A staffer from the local alderman’s office called Ryan Maxwell, a teacher at an EL (formerly Expeditionary Learning) School, to ask: “Can you please instruct your class to stop calling us?” The school’s approach to forming citizens was working a little bit too well.
EL Education covered the impressive work done in Maxwell’s classroom. He tasked his students with solving a problem that they perceived in their community. By solve, he did not mean, “write about it in a paper that only [he] would read or have a debate limited to the walls of [their] classroom.”
Maxwell had helped small groups of his students identify the specific issue they felt most passionate about. He then helped them build the “discrete skills” (i.e., find contact info for local agencies, set goals, build a strategy, and lay out timelines) necessary to resolve the issue.
While the repeated outreach from students may have annoyed the local alderman’s staffers, it didn’t dissuade Maxwell from his mission. He says, “As educators, we have serious work to do, too. Our work is to foster citizens who can safeguard our democracy. Our work is to harness students’ innate sense of justice.” Such a task is not to be taken lightly.
This type of “student-driven, long-term, project-based learning” is central to EL Education’s model. It’s what makes the model so attractive to those looking for ways to help students understand citizenship through practice, as well as theory.
The EL approach doesn’t just lament problems or task students with memorizing the duties of citizens—but it forms citizens by engaging important social practices. It’s transferable to any school context.
Maxwell lays out four of the fundamental principles that underlie his work in the classroom, and they help educators see how EL’s approach could be applied to their school.
First, Maxwell says, educators must “Take Student Voices Seriously.” Students will speak about issues that resonate with them. If you are able to listen and respond to those issues, then you’ll have found topics that students will be willing to work hard on.
Second, “Give Students Ownership of a Local Problem.” Citizenship starts at the local level. Students can cut their teeth on “discrete skills” by tackling problems that are pertinent to their day-to-day lives.
Third, “Channel Shock, Sadness, and Outrage into Civic Action.” Unfortunately, even students can be subject to crime or injustice. Helping them to see how injustice can be addressed through civic action is part of coping with such a situation.
Lastly, “Hold Students Accountable to Their Best Selves.” Maxwell quotes EL founder Kurt Hahn, “There are three ways of trying to win the young: persuasion, compulsion, and attraction. You can preach at them (that is a hook without a worm), you can say ‘You must volunteer’ (that is of the devil), and you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.”
The way we teach citizenship matters as much as the content of citizenship because character and citizenship are formed through shared social practices. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter writes in The Death of Character, “Character is not . . . solitary, autonomous, unconstrained; merely a set of traits within a unique and unencumbered personality. Character is very much social in its constitution. It is inseparable from the culture within which it is found and formed.”
At Casco Bay High—a public EL high school in Portland, Maine—students responded when one of their fellow students was the victim of a hate crime. For these students, formed by the social practices of citizenship, planning a social response was a simple extension of the meaningful, long-term, project-based learning they do every day.
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