What is citizenship?
  • Legal and political status: In its simplest meaning, citizenship can be defined as membership in a country, community or group. It allows privileges like voting and the ability to hold public office but it also comes with obligations like paying taxes and following the law.
  • Involvement in the community: Citizenship also means your relationship with the community in which you are a member. In other words, your behaviour and actions. It's not just following the rights and behaviours laid down by the law, it also means adhering to the social and moral behaviour expected of a citizen.
What makes a good citizen?

Okay, so you pay your taxes and vote, does that make you a good citizen? Some might say yes. Some people believe that the rights of the individual outweigh the rights of the collective.

But, unless you live in a cave without any interaction with the outside world, being a citizen means more than basic rights and responsibilities. It involves the quality of an individual's character and how they act as a fellow human being in the global community.

A good citizen is someone who:

  • cares about the feelings and rights of others
  • shows concern for the safety and well-being of others
  • stays informed about issues and voices their opinion
  • votes
  • conserves resources and follows the 3 Rs-- reduce, reuse and recycle
  • uses their skills to make a better community
What does this mean for my child?

In Ontario, children are given some sort of citizenship education. In other words, they are taught to be active, informed and responsible citizens. That sounds very dry, but the benefits they get from this include the following:

  • The self-confidence to deal with every day life occurrences like a fight during recess or a disagreement in class, or sharing with others.
  • It gives them a voice in their school, community and society.
  • It enables them to make a contribution to the world they live in.
  • It prepares them for the ups and downs of the adult working world.
What can parents do at home?

Richard Messina, teacher and Vice-Principal at The Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study offers these tips:

  • Discuss things you aren't necessarily comfortable discussing but it is important for your child to know the facts. Tailor your discussion to the age of your child.
  • Look at the news and discuss world issues with your child.
  • Talk about what happened at school. Not just what happened academically, but what happened for your child socially and emotionally.
  • Model for your child what it means to be a citizen and teach your child your values. You may do things like go to the food bank, vounteer, write a letter to the editor of a newspaper and show the letter to your child, or vote and show your child you are informed about the candidates. 

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Where does citizenship fit in the classroom?

According to Messina, citizenship begins in the classroom. The classroom is the only place where kids have to learn how to get along with, and help, others as members of a community. They learn how to understand and analyze difficult situations and learn how to problem-solve in a way that benefits everyone.

Kang Lee, from the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, says that during the Industrial Revolution, public school was used to create good citizens because good citizens equaled good workers. At the time, most new factory workers were coming from farming backgrounds and they needed to be taught a work ethic that included reading, writing and working to a schedule. 

Soon government and educators learned that just knowing how to read and write didn't necessarily mean you know how to be a good citizen, so they added character building to the mix. They wanted workers who had some sort of moral quality.

Fast forward to today and although we aren't transforming farmers into factory workers, the primary purpose of education remains to produce good citizens.

How do you teach citizenship?

Lee explains that teaching citizenship is three-fold. "We teach the three Rs but we emphasize knowledge-seeking. We don't think of children as a bottle we can feed knowledge into. We want kids to become someone who goes out to seek knowledge and discover knowledge."

But teaching them to be inquisitive is only one part. "We want a feeling person in addition to a knowledge-seeking person," Lee explains. "And part of being a citizen is being a moral person so we want our students to develop a character that is moral and ethical. So they conduct themselves morally and ethically in their daily activities with others."

The key is incorporating these teaching ideals into the curriculum in a way that adds to the lesson.

How can you ensure citizenship is being taught at your child's school?

It's really easy for teachers to get bogged down in the curriculum and, with EQAO pressures and goals to meet, citizenship might fall by the wayside.

According to Elizabeth Morley, Principal at The Laboratory School, here are some things to look for in your school:

  • Kids are aware of concepts such as democracy, justice and equality;
  • Kids know that their voices are heard in the classroom;
  • Kids can express themselves without fear of embarrassment or failure;
  • The classroom allows for discussion and debate on current issues that are important and relevant to young people;
  • Every student is treated equally;
  • Students are encouraged to treat each other with dignity and respect;
  • Older students mentor younger ones;
  • Students stand up for each other;
  • Kids are learning about government and politics, taxation, the economy, law and criminality.
  • Kids are aware of themselves as members of the global community and are encouraged to be proactive-- like organizing book drives to raise money for kids in another country, or recycling and saving energy.

If your school isn't doing any of these things, ask why. Exercise your voice as a citizen!