Thursday, April 28, 2011

Democracy in Action

In March, just when we were getting to work on the resource packet for General Hayden’s Global Classroom visit at the World Affairs Council, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle’s University District.  If I hadn’t been working on developing teacher resources I may not have noticed what a great job UCDS was doing to promote the important skills required for a healthy and vibrant democracy within the daily curriculum of a strong elementary school program.

The UCDS Program philosophy includes this statement about responsibility: “Civic responsibility is central to the ethos of our school. Each child is responsible for sharing his/her knowledge and talent in a way that enriches the rest of the community. We teach children to listen carefully to others, to help one another, to share what they have learned, to coach one another, to participate in group discussions, and to develop areas of expertise where a child can assume leadership. We believe that developing tolerance for different points of view and empathy for the needs of others is essential to the moral development of a child. In our school, curriculum is organized around big ideas, interesting problems, interests of the students, and issues in the community. Learning is connected to the real world and children are able to build on what they already know. “  During the two days I spent at UCDS I saw this philosophy in action in the 2/3 classroom.  Throughout the day the students worked in small groups, while the teacher moved throughout the room asking clarifying questions and extending the students thinking. The class was in the middle of a project creating a toy store from conception to production, including developing a mission, branding and advertising. They had visited toy stores, met with graphic designers, and consulted with a toy inventor.  All of the students I observed were actively engaged in the work of creating a successful toy store and they were doing so through a process of group consensus.  

These seven, eight and nine year olds are asked to collaborate and contribute to the class projects on a daily basis.  When I got there they had already decided on the mission of their toy store and had spent a week or so developing ideas for toys in small groups.  I observed the voting process as they made the decision of which toys to develop.  Every group had a chance to share their toy ideas.  Then the class voted on which ones they thought were worth developing.  Students had put a lot of work into their toy ideas.  They then had a few minutes to share their ideas with the group.  Voting followed.  3 toy ideas made the cuts.  Were they the best ideas?  Did they represent the most articulate students?  Did they vote based on popularity?  I didn’t know the students well enough after just two days to know what drove their votes.  What I did observe were young students who had invested a lot of thought and energy in their ideas and only a few faces showed some disappointment when their ideas were not chosen.  Everyone seemed to accept the votes and within moments they had organized themselves into new groups, this time to work on different types of advertising for the selected toys. Billboards, print ads and commercials would be developed over the next week and I imagine the ads would also be shared and voted on, with only a few making the cut.

Meanwhile these students are all practicing on a daily basis the skills they need to be active and responsible citizens in a democracy.  They understand it is important to be engaged, to share their ideas and to contribute to the group.  When the vote comes, their choice may or may not be the winning vote but either way they will continue to participate and trust that each member of the community is voting based on the best information they have available at the time.  For a democracy to work all participants must trust the process.  When the vote does not go your way you still participate, you work, you give and then you vote again.  Most importantly you cooperate and contribute to the greater good.  These students at UCDS are experiencing a functioning democracy on a daily basis.  Watching them at work makes me hopeful for our future.  

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