involvement. We adopt service learning projects that help others and our school. I take time to recognize students for their selflessness. I encourage them to recognize one another. My language arts and social studies curriculum is chock full of people who’ve found a way to inspire and help others. If these ideas sound interesting, read on.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one of the pillars of our school mission. Every class has a Peace Table. Every teacher has resources to teach skills like empathy and peaceful problem solving. Every child recites our Peace Keeper Pledge daily and has the tools to be agents of change. My classroom Peace Table is not just a place to solve problems between students, but it is a place for my students to re-enact times in history where a protagonist and an antagonist can discuss their differences and solve problems from history. These Peace Table Talks require my students to apply what they know about history and problem solving in a creative simulation. They are fearless.
Another aspect of our SEL program is Morning Meeting. In 5th grade we have formal Morning Meetings on Mondays and Fridays where we follow the Greeting, Sharing, Activity, and Morning Message format. Other days our Morning Meeting is less formal and includes current events, read aloud, and Second Step (our SEL curriculum). Providing time for my students to share and discuss personal, community, and world events inspires them to be aware of current events so that they can discuss them. I bring in the newspaper daily so that on Fridays they can spread out all over the classroom and find interesting articles, editorials, and political cartoons that we analyze. This simple act builds civic awareness and involvement. The events in Ferguson, Missouri have led to many interesting conversations and connections to the Civil Rights Movement of the 5os.
We just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a tough, sweet, 10-year-old boy, who was born with distorted facial features. My students made many connections to their lives and social justice issues throughout the story. By taking the time to see the world through the eyes of a boy their age with challenging physical differences, their awareness and sense of social justice was awakened. I believe it has changed the way they see the world and people who are different than they are. That is a valuable trait in our ever changing diverse community. Other books we read that encourage and inspire social justice are: Seedfolks, Any Small Goodness, The Graduation of Jake Moon, and Among the Hidden. Each of these novels has opportunities for students to get involved and make a positive difference in their school or community.
Making a difference in our school, local, and global communities is a theme in our Lil’ Longhorn 5th grade. We volunteer to collect, count, and send in our Box Tops for Education for the whole school. We volunteer to spend time with our Pre-K buddies each week to read and work on vocabulary and build trust and mentors along the way. We volunteer for Keep Austin Beautiful to do a lake-side clean-up and water quality testing. We also sponsor a school each year to help them have clean water and sanitary latrines through a non-profit organization called H2O for Life. Over the past 6 years, we’ve raised between $1,000.00-$2,000.00 each year for schools in Haiti, Tanzania, Guatemala, Kenya, South Sudan, and this year Democratic Republic of Congo. Our 5th graders research, make posters, blog, and write letters to Congress about the need for clean water so that children have the opportunity for an education. That, my friends, children as civic agents of change.
One last example of how we encourage our students to be agents of change is through a week-long dramatic experience called Creative Action. In 5th grade, our Lil’ Longhorns get to learn through simulating historical social situations and becoming secret “agents” of change. They join the ranks of other agents of change like Cesar Chavez, Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela, and others. These dramatic exercises are inspiring and give our students the confidence to take on the world.
Developing habits of mind and the skills to be thoughtful, participating citizens is such an important part of teaching. I hope some of these ideas will inspire you to do the same.