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An inquirED Blog

Civic Engagement: What Can a Citizen Do? Interview with Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris

inquirED: Layers of Meaning

In a recent inquirED and NCSS webinar, best-selling author Dave Eggers and illustrator Shawn Harris discussed their book– What Can a Citizen Do? – which encourages young students to become active participants in their communities. The book has been widely praised for its engaging and accessible approach to teaching children about civic responsibility. Joining the conversation were Susan Fischer (1st-grade teacher) and Hanan Attiyah (Technology Integration Specialist) from the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, who are using the book in their classrooms to empower students to take informed action.


Key Takeaways about Civic Engagement

  • Young students crave meaningful work that connects them to their communities.

  • Lifelong participation and love of learning can start in the youngest grades of our schools.

  • Following the curiosities of children, giving them time to build knowledge and skills (and to make mistakes!) are key parts of the inquiry process.

  • In our polarized environment, civic engagement can be controversial. But, teachers who are using an inquiry process, with its emphasis on presenting questions, investigating diverse sources, and allowing students to draw their own conclusions and choose their actions, can point to this process as a neutral, student-centered instructional method to support learning.


The Origins of What Can a Citizen Do?

Dave Eggers, Author of What Can a Citizen Do?
Dave Eggers, Author

Dave Eggers explained that the idea for the book stemmed from his passion for involving young people in civic participation. He described the powerful impact of giving students a chance to engage in the civic process, stating, "Something really electrifying happens when you have young people given an opportunity to participate." This sentiment was reinforced by his experience with a previous project where students wrote letters to President Obama. The experience of sharing their thoughts with a national leader seemed to awaken a new sense of enthusiasm and energy within the students.

Eggers emphasized the importance of providing young people with a platform to express their opinions and contribute to their communities. He said, "Young people, even as young as kindergarten, first grade, have a chance to participate, to think that they could affect change in their neighborhood." By offering this platform, teachers, educators, librarians, and administrators play a crucial role in fostering civic responsibility among the youth. Eggers firmly believes that children are ready and eager to take on such responsibilities, saying, "They're so ready at such a young age to give, to be responsible, to participate." By creating "What Can a Citizen Do?", Eggers aimed to encourage this sense of engagement and responsibility among young readers.

Bringing Together Words and Images

Eggers and Harris shared their thoughts on how they developed the story and illustrations for "What Can a Citizen Do?" Eggers explained that the list of actions a citizen can take in the book is quite general, mentioning activities like writing letters and planting trees. But affirmed that it's those small actions that can make an impact. He also emphasized the significance of Shawn's illustrations in bringing the story to life: "The thing that Shawn does, and he did it with our book called 'Her Right Foot' about the Statue of Liberty, is he creates a parallel story. It's never reductive. The illustrations for 'What Can a Citizen Do?' have this beautiful parallel story where these young people are building their own mini-society, and none of that is explicitly stated in the text."

Shawn Harris, Illustrator
Shawn Harris, Illustrator

Harris discussed his choice of cut paper collage for the book's illustrations. He was inspired by the tactile experience that children had with their first collaboration, "Her Right Foot." Harris recalled, "I liked how, when we were touring and showing kids that first book, I liked how tactile kids' experience was - I like watching kids pick up the book and touch it and see if the layers of the collage were in their printing of the book, too." This technique added a sense of depth and dimensionality to the illustrations, making them feel like a small, interactive world. Shawn explained, "I wanted it to feel like a little world, like a diorama, like you could almost take the characters and move them around in these sets." This human touch and the immersive quality of the illustrations play an essential role in engaging young readers and inspiring them to get involved in their communities.

Memorable Inquiry-Based Learning Experiences

During the webinar, we asked Eggers and Harris about the memorable learning experiences that shaped their lives. Both of them shared inspiring stories from their time in first grade, highlighting the importance of inquiry-based learning. Eggers recalled his first-grade teacher, Ms. Wright, who challenged the class to create their own books. She held her students to a high standard, telling them their work "has to be as good as anything that you might find in the library." Eggers also spoke about the significance of experiential learning, such as field trips and attending city council meetings, for young students. By engaging with civic institutions, students can better understand their role in the community.

Harris shared a story about selling his artwork in first grade. His teacher, Mrs. Schultz, caught him but encouraged him to pursue his passion for art outside of school. This support motivated Harris to continue his artistic pursuits.

Both stories exemplify inquiry-based learning. Eggers's project allowed for iteration and the pursuit of excellence, while Harris's experience highlighted the significance of teachers providing permission and encouragement to pursue one's curiosity and interests. These influential learning experiences demonstrate the profound impact that inquiry-based teaching can have on molding students' lives and fostering their passions.

Fostering Idealism and Empathy Through Local Action

We also discussed the importance of local action and engagement to counter apathy and cynicism, while also nurturing idealism in children. Eggers believes that participating in one's community can create a meaningful impact. He said, "I guess I see [the spectrum of idealism to cynicism] following a trajectory of removing oneself from local action and impact." He explained that when people distance themselves from community participation, they become more cynical and disengaged. However, by taking part in local actions, such as volunteering at a food bank or planting trees, individuals can feel more connected and empowered: "It's very hard to be apathetic if you are leaving the house and doing something."

According to Eggers, this idea also applies to children, who are inherently idealistic and eager to help. He emphasized the need to provide opportunities for young people to be involved in their communities and take responsibility for their actions: "I think that they [children] are always ready to be part of things, to participate, to help. They want to help. We've got to give them the chance."

Additionally, Eggers suggested that cultivating a sense of responsibility and community involvement in children can lead to the development of empathetic and engaged citizens: "That's the first muscle memory that we can teach... Then the kids, you can see that in the kids when they grow up with that mentality, they become such beautiful young citizens." By fostering idealism and empathy through local action, Eggers believes we can empower future generations to be proactive and compassionate members of society.

Impact of the Book on Students and Communities

Civic Engagement: Inquiry Journeys Unit
Inquiry Journeys Unit

Halfway through the webinar, we were joined by Susan Fischer (1st Grade Teacher) and Hanan Attiyah (Technology Integration Specialist) from Flemington-Raritan Regional School District. They shared their experiences using the book "What Can a Citizen Do?" as part of the Civic Engagement Unit of Inquiry Journeys. Over the 4-6 week unit, students explore the Inquiry Question: "How can we work together for the good of the community?" The book acts as an anchor text throughout the unit, as students engage in activities to explore diverse sources, build knowledge, and take action to impact their community.

Susan Fischer, Picture Walk of What Can a Citizen Do?
Susan Fischer

The unit starts with a "picture walk" of the book. Picture walks are an essential early literacy strategy where students browse a book's illustrations before reading the text. Susan described her students' reactions: "'How can a bear be a citizen?' and then, when it referred to 'you are citizens, we're all citizens,' one little boy said, 'Wait, I'm a citizen, my mom said she's a citizen, that's so cool. I'm the same as my mom,' and it just really sparked a lot of excitement for them."

Hanan Attiyah
Hanan Attiyah

During the opening lesson, students also co-create an anchor chart that describes the rights and responsibilities mentioned in the book - and those from their own experience. The anchor chart created during the initial lesson plays a crucial role in the curriculum. Hanan explained, "That chart stays with them throughout the whole unit. So later on, when they take informed action, they have examples to draw from."

Later in the unit, students develop an "Inquiry Challenge Statement" to determine the action they will take at the end of the unit. This statement outlines the action, product, target group, desired impact, and goals they will work towards. Hanan emphasized its value, saying, "We start by developing an Inquiry Challenge Statement. As part of this process, we use inquirED's Inquiry Work Gallery to find examples, then analyze the examples with students using the Critique Protocol, before finalizing our statement."

Susan shared that in this process they follow student curiosity and interests, guiding them along the way. “We don’t know where we are going yet with our informed action, but we know we want to make an impact. She shared examples of how other classrooms applied the Inquiry Challenge Statement. In one case, students created posters to inspire families to donate healthy food to their community food pantry. She explained, "In this case, the class decided they wanted to create posters. And they had a goal: we want to inspire other families in our community to donate healthy food. And why? So we can give it to the community food pantry to make a difference here."

In response to the question about how young students taking action has become a polarizing political idea, Fischer and Attiyah emphasize the importance of focusing on the unit's inquiry question and providing multiple sources and perspectives to students. Hanan states, "Well, I think about the inquiry question for the unit, the inquiry question is, how can we work together for the good of the community? There doesn't seem to be anything controversial about that." She explains that by presenting diverse sources, opinions, and perspectives, students can engage in discussions and become passionate about the topics they want to pursue. Fischer agrees with Hanan and adds, "I think the way that we present the question at the beginning, and then there's so many sources and so much information. And really so much great discussion." She highlights the value of observing the conversations students have among themselves, explaining that through exploration, they arrive at their own conclusions.

Eggers and Harris were delighted to hear about the impact their book has had on students and communities. Eggers expressed his gratitude and excitement, saying, "To see the book being used to inspire action like this is truly amazing. It's a testament to the power of literature and its ability to change lives." Harris echoed these sentiments, expressing his hope that the book would continue to inspire young citizens to make a positive impact in their communities.

Links and Resources for Educators

To help educators incorporate "What Can a Citizen Do?" into their classrooms, the following resources are available:

Watch the Webinar Below

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


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