Last year, The River School, an independent, progressive school in Washington, DC, dedicated to children from 18 months through Grade 5, piloted Children Are Citizens (CAC). Created by Project Zero researchers and the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School, CAC is grounded in progressive education principles and inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. As The River School is committed to and successful in delivering student-centered, inquiry-based learning in a democratic environment, CAC felt like a natural extension of our philosophy right out of the gate.
Operating from the premise that all children are current citizens as opposed to future or hypothetical citizens, CAC embraces children as community members with ideas, opinions, and the capacity to participate in the civic and cultural life of their city. With this in mind our teaching teams developed goals for the project at our school. The goals discussed and agreed upon at the start of the year included:
Our teaching teams also began asking themselves, How and where are our students exploring citizenship and community within our unique classroom? What opportunities to extend these explorations are emerging? All fall, they leaned into progressive education’s charge for assuming the teacher as scientist mindset. They did this by listening, observing and documenting their students’ thinking, learning and actions around citizenship and community throughout the day including on the playground, during Choice Time and morning meetings, and in their specials, which include Science, Drama, Music, Art, PE, Yoga and Library class times.
By November, our teams had collected a lot of data which we began to unpack by inviting each team to share how they documented student thinking and learning this school year. Next, teams brainstormed words that aptly described their unique group of students. This step generated a lot of laughter and goodwill as teams reflected upon the curious, quirky, spontaneous and wonderful children they spent their days with, affirming the joyful learning spaces they had co-created. Teams wrapped up this session with possible provocations to present to their students and see whether their analysis of the documentation aligned. At this point, our goal for each team was to land on a topic that felt personally meaningful to the students so they could devise their own questions and drive the inquiry of their CAC project.
As a new pilot program, this process could feel disorienting at times, leaving us to wonder: Why do the goalposts seem to keep shifting? Where will these investigations actually lead to? How do these ideas connect to citizenship? Are my students old enough or immersed enough for these inquiries? Am I doing this “right”? Undaunted, our teaching teams persevered by revisiting their documentation of student learning and forming provocations, challenges and ideas for their students to consider. As students began to engage with these provocations, the “it” of each classroom’s project slowly began to reveal itself. At this point in the journey, around February and March, the puzzle pieces began connecting, partnerships with our arts specialists came into focus, exciting learning pathways emerged and many “a-ha” moments started rolling out.
The unique inquiry that evolved across each classroom really captures the authenticity of exploration guided by our incredible teaching teams. Here is a snapshot of how each community of learners engaged ideas of citizenship, community and action differently, uniquely and joyfully:
The project concluded with each classroom writing and illustrating a book documenting their learning journey. Students received their own copy that they shared with their families at a celebration of learning. At the celebration before heading to their children’s classrooms, families gathered for a presentation about Children Are Citizens, the journey their children took and the civic attitudes and dispositions we hoped to foster. The response from families was overwhelmingly positive. Parents gathered in the Library had many questions and favorable comments to share. At the end of the presentation, the first question from a parent was, Will this project continue next year so my child can participate in it again?
As we reflect on our CAC pilot, several important take-aways emerged that we will factor in as we make this an anchor civic education experience. These include:
We are so thankful for the leadership and support of the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School (WIS). Dr. Jim Reese who directs the PDC offered strategic guidance as we incorporated the CAC pilot into our pre-existing professional development framework. In addition to Jim’s guidance, Sarah Hair, an expert educator who had led her own students through CAC projects, consulted with us throughout the year and led the monthly seminars, ensuring our teachers and school leaders had the support necessary to make the pilot program a positive experience. We are thankful to The River School’s Head of School and founder, Nancy Mellon, who tirelessly experiments, invents and pushes the boundaries of traditional beliefs about education. Finally, and most importantly, we could not be prouder of our phenomenal teaching teams and students whose readiness to have fun and be awed make them formidable lifelong learners and citizens.
Christiane Connors is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at The River School in Washington, DC, which serves children ages 18 months through 5th grade through a unique co-teaching model that pairs a master’s level educator with a speech-language pathologist in each classroom. This model ensures all learners thrive in an environment dedicated to experiential and collaborative learning through thematic inquiry-based curriculum.
Previously, she served as Director of Civic Engagement and Senior Projects at Edmund Burke School from 2012-2020 where she led a school-wide initiative to integrate social justice pedagogy across the school’s curriculum, instruction and administration. From 2012-2016, Christiane was an Adjunct Professor at GW’s Graduate School of Education & Human Development. As Christiane’s daughter, Simone White, is a CI user, she is aware of the challenges parents face in navigating the hearing intervention landscape starting with diagnosis, through CI candidacy and rehabilitation. Christiane holds a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University.