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Most people in the U.S. seem to believe that schools are responsible for teaching kids much more than how to read, write, and add—that they’re also tasked with ensuring children develop into engaged citizens, a responsibility that some advocates call “the civic mission of schools.” But putting that belief into practice is tricky perhaps because of how much people disagree about what the approach should look like. In his recent book What Kind of Citizen?, the Canada-based sociology professor Joel Westheimer presents research showing that American adults have deeply held, divergent beliefs about what kind of citizens schools should cultivate. “Ask people of any nation if they think children should learn to be good citizens and most will say, ‘Of course!,’” he writes. “But when the questions go deeper, the easy consensus starts to fray.” Some people think that young people should learn that following rules makes a responsible citizen, while others believe that questioning rules does.
Children typically learn very different civic lessons largely depending on their parents’ income. In some classrooms, students have what sociologists call “voice” (a say in things) and “agency” (capacity to make choices); in others, not so much. I spent a morning at a school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, where teachers followed a scripted curriculum. Children, most of them Latino, sat at tables, using Magic Markers to color in pictures of a zebra wearing a sweater with a zipper. (The exercise was designed to be a lesson on the letter z.) A 3-year-old raised her hand and pointed at the picture of the zipper and asked an assistant teacher what it was. The teacher shushed her and told her to work in silence, subsequently instructing another student to color in the lines.
I turned down a job teaching there, seeing little opportunity to let students, as Ms. Rachelle would say, “be free, explore, and grow through learning.” Instead, I accepted a job at a school in the same city that served children of all income levels, established in response to a court-ordered mandate for Connecticut schools to promote racial integration. At this school, I saw a sign outside a kindergarten class that read, “Room Three belongs to: ...” and included the name of every child in the class, along with those of the teachers. It sent a message that children were going to play a role in caring for, and making decisions about what went on in, that classroom. The children participated in morning meetings and closing circles, and when a problem arose in class, they would join on the rug with a song, “Oh dear, what can the matter be?” and set about trying to solve the problem, together.
The school where I now work is inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, and, like many Reggio-inspired schools in the U.S., is a private institution that charges tuition but offers financial aid. Children have opportunities to help make rules, broker compromises, and decide priorities for what to study, while their parents, many of whom work on Capitol Hill, do much the same.