Teaching Citizenship in Civil Societies: A Close-Up Look at An Innovative New Course At Middlesex School

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Guest Post by Rob Munro, Director of Global Studies at Middlesex School in Concord MA

Citizenship in Civil Societies emerged out of ongoing conversations we were having around the idea of civics, ethics, and the need to incorporate more character-education throughout our academic curriculum. On top of that, there was a desire to introduce upper class students to an element of character education that would prepare them for the leadership opportunities that they would be offered in their senior year. We wanted to create a course that was non-credit, but fit into the work they were already doing in the junior year and there was a precedent for this: All first-year students take a required, noncredit course, called “Dialogues across Differences.“ This course introduces students to skills and content that is global in nature but has the ultimate aim of preparing students to have difficult conversations around very sensitive topics including religion, race gender sexuality etc. And we teach them how to have those conversations in a step-by-step way. The structure of this course is little different than a traditional academic courses even though it does meet during the academic day: the course is designed around to meet once a week for 40 minutes for six weeks: There is no homework and there are no assessments.

With students having taken this course already we decided to design a course for juniors with a similar structure. We knew that our Citizenship course would have a complementary format and would build on the dialogue skills that they would have learned as underclassmen. The idea of a course of designed to investigate the concept and history of citizenship came out of the fact that we wanted to get as many students as possible in this course and one of the landing zones for that would be the junior year US history curriculum. All juniors have to enroll in the US history course either the AP version or the non-AP version. Once we had that as a place where we could get the maximum number of students we decided to frame the course around some of the the values and competencies inherent in our US history curriculum.

The idea of citizenship is one that is addressed early and frequently throughout the course but it’s also a concept that we don’t have the time to delve into given the speed and the various assignments we have throughout the year-long course. Part of the onus for the Citizenship course would be to give students one extra 40 minute session a week to talk about some of the skills and content that they’re learning in the US history course as they relate to the idea of citizenship. It was serendipitous that at the same time we were developing this course, which we began working on in the fall of 2017, the state of Massachusetts was beginning to roll out a civics requirement for their public school systems and we were able to use some of that material and innovation to help frame, at the very least, the motivation for this course. Similar to the development of our Dialogues course, I put together a committee of teachers from a variety of different disciplines to help us begin this course. The development of the course took about eight months and I charged the committee with reaching out to schools that have a similar curriculum, doing research on citizenship education in the 21st-century, finding content that would be appropriate, and also, most importantly, figuring out what are the skills that we want our students to develop as we asked them to think about what citizenship is in our school and more broadly, nation, and world. So the idea behind the course is simple: we want to prepare students to become more empathetic and engaged citizens in the multiple communities of which they are a part.

The content of the course revolves around the concept of citizenship in the first three weeks the context of United States history. US history, in the first month or so of the semester, focuses on the period before the revolution and the founding documents, and then moves into an investigation of the significant documents that inform the formative years of the republic: The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and ultimately the Constitution of the United States. Within this context we ask students to do some in-class reading and have conversations around what does it mean to be a citizen in the early years of the United States? Who is included and, perhaps more importantly, who is not included in this designation and why?

From there we investigate other elements of citizenship that include issues of race, gender and nationality. We end the course with content and discussions around what it means to be digital citizens in the 21st-century. What rights and responsibilities do we have as citizens who occupy, perhaps a not physical space, but a virtual, global world that has very important ethical and tangible implications? We hope the students will leave this eight week course with a better understanding of what we at Middlesex expect our students to be in terms of citizens on campus and how to treat one another but also, as they prepare to become leaders in our community, become graduates and members of communities both in this country and outside of it, we wanted to be clear that there are expectations that they have to interact with people and have conversations with people with whom they don’t identify or agree, to recognize the rights and responsibilities that their citizenship entails, to understand that citizenship is not a concrete term but rather a dynamic and constantly fluctuating concept that people will go to great lengths to possess. As global, geo-politics continue to evolve, migration patterns and humanitarian considerations continue to change, and asylum-seekers increase, it’s all the more important that we educate our students to be informed and to engage with these debates.

We ran this course last year with half of the then junior class as a beta offering; the feedback that we received from that class was very positive and informed a lot of the work that we put in in the past semester in the summer to revamp the course in preparation for its offering this fall. We will have nine sections of the course taught by nine different teachers, all of whom volunteered to teach this course. Looking ahead it would be great if we could supplement this course with a field trip for either juniors or seniors during their leadership program and get them to see what citizenship looks like in the real world through a visit to state or national landmarks, and to talk to key social, political, economic leaders in the field of citizenship. This might also, ultimately, feed into other programs on our campus: namely our residential life curriculum, athletics curriculum—captain’s training, positive teamwork models, general sportsmanship discussions. We hope to also in the future use some of the language and competencies of this course in our work with diversity inclusion, the arts, and our global education program. We're excited to begin this course this fall and hope it helps students develop a better understanding of their roles as empathetic and engaged citizens.

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About the Author

Rob Munro is the Director of Global Studies at Middlesex School, in Concord MA. You can contact him at rmunro@mxschool.edu.