Children are Citizens
Visiting the Smithsonian Castle
On April 25, 2015 at the National Gallery of Art several DC schools, including SEEC, and Harvard’s Project Zero celebrated the launch of a book authored by over 300 students. The book was the result of a research and professional development project entitled: Children are Citizens: Children and Teachers Collaborating across Washington, D.C. The premise of this project is the belief that children are as much part of the community as their adult counterparts. They should not only be able to voice their opinions, but also participate in their community. Through their participation children will learn to see other’s points of view, work together, and understand how we are all interconnected, thus creating an informed and thoughtful citizenry who will become active participants in our democracy. To learn more about Project Zero and this collaboration visit here.
The first phase of the project entailed some thoughtful discovery. Children and teachers had several conversations about what they thought of their city, what they would like to change, important people and places. The second phase culminated in a book where SEEC students focused on their relationship with the museums on the National Mall.
Three classes participated in this project—PreK3, PreK4 and Kindergarten. We will begin with the PreK4 class, also known as the Cinnamon Bears. Their section of the book focused on their favorite parts of the National Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian Castle and some insider tips, including that the Smithsonian Castle is not a real castle! It also featured a list of their favorite objects in the museums, a story entitled The Story of How the Security Officers Own the Museums and photos of museum collections taken by the children.
Below you will find the interview with Cinnamon Bear teacher, Carrie Heflin about her experience with the Children are Citizens project.
What made you want to participate in this project?
Project Zero is such an influential presence in the Early Childhood community and I feel so strongly about encouraging children to be active citizens that when we were asked to participate in this project, my commitment was a no-brainer. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better idea for a worthwhile endeavor than to show the DC community and my students how capable and powerful they can be.
Could you describe the process through which your class participated in the project?
We spent a lot of time talking together as a class about our ideas for this project. Much like the process for the adult facilitators, at least the first fifty percent of the project was all planning and bouncing ideas around. We didn’t get to the actual field work—researching and putting together the data for the book until around February. I loved the sense of respect and community that I felt in the classroom when we had these discussions. It was so nice to take time to just talk about our feelings and opinions and to truly listen to each other.
Can you outline how this project was implemented in your classroom?
The teachers did most of the facilitation for this project. We started out with some casual discussions about the city and about the project and then moved on to talking about the book, how books are made, and what information we wanted to contribute to the final product. A member of the coordinating team, Ben Mardell, would stop by occasionally to check in on our progress and to talk with the students about their ideas and opinions on the project thus far. The last phase was the most active. We went to all the different museums we had chosen to showcase in our portion of the book and took pictures and gathered information in small groups.
How did the professional development portion of this project help or change your ideas of how to teach or connect children to the city in which they live?
I really enjoyed getting to know and hear ideas from educators at other schools. We got together about five different times over the course of the project and it was lovely to share our experiences and learn how other classrooms explore the city. I always left our meetings feeling so inspired about all of the wonderful ways other educators were making the city accessible to their students and it helped challenge me to reexamine the way I looked at the city and how I talked about it with my class.
Bears Display at the NGA
The project seems to emphasize collaborations and discussion, is there a conversation you had among your students that really stands out?
One of my favorite conversations I had with the class happened after one of Ben Mardell’s visits. He had talked to a small group of students about the museums and they ended up starting a story about where the museums came from. Ben sent me the script of the conversation in an email and, when I read the story back to the class they all had something to add. Before long it had morphed into this origin story of how the museums came into being. I learned so much about my students and how they view our community. They had these wonderful ideas about how the security officers are the real owners of the museums and they protect them from all the “bad guys.” I was so taken with the story and the children were so invested in it that it ended up hedging out some other material that we had originally intended to include in the book and it is still my favorite part of our section.
How do you think your students views of DC changes during the course of the project?
I don’t know that their views changed so much as my views widened to include more of theirs. I don’t have any hard evidence of any of my students budging even an iota on their original convictions, but the sense of understanding we gained from each other and from all of our conversations and collaborations in the classroom strikes me as very profound- even if it wasn’t the original intent.
What was one of your more challenging moments during the process?
I was often challenged by trying to balance working on the project and teaching lessons on our current topic of study. I know some of the other schools that participated made the project their main focus rather than trying to add it on to their curriculum. I think I might try that track if I had it to do over again.
What was one of the most rewarding moments during the process?
The absolute most rewarding moment was at the book release event at the National Gallery of Art when I saw all of the students walking around wearing big red badges that said “Author” on them. The sense of pride, accomplishment and empowerment was palpable and I think that really was the point of the whole thing.