At a staff meeting, my 6th grade colleague Barbara and I proudly shared the Bills of Individual and Civic Responsibilities that our upper grade classes had authored. We discussed how the students had used the Bill of Rights as a model to develop situations in which individual citizens exercising their rights might come into conflict with one another. The students then developed strategies for resolving these conflicts and incorporated the strategies into their own Bills of Responsibilities.
“That's great for your 5th and 6th graders,” commented several of our colleagues, “but it would be way over the heads of our 1st and 2nd graders.”
Barbara and I exchanged disappointed looks. We had hoped to extend our citizenship project to all of the elementary students. We thought that introducing 1st and 2nd graders to the concept of responsibility would prepare them for future studies of key American freedoms. Eventually, working with a 1st and a 2nd grade teacher, we were able to modify our project to create a program we called A Head Start on Citizenship.
We divided the students into teams and gave them pictures of health care providers, schools, libraries, pets, zoos, neighborhoods, and families—pictures drawn from focus areas that are part of their curriculum. We asked them to examine the pictures and tell us what the individuals in the pictures “had to do to help one another or the animals, or to improve the place they lived in.” Then we talked as a group about the actions that the children identified, and we told the students that these actions were called “responsibilities.”
Once the students had practiced pronouncing the word, they drew pictures of their favorite person (from their own experience) “exercising his/her responsibilities.” The students were so pleased with the sound of that phrase that they included this visual concept in their drawings, showing their favorite person performing specific actions. Students used storyboards to illustrate specific responsibilities, and a bulletin board called “Drawing on Responsibilities” was set up to showcase the students' efforts.
We expanded the project for 2nd graders to include writing and interviewing activities. Our team designed the “Take Your P.I.C.” (Personal Interview Core) responsibility experience. First, the 2nd grade teacher asked her students to think about roles at home in which they “exercised responsibilities.” The students identified roles such as child, foster child, daughter, son, sister, brother, granddaughter, pet owner, nephew, niece, and neighbor. (Many students lived in extended families or with unrelated adult guardians.) Using a standard format, the students listed or drew the responsibilities that were part of those roles.
Among the role responsibility lists our 2nd graders generated were:
As a grandson, I am responsible to:
- Help my grandma put on her clothes when her arthritis gets bad.
- Pick up things from the floor for grandma.
- Help grandma “see” dirt.
- Remind grandma about her doctor's appointment.
- Walk with grandma to her friends.
- Fix up grandma's bureau top.
As the owner of Yips (my dog), I am responsible to:
- Feed Yips three times a day.
- Play with him when I get home.
- Clean up after him if he has an accident.
- Look to see where he is if I don't hear him.
- Fill up and clean Yip's water dish and food plate.
- Keep Yips away from Pendie the Parrot when she takes a bath.
Next, to study reciprocal relationships, the 2nd graders reviewed a contract their teacher had given them at the beginning of the year. The contract detailed the responsibilities of the teacher and the students. Among the teachers' responsibilities were helping the students learn, answering their questions, and making learning exciting. Students' responsibilities included arriving at school prepared to learn, having necessary supplies and textbooks, asking questions, and doing their homework.
To explore students' other reciprocal relationships, students interviewed family or community members whom they knew. Among the relationships the students explored were: baby-sitter/child, parent/child, coffee shop owner/customer, grandparent/grandchild, and big brother/younger brother. They drafted Bills of Responsibility for those relationships, similar to the contract with their teacher.
Several parents wrote notes to the teachers telling them how much they enjoyed being interviewed by their children about their shared responsibilities. One of the older brothers called to say he used the concept in a project he was developing at an after-school center for at-risk students. Eventually, with the help of the computer teacher, the children “published” their Bills of Responsibilities.
Through A Head Start on Citizenship, we developed activities accessible through personal experience that provided younger students with a jump on responsibilities education. We hope that having thought deeply about the responsibilities inherent within their personal, family, community, and school life, these children will be well equipped to later exercise their civic responsibilities.
Rose Reissman is a Teacher Specialist in District 25 of the New York City Public Schools and is Director of the Writing Institute Impact II Network. She can be reached at 110 Seaman Ave., #5C, New York, NY 10034.