Teaching Citizenship- Going Beyond the Bake Sale?


When it came to teaching Citizenship in my classroom I often felt overwhelmed.  Despite having a curriculum (English Language Arts) that lent itself well to topics around citizenship, I struggled with knowing where to start.  Often our forays into becoming better global citizens started and ended in the ever classic bake sale.  Intrinsically I questioned weather this was truly the most effective method to have my students struggle with real world problems. AND, if ultimately the “bake sale mentality” of citizenship (aka money “fixes” all things) was a meaningful or sustainable way to create global (and personal) action and change.

Teaching citizenship can be a very nebulous.  More recently, in my instructional coaching work in classrooms K-12, it has become clearer that for true deep learning to occur around this particular C, teachers and students need to explore their experiences, own world views and values, while also considering the experiences, world views and values outside of themselves. And, wowzers- that is a big task! So how can we begin to make this more manageable and meaningful?

  1. Define the term “Citizenship”

As I mentioned in my previous posts on the “Cs” of  Character and Critical Thinking I think it is important to pull apart the what and who of Citizenship. New Pedagogies for Deep Learning defines Citizenship as “Thinking like global citizens, considering global issues based on a deep understanding of diverse values and world views, and with a genuine interest and ability to solve ambiguous and complex real‐world problems that impact human and environmental sustainability.” While comprehensive, that sure is a mouthful.

It’s important to make this a more manageable concept.  See below for the pictoral definition I’ve had success using classrooms to explore what Citizenship means, in more practical, relatable terms. This pictoral is also accompanied by a verbal definition of “having empathy (caring for) our earth, our environment, animals and our fellow humans.” I adjust my language slightly based on the previous experience of the learners. In a Kindergarten classroom, first diving into Citizenship, I use the phrase “caring for”, whereas in another classroom with older or more experienced learners I’d use the a more complex word like “empathy”.

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2. Start with Story

Recently, I was invited into a grade 7 classroom to help introduce the topic of Human Rights (Hi Erin 😉 ) While there hadn’t yet been explicit teaching on the United Nation’s 31 Human Rights Articles themselves, students had been dipping their toes into a variety of fiction and non fiction texts on the topic.  When prompted by images in a teacher initiated conversation, students were enthusiastically able to give numerous pieces of textual evidence where human rights were being violated.  Seeing this, I realized how important it was for  students to be front loaded with a variety of diverse and rich texts on the topic.  Starting with story created an emotional connection for the students and it was through that emotional connection that they were able to meaningful connections to theory. This shouldn’t be that surprising and there’s been a lot of research that explores the connection between reading (fiction in particular) and empathy. Empathy plays a major role in Citizenship.  Empathy is the motivator for action, and action is an essential part of Citizenship.

In my next post on Citizenship, I’ll share some of my favourite rich texts, told with diverse voices that work as great places to “start with story”.

3. Learning Through Play and ConversationIMG_3051

Tinkering and play are powerful teaching tools. For all kids. Big and little. Play encourages taking turns, and listening through creativity, reasoning and problem solving. As a “next steps” in the classroom mentioned above we had students work with a partner to “play” with various laminated icon tiles that could potentially represent one of  31 UN declarations of Human Rights. At this point there had still not yet been any intentional pre teaching about the declarations themselves. Students were encouraged to look, talk, tinker and think based on their previous knowledge on the topic. All we asked was they  organize the tiles and label them. The how and why of the organization and labelling was completely open ended, and up to the pairs to decide. 

To support risk taking, we reminded students that there were no “right or wrong answers”, they just needed to be able to explain their thinking. We also reminded students that if they got stuck, that a good strategy was just to talk about what they saw in the icon with their partner. It was fascinating to listen to the students collaborate and critically think their way through the icon tiles, especially when it came to icons that I added to the activity knowing that they would provoke conversation and/or weren’t actually part of the 31 Articles (i.e. internet access) In the final five minutes of class, the students had an opportunity to silently circulate around the classroom, and look at the way other pairs had sorted and organized their icon tiles.  After five minutes, they returned to their partner and shared what they saw.  Often this led to conversations about icon tiles they hadn’t been able to decode yet, or, an excited conversation around how another group’s work had affirmed or questioned their own thinking. This low floor, high ceiling play activity provided structure and time in which all learners could tinker to process and connect important ideas about Human Rights. Moving forward, this experience will act as a springboard for the deep dive into the articles that will occur in the upcoming lessons. Want to use these tiles in your classroom? Click here!

Ultimately, teaching Citizenship is an act that asks teacher and student alike to look inward to explore their own experiences, world views and values, while also looking outward to consider the experiences, world views and values held by others.  With openness and empathy as a motivator, the action element of Citizenship can become more intentional, meaningful and sustainable.



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