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Defining Classroom Citizenship

The Founders understood that, in order to preserve their liberty and happiness, and that of future generations, the foundation of successful self-government was citizens who understood and applied certain virtues. They constructed the U.S. Constitution according to their study of the principles and virtues that were most necessary to sustain a free, prosperous, and orderly society. Time Required: 45 minutes for activity, 15 minutes for homework


Tip: This lesson is ideal for the first day of school.

Objectives: Students work in small groups to identify characteristics of a good citizen, and translate that work into classroom rules. Students will debrief the activity to consider other communities in which they are good citizens.

Prior to the lesson, arrange student desks in small groups (4 or 5 students per group).


A. Depending on student skill level and background, briefly clarify the dictionary definition of “citizen.”

B. First, instruct students, seated in small groups, to individually list characteristics of a good citizen. There should be no conversation during this part of the lesson. (2 minutes)

C. Students share and compare responses within each group. Each group will decide on a consensus list of the five most important characteristics of a good citizen. It is not necessary to prioritize within the list of five. Note that consensus involves a process of reaching an agreement in which everyone’s opinion is heard and considered, not simply a vote by majority rule. (10 minutes)

D. Each group shares its list in turn, with teacher posting on the board or appropriate classroom display technology the list of five attributes the group has selected.

E. Have the class identify and circle similarities among lists.

F. Teacher highlights the most frequently named characteristics and states: “Now that you have proven you know what it takes to be a good citizen, I’m sure you can follow these same citizenship rules for our class.”

G. Teacher leads a whole-class discussion of how the highlighted characteristics apply to and are important for a civil and productive classroom, soliciting as much student participation as possible in identifying classroom application of the civic skills.

H. Have students first individually reflect on debrief questions such as the following, and then conduct a whole-class discussion as appropriate. What steps did you follow individually/as a small group?

  1. Did you need to start with a definition of citizenship, or did you develop it as you worked?
  2. Were the characteristics you listed based on reason or emotion?
  3. To what extent will the list we developed as a class be a good set of rules?
  4. What else might we need to consider?
  5. What steps are important in reaching a reasoned decision as an individual? As a group?
  6. What skills were necessary in order for you to accomplish this activity?
  7. Why is the skill of rational decision-making a useful tool?
  8. What criteria did you use to prioritize/reach consensus?
  9. In what ways did you and your group demonstrate the ability to come to a reasoned judgment in reading, writing, and speech?

I. Distribute and assign for homework Handout A: Background Essay: What Does It Mean to be a Citizen?