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Citizens are Made, Not Born: How Teachers Can Foster Democracy

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    Sarah Norris

Ryan Maxwell is a Senior Director of Schools for EL Education. His article appeared in the November 22, 2017 issue of ASCD Express.

Citizens Are Made, Not Born: How Teachers Can Foster Democracy

“Can you please instruct your class to stop calling us?” asked an annoyed staffer at the local alderman’s office in Chicago. I took the phone call in my classroom, where I had recently assigned my 9th graders to think of a problem in their neighborhood they’d like to solve. Young adults see no shortage of unjust issues in their community:

“Better garbage collection!”

“Too much graffiti—not the good kind, just tagging!”

“Skateboarding is not a crime!”


“We need better parking in our neighborhood. Not everyone has a garage!”

After brainstorming ideas like these, small groups of students selected a single problem and made a plan to solve it. Not just write about it in a paper that only I would read or have a debate limited to the walls of our classroom, but solve it. I connected students to resources like contact information for agencies that handle issues in the city and to guidance for how to outline goals, formulate a strategy, and create a timeline. They then had to contact those agencies and submit a formal request to present their problem and solution to those agencies or ally nonprofits.

So now the alderman’s office was calling.

“Are you the teacher who told his students to call our office?”

“Well, I didn’t tell them to call your office exactly, I—”

“Well, please tell them to stop calling. We have real work to do here.”

“I understand, but I can’t do that.”

Because my students also have real work to do.

As educators, we have serious work to do, too. Our work is to foster citizens who can safeguard our democracy. Our work is to harness students’ innate sense of justice by teaching them the discrete skills they’ll need to persuade decision makers, and creating opportunities for them to apply these skills—now—in the real world. Here are some key moves any teacher, at any grade level, can employ toward these goals.

Take Students’ Voices Seriously

Encouraging student voice by truly listening is vital. Tune in to those moments when students are clued into the news of the day or controversial issues in your school. During my student teaching, I had the good fortune of being placed in the same school as influential educator Deborah Meier (then at Mission Hill in Roxbury, in Boston). When I walked into the building, I was often surprised to see Debbie and her 9-year-old students locked in vigorous debate—with as much time and credence given to the children as to the adults. Debbie would state her side, name her reasoning, and ask, “Doesn’t that make sense?” “No!” the students would say, “You are not considering …” They would go on, in strong voices that some adults might consider “disrespectful.” But Debbie would sit back and smile, listening and earnestly considering their arguments. She knew that, one day, they would take up the mantle of citizenship.

Give Students Ownership of a Local Problem

Kids often know when things are wrong in their community, but they may not know how to ally with experts who can amplify their solutions. You do not need to be an expert in the problem yourself. Instead, help students learn enough to dig into the problem effectively. This includes reading more than one text and more than one viewpoint on a topic. In the video below, for example, high school students at Codman Academy in Boston weigh the evidence in the United States Justice Department’s Report on the Ferguson Police Department.

Even young adolescents can take on challenging issues. At Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, 8th-graders started a project to promote nonviolence in their Chicago neighborhood by close reading the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They debated the meaning of phrases like “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” and interviewed foot soldiers of today’s civil rights movement in their own community. This was not an after-school project; it was student-driven, long-term, project-based learning.

Channel Shock, Sadness, and Outrage into Civic Action

Children are sometimes the victims of injustice themselves, and their peers notice. In such cases, we can help them learn how to organize and communicate as they move through their first expressions of shock, shame, or outrage so that they can be heard by those they hope to influence. It’s especially important that we teach students from a very young age to solve problems with friends through dialogue and collaborative solution finding. The skill of authentic dialogue can be learned in math class or social studies; the important thing is to give students practice speaking, listening, and testing solutions.

At Casco Bay High School, an Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education network school in Portland, Maine, when a young immigrant student was a victim of a hate crime, the student body took up the cause to support their classmate. Because students were skilled at listening to one another, they were able to organize in support of one another.

Hold Students Accountable to Their Best Selves

When students like those at Mission Hill, Polaris Charter Academy, and Casco Bay High School engage in a civic project, they learn more than the arguments surrounding a single issue. They learn that citizenship is earned through engagement and effort, discourse and discord. They learn that citizenship requires action to hold America accountable to be her best self—the way true friends hold each other accountable.

Kurt Hahn, the philosophical founder of Outward Bound and EL Education noted, “There are three ways of trying to win the young: persuasion, compulsion, and attraction. You can preach at them (that is a hook without a worm), you can say ‘You must volunteer’ (that is of the devil), and you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.” (Hahn, 1960).

Citizens are not born, but made through practice that fosters their lifelong contributions to a better world. Give your students the skills and opportunity to do real work solving real problems, and they will shine.


Hahn, K. (1960). Address at the forty-eighth annual dinner of the old centralians, Retrieved from