DISSERTATION DEFENSE ANNOUNCEMENT Ed.D. Program: Alison Stein ‘“The Smallest Acts Go a Long Way”: Understanding Students’ Perceptions of Citizenship and Civic Identity”
This phenomenological study examined how eighth grade students in a privileged suburban community and school district understood their civic identities and saw their roles and responsibilities as citizens. Through analyzing artifacts the student participants generated in their eighth grade civics social studies class and conducting semi-structured one-on-one interviews and focus groups, I was able to understand, from the students’ perspectives, how they saw their own community, what they felt it meant to be a good citizen, and what they saw as the most significant issues of social justice facing society. Drawing on a critical sociocultural approach (Rubin, 2016), Norm Theory (Kahneman & Miller, 1986) and Westheimer and Kahne’s three types of citizen (2004), among other key literature in the field, this study examined the experiences and opinions that shaped the participating adolescents’ civic identities, including race and socioeconomic status. The findings suggest that adolescents in this privileged context understood good citizenship as the personally responsible (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004), moral behavior of doing good deeds, contributing to causes and pitching in when possible. Their concept of social justice issues mirrored this individualistic approach, as they identified individual decision making as both the cause and possible solution to problems such as poverty and hunger, as well as racism and discrimination. They felt the government was responsible for confronting society’s greatest ills, and that individual citizens could participate in separate, more localized acts such as contributing to charity or volunteering their time. These findings have significant implications for curriculum, especially in spaces of relative racial and socioeconomic privilege. Given that the New Jersey Department of Education has mandated middle school civics as a required course for all public schools in the state, school districts curriculum writers and teachers, with these findings in mind, should create experiences for students to understand the systemic and institutional histories of issues like racism, and integrate models of past and present day collective efforts for change rather than seeing the role of institutions and individuals as separate.
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