There has been a recent movement to making passing a version of the U.S. citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation, and The New Yorker has just written about it (see What’s the Right Way to Teach Civics?).

Considering my nineteen year career as a community organizer, it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer in schools helping to develop the citizenship skills of our students. However, I think making students having to study and pass yet another standardized test is a terrible, and ineffective, strategy to use in trying to achieve that goal. It’s like calling into Talk Radio – it makes some feel like they’re doing something to make a difference when, in fact, they’re doing nothing at all.

When I was organizing for the Industrial Areas Foundation, we organized massive naturalization drives which we called the Active Citizenship Campaign (both Presidents Clinton and Obama later borrowed the term) to make it clear that passing the test was one kind of citizenship, but active citizenship – participating actively in public life – was the real kind of citizenship our country needed.

What would this kind of active citizenship look like in schools?

I wrote extensively about it in a New York Times column, Ideas for English Language Learners | What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?, which is full of lesson ideas applicable to ELLs and non-ELLs alike.

In addition, here’s a modified excerpt from my book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work that shares how I make the distinction:

Over a period of two months the class had been concentrating on two different “threads” related to U.S. citizenship. One concentrated on preparation for the official test – students studied the workbook, practiced dictation, used online activities for reinforcement. The other explored what an “active” citizen might look like. That primarily included students doing individual meetings in the school and neighborhood to identify community concerns. Those conversations led to student-led forum at the school with with job training agencies and hundreds of students and adults from the area.

Then, the class reviewed the different activities that were done for each of the two threads and completed a graphic organizer. Next, the class brainstormed answers to the questions:

• What is a good citizen?

• What does a good citizen know?

• What does a good citizen do?

Finally, each student wrote which thread they thought helped prepare them the most to become what they defined as a good citizen and why. Students had different perspectives:

• Toua: “A good citizen is someone who know about their native history, good helper, work hard, and know about the laws in their country….I think studying for the citizenship test help me prepare to be a good citizen more than community organizing because when you learn about the constitution and history you might be a good citizen and leader.”

• Pao: “A good citizen is someone who helps the community and makes the community better…I think community organizing helped me prepare to be a good citizen more than studying for the citizenship text because I learn how to solve the community’s problems and I know how to help the community.”

• Chi: “A good citizen is someone who know a lot about country and history…I think being an active citizen and community organizing helped me prepare to be a good citizen more than studying for the citizen test because it helped me know my family member, friends, neighbors, jobs and learned about power.”

• Mai Tong: “A good citizen is someone who knows about governments and history…I think active citizen and community organizing helped me be a good citizen more than studying for the text, this is because a good citizen need to know how to organize and have community service. This also help me to practice speak English for many people and feel confident.”

I’ll end this post with an excerpt from The New Yorker article:


I’m adding this post to The Best Websites For Learning About Civic Participation & Citizenship.