Citizenship and Elementary Education- how do you teach that?

July 09, 2015

Citizenship and the Elementary Classroom – a seamless, perfect pair


Students in grades K-5 are rarely referred to as active, engaged, and informed citizens. I believe I more often than not hear them called young, impressionable, and naïve. As an elementary educator, it is my responsibility to ensure that every student who walks into my classroom leaves understanding the power of being a United States citizen. While this may be my responsibility, the challenge comes with actually implementing these ideas into the classroom.

You may be wondering, how can this be done? How can elementary students learn citizenship? Will they all have a full understanding of the three branches of government; probably not. Will they all be able to recite the constitution from start to finish; it is unlikely. However, they can all learn the basic principles behind citizenship. They can learn that they have a voice and that it matters, they can learn how critical each individual’s role in society is, and they can learn the importance of being informed. Yes, even kindergarteners can learn these things. Through just a few new implementation strategies children of all ages can realize the importance of being a citizen.

A great way to incorporate citizenship into the classroom is through classroom democracy. While this can be implemented to different degrees and ultimately teachers must use their own discretion, allowing students to help in classroom decision making gives them the opportunity to use their voice, see the democratic process in play, and reinforces the constitution in which our country is based on. Students will not just learn about democracy, but they will be “doing democracy” on a smaller scale.

Some other implementation ideas include:

Classroom Constitution

Like any good teacher knows, one of the first things we do when we get a new set of students is set up our classroom rules and expectations. A great way to allow student voice in this process is to allow them help brainstorm and create this list of rules they are expected to abide by. After the class has come to a consensus, each student may sign the chart or poster. The signature is an important part of this process. Here students are saying, “yes, I helped create these rules” and “yes, I agree to follow them”. This “classroom constitution” also provides the teacher the opportunity to teach a mini lesson over the constitution and compare and contrast the two documents if he/she chooses.

Formalizing Informal Voting

Allowing students to vote on different things during the class day helps show students how the voting process works and reinforces student voice. Teachers often do this informally. A teacher might ask, “How many students want to play this reading game? How many want to play this one instead? Okay, the first one wins. ”. When a teacher makes the conscious decision to use formal voting terminology it makes this simple act exponentially more educational.  Instead of simply stating which had the most votes a teacher may say, “Wow, ____________ won by a landslide vote!” or “Someone didn’t vote, it looks like we have an absentee voter”.

Classroom Community

Citizenship requires work, and part of being a citizen often means that you must take on a job. Creating a classroom community where students have the responsibility of managing a classroom job will allow them to see their work can affect others and others work can affect them. For example, having a designated student who is in charge of making sure all pencils are sharpened before class begins. If this student does not complete his or her job, then the rest of the students will not have sharp pencils to use. This may seem trivial, but yes, this is a real problem in elementary classrooms! Implementing jobs in the classroom teaches students that they are a part of a larger community that has to work together to make sure things continue to function and run smoothly.
Letter Writing
If you have ever entered a classroom full of 25 elementary aged kids, you know they are full of curiosity and suggestions. As a teacher it is important to fuel that curiosity and encourage their creativity. When a student comes to you with a question or concern, whenever possible, encourage them to research it. They should discover what the problem is, why it is something we should care about, and how they think it can be resolved. Then students can take initiative and contact the appropriate leader. These problems can be small, like whether or not they should have assigned seats at lunch. By doing their research and coming up with a valid argument, writing persuasive letters to the principal might instill change within the school. These problems they discover may be large, like a problem with stray animals in their local parks. Again, by doing research and brainstorming possible solutions, students can write a letter(s) to the mayor addressing the fact this is an issue important to them and they believe something should be done. This is the ultimate form of citizenship within the classroom. They are being active, engaged, and informed. It also ties in ELA through research and writing.
An important thing to keep in mind is that these are all great supplemental activities. They can easily be incorporated into the everyday elementary classroom, but should not be the only civic education being taught. Students need deeper and more thorough experiences with voting, community jobs, the constitution, and leaders.  These activities serve as a way to help students build prior knowledge to a lesson or can help reinforce a lesson being taught, but should not be the primary teaching tool. I encourage you to give them a try and see how seamlessly citizenship can be integrated into any elementary classroom!

Alyssa Messier (@alyssamessier) is a current Baylor University Master’s Degree candidate who will be teaching 5th grade English/Language Arts in Katy, Texas. She has always had a passion for working with kids and helping them reach their fullest potential, which makes teaching the perfect profession for her. Follow her on twitter: @alyssamessier.