Last year, The River School, an independent, progressive school in Washington, DC, dedicated to children from 18 months through Grade 5, piloted Children Are Citizens (CAC). Created by Project Zero researchers and the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School, Children Are Citizens is grounded in progressive education principles and inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. As The River School committed to and successful in delivering student-centered, inquiry-based learning in a democratic environment, Children Are Citizens felt like a natural extension of our philosophy right out of the gate.
Operating from the premise that all children are current citizens as opposed to future or hypothetical citizens, Children Are Citizens embraces children as community members with ideas, opinions, and the capacity to participate in the civic and cultural life of their city. With this in mind our teaching teams developed goals for the project at our school. The goals discussed and agreed upon at the start of the year included:
- Using our classrooms as spaces to foster a deeper sense of connection to the communities our students belong to
- Laying a foundation for a civic mindset and attitude to guide students’ participation and contributions to their communities in meaningful ways
- Meaningfully connecting our children to the city and the city to children
- Supporting children’s basic literacies, critical and creative thinking, and collaboration and communication skills by engaging them as current citizens.
Our teaching teams also began asking themselves, How and where are our students exploring citizenship and community within our unique classroom? What opportunities to extend these explorations are emerging? All fall, they leaned into progressive education’s charge for assuming the teacher as scientist mindset. They did this by listening, observing and documenting their students’ thinking, learning and actions around citizenship and community throughout the day including on the playground, during Choice Time and morning meetings, and in their specials, which include Science, Drama, Music, Art, PE, Yoga and Library class times.
By November, our teams had collected a lot of data which we began to unpack by inviting each team to share how they documented student thinking and learning this school year. Next, teams brainstormed words that aptly described their unique group of students. This step generated a lot of laughter and goodwill as teams reflected upon the curious, quirky, spontaneous and wonderful children they spent their days with, affirming the joyful learning spaces they had co-created. Teams wrapped up this session with possible provocations to present to their students and see whether their analysis of the documentation aligned. At this point, our goal for each team was to land on a topic that felt personally meaningful to the students so they could devise their own questions and drive the inquiry of their Children Are Citizens project.
As a new pilot program, this process could feel disorienting at times, leaving us to wonder: Why do the goalposts seem to keep shifting? Where will these investigations actually lead to? How do these ideas connect to citizenship? Are my students old enough or immersed enough for these inquiries? Am I doing this “right”? Undaunted, our teaching teams persevered by revisiting their documentation of student learning and forming provocations, challenges and ideas for their students to consider. As students began to engage with these provocations, the “it” of each classroom’s project slowly began to reveal itself. At this point in the journey, around February and March, the puzzle pieces began connecting, partnerships with our arts specialists came into focus, exciting learning pathways emerged and many “a-ha” moments started rolling out.
The unique inquiry that evolved across each classroom really captures the authenticity of exploration guided by our incredible teaching teams. Here is a snapshot of how each community of learners engaged ideas of citizenship, community and action differently, uniquely and joyfully:
- First Grade Teams: From the teaching teams’ observations of their students as moving, active, always on the go, playful, the provocation and question that resonated most with the students was, Who has the right to play? Ultimately, students identified the injustice that some children’s fundamental right to play was denied simply because a playground designer couldn’t imagine a space accessible to all kids. Our first graders solved that problem by reading about accessibility activists, researching accessible playgrounds, going on field trips to test and explore accessible spaces, and then becoming playground design experts in their Maker Space, building fully accessible and totally creative model playgrounds.
- Kindergarten Teams: In one class, students looked outward by looking inward and concluded that self-love is a bedrock of a strong community. They identified their families as an important audience to hear this message and invited them for a spoken word poetry slam. Meanwhile, their peers in the other K class explored community through a construction site they discovered on community walks. After several visits to the site plus guest experts on architecture and construction, the students wrote and circulated a newspaper documenting how “teamwork makes the dream work” and that collaboration, communication and cleaning up after oneself builds a strong community.
- PreKindergarten Teams: In one class, the teaching team observed two conflicting elements in their students’ interactions with each other: they were highly competitive as well as highly supportive of one another. Ultimately, the class reconciled these elements within their community by producing a “How To” guide on being the Best and Most Kind Student. Next door in the other PreK class, the students loved their theme on storytelling, which became a powerful lens for their project. Inspired by a workshop with a local youth theater company and working with their Drama teacher, students activated their storytelling skills to write a cautionary tale about navigating Washington, DC, and filled the story with personally meaningful artifacts and regional sites.
- Preschool Classes: These students homed in on the many necessary roles and jobs a healthy community requires. While our youngest students and their families documented public-private spaces students occupied like the grocery store, parks and roads, the students in the slightly older cohort explored a variety of community-centered roles through their themes. On a field trip to the nearby C&O Canal for a park clean-up, one of the classes ran into a young adult from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and could readily connect that all students, big and small, have a role to play in keeping our city healthy, safe and vibrant.
The project concluded with each classroom writing and illustrating a book documenting their learning journey. Students received their own copy that they shared with their families at a celebration of learning. At the celebration before heading to their children’s classrooms, families gathered for a presentation about Children Are Citizens, the journey their children took and the civic attitudes and dispositions we hoped to foster. The response from families was overwhelmingly positive. Parents gathered in the Library had many questions and favorable comments to share. At the end of the presentation, the first question from a parent was, Will this project continue next year so my child can participate in it again?
As we reflect on our Children Are Citizens pilot, several important take-aways emerged that we will factor in as we make this an anchor civic education experience. These include:
- Recognizing the important role our school, its inclusive mission, traditions and curriculum play in fostering a relationship between children and their city and communities.
- Celebrating and maintaining our classrooms as safe spaces to explore different perspectives, opinions and to initiate lifelong dialogues with their city and communities.
- Recommitting to progressive education’s charge to adopt a teachers as scientists mindset where investigation and discovery of ourselves, our students and our communities offer a springboard to shape civic identities and fuel meaningful action.
We are so thankful for the leadership and support of the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School (WIS). Dr. Jim Reese who directs the PDC offered strategic guidance as we incorporated the Children Are Citizens pilot into our pre-existing professional development framework. In addition to Jim’s guidance, Sarah Hair, an expert educator who had led her own students through Children Are Citizens projects, consulted with us throughout the year and led the monthly seminars, ensuring our teachers and school leaders had the support necessary to make the pilot program a positive experience. We are thankful to The River School’s Head of School and founder, Nancy Mellon, who tirelessly experiments, invents and pushes the boundaries of traditional beliefs about education. Finally, and most importantly, we could not be prouder of our phenomenal teaching teams and students whose readiness to have fun and be awed make them formidable lifelong learners and citizens.