As we strategize about how to transform Room 220 on our blog – step-by-step, raw and in real time – the Kids' Council is not only an experiment in representative democracy in a 5th grade classroom, its essential to our work. Why? Because we need to hear from all 26 kids, not just those students who shoot up their hands the fastest and so got called on. So creating this leadership structure is part of our overall organizing strategy!
After several weeks of campaigning and having their portraits plastered up in the hallway broadcasting the forthcoming Kids’ Council Election Day, the 26 students of room 220 were rip roaring ready to vote. The timing couldn’t be better – November 4th, the date of the Federal mid term elections, was almost here.
We’d designated a room across the hall as our polling place. We set up privacy screens and provided sample ballots for their reference. A sign stating “No electioneering beyond this point” hung on the door. This was helpful since it allowed for a relatively quiet place for kids to concentrate while they voted. As they were getting ready to vote, they were reminded once more the qualities they articulated that each elected official needed to have: they needed to be fair, honest, reliable, mature and a good listener.
Our unorthodox voting structure
All the students were asked to cast a vote for everyone on the ballot. This is a corporate model that safeguards against the lazy or detached voter who might otherwise just vote for a colleague or other known person. Voting for everyone required the student to consider each candidate on his or her merits. And this required concentration. All 12 candidates would get either a “Yes” vote or a “Not Convinced” vote from all 26 voters. Since 12 students were running, 4 would be elected which meant 8 would lose. Since everyone voted for everyone those running also cast a vote for or against their competitors – “yes” or “Not convinced.”
The poll workers
We needed 4 poll workers. As I swore them in they recited, in unison, “I swear to be fair and to make sure every voice is heard and counted.” I appointed Dawn to organize the kids to vote. We invited the other 5th grade class to witness the election and they arrived to sit wherever there was free space in the packed classroom.
The pedagogista and the expert politician
Some very special guests joined us. Dr. Patricia Crain de Galarce, Inquiring Minds’ very own pedagogista and former principal of a progressive bi-linqual elementary charter school in Washington, DC was introduced to the cohort. Patricia, asked students to write down questions on Post Its in a format that we had organized for them. This process helped to fill the time as the kids voted and it helped better inform the kids during the 15 minutes the election took.
Patricia reviewed and fed the Post It note questions to our other guest, Renee Collymore. Renee, who is a PS 20 graduate, neighbor and former district leader spoke with the kids as “an expert politician” about what it’s like to both win, lose and most essentially, how to serve the community. Renee reinforced that the students should vote for candidates who could do the job, who were trustworthy and not just their friends.
She also impressed on them the importance of local politics asking “Do you know who the Brooklyn Borough President is?” They did not. She shook her head. “You all have to read the news!” She then had them repeat his name “Eric Adams” several times. A question from one student was “Does it matter what culture you are from?” Renee said “No!” She added that “Eric Adams said when he was elected he wanted to see one Brooklyn – recognizing that residents and businesses in Brooklyn represent many, many cultures: People from all over the world.”
As a politician it is Renee’s job to know where others around her stand, what they stand for. She modeled the leaders' new focus – they should be inclusive and discerning of what others want and need. Renee asked each candidate to say why they were running. Frank stood and said, “I can make the class better.” And his classmates asked quickly, “How? How?” He said he could “Rearrange the desks so everyone is comfortable.” Guy said he wanted to create “Designated areas for math, science.” Each candidate rose and spoke.
Meanwhile, in the polling place, each student was given an “I Voted” sticker to wear on returning to the classroom. I hurried to tally all the votes as they were taken out of the ballot box (preserving anonymity of course) and keeping an eye on the 4 poll workers who ushered students in and out flawlessly. The entire polling process took 15 minutes which is quite remarkable considering 26 kids voted for the first time ever.
The votes are in
All candidates got “yes” votes as well as “no confidence" votes but a candidate could not prevail even if they were to get more yeses than any other candidate, if they got more “no confidence" votes because that would mean more students had "no confidence" in them than had confidence in them. I was relieved this was not the case with any candidate. I gathered all the poll workers and we very excitedly returned to the classroom knowing who had won.
I asked Joie, who had helped as a poll worker, to take a microphone and announce the winners. Jade and Brad both clearly won for co Secretary. Frank was a clear winner for Co Captain but there was a tie for the 2nd Co Captain. Guy won on a recount. We all learned the power of clear and fair processes!
So now what?
The Kids’ Council is practical: We (Inquiring Minds) can’t hear from 26 kids but we can task the leaders to talk to all the students – at lunch, on the playground — to become advocates and ambassadors for their classmates. Through the Kids’ Council this cohort of 10 year olds will learn to value cooperation – by seeing themselves benefiting from – and being a benefit to – their community. Will they learn to speak up and articulate their concerns and to witness how they can help shape their own classroom? This is to be determined. The election sets the stage, provides the leadership structure that their community requires.
What we hope the kids will get out of the Kid’s Council is a real life - positive - experience of the the way the political process is meant to work. We’ve developed lesson plans based on compelling questions and the inquiry arc to help the students see how we can improve learning and increase active engagement in their classroom. They are being implemented in teams led by the elected officials. They are calling for votes on all kinds of important classroom issues now: They are focused on their micro democracy.
We’re fundraising to publish a workbook that ties this all together in 2015 so any school can hold classroom elections and take advantage of our findings, many of which are universal.
Want more? Just search for Kids' Council
For more information and help on how to run an Inquiring Minds' classroom election or to donate to further our work, 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.