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Redefining Citizenship

As a child, I grew up hearing the term “citizenship” applied very narrowly to two concepts: be nice and follow the rules.  I would scratch my head as I read about revolutionary figures who rarely followed the rules and certainly failed in the nice category.  Nice guys wear cardigans and read the sports page and politely avoid conflict while they pin up stock photo posters with motivational lines.

Nice guys don’t get crucified. They don’t drink hemlock.  They don’t get assassinated on balconies.  They don’t fast for days while people mock them for a non-violent revolution.

Citizenship isn’t about saying “excuse me” when you burp or turning in homework that isn’t sloppy.  It’s about asking questions and listening and developing a social voice.  This can be difficult, because authentic citizenship doesn’t look pretty on a spreadsheet.  True citizenship is about paradox and mystery,  requiring students to take up a hammer and swing it at injustice and yet learn to also wield the hammer with a chisel to sculpt something better.  It requires students to make an honest analysis of poverty and racism and injustice and yet not turn too jaded; to serve and change the community and to celebrate what is beautiful in the midst of the brokenness.

We lie to students when we tell them citizenship means “stay in school” and yet we never let them develop a philosophy of education. We lie to them when we tell them citizenship means “vote when you’re older” and yet we don’t teach them about gerrymandered districts that prevent authentic change.  We lie to them when we teach them that the world is made up of the good and the bad side and we are always the good guys because we wear cardigans and sip Merlot and pin up motivational posters with stock photography.  (Not that cardigans or wine are a bad thing)

Ultimately, when I think about the people running a democracy, I care very little about whether or not they can open doors and follow rules and smile politely.  I want to know if they can think critically and act ethically and feel empathetically.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


15 thoughts on “Redefining Citizenship

  1. Rick Hess’s “shop” recently released a study about what high school civics teachers think a do

    Of note from Hess’s blog post:

    In marked contrast to their private counterparts, public school teachers believe that social studies is losing ground to other subject areas and that civics in particular is being neglected by their schools. Teachers appear mixed, with some notable exceptions, about what the precise content of a proper civic education should be. They emphasize notions of tolerance and rights, but are inclined to give less attention to history, facts, and key constitutional concepts such as the separation of powers.

    Hess came back to the topic of civics in this post about transactional citizenship.

    I think he brings up some good points that go along with your message, John. Certainly, when we encourage students to see compliance with schools as citizenship, we are sending all kinds of mixed messages about what citizenship really is. Citizenship really is less schooling than it is learning. It really is less compliance than it is questioning, opining, and acting. It really is less future earnings potential than it is addressing community problems now.

    Moreover, in my own practice, I feel like I talk about tolerance (the weaker alternative to embracing diversity) separately from the Constitutional and legal frameworks we have that protect us as citizens and groups of citizens. I hope that some of the projects, progressions, and connections we’re working on this year will make more clear for students our country’s fundamental commitment to protecting the rights of its citizens through work that feels authentic and engaging.

    In looking at our own class this week, interestingly, students see principles of government like consent of the governed, limited government, and democracy at work, but some say there is no rule of law because they think of the rule of law as being in opposition to the freedoms they want in choosing how, when, and where to do their work. They don’t yet have an understanding of “law” as a broader concept that protects their choices. So there’s work to be done and what I hope will be a pretty compelling conversation to be had.

    I still wonder about how to help students figure out appropriate strategies for change in different situations – when to hammer, when to chisel. I think we here at the Coöp and at the progressive end of American public education sometimes face the same dilemma.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 5, 2010, 6:21 am
  2. Hi John,

    I remember watching the movie higher learning and being impacted by the message we have to unlearn. I think many students find themselves in this situation when a teacher, usually the professor at the university who already got tenure, begins to show them another point of view. In college I took a class on the civil rights movements for Chicanos to learn about my history and heritage. I discovered a much different history than was taught to me in schools. I was taught about those who stood up, lost lives, and fought for my rights. Change isn’t easy. It’s messy, takes some fight, takes sacrifices, and more. When we are passionate enough we can take the steps to change but I don’t know if students today are raised like those in the past who didn’t have much of a choice. The problem is that we need our students to be passionate enough to step outside of their comfort zones. Part of citizenship is learning that we speak up against the status quo. We are responsible for the world. However, I think students learn to stay in their comfort zones and are trained to be comfortably numb. They are taught to accept their circumstances and follow directions. You’re right we lie to them so we shouldn’t be so surprised when they grow up to and lie to others. We shouldn’t be surprised when the top CEOs of several companies lie to people, take million dollar bonuses while the rest of their clients must find a way to pay the rent for the money they squandered, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they vote for war instead of try to understand how the world outside works. There are too many real examples and consequences of how schools have lacked teaching our students to be responsible citizens. I believe this is an important part of the curriculum that went by the wayside when the focus became passing standardized tests.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | October 5, 2010, 11:12 pm
    • It’s interesting that you mention college. I found the same thing to be true – that my Chicanos and African-American Studies classes gave me an education that had previously not existed in my own schooling experience.

      Posted by johntspencer | October 6, 2010, 10:35 pm
  3. This is what citizenship looks like in an IB school… ( I’m glad I work at one!)

    Posted by whatedsaid | October 6, 2010, 3:24 am
    • Thank you for this video. I think it would a great project for every school to make a video like this. I don’t mean having a PR firm come in a make a shiny video, but instead have the students, the teachers, the community work together to present their school just like students are ask to do with their learning. I think the process could be inspiring and transformational….

      Chad I think your school would be a good start…. a counter narrative of the WFS…. I am open to helping anyone come up with a script and the filimic sense needed. I have worked with children from 4-18 making films and videos in the past and have a BFA in Film/video. I don’t have to cite all the study that show how powerful their our stories can be, but honestly I think it would start to shift the paradigm in a profound and amazing ways!

      Maybe i could put together how to if you anyone is interested….

      Here is a great video made by a student at the Minnesota New Country School.

      it is long but well worth the time, also great to show anyone that is not sure how PBL can work!

      Posted by dloitz | October 6, 2010, 12:32 pm
      • David, one of our division’s instructional coaches is actually helping us produce a mini-documentary for an upcoming intra-division conference. I’ll share it out when it’s finished and permissions are secured.

        I say bring the shiny. We’ve conversed about this before, and it’s part and parcel of recent moves to make our teaching public: we have to master our profession’s humility, stoicism, and anger – all at once – to create a new argument – an educational third way – to shift public debate about schooling away from testing and towards authentic, project-based learning of lasting worth to our society and its constituent communities. KIPP resources and markets itself to expand in ways we do not. While I don’t (quite (yet)) advocate scaling up an anti-KIPP, there has to be a way to organize into something as well-branded, say, as “Eat Local,” like, “School Local.” We’re trying to pull of a radical inception regarding the public’s ideas of education and dreams for its children. It’ll take some polish, and communications is an area in which I think educators could be more open in taking the advice of outside experts about promoting authentic learning.

        Should such communications feature the voices of students, teachers, and communities? Absolutely yes, and I’d be happy for your help. I’d especially be interested in a post about how schools can explore and connect with local filmmakers and guilds to embed arts PBL and school documentaries in one another. Somebody out there has to have money for another education documentary after all the super buzz.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 6, 2010, 4:23 pm
      • I wish I could visit everyone’s schools on the Coop (including Chad’s) and get a sense of context within everything.

        Posted by johntspencer | October 6, 2010, 10:36 pm
  4. “Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice,”
    -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Hey John, this is a very timely post for me. It touches on some of the themes of my week, the ones that seem to have emerged without design on my part, but want attention in some way or another. My week began with an incredible evening at Teachers College where my friend and school leader Shimon Waronker:

    talked about the new school he is creating in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (The New American Academy The school, only 2 months old, is designed around the idea of giving students voice, teachers collaborating together in real ways, and replicating this model in 3 years to create 30 new schools in NYC by 2013. In very tangible and thoughtful ways, Shimon is creating a new model of school that will be a very real and research-based alternative to the “No Excuses,” kick- kids’- and- teachers- asses harder one that many are embracing around the country. And he has the full and loving support of Joel Klein, after working as his mentee for a full year last year. (Shimon is a wonder. Check out the video above.)

    Next over to IDEA (, where we are wrestling with our definition of what democratic education is/looks like as I join their board. Because I fundamentally believe that the American public school system was designed to acculturate people to be quiescent, to be passive, to accept the labels about them as learners that the system generated, what we are talking about at IDEA, and you here John, are really very centrally challenging to the system.

    If only about 10-15% of students were to have voice and to challenge the paradigms that undergirded this system–those in elite schools, those already in power, those who were destined for leadership–(and those, often, only in approved ways), how to challenge that fundamental paradigm while staying inside the system? How are you doing that John?

    I think you’ve uncovered a central dilemma in the enterprise. If we expect kids to graduate from school and exercise agency for self and community, clear thinking and creativity to solve the problems they face as a generation, and we’ve infantalized and numbed them and given them only chores around conventional attainment in school, isn’t that a bit of a problem?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | October 6, 2010, 12:32 pm
  5. Chad,

    I have been dreaming of making such a film for the last 4 years. I actually worked on a documentary about education for a business org. in Oregon. The film was beautiful and told the story of 5 children…. the business people told us… that we had to cut the stories from 20 mins to like 5… it was heart breaking. Hearing the actual stories was more profound then any data or report could ever produce. I will share a couple with you if you want to email me your address.

    We had connections at the time with Bill Gates Foundation, but I guess it was too early. I hope that my work with IDEA will lead me towards making a film.

    In terms of the “shininess” of our PR is a interesting question.”Shiny” as in production value and great storytelling yes, shiny as in narrow propaganda I would say No….because what happens is people will buy in and then realize it is not as easy as just say lets do PBL or open a charter school… the reality is it takes a change of culture and questioning what as come before us to really make change. This is where I think stories come in, we need the honest portrayal of the work being done, worts and all.

    Today I had a 5 min conversation with a student outside a small (Human-scale)(100 or less) Alternative High School…. I asked her about her school and what made it different. She told me “over all it is just much better environment for learning” She told me that at her previous high school, she was getting a 0.25 grade point avg. and now just a year later was getting 3.25. She said it was the relationship with her teacher, and the one on one attention, the not being one of many, but being allowed flexible learning time and learning relationships.

    I have been studying Human Scale schools for the last 3 months now and honestly hearing her say that in so few words was powerful. I think we can share these types of stories. I think it would be hard to ignore. I think we have a chance and duty with the community we are creating here to really do some of the work.

    In terms of finding film makers to help…. Community colleges and State Colleges film students are always looking for projects for their reels, if we could tap into that and grant them access you can get a lot of talented work for little if no money. Plus the learning experience for both parties would be transformational. I would also look into Ron Berger’s work with documentation of student work, and Reggio Emila has a lot to teach in this regard. Maybe for my next thesis ( 🙂 ) I will do that work. Or maybe you can just fly me out for a little PD at your school. Either way bringing film makers or visual storytelling in any form to your school has the chance to really move the conversation forward.

    I have some other ideas for post, but I will keep the filmmaking post in the queue.


    Posted by dloitz | October 6, 2010, 7:28 pm
  6. I like shiny. Shiny is a good idea as we try to spread our ideas and messages.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | October 7, 2010, 9:19 am
  7. currently reading the mesh by lisa gansky.

    school can be that change.. let’s model that… and document it as we do it…. and watch our communities transform. what if in letting our kids model sharing … it does permeate our communities… and we steal less… and rules diminish… and we start having time for things that matter.
    i love it.

    we’ve been slapping up raw footage on our facebook group of what goes on daily in the lab. two of the guys doing video production in the lab have decided to do a quarterly documentary for us. it’s as simple as that.
    i love their shiny.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 9, 2010, 6:45 am


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