Toward a Vision of Students as Citizens

This column, written by Joe Nathan,  originally was published in Education Week, April 25, 1990. Copyright Education Week and Joe Nathan

Toward a Vision of Students 

Whenever the conversation turns to “restructuring” schools, I think of my former student David, an angry, violent teenager from a troubled inner-city family. Our public schools are encountering more and more young people like him. And unless plans for change include a new and more positive view of them–a concept of these youngsters as involved citizens–reforms will have much less impact.

For quite a while, it was not easy to like David. He had transferred to the school where I taught after being expelled from a large, traditional high school.

David’s final problems at his former school began when a teacher told him to remove the hat he was wearing in the hall. Smiling, David replied that his girlfriend had given him the hat for his birthday and that he was “just trying to get to class on time, like you always tell me.” The teacher reminded David of the rule against hats and insisted he remove it. When David ignored the teacher, the latter walked to his side and said, “Take that hat off or I’ll knock it off.” David smiled. The teacher pushed off the hat, and David slammed him to the floor.

David Ellis, cited in this article, founder of High School for Recording Arts

David was suspended, found guilty of assault, sentenced to several hundred hours of community service, and told to find another school in the district.

He picked ours–a K-12 alternative school where the faculty didn’t care if he wore a hat. We were more concerned about the fact that he was 15 and could barely read or write. David learned that it did not matter how many classes he took: He wouldn’t graduate until he could demonstrate specified skills and knowledge.

Graduation requirements also included service to the school and community. David enrolled in a course where students learned about consumer rights and responsibilities, and worked on problems referred to them by adults. Over several years, they tackled approximately 500 cases and successfully resolved over 80 percent of them.

Education, we felt, should not be aimed merely at preparing young people to find jobs. Dissatisfied with the commonly accepted metaphor of students as “workers,” we based our efforts on a vision of them as ”citizens” who should be able to serve their community actively and responsibly. If current calls for reform are to succeed, they must build in the premise that, while part of good citizenship is holding a job, learning the skills one needs to produce a more just world and believing that one can make a difference are equally important elements.

The course David took was inspired by experience with and research about the value of combining classroom work and community service. Learning by doing, of course, is not a new idea. John Dewey, for example, urged such an approach. In this generation, the Georgia educator Eliot Wigginton has shown how it can be done in his Foxfire program and in his extraordinary book, Sometimes a Shining Moment.

Cover of Student-Produced Flyer, for “Consumer Action Service,” a part of the Protect Your Rights & Money Class

This progressive tradition begins with certain assumptions: Young people learn more when they are actively involved; they can influence the lives of other people positively; they should be viewed as resources for, rather than simply recipients of service. We also believed that youngsters would learn to be good citizens the same way they learned to add numbers or shoot a basketball–by practicing.

Community service did not mean merely collecting cans for a food shelf at Christmas, or assisting at a day-care center. We tried to link schoolwork and service so that youngsters saw connections between academics and the world beyond school.

Activities such as the following were typical:

  • Elementary students designed and built a playground for the school. Among their committees was one that made 26 phone calls before locating a company that would donate sand. Former students still remember the day, more than 15 years ago, when 6 trucks arrived with sand.
  • Science students studied principles of ecology and tried to reduce smelly emissions from factories near the school. In what became a three-year project, they conducted research, testified at a state legislative hearing, and dealt with reporters and pollution-control officials. Ultimately, they were successful.
  • English students analyzed ways television commercials tried to sell products, and then wrote a students’ guide to advertising.
  • Youngsters in peer-counseling classes helped address the needs of several potentially suicidal students and dramatically reduced fighting by showing their classmates better ways to resolve disagreements.

Other schools have created similar courses–where service is a part of the academic curriculum, not just an after-school or student-council project.

When teachers who offer such courses get together, however, as they did recently at the Wingspread Conference Center, they realize that, in most cases, they were not taught this approach in college. Many learned to design these courses on their own or from other gifted teachers.

Most colleges make opportunities for service available to their students. But how many colleges actually model this way of learning? How many offer courses in which students not only–for example–read American history but also conduct research and publish books or magazines, as the Foxfire students do? How many prepare or encourage prospective teachers to combine academics and service?

In a recent research summary on the impact of youth-service programs, the investigators Dan Conrad and Diane Hedin found that more than 70 percent of students in such courses preferred them to traditional classes. Participating students also had stronger problem-solving skills than a control group.

The most effective programs share five characteristics:

  • Projects address a real need.
  • Students’ work is integrated into a course, so that they also improve academic skills; their project helps strengthen reading, writing, research, and other elements of the discipline in which they are working.
  • They have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned; they learn to analyze problems, consider possible solutions, try one of them, evaluate the results, and then try again.
  • Educators have a collaborative relationship with students. This doesn’t mean students run the class; teachers have a clear idea of the course’s goals and most of the strategies to be used. But they encourage students to produce solutions to problems.
  • The project has a tangible product–for example, a booklet, videotape, or filmstrip–that students can look at, take away, and come back to years later as a reminder of what they accomplished.


With the Congress discussing proposals for national service programs and President Bush including young people in his “thousand points of light,” youth-service efforts are in the news these days. And many observers are concerned about the attitudes of American young people. A survey conducted last year by the civil-liberties organization People for the American Way asked 1,000 teenagers to rank important life goals. Seventy-one percent named a satisfying career and 68 percent a good family life as very important goals. But only 24 percent rated community service so highly.

Well-designed programs can transform these attitudes. David was not a good citizen when he entered our school. But he was an active member of our consumer-action course, and he had many ideas about how to solve problems–some sneaky, some illegal, some both creative and legitimate. Gradually, he learned how to use small-claims courts and other legal strategies. His reading, writing, and math improved significantly.

Six months after David entered the school, a local newspaper did a story about the class. David was one of the students selected by his peers to be interviewed and photographed.

Weeks later, David came to me. “I often thought that I might have my name in the newspaper,” he said.

“I even thought I might have my picture in the paper. But I never thought it would be for something good.”

St Paul Pioneer Press story about the “Protect Your Rights & Money” class. David Ellis is in the center of the picture. Joe Nathan is to his left, in the upper right hand portion of the picture.

When this column was published, Joe Nathan was a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, and director of the Center for School Change.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Toward a Vision of Students as ‘Citizens’