Recently, I responded to a post on a listserv of AP English teachers in support of a sentiment shared by one teacher, Larry Hoffner, in his latest letter to United Federation of Teachers. In his post, he wrote:
- “Academic skills are certainly important, but the kind of citizens we produce is the real common core.”
I thought this sentiment would be shared by most, if not all, teachers. Although it is rare that something is so universal as to solicit unanimous agreement, I thought this was surely such a rarity...but I was wrong. While agreement to Larry's comment was nearly unanimous, one teacher did respond with the following:
- “I could not disagree with you more. Character is the province of the family, knowledge the province of the school.”
This brought about an interesting discussion.
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Should Schools Teach Values?
The debate which ensued was a discussion on the role of schools in teaching values. Defining the standards seemed to be the sticking point to those who opposed the focus on values or standards of good citizenship.
Who gets to decide what character values are taught?
How is it possible to define such a dynamic set of standards contained within a citizenship domain?
What will be the accountability measurements for character, and if teachers are responsible for teaching it, are we similarly responsible if we produce a “bad apple”?
These are all valid questions, but even our inability to answer them should not deter us from attempting to build character and citizenship within our schools.
Within this discussion, I still maintained that it is absolutely our responsibility to teach citizenship, that it is the one true interdisciplinary skill thread, and that it should be no more difficult than defining and redefining what literature should be taught or the critical skills set for the new century. All these concepts are ambiguous because of their dynamic nature but have certain lasting hallmarks.
My Definition of Citizenship
From this contribution, I was asked to “define this citizenship” which was a fascinating challenge at 9 o’clock with only an hour to go until Top Chef Texas, but I decided to give it a whirl in hopes that the group contributions would help form a definition for a strand which does consistently need to be re-examined.
Here is the start of the conversation which will hopefully be augmented with comments on the blog and within the listserv:
- The constant components of citizenship are its communal nature and the relationship between rights & privileges (what the person receives as a citizen) and duty or responsibility (what he or she gives). If we examine that on the most intimate level, we see a family and a child's role within that social structure. A family provides and a child learns his or her place and how to contribute. We give and we take in our exchanges, sometimes trading in emotional currency in the form of politeness, compassion, or support...and other times in services or other forms of worth. The mores which define the standards for these exchanges (the redefinition of specific rights based on longstanding principles, for example, or the etiquette involved in participating in an online discussion, for example) are ever changing, but teaching a person how to understand the balance of give and take in any community is the everlasting essence of citizenship.
- The obstacle to the true understanding of this relationship is ignorance. That is where we come in, for in the moments we share with our students providing them insight on man's story and how we have interacted in times of peace and of war, and providing them with living documentation of each era in the form of literature, we gift them with perspective. I think of the responsibility we have to teach this each time I read To Kill a Mockingbird and share the scene where Scout stands on the porch and sees her world from Boo's eyes. Perspective allows for a 360 view of the exchange between us and our world.
- I'll share the opening of our school creed, penned by our Head of School, Jackie Westerfield. I find myself frequently referencing it when I wonder how to guide students. I think it is a wonderful, succinct expression of the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities.
- “Together we build our future, one thought, one act, one moment at a time. We believe knowledge is freedom, freedom is choice, and choice is responsibility.”
- Clearly the time period and nature of the community (home, school, city, nation, world) is organic, ever-changing, and inextricably tied to the standards of interaction. Still, the fundamental relationship between all of these and the nature of rights and responsibilities can and should absolutely be taught in a school.
I’m looking forward to comments and posts which will add to this working definition.
Do you think schools should teach citizenship and values? Why or why not? Share in the comments section!