Developing Civic Character from the Inside Out
By Charlie Abourjilie, Western Guilford High School
I think every school I have ever worked in, and every district and/or state department of education I have ever visited, had in its mission statement something about developing students as “productive citizens….” That’s always been a little wishy washy to me because I don’t know if I ever saw it defined or explained as to what that really meant. As a social studies teacher for well over 30 years, I have always seen that statement as making sure my kids know what it means to be a citizen in terms of the rights and responsibilities they have in our American democracy. It is part of the curriculum at many levels, and it has been that way as long as there have been public schools. “Civic character” is a relatively new term, but an age-old concept. In the character education and social-emotional learning world, civic character is defined as, “the character strengths of fairness, respect, volunteering, and contributing to the common good.”
The mission or goal of “developing students as productive citizens” is one of several goals and missions of my school and district, and once it is mentioned, it quickly falls behind the standards, curriculum, and objectives that I am required to teach my students that year. Chances are your students are probably tested on those or similar standards, curricula, and objectives too. So how in the world do I teach “civic character” to my 150+ kids each year? The answer is; From the inside out!
From day one of the school year, every year, my kids are welcomed into “our classroom.” I let them know that this class and this classroom is theirs as well as it is mine, and that they are going to get out of it only as much as they put in. We discuss “my job” and “your job” and what that looks like, sounds like and feels like for all of us. Now in my Civics classes over the years I have always told them that we were classroom “citizens,” and since that is true, we have “rights and responsibilities” in the classroom as well. The last five years I have not taught Civics, but I have facilitated all United States History courses (Advanced Placement to general levels) and our Leadership class. In American History and Leadership, we talk about the classroom as a community, and more importantly a family. Those concepts extend to my kids, the kids I teach, and those I coach on football and lacrosse fields as well; we are a family. It’s from the coaching that I pull the concept of “inside – out.” We protect, we defend from the inside out because at the inside is our center, our heart. In football, it’s where the ball starts on each possession. In lacrosse it’s our goal, goalie, and the crease. We defend from the inside out. In the classroom, the inside is us; the kids—you, your classmates, and me. The teaching is the same on the field as it is in the classroom; it starts with us. We are a family in here and on this team.
Immediately I must intentionally start doing things to build that sense of community and family in my classroom. That means creating a culture of kindness, respect, fairness, and empathy for all of us. I plant and water those seeds daily from day one on. Those principles are visible all over the classroom. I model them at the doorway and throughout the lessons, both formal (within the curriculum) and informal (my daily habits and actions). Once the kids realize that “hey, this classroom, this teacher, this class… is different!” we start talking about two huge concepts:
- The old scout motto, “Leave it better than you found it”
- Who you are makes a difference
That first concept is one I introduce and explain to the kids. Many of mine have never been a member of the scouts and may have never heard the phrase, “leave it better than you found it.” For high school students, it’s not a hard concept to understand or learn, it is just a matter of practicing it. The work is in the execution, but we practice. To teach that second concept, my favorite, I incorporate an activity that I learned over 20 years ago from Hal Urban at a character education conference. The activity is called “Celebrate a Classmate,” and in a nutshell, the whole point is to get kids to compliment or recognize something positive about another student in that class. The kids write that compliment down and turn them in, and once they are all in, I read them anonymously out to the entire class. We do this whether there are 40 kids in the class that day or 20. My students and I can automatically feel the climate of the class change. They begin to realize that people do notice, and that they do care. They’ve heard the words of community and family for weeks, but now we are putting it into practice. We do the “Celebrate a Classmate” activity once every three weeks or so, throughout the year.
By the end of the first quarter, or shortly thereafter, the classes have really become a close-knit community. We talk about the change and what makes this class different. Then I challenge them by telling them that this good feeling doesn’t have to begin and end at my doorway, that it actually begins and ends with them wherever they are. You can almost see the wheels turning in their heads. At that point I take time in class to ask them, what can we do to spread and build this across our school? How can we build this sense of kindness, empathy, respect, and caring throughout our building? As I write those two concepts on the white board to trigger their ideas, I add a third one: Leadership is an action word! The brainstorming begins. From those kids and those classes; from the highest at-risk, inner-city high schools to the highest achieving AP classes and suburban settings; I’ve seen teenagers start “I Will” and “Everybody Always”* Clubs (Who deserves kindness, love, respect and fairness? Everybody. Always.) I’ve seen hundreds of kids collect money to buy red clown noses for “Red Nose Day” and then give that money to our school food bank one year, and then to the county food bank the next. I’ve seen students start conversations with complete strangers who were sitting by themselves in the cafeteria and even clean the tables and trays of other students, before they left the lunch room. I’ve seen a lacrosse teams collect 10,000 pounds of can food items to donate to local charities. The list goes on. Just recently I heard that one of “my kids” started an “Everybody. Always.” Club at her college! The kids are caring and doing, from the inside – out.
I never once told or tell my kids we were going to develop civic character in class this year. I tell them it’s “our class.” I tell them I love them. I tell them they are awesome and can do amazing things. I challenge them. We build a class community. We build the culture. We build family… from the inside out; from the classroom, to the school, to the community and beyond. And the kids? They are leaving it better than they found it.
*The “Everybody. Always. Club” takes its name from the book written by Bob Goff, Everybody. Always.