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Teaching Good Citizenship's Five Themes


Activities from the editors of Weekly Reader can help develop K-6 students' understanding of the five good citizenship themes---honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage.

Advocating the five themes of citizenship -- honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage -- is not enough. Exploring those themes, talking about them, and making connections between those themes and your students' lives are the keys to developing a true understanding of the concepts. The activities below, which will help develop those themes, are divided by grade levels:

Activities for Students in Kindergarten and Grade 1

Activities for Students in Grades 2 and 3

Activities for Students in Grades 4, 5, and 6

But first, let's have a few words about each of the themes:

  • Honesty is the basic theme of good citizenship. A person must be honest with others, and with himself or herself, in order to be a good citizen.
  • Compassion is the emotion of caring for people and for other living things. Compassion gives a person an emotional bond with his or her world.
  • Respect is similar to compassion but different in some ways. An important aspect of respect is self-respect, whereas compassion is directed toward others. Respect is also directed toward inanimate things or ideas as well as toward people. For example, people should have respect for laws. Finally, respect includes the idea of esteem or admiration, whereas compassion is a feeling people can have for others they dont necessarily admire.
  • Out of honesty, compassion, and respect comes Responsibility, which includes both private, personal responsibility and public responsibility. Individuals and groups have responsibilities. Responsibility is about action, and it includes much of what people think of as good citizenship. You may wish to point out that one of the main responsibilities of students is to learn. They must educate themselves so that they can live up to their full potential.
  • Finally, the theme of Courage is important to good citizenship. Human beings are capable of moving beyond mere goodness toward greatness. Courage enables people to do the right thing even when its unpopular, difficult, or dangerous. Many people---including Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Mohandas Gandhi---have had the courage to change the rules to achieve justice.

Activities for Exploring the Five Themes of Citizenship: Kindergarten and Grade 1

A large part of the learning experience in kindergarten and first grade is socialization. Children are learning to cooperate and share with peers, to take part in group activities and talks, and to take responsibility for their own actions and for their own learning. For kindergarten and first graders, learning the five themes as distinct concepts is less important than beginning to recognize that good citizenship behavior is based on certain principles. Here are a few activities that might help promote that recognition among your students.

Classroom Rules (Use as a discussion starter and a writing/drawing prompt.)
Start a discussion about the rules that should be followed in your classroom. Write each rule as it is discussed on the board or a chart. Talk about why each rule is important. If students don't suggest anything like the following rules, which relate to the five themes, you can add them:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Be caring.
  • Respect others.
  • Be responsible for what you do and say.
  • Be brave enough to do the right thing and to ask for help when you need it.

Sharing Stories (Use as a discussion starter.)
One way of exploring the five themes is simply to ask students to tell about their experiences. You may wish to use the following prompts:

  • Tell a story about a time you told the truth, even though that was a difficult thing to do.
  • Tell a story about a time you felt happy or sad for somebody or something.
  • Tell a story about someone you respect.
  • Tell a story about a time you took responsibility for something you had done or said.
  • Tell a story about being brave.

What Could Happen Next? (Use as a prompt for discussion, drawing, or writing.)
Ask students to discuss, draw, or write in response to the following questions:

  • You find money on the playground. What could happen next?
  • Everybody is in a hurry. A kid near you trips and falls down. What could happen next?
  • Your teacher asks the class to be quiet after somebody said something really funny. What could happen next?
  • You borrowed a pencil from the teacher's desk and lost it. What could happen next?
  • You think somebody is being cruel by making fun of a kid on the playground. What could happen next?

Activities for Exploring the Five Themes of Citizenship: Grades 2 and 3

In general, second- and third-graders have a pretty firm grasp on what does and what does not constitute good behavior. They should recognize the rights of others, know that they should work and play by the rules, and make decisions concerning right and wrong with increasing independence.

The following activities may help students further refine their thinking about good behavior by exploring the five themes of citizenship in realistic situations.

The Homework Truth (Use as a discussion starter or a role-playing activity.)
For last night's homework, you were supposed to read a story and be ready to tell it to the class today in your own words. You didn't read a story last night because you were having too much fun playing video games. You figured you could remember an old story. When your teacher calls on you, you are suddenly nervous and can't remember any stories at all. What should you do?

Call for Compassion (Use as a writing prompt or a discussion starter.)
A teenage neighbor is responsible for you while your parents go to a movie. Your neighbor wears a hearing aid because he is partially deaf. Tonight, he tells you his hearing aid isn't working very well. The telephone rings, but your neighbor doesn't hear it, so it goes to your parents' voicemail. When your neighbor isn't watching, you play the message back. The message is from your parents. They had forgotten to tell your neighbor your bedtime. You realize you can get away with staying up later. When your parents find out, they'll blame your neighbor for not getting the message. What thoughts go through your head? What do you do?

Respect (Use as a discussion starter or a role-playing activity.)
You're at a school picnic and there's a long line for buying cold drinks. You're really thirsty. You see a friend of yours way ahead of you in line. Should you ask your friend if you can cut in line? How is the idea of respect for others connected to this situation? How do others in line feel when somebody cuts in line?

Responsibility---Whose Is It? (Use as a discussion starter or a writing prompt.)
You borrow a great book from your classroom. It's a lot of fun to read. By accident, you spill chocolate milk on the book. It's a mess. You take the book out of your book bag as soon as you get to your classroom. The teacher is busy. You could just take the book back to the shelf and leave it there. What should you do? Why?

Brave on the Ball Field (Use as a discussion starter or a writing prompt.)
You are in a dodgeball game. One kid is throwing the ball too hard. A couple of kids have already quit the game, but most don't want to because they think quitting would make them seem weak. What do you do? If you say something, what do you say and to whom do you say it? (Note that sometimes a person needs to be brave enough to walk away from a bad situation.)

Activities for Exploring the Five Themes of Citizenship: Grades 4, 5, and 6

In general, fourth through sixth-graders have a pretty good understanding of the concepts of honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage. Whether they behave honestly, compassionately, and so on is another matter, but that's true for people of all ages: Everyone finds it challenging, from time to time, to live up to those high ideals.

One key reason for this is that citizenship ideals sometimes conflict with one another or with other values. With young people, peer pressure -- the desire to make and keep friends at almost any cost -- often competes with other ideals. Following are some activities that can help students explore some of the problems in living up to the five themes of citizenship.

Truth in Friendship (Use as a writing prompt, a discussion starter, or a role-playing activity.)
Imagine that a friend is going to do a comedy act in a talent contest. He tells you the jokes from the act. The jokes are awful. Do your tell him? If so, how do you say it?

Test Your Compassion (Use as a writing prompt or a role-playing activity.)
You find out that a friend had no time to study for a test because she had to help around the house when her mother was sick. So your friend cheats on the test. What do you say to her? What do you do? Do you tell the teacher? (Discuss after writing or role-playing.)

Respect (Use as a writing prompt or a role-playing activity.)
Imagine that you live near an elderly couple. Two or three of your friends are visiting you and they see the two old people. Your friends start making fun of the elderly people behind their backs. What, if anything, do you say to your friends? What might happen if your neighbors overhear what is going on? (Discuss after writing or role-playing.)

Fulfilling Small Responsibilities (Use as a writing prompt or a discussion starter.)
Lots of little things make up good behavior, such as not littering, keeping quiet when people need to concentrate, and returning library books on time. Make a list of small responsibilities. (That part of the activity might be done in small, cooperative groups.) Then try to think of a situation in which you fulfilled one of the small responsibilities. Think of another situation in which you did not fulfill a small responsibility. Are the "little" things really that important? Why or why not?

It Takes Guts (Use as a writing prompt.)
Imagine you're playing basketball with a friend. Some kids come up and take your friend's basketball. Create more specific details about this kind of situation, and then describe what you would do. (Discuss and role-play based on the additional circumstances students describe in their writing. Note that sometimes a person needs courage to walk away from a situation.)


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor in Chief
Copyright © 2017 Education World


Updated: 09/18/2017