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Citizenship in a democratic republic is extremely important--important to the citizen and important to the republic. How can the concept of "citizenship" become a real and meaningful part of the lives of students in social studies classes, K-12? How can students learn to view the Internet as one remarkable "tool" to use in becoming citizens who are capable of supporting and strengthening the republic?
The concept of "citizenship," the relationship between individuals and their governments, is complex. The range of what students must know and do includes exploring questions central to social studies such as:
Increasingly sophisticated answers to all of these questions and others come to students through direct experiences, texts, media, and through the Internet over the span of their K-12 school lives.
"Growing" the Meaning of Citizenship Using the Internet with Primary Children
Primary children (and other students as well) need to realize that they can learn about citizenship in social studies classes but must connect all learning to the "real" world. As children are learning about citizenship, teachers can help them frame a question to ask of a search engine specifically for kids (such as Ask Jeeves for Kids at http://www.ajkids.com/). For example, asking "What does citizenship mean?" results in a suggestion from Jeeves that we ask, "Where can I learn about being a good citizen?" Asking that question leads to "Kids Next Door," the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's colorful page for children that links to activities kids can do to help the homeless (e.g., create "care bags" containing items that can be delivered by an adult to a homeless shelter).
By participating in such an experience, children learn that they can pose questions to find out about citizenship, use the Internet to become more informed, and participate in an activity provided at the Web site to actually help make a real and positive difference for homeless people in their area.
"Growing" the Meaning of Citizenship Using the Internet with Intermediate Students
One way intermediate students learn more about their own nation's view of citizenship rights and responsibilities is to explore how it compares to views from other parts of the world. At a site developed by New Jersey teachers for learning about other cultures (http://library.thinkquest.org/50055/) one activity available to students is to correspond with an e-pal.
A variation on this idea is to make contact between a classroom and a local e-pal (a senior citizen, a member of the business community). One week the class can discuss questions such as "Is citizenship a right or a responsibility?" or "How important is it for a person to vote?" or "How should a citizen prepare to vote?" The class formulates a response to the question after discussion and e-mails the response to the local e-pal for his/her views. From such an exchange over the weeks before the election, students can research information to answers related to participation and can learn from an active citizen in the community.
"Growing" the Meaning of Citizenship Using the Internet with Secondary Students
Excellent resources have been developed to guide learning about civic topics and processes as secondary students use the Internet. One especially notable resource with many useful lessons is Teaching Government and Citizenship Using the Internet, available from Social Studies School Service (sample lessons from the book are also available at this site).
A lesson titled "Origins of American Government" provides practice in researching historical content, but also calls for application of knowledge to events reported in newspapers, broadcasts, or the Internet today. A lesson on naturalization causes students to think about what an immi-grant to the United States must do to be eligible for citizenship and puts students in touch with questions on the Internet site which provides a U.S. History Self-Test. Students can see how well they would do. An interesting question to have students think about is: If the requirements we have studied are important for immigrants who want citizenship, should all citizens have to meet them?
Another project for high school students that provides for learning and applying civic knowledge and skills involves having students research the process of registering to vote at a site such as the one developed by the League of Women Voters (http://www.smartvoter.org/#register). Students can download the Federal Election Commission's voter registration form and conduct a voter registration campaign in their own school to register students who are eighteen years and older. (States may have specific instructions on the form and, in some cases, election offices may prefer use of their own mail in voter registration form.).
The Giraffe program helps students at various levels to develop a rich definition of active citizenship. It is important for them to recognize that as individuals they have rights, but in addition, as members of "communities" (classroom, school, local community, nation, world), they must learn how to think about the "common good." Students want to "make a positive difference." One way they can is to follow the program outlined at the Giraffe Heroes site:
Kids Voting USA Program has a site that emphasizes the importance of voting and provides resources for teachers and students on election issues, and the processes of registering and voting (http://www.kidsvotingusa.org/) The full program involves a school district working with parents and businesses to secure space for a "kids voting" area at the polls on election day. Teachers use lessons from a K-12 online supplementary curriculum to prepare students to participate in an election experience at the polls with their parents. The site has online activities for kids and links to other valuable Internet sites.
Mary McFarland is a former President of the National Council for the Social Studies.