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Citizenship, Social Studies, and the Age of the Internet

Mary A. McFarland, Social Studies Education Consultant, K-12.
Former Teacher, Director of Professional Development, and Director of Social Studies, K-12, Parkway School District, St. Louis County, Missouri

m2007mm@earthlink.net

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?

Citizenship, Social Studies, and the Internet

Elements of citizenship are learned in many areas of the curriculum--literature, art, music--but social studies takes educating for "strong," informed, participatory citizenship as its major purpose. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the nation's largest professional association of social studies educators, states on its home page that "social studies educators teach students the content knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic values necessary for fulfilling the duties of citizenship in a participatory democracy." The NCSS site supports the goal of creating effective citizens through conferences, journals, the selection of notable books and, in the Age of the Internet, by listing Internet links that correspond to ten major themes in social studies (e.g., the theme of civic ideals and practices), as well as links related to election 2000 (http://www.ncss.org/home2.html).

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:

  • What is the history of the concept of "citizenship" across time and place?
  • How was citizenship expressed in the Greek era and how did its meaning change over time? What is it today?
  • When did the ideas of social contract, "common good," membership in a nation, civic virtue, inalienable rights, civic duties, constitutionality, citizenship requirements, and naturalization develop and what do they mean?
  • How does a citizen participate to support and improve the republic? How do citizens become informed? What does it take to become a voter? Are there ways that kids can be involved "citizens?"

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.

Suggestions for "Growing" the Meaning of Citizenship: Using the Internet in Primary, Intermediate, and Secondary Social Studies Classes

Internet resources abound. They are most effectively used as one source (among many) to build, refine, and extend student learning. The following suggestions are aimed at illustrating how the Internet can support the development of the concept of"citizenship," at every level, K-12.

"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.).

"Growing" the Meaning of Citizenship Using the Internet Across Grade Levels: We are All in this Together

Two examples of Internet programs that illustrate "citizenship" learning at various ages--primary, intermediate, and secondary--are the Giraffe Heroes Program (http://www.giraffe.org/), which has versions for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-9, and the Kids Voting USA Program, a K-12 voter education program (http://www.kidsvotingusa.org/). Both of these sites provide many resources available to individual teachers which can stimulate ideas for experiences that a social studies teacher may develop on his/her own.

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:

  • Hear the story (students learn about how someone has made a positive difference). The stories (some of which are featured at the site) may be about adults such as Jeff Moyer, the blind musician, who performs a program at schools titled "We're All People First, a Celebration of Diversity), or students such as Kanesha Johnson, a fifth grader who met discrimination "head on" by helping non-English speaking students at her school.
  • Tell the story (students find their own examples in texts, the news, on the TV, on the Internet)
  • Become the story (students think of their own ways to improve the communities of which they are members by carrying out service projects large or small to "take responsibility for something beyond their own lives.")

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.

Summary

Citizenship and social studies are both more dynamic today than at any other time in history. Fortunately, a deep understanding of citizenship is also more accessible than ever before from rich texts, media, and technologies such as the Internet. The bond between citizenship and social studies is indeed enriched in the Age of the Internet. However, the "real test" of citizenship is in the "doing." Effective social studies instruction that develops a deep understanding of the full meaning of "strong" citizenship will rely on every resource available. Among those resources, the Internet is an exceptional "tool" in helping to build a knowledge of citizenship, providing practice in applying skills for effective citizenship, and in identifying avenues for the "doing" of citizenship to support and promote the republic.

Mary McFarland is a former President of the National Council for the Social Studies.


 
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