Sunday, December 13, 2015

Citizenship and Beyond: Using Historical Case Studies

Teaching citizenship can be a real challenge. We value the ideals of citizenship and want it to be practiced. However evoking the application of such ideals is hard to accomplish.   How do teach it? Has it become a list of rights and responsibilities or is it something more? Do you model it?  How do you monitor student understanding of citizenship?

One way to address the issue is to use the theme of citizenship in the classroom. Themes can be important tools for defining a path of study. The use of themes helps to draw attention to a broader interpretation and understanding of history.  Using citizenship as a theme sets the stage for a study of both action and perspective by individuals as citizens in history. Events become more than dates as students use themes and case studies as a basis for analysis. A case study is an in-depth investigation of a single person over a period of time. By choosing biographical sketches as case studies for citizenship students can use the actions of citizens to developing an understanding of citizenship and the impact of citizens on society. Students will be able to observe how the understanding of citizen has evolved over time. It will also give students an opportunity to extrapolate about how they can use similar actions as citizens in their own lives.

To support the use of historical case studies to study citizenship, we developed a student strategy.  The strategy focuses on answering several questions. Our questions include:

  • What can we learn from the past?
  • How can people change their community? 
  • How can individuals be agents of change?
The goal was to encourage students to use the lives of historical figures and these questions to better understand how citizens exercise their rights to impact their community. What kind of path did they PAVE? Did they create change? Did they ensure continuity? Students used the questions below to consider the lives and impact of citizenship in the past.


To support this strategy, we organized case studies around a few historical figures. We organized materials spotlighting the lives of George Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Eleanor Roosevelt, and William Cody.

We used two methods for incorporating case studies into the history classroom. One is to embed the case study in the unit of study. Students can study the actions of the individual as they study the period. Students can track the figure or follow them just as they might follow a celebrity via social media today. This provides students an opportunity to use the words and actions of the individual to illustrate the developments of the time period. The lives of these individuals become the examples of citizenship in action and the teacher directs how they are analyzed. The other option is to investigate the life of the individual as a small project as some point during the unit or year. Students they dedicate sustained time to the study of the person having previously acquired background knowledge. Each study can provide opportunity for extrapolating modern behavior equivalents to adopt.

We have successfully used this approach with both high school and elementary school students. It has been a great way to have student think about citizenship in greater depth and apply the attributes of citizenship. It is a challenge for students but the guiding questions supported reflection when they needed to revise the projects.  We encourage you to check out the site. The case studies and teacher support materials are on the site. Let us know how it works for you.