Teaching Students to Be Responsible Citizens in a Democracy

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 5/5/17 9:00 AM

Recently, The Washington Post ran an opinion article with a provocative title, "We’re Teaching Our Students Not to Care about Democracy". The writer, Colbert I. King, quotes a report by scholars Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey: “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

This caught my eye because I run a school which is working very hard in virtually all aspects of school life to be sure children will grow up having a deep sense of the importance of the democratic values of freedom, justice, equity, and inclusion. As a progressive school, we share John Dewey’s belief that a full democracy is formed and protected not just by extending voting rights, but also by making sure that there is a fully informed electorate of critical thinkers who are responsible and engaged citizens. I agree with Janey and Kahlenberg—and John Dewey—that civic education is both central and urgent. I also believe that civic education can and should begin even with our youngest students.

How do we do this at Lowell? We do it in the way we respect individual voices, in the way we organize and run our classrooms, in the kinds of inclusive decision-making processes children experience, and in our experiential approach to social studies. Beginning with children as young as 2 ½ and continuing through middle school, we give students opportunities to share their thoughts and make choices, participate in group decision making, and learn strategies for solving problems and resolving conflicts. By the time our students reach 8th grade, they have been practicing these skills and internalizing these values for as many as 12 years.  

In addition, our new K–8 social studies program combines

  • historical context and understanding,
  • use of primary source material to help children learn through inquiry,
  • a constant examination of whose voices are being heard and whose are not,
  • connections between current events and history
  • ample opportunities to practice and act on democratic principles in daily school life, and
  • strategies for being active participants and change makers in communities beyond school

By intertwining the Teaching for Tolerance Social Justice Standards and outcomes into our social studies program and well beyond, we very intentionally help children develop both cultural competency and an engaged and questioning approach to the events in their lives today. The democratic process and the ideals of freedom, justice, equity, and inclusion permeate a student’s experience at Lowell. Students definitely learn to care about democracy at Lowell.  

We are a private school serving 350 students, PK–grade 8, in the midst of the nation’s capital. Small and nimble, we are able to respond to our students’ needs and interests in ways that promote active engagement and inclusivity. We consciously select content and materials to best deliver an educational program that supports democratic values, and we are able to devote the time it takes to dig deeply into social studies, including current events. We are not subject to the same challenges or federal, state, and local policies that public schools are, nor do we have solutions to the very real problems and pressures they face. But, we are doing what we can to ensure that as many students as we can serve will have a strong foundation for being active, informed, and responsible citizens who uphold democratic ideals.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is head of school at Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.