Nurturing an Informed Citizenry: Three Lessons for Second Graders

Andrea S. Libresco

In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam explains how his diagnosis of social ills impelled him to become a public scholar committed to social activism.1 He is almost like a lawyer making a brief that leads to a judgment for action. Putnam begins his book with survey data on the most common act of democratic citizenshipóvoting.

The story of the ìvanishing voterî is well known: Participation in presidential elections has declined by roughly a quarter over the last thirty-six years. Turnout in off-year and local elections is down by roughly the same amount. Unfortunately, the decline correlates strongly with age: as ìbaby boomersî and their children became a larger fraction of the national electorate, the average turnout rate at the voting booth declined. Simultaneously, there is a news and information gap: daily newspaper readership among people under thirty-five dropped from two-thirds in 1965 to one-third in 1990; TV news viewership in this age-group fell as well.

We donít need to read Putnamís book to know that there is an information gap. Jay Leno on ìThe Tonight Showî has a feature called ìJay-Walkingî where he presents video clips of ìaverage citizensî revealing their utter lack of information on a current events topic. (Of course, because the responses are taped in advance, it is impossible to ascertain just how many people on the street gave the right and, presumably, much less funny, answer.) The Jay-Walking featureís humor turns on the idea that the information being solicited is that which no American should have been allowed to leave school without (although what information is vital for voting adults is, indeed, worthy of discussion). The ìaverage citizensî are obviously not adequately prepared to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship, which include deliberation and decision making based on adequate information.


A Challenge for Any Democracy

This lack of participation (of many people at the polls) and lack of knowledge (of at least some citizens) raises questions about how we foster a civil society. How do citizens reach a point where they are capable of informed deliberation and judgment? How can we inspire young citizens so that they care to see these as important values for citizens? These issues are not new; they were highlighted at the Constitutional Convention. Alexander Hamilton expressed his lack of confidence in the majority of citizens when he commented,2 ìYour people, sir, is a great beast. They seldom judge or determine correctly.î

Thomas Jefferson responded by voicing confidence in the people, arguing that democracy demanded this confidence, and offering a plan for making sure the confidence would be warranted:3

If we think the people not enlightened enough to exercise power with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take power from them but to improve their discretion through education....We must preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance; for if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.


More than one hundred years later, John Dewey started with Jeffersonís premise by acknowledging,4

The devotion of democracy to education is a familiar fact. The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.


But Dewey offered a deeper explanation as well: ìA democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.î Deweyís conception of education as it functions in a democracy entailed more than merely having the public acquire new information in the course of their schooling; rather, he stressed the effects of the points of contact individuals have in society. He then raised questions about what kind of schooling it would take to equip students for adult citizenship and associated living.

Contemporaries like Walter Lippmann debated Dewey, questioning whether, once we concede that people are capable of making informed judgments, they would take the time, make the effort, and have access to information that was essential for reaching public judgment.5 In a 1922 review of Lippmannís book Public Opinion, Dewey charged Lippmann with believing that ìthe mass does not really think out issues, but after having become habituated in childhood to authority, merely says Yes or No to the formulation of the issues made by a few persons.î Dewey argued that education for all (as opposed to the creation of an elite who are in control of the necessary data for informed judgments) is the best weapon we have:6

Democracy demands a more thoroughgoing education than the education of officials, administrators and directors of industry. Because this fundamental general education is at once so necessary and so difficult of achievement, the enterprise of democracy is so challenging.


Where Lippmann believed that facts and information were more important than argument, Dewey believed that our search for reliable information is, itself, guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action (which comes, of course, from associated living). Schools, alone, cannot be expected to achieve all of these goals, but they can and should play a central role in helping to develop ways of knowing and seeking information, and, equally important, of valuing knowledge that can foster citizenship long after graduation. Improved civics education in school should be part of the strategyónot just information about ìHow a bill becomes a law,î but also ìHow can I participate effectively in the public life of my community?î


Civics Today

I do not minimize the difficulty of preparing young students for citizenship in a democracy. First, in my own experience teaching high school government, I have found that social studies students do not tend to classify being informed for the purpose of deliberation as a characteristic of citizenship in a democracy; it is always the last characteristic they name and only after heavy prodding on my part. These students need to engage in an ongoing search for reliable information and to enter into deliberative discussions in their elementary school years. Second, I, like David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation (an organization dedicated to improving the quality of public life in the American democracy), am concerned about ìthe publicís loss of confidence in the publicópeopleís uncertainty about the effectiveness of their collective powers or even their ability to mount a collective response.î7 Accordingly, I believe that students must study historical (and current) events in which small groups of citizens joined forces to make change; for example, to gain civil rights or to stop a war, or (at the neighborhood level) to curb driving drunk or to have a crosswalk installed. The so-called experts rarely solve such problems; rather, the collective effort of citizens who realized they are not powerless is more likely to initiate real change. Mathews points out that the public doesnít have to be formally organized to be effective: ìWe are the public in our loosely organized ëad hocracies.í We are the public when we do the common work of citizens. We are all public officials.î


Starting Early

In the primary grades, students can be “public officials” in their own communities, including their schools and classrooms. Even students as young as second graders can engage in critical thinking and make informed judgments, which are the most important citizenship skills in a democracy. Because they are second graders, much of their “research” can be based on the literature they read and the conversations they have with community members. Their models of good citizens come from picture books, older students, neighbors, teachers, and parents. The problems they work on arise from their classrooms and their immediate environs. When they observe, study, and act upon community issues, these seven and eight-year-olds are doing the stuff of citizenship.

The lessons that follow ask second graders to define and identify models of good citizenship, so that they can engage in good citizenship behaviors as they inform themselves about problems facing their community and possible solutions.



1. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

2. Alexander Hamilton, in Michael DíInnocenzo, ìAims of Education: Tolerance, Understanding and Inclusion,î Vital Speeches of the Day 66, no. 3 (1999): 81.

3. Thomas Jefferson, in M. DíInnocenzo: 81.

4. John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 87.

5. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Free Press, 1922, rev. 1997).

6. John Dewey, ìWalter Lippmannís Public Opinionî (Book Review),î The New Republic (May 3, 1922): 287.

7. David Mathews, ìAfterthoughts,î Kettering Review 20, no. 1 (Winter 2002), 60.


Andrea S. Libresco is a special assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.


Readings for Students



Brown, Marc. Arthurís Halloween. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.

After gathering reliable information, Arthur and his friends discover that their neighbor is not a witch, and, together, they clean her yard.

Browne, Anthony. Piggybook. New York: Knopf, 1990.

When Mom leaves, Dad and sons realize how much she did for them and resolve to pull their weight and share jobs.

Bunting, Eve. Wednesday Surprise. New York: Clarion Books, 1989.

A girl teaches her grandmother to read.

Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. New York: Scholastic, 1982.

A woman makes the world more beautiful by planting flowers.

Cowen-Fletcher, Jane. It Takes a Village. New York: Scholastic, 1994.

The entire village watches out for a child.

Houston, Gloria. My Great Aunt Arizona. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

A woman profoundly affects a town by staying to teach rather than traveling around the world.

Lionni, Leo. Frederick. New York: Knopf, 1987.

A mouse imagines beautiful scenes to help his friends get through a tough winter.

Mitchell, Margaree King. Uncle Jedís Barbershop. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998.

A man uses hard-earned money to help others in trouble and delays his own dream of owning a barbershop.

Pfister, Marcus. The Rainbow Fish. New York: North South Books, 1992.

A beautiful fish ultimately shares his prized possessions.

Polacco, Patricia. Applemondoís Dreams. New York: Philomel, 1991.

A boyís dreams change the village and the people.

óó-. The Tree of the Dancing Goats. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Jewish and Christian neighbors reach out to each other.

Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

A tree gives all it has to a boy.

Thurber, James. The Great Quillow. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972.

A tiny toymaker defeats a giant and saves a town.

Untermeyer, Louis. One and One and One. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962.

Four animal friends build a home together.



Borden, Louis and Mary Kay Kroeger. Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman. New York: Margaret McElderry, 2001.

Brill, Marlene Tag. Margaret Knight: Girl Inventor. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2001.

Christensen, Bonnie. Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Hoose, Phillip. We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001.

Rappaport, Doreen. Martinís Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Jump at the Sun, 2001.

Rockwell, Anne F. Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Sullivan, George. Helen Keller (In Their Own Words series). New York: Scholastic, 2001.


General Nonfiction

Earth Works Group, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1990.

Actions kids can take to clean up the environment. Also available as a 48 minute video (1992) from Churchill Media, Chicago, IL.

Gibbons, Gail. Recycle! A Handbook for Kids. New York: Little, Brown, 1996.

Nuts and bolts information about how to get recycling started in your home, school and town.

Harlow, Rosie and Sally Morgan. Garbage and Recycling (Young Discoverers: Environmental Facts and Experiments). New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Explains about biodegradable garbage and recycling and has suggestions for how young recyclers can help.

Showers, Paul. Where Does the Garbage Go? New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Explains what used to happen to solid waste, what goes into landfills, and how recycling works today.

Lesson 1: Defining Good Citizenship
Key Question: What are the most important behaviors of good citizens?

Objectives: Second grade students will be able to:
• identify and describe the characteristics of good
• give examples of behaviors of good citizens;
• defend what they see as the most important behaviors of good citizens;
• apply their knowledge of good citizenship to judge the actions of characters in literature and in real life.

Motivation: Students read situations (see handout) and discuss whether each is an example of good citizenship. As they do so, they develop a class list, Behaviors of Good Citizens, which includes items like, “keep their community beautiful,” “help their community members without doing their work for them,” “express their views in a variety of ways,” “stand up for people’s rights,” “listen to others,” “inform themselves,” “vote,” etc.

Development: Teacher and students discuss in greater depth any conflicting information they may have. Higherlevel thinking questions are asked, allowing students to grapple with the relation between citizens and their elected authorities:
• May good citizens suggest new ideas to a community leader (like the principal)?
• Do good citizens sometimes raise issues that may be difficult to solve?
• Do good citizens always obey authority, or are there times when they should question authority?
• Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a good citizen?

Application: Teacher reads Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle aloud.1 The story revolves around a dictator, Yertle, who commands the other turtles to stack themselves into a throne for him so he can be “ruler of all that I see!” The bottom turtle, Mack, pleads on behalf of himself and the other turtles:
Your majesty, please...I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top, you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom, we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving! Groaned Mack.
When Yertle wants to make his throne higher than the moon, Mack reaches his breaking point:

That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a little bit mad
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!
Ultimately, Yertle lands in the mud and the turtles, “of course...all the turtles are free/ As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.” The teacher can ask students which turtle is behaving like a good citizen, acting out of concern for the other turtles. (We observed that students were quick to identify Yertle as behaving badly and Mack as the one who does something good for the group; however, when asked to compare their assessments to their earlier definitions of good citizens, the students become less certain.) The teacher can then ask questions that call for higher-level thinking, questions which allow students to assess the roles of authorities, activists, and bystanders.
• Is Mack being a good citizen when he talks back to and overthrows Yertle, the turtle who is in charge?
• Are the other turtles in the stack good citizens or not? (Interestingly, the students I have worked with notice that Mack uses the pronoun “we,” and so they suggest that he is speaking on behalf of the other turtles; therefore, most students feel that the other turtles, too, are good citizens.)
• How “innocent” are the bystanders in the story?

Follow-Up: The teacher can follow up this literary example with real ones, presenting students with historical and current examples of protesters to assess whether or not they exhibit the behaviors of good citizens. Students can choose another character from literature and assess her or his citizenship. I like to use a different Dr. Seuss story at this point, “What was I Afraid of?” from The Sneetches and Other Stories.2 In this story, the main character is afraid of a pair of “pale green pants with nobody inside them” because he doesn’t know anything about the pants and is prejudging them. From this story, the students can discover perhaps the most important attribute of a good citizen—the commitment to acquire reliable information and then act on it.


1. Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss, pseud.), Yertle the Turtle, and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1986, original edition 1950).
2. ——-. The Sneetches and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1988).
Directions: Read each situation below. If you think it is an example of good citizenship, write YES. If you think it is not an example of good citizenship, write NO.

YES or NO?

1. Picking up trash in the hall. ____________
2. Helping another student understand the
homework assignment. ____________
3. Shoving to get on the bus first. ____________
4. Teasing someone based on that person’s looks. ____________
5. Telling someone to stop teasing another person. ____________
6. Turning off the water while you brush your teeth. ____________
7. Listening to the principa#146;s announcements. ____________
8. Wearing a button which says, “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” ____________
9. Voting for a candidate for student government. ____________
10. Joining a club in school. ____________
11. Presenting the principal with a petition, signed by lots of
students, that asks for an after-school sports club. ____________
12. After noticing there was no recycling bin in your classroom,
asking questions about how to get one. ____________
13. Volunteering at a homeless shelter. ____________
14. Finding a wallet and keeping it. ____________
15. Reporting an injured or lost animal. ____________
16. Taking a sick neighbor’s dog for a walk. ____________
17. Cutting into the lunch line. ____________
18. Writing a letter to your congressman concerning
an issue you care about. ____________

Lesson 2: Identifying Good Citizen Role Models
Key Question: Whom would you nominate for a good citizenship award?

Objectives: Students will be able to:
• discuss activities that contribute to the betterment of the community;
• evaluate the activities of community helpers in
• evaluate the activities of actual community members.

Motivation: Students brainstorm a list of activities they feel contribute to the betterment of the community. Responses may begin with general behaviors (helping others); however, the teacher should move students to more specific examples (the neighbor who shovels the elderly neighbor’s walk every snowstorm, works at the soup kitchen once a week, petitions to get a stop sign put in, serves as a literacy volunteer, writes letters to a congressperson about an important issue, or organizes a clothing drive—or the family that agrees to get one fewer holiday gift for each other so that they can donate money to those in need, or that won’t buy certain products because they’re made by companies that use child labor).

Development: Students research other examples of good citizens in fiction and non-fiction. The books and video in the Resources listed below may be used individually, in pairs, in reading groups, or (especially in the case of the video) as whole-class activities.
After doing their research, students return to the list and add any new qualities or behaviors that describe a good citizen. Teacher and students then turn the list into a good citizen nomination form that will include examples of good citizen behaviors. Students bring home several forms and distribute to parents and neighbors. Students may, of course, fill one out themselves.

Application: Students return the forms. Divide the class into groups of five students. Each group then evaluates the nominees and selects the top five or ten. Students must be able to give reasons for their selections orally and in writing. The class will develop a book that recognizes these good citizens with a photograph of each, a profile written by students (individually, in pairs, or in groups), and an illustration. The class will plan a ceremony for these good citizens at which the book is read and, if desired, a student-designed award/certificate can be presented to the honorees.

Follow-Up: Students can nominate characters in books, well-known citizens, and historical figures for good citizenship awards.

Lesson 3: Citizens and Community Service
Key Question: How can you work to make your community better?

Objectives: Students will be able to:
• identify a problem in their community (which may be defined as their classroom, their school, their town, or beyond)
• inform themselves about the problem
• identify options in solving the problem
• choose a strategy for solving the problem
• take action by enacting the strategy
• evaluate their course of action
• make midcourse corrections

Motivation: Students brainstorm a list of problems needing attention in their classroom, school, community, or beyond.

Development: Different groups of students research different problems and then advocate a plan of action to better their community based on their research. (Because second graders are, for the most part, beginning readers, research may rely more on interviews and empirical data.) Students will record their answers to the following questions:
1. Describe the problem in one sentence.
2. List new information you have found out about the problem.
3. Explain how you acquired information about the problem and how reliable you think the information is.
4. Given all your information, explain the plan of action you recommend to deal with the problem.
Some past projects have included: getting students and teachers to use the recycling bins in their classrooms, cleaning up litter around the school, making announcements over the P.A. about cleaning up the environment, creating a “buddy system” to help students newly moved to the neighborhood get comfortable and hook up with community events and services.

Application: Groups of students will carry out their plans of action and then present their results to the class in the form of a report. In addition, they will comment on how successful they think they were and what they recommend for the future.

Follow-Up: Teacher and students may wish to undertake a community betterment project as a whole class, or recommend a project for the entire school.