Citizen-Focused Schools


Someone today acknowledged the fact that an audience of folks had likely heard many keynote presentations over the last decade or so warning, proclaiming, and evangelizing on the need to change schools to better meet the shifting demands of the modern workforce. This was a lead in to the question of what the assembled educators should do about it and what they might ask employers to help them focus the work of school.

For my money, it’s all the wrong question. As much as I want every student I’ve ever known to find gainful, satisfying employment, shooting for a successful workforce aims below the best possibility of what American schools can be.

In an election season jacked up on discourse and discord, we see the highlights of how worker-focused schools are set to fail our country if they do not become citizen-focused schools.

Workers who know how to collaborate, innovate, adapt, and design are still less powerful than citizens who know how to organize, advocate, and investigate.

Rather than asking employers what schools can do to produce students to fit their needs, we should be speaking to politicians, public servants, and civic leaders asking what it takes to get their attention, what effective advocacy looks like, and what problems are on the horizon for communities and cities that our students will need to be ready to tackle.

Chasing jobs that don’t yet exist and may only exist for a moment is a fool’s errand not worthy of our children. Learning how to craft a society that realizes the best ideals of our democracy, our republic, and our grand experiment is not only a worthy goal, but a necessary one as well.

From Theory to Practice:

  • As you wrap up your school year or plan for the start of next year, make citizenship and the kinds of citizens your school community is working to create a central conversation. Keep in mind this is a conversation for all subject areas, not just social studies. Citizen scientists, public health, and a mathematically literate public are just as important as those who volunteer and show up at the polls.
  • Invite civic leaders in to build out the conversation. Ask anyone from the city manager to the mayor to local congressional leaders to come speak across classes on where any given subject area intersects with their work.
  • Think about the civic centers your schools can become. Host candidate forums. Ask leaders to come in and participate in town halls. Keep voter registration forms on the counter of your office and linked on your homepage. Make participatory citizenship part of the DNA of learning and teaching.



It’s citizenship. No qualifier. Citizenship in the singular.

It’s not that we’ve gotten to a place where the phrase “digital citizenship” has gotten overused and we need to find some sort of new buzzword to help folks think they’re talking about something new.

On the contrary. It’s that the actual practices and spaces have collapsed on themselves and it’s time to help people realize they are talking about something very old. de Tocqueville old.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

In the beginning, “digital citizenship” was a useful term. It helped us to conceptualize the ways we should and should not act in digital spaces. They were new rules for new spaces. We no more knew the ways we were supposed to act and keep ourselves in check in online spaces than we knew how long these spaces would exist – I’m looking at you Prodigy chat rooms.

Now, though, in many of the same ways 13 colonies showed, “Nope we’re sticking around for the long haul and we’d like to codify our existence,” the digital is proving just as much a destination as any physical space.

So, citizenship – period, hard stop.

In the same conversations where we talk about what it means to interact with people in places like parks, museums, libraries, and corner stores; it’s time we start to talk about how we behave in comment sections, chat conversations, blogs (the mico and the old school), and whatever is on the horizon.

Because, somewhere along the way, we started having more conversations about digital citizenship than citizenship and that’s surely a count against us.

It’s not that separating the digital from the physical in the citizenship conversation makes them seem like they’re driven by separate sets of rules. It’s that it implies they are the only spaces separated by different roles.

I act differently on the improv stage than I do in my office. My citizenship or community participation are similar and different in these spaces. My citizenship in this blog and my citizenship on Facebook are different. I decide the tone, how much I share, whom I hang around with, what I look like; and I decide it all in different ways. I do it all the same way I ask, “Is it okay for me to wear pajama pants to walk my dog?” and know it’s not okay to wear those pajama pants to the office.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

At its very best, it asks who we want to be and throws away ridiculous consumerist terminology like “personal branding,” “identity management,” and the like.

One last thing. Citizenship is more difficult work than digital citizenship, requiring we move beyond locking down privacy, avoiding sharing, and absolute control and editing of what we put into the world.

Citizenship asks us to think about the fact that we are present in communities, whether we like it or not, and calls on us to be the types of citizens we’d like to see living next door.