by DK Holland
It was clear the 26 fifth graders of room 220 were passionately divided about our (Inquiring Minds') plan to hang their individual portraits on the back wall in the classroom. They had posed for their photos against a background of their choosing (they voted to use the billowy down blue wall color). I had just shown them a few of the photos (not all) at which they burst into uproarious laughter.
Now we were clearly hearing them express opposing viewpoints about the photos being posted. We could have told them this was a 'done deal'? But...
What an opportunity to explain direct democracy to these kids!
We suggested this could all be resolved by an election. I asked them what ‘election’ meant: ‘Voting’. Some kids said. ‘Choice’ I suggested. "You are making a choice by voting which background to use." Light bulbs turned on: A paradigm shifted in many a mind –“I have a CHOICE?” This is so not true for kids who, at the age of 10, are told what to do every minute of the day: You must stand there. You must wear a uniform. You must not go outside the school alone. You must sit here (at lunch it’s strictly boy, girl, boy, girl). Control is the goal and its necessary to some degree. But we saw this instance as a way in - an opportunity - to start to broach the idea of individual rights, civil rights and responsibilities. These kids must understand they have ‘agency’ and ‘self determination’ if we expect them to care.
We (Inquiring Minds) wanted to display their photos on the back wall under our new banner that reads “We are the awesome, effective kids of Ms. Brady’s 5th grade class!” It’s a tool, meant to give the kids a boost. That was our intended goal. Now that goal was expanding.
I asked, “Who thinks your photos should go on the back wall? Exactly half the class raised their hands. I explained in the broadest strokes what democracy is – ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ – and what ‘majority’ means in democracy. Ms. Brady helped – she said “Majority means most”. They ‘got’ it. Admittedly we were boiling down a complex concept to its essence. This teachable moment clearly called for dialog and debate. “So what if we hold an election?” I asked.
I explained the difference between individual choice (choices that only affect the individual) and collective choice (choices that affect others). I asked them to think about how they balance these two values: What ‘I want’ versus what ‘I want for my community’.
I asked those who wanted to vote “Yes, I want to see the photos displayed on the back wall.” to move to the back of the room. 10 of the 26 kids picked up and moved immediately. And I asked those who wanted to vote “No.” to go to the front of the room and 4 moved there. I asked all who were unsure of their vote to stay in the middle which turned out to be 12 students. Then I asked each group to discuss their thinking, their feelings in their respective groups. And after 5 minutes, they should have a spokesperson communicate their position to us. One student helped set up the wireless microphones Inquiring Minds supplied for room 220. We find microphones to be very handy as 'talking sticks' and for presentations. Another child acted a ‘runner’ bringing a mic to each speaker as needed. Ms. Brady was our time keeper. I told the kids “If, at any time, you want to switch sides, you can.”
The kids in the back chose Dawn to speak for them. She said quite directly, “We ARE the awesome, effective kids. We need our photos up here.” The ‘undecided’ group chose Deidre to communicate who said, “Why can’t the photos be in the hall where a lot more people can see them? They would be hidden back there on the wall.” Dawn reiterated that this was where the banner was. And that they were AWESOME. Most of those in the middle moved from Deidre’s to Dawn’s group laughing all the way. Clearly the vast majority was now voting “Yes.”
I asked the 4 kids still in the “No” vote group what their position was. Stan represented them. He said with a sad, anguished face, “Maybe our photos are ugly!” We reassured them the photos were good. But then I realized I could resolve this complaint: I could show them the photos and make these 4 kids feel ‘heard.’ Ms. Brady agreed and suggested that they come up 4 at a time and look at their photos. She asked them to put an X on the back if they felt the photo was ‘unsatisfactory’ and a check mark if their photo was ‘good’. Exactly half the class voted each way. Ms. Brady’s vote broke the tie because she didn’t like her photo but she was ‘going with the flow,’ being a team player.
“Well clearly the majority feel the photos are not good.” I said adding, “What if I retake them?” They were ecstatic, over the moon. 3 days later I came back. They had ideas about art direction (wanted more of their personalities to shine through). They had props. They were now totally ready for their ‘close ups’. I gave them a choice from the 3 photos I took of each of them. And they agreed their photos will hang on the back wall and in the hall for all to see. We now have a unanimous vote on all that.
Had we anticipated this kerfuffle, would we have shown the students their photos in the first place and avoided this time-consuming exercise? Perhaps, but then we would have missed out on this elegantly simple teachable moment. And because it was emotion-packed, all the students were poised and alert during this lesson.
Shouldn't the classroom be a dangerous place?
New York Times writer Frank Bruni queried recently, “Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?”
The dichotomy we face is America is how do we raise kids as citizens in a democracy in environments where they experience so few freedoms, so few civil rights. Because we took full advantage of this teachable moment, the students of Ms. Brady’s class are now engaged in direct democracy and primed to know more. We were primed to form a Kids' Council.
At the end of the 'election' we used a simple and immediate assessment - a probe we call Now I Know. In it we asked “I challenged myself to think about ______” and their thoughtful answers included “...which vote was reasonable.” and “...what I should do to make everyone satisfied.” “...the reasons I wanted to do this.”
Want more glob entries about elections in the classroom? Just search below for Kids' Council.
For more information on Kids' Council, email us at Lab[at]inquiringmindsusa.com
Note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the students and teacher.
Some inspirations for this article:
Freedom Writers - Film: Hilary Swank plays a teacher who finds new ways to inspire her challenged grade school students, to give them voice and agency. Based on a true story.
Kid President - Soul Pancake: real life 9 year old Robby Novak of Henderson, Tennessee tells kids (and teachers) that kids have voices worth listening to. http://www.kidpresident.com
The Wilds of Education, Frank Bruni, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-the-wilds-of-education.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad