Ben Mardell, a principal investigator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (which also includes Allen), has long been interested in questioning that status quo. He quoted that line from Allen’s book during a recent presentation on the civic roles of children, hosted by the Ed School’s Civic and Moral Education Initiative.
We teach children to engage with larger society by telling them not to engage, Mardell said — and then we all lose out. Children don’t wait for adulthood, or even to learn to read, before becoming citizens; they already are. And the classroom can be the perfect place to hone citizenship skills, building a sense of community not only among classmates, but with the broader world.
Project Zero (PZ) researchers, including senior researcher Mara Krechevsky, explored this when they posed a question to children in Washington, D.C.: To whom does your city belong? The question was part of a broader initiative called Children Are Citizens, which involved several citywide institutions, including the National Gallery of Art. In part inspired by the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy — known as laboratories of hands-on learning — the Children are Citizens initiative asked young students to engage with their surroundings and share what they learned.
After pondering whom D.C. belongs to (“To anyone who takes care of it really good,” said one 4-year old; “It’s like a house that you share with your family,” said a 5-year-old), more than 300 students, spread across preschool and first grade at five D.C. schools, furthered their exploration of the question through projects. There was no set curriculum that prescribed what the projects would look like or accomplish. Instead, that was directed by the students, some as young as three.
Catalina Stirling, a teacher at the DC Bilingual Public Charter School, became involved in the initiative during a D.C. summer workshop about Project Zero ideas, led by Jim Reese, At first she wasn’t sure what her class of 3-year-olds would do. But one day, on a walk, they found a Little Free Library — a small, public book exchange that looked like a house. They were obsessed, asking Stirling again and again if they could return to it on their walks.
Over the next few months, Stirling worked with them to turn the obsession into a story, La Casita de Libros, which they wrote and illustrated together. Then, the teachers at the school worked together to put on a musical version of the children’s story.