What Kind of Citizen during a Pandemic?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

Last week, I had the privilege of talking about putting civics in the middle with some of the hosts of #sschat on the Talking Social Studies podcast. Our brief conversation was wide-ranging but ultimately led to how we can foster student civic engagement, even during a pandemic.

Using the paradigm outlined in What Kind of Citizen? by Joe Kahne and Joel Westheimer, we discussed the three descriptions of the “good” citizen” — personally responsible, participatory, and justice-oriented citizens outlined in the journal article and what they might look like for students in a pandemic to foster authentic civic action.

To review the main ideas of Kahne and Westheimer’s work:
  • Many schools foster the personally responsible citizen through Character Counts and community service initiatives. Students are given opportunities to be personally responsible as an individual by recycling, donating items to the school food drive, or donating blood to name a few examples.
  • Other schools go a step further and foster participatory citizenship. Students have opportunities to be active members of civil society through clubs or class efforts and engage with their school and local communities by organizing collective efforts. These are the students who run the blood drive, receive and deliver items from the holiday food drive, and collect and sort the recycling from classrooms.
  • Justice-oriented citizenship is rare, but powerful. In this realm, as part of civic inquiry around essential questions in the classroom, students critically analyze problems to identify “root causes,” as well as seek out and address areas of injustice to effect systemic change. In the midst of a food drive, these students take a step back and ask, “Why are people hungry in our community? What civic action can we take to address the root causes of hunger?”


Each type of citizen is important to the functioning of our republic. We need to feed people while we address the root causes of hunger. But to elevate one type of citizen to the exclusion of the others is a political choice with political consequences.

During this pandemic, there are a plethora of resources available to help students explore the impact of COVID-19. However, the danger of solely having students “take the temperature” of the world around them to identify current and societal issues is that it only raises awareness. As educators, we must help them build efficacy to be personally responsible and participate with their community to “change the temperature.” As I shared with the Talking Social Studies hosts, we must help students go beyond being a thermometer that takes the temperature, providing opportunities for them to be thermostats to change the temperature, fostering the proven practice of service learning through informed action.

What might these civic opportunities to move students from thermometers to thermostats look like in a remote learning environment? Here are some ideas.
  • If you are encouraging students to follow CDC guidelines to help #flattenthe curve, you are helping foster personally responsible citizens. It will take all of us to practice social distancing and healthy habits to bring an end to COVID-19. Our Illinois Civics Continuity of Learning tool kit shares best practices in distance resources that you can share with both students and their families to be personally responsible citizens.
  • As an educator, you can foster participatory citizenship by putting Maslow before Bloom in your interactions with students. Create a safe space for students to process current events together. Prioritize and foster civic dispositions like empathy, commitment to the common good, and community involvement during this pandemic. Much of this work is related to Social Emotional Learning competencies. Alia Blumelein, an Illinois Civics regional civics instructional coach, has SEL e-learning every Friday with her students with opportunities for them to interact with civil society in positive ways.
  • In a recent #CivicsInTheMiddle newsletter, I shared how to engage student voice through journaling for informed action. You and your students are living through history right now. Consider having them keep a journal of their observations, questions, experiences, and challenges. Students can express their lived experiences in words, images, or another medium. They are writing the history others will learn from. In the short run, this can be an important formative assessment tool for you to use to calibrate your teaching. In the long run, these lived experiences can help your students be justice-oriented citizens and take informed action to inform civil society and policymakers in adjusting protocols. This Root Cause Tree tool shared by the Teaching Channels’ Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age can be used to process student observations to plan for justice-oriented civic action.
What kind of citizen are you promoting through distance learning in the pandemic? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career, and civic life.

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