The following post was written by members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.
“In a democracy, free and universal schooling is meant to prepare all students to become literate adults capable of critical thinking, listening, and reading, and skilled in speaking and writing. Failure to prepare our students for these tasks undermines not only our nation’s vision of public education, but our democratic ideal.”
This statement appears in the introduction to the English Language Arts Standards published jointly by the International Reading Association and NCTE in 1996 (and re-affirmed by the NCTE Executive Committee in 2012). With these words, NCTE emphasized its commitment as a professional organization to helping teachers promote literacy not only for the purposes of college and career readiness, but also for the goal of fostering democratic citizenship.
The connection between literacy and citizenship can be traced all the way back to the founding of the American public education system. In 1818, Thomas Jefferson summarized the civic purpose of literacy: “To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests, and duties . . . in [primary schools] should be taught reading [and] writing.” This purpose is more important than ever nearly 200 years later as the combination of a 21st-century information explosion and an increasingly polarized political context make critical textual analysis and production especially crucial for civic and political participation.
A Citizenship Campaign
We all know that English teachers are already under enormous pressure to provide students with the particular bodies of knowledge and skills that appear on high-stakes assessments, which makes it difficult to also consider a practice of literacy for civic engagement. Should civic education simply be left to social studies teachers? How can we put NCTE’s commitment to striving toward “our democratic ideal” into practice without getting overwhelmed?
That’s where we come in!
We, the members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, are launching a Citizenship Campaign to provide NCTE members and English teachers everywhere with strategies to support students’ development as citizens as well as scholars. Every month we will be sharing ideas and resources around a new theme with the goal of integrating civic awareness into what you are already doing instead of adding another task to your plate.
Examining Our Pedagogy and Our Curriculum
Since we are beginning a new year (and a new presidential administration), we think that the best way to kick off this campaign is by setting a resolution to craft a philosophy of civically aware and engaged English teaching that can guide your practice moving forward. This requires some serious thought about what citizenship means to you, how it relates to literacy, and what you feel comfortable and supported doing to support civic participation in your classroom context.
Civic education scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne (2004) argued in a seminal piece in the American Educational Research Journal that “it is not enough [for teachers] to argue that democratic values are as important as traditional academic priorities. We must also ask what kind of democratic values” (p. 263). Even if we are not conscious or intentional about sending messages to students about what a good citizen or good democracy looks like, we are doing so through what we choose to include (or exclude) from our curriculum and pedagogy and the classroom culture we establish. Westheimer and Kahne tease apart several visions of citizenship in their piece, including a personally responsible one focused on individual character traits of kindness and compassion, a participatory one focused on taking part in civic and political action, and a justice-oriented one focused on interrogating the root causes of civic challenges.
We want to encourage you to think about what good citizenship means to you and what explicit and implicit messages you’re sending to your students about it. Here are some ways to get started:
- Check out Joel Westheimer’s book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, which expands upon the ideas in his earlier article with Joseph Kahne and offers suggestions for teachers.
- Check out committee member Nicole Mirra’s journey to integrate civic learning into her 11th-grade English classroom and take advantage of unit planning templates and lesson ideas.
- Share your resolutions for making English teaching more civically aware on Twitter using the hashtag #NCTEcitizen.
Stay tuned for future posts in our citizenship campaign!