Why is learning to be a citizen something youth need? What good is it? Why should we care? Why should THEY care?
New Holstein Middle School Teacher Heather Tomchek has been a long time participant in Project Citizen, a curriculum and professional development program for which WHC provided funding over the last three years. This year, she and I were both judges for the Project Citizen statewide showcase. I was taken by student enthusiasm for projects students felt would really make a difference in their community. I asked Tomchek if she had a sense of whether the lessons stuck beyond the 7th grade, if there was any way to measure the success of a program like this.
She admitted that it’s hard to keep track of former students after they move on to the high school. Tomchek did ask a former student if she could write a reflection about the Project Citizen experience, and Tomchek related how she builds citizens for their future.
High school student Gabrielle Barth writes:
Dear Wisconsin Humanities Council,
Hi, my name is Gabrielle Barth. I am a sophomore at New Holstein High School. In seventh grade, I was introduced to Project Citizen by Mrs. Tomchek. You are probably wondering what Project Citizen is; Project Citizen focuses on the development of public policy to deal with a specific problem in the community and then the recommendation of that policy to the appropriate government or governmental agency.
When I was introduced to this, my initial thought was, “What is this going to do for me? I am a seventh grade student; I don’t care about the government.” But I never thought one measly idea to help our school would get so far.
What our seventh graders do in Project Citizen is that each class picks an idea that would help the community or school. At the end of the school year all the classes present their ideas in front of two or three judges and they pick which idea goes to state to show that idea and represent our school. What our class did for our seventh grade year was something called Trackortunity.
Our idea was based on our school having a middle school track team and getting an updated, rubberized track for our school. This was a huge project, especially for the new track. My seventh grade year, Trackortunity went to state to represent our school. We achieved one of the highest ranks on the national level. Ever since then, I was one of the students still working with the school board to build a new rubber track and a form a middle school track team.
When I was an eighth grader, the track team was approved, and now the track team in the middle school has about 70 students on it. That makes me so proud that the kids are continuing to participate every year. The summer of my freshmen year, the school board passed building a whole new track. It may have taken almost two years to get it passed, but now we can hold regional track meets because we accommodate for WIAA standards.
As you can see, even though we started in seventh grade middle school, I worked on this until my freshmen year in high school, so this has made a huge impact on me because I never thought that one small idea would impact my life for so long and help our community to have active students and to stay healthy. Working hard for our community has been a huge deal in my life and I’m so happy I got to first experience in seventh grade. I hope future kids learn that doing one big thing for your community can turn into a huge help.
New Holstein Middle School teacher Heather Tomchek writes:
This is what I tell kids every year….
“You are a citizen if you were born here. You do not have to wait until you are 18 to become a citizen. The only thing 18 does is allow you to vote. But your voice can be heard even without the vote. Elected officials make decisions that affect you all the time and the only way that they will know what you think is if you TELL them. As the old saying goes “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” USE IT! Pick up your pen, or grab your computer and WRITE. If you don’t like to write CALL them! Tell your elected officials what you think. Watch what they are voting on and how they are voting, what the bills that are coming up and voice your position. They are there to serve YOU. That is their job. You may not have voted for them, because you are not old enough, but that doesn’t mean that you are not a constituent. You are. And they should not only respect your position, they should recognize that it won’t be too long and you are going to get to cast your ballot. And if you see them not responding to you, you have the obligation to make sure that somebody sits in that position who will respond to you. And if you can’t find somebody to do it, then maybe you should think about doing it.”
And I don’t just do this once, I do this multiple times a year. Our students need to know that they are CITIZENS and they are powerful and when people tell them “no” they shouldn’t just be OK with it. They need to work harder until their voices and positions are heard because they have GREAT ideas.
We as adults need to not go into “No” mode automatically just because the idea is coming from a student. We need to open up our minds and recognize their positions. Because kids that care, will become caring adults. Kids that care recognize how the world can be. Kids that recognize the world is full of possibilities will create a world where possibilities are endless. Kids are AMAZING and I have the privilege of working with them and learning from them every day. I love my job.
Wait, wait! There’s more. Want to know more about this unique and remarkable statewide citizen education program? Read this article about Project Citizen published along with essays and ideas in our quarterly On Pride.