Democracy in the Classroom
Recently, the MiddleTalk listserve was abuzz with a discussion about the nine most dangerous things taught at school as outlined in Forbes magazine. Number 3 on the Forbes list of dangerous things is “The best and brightest follow the rules.”
Liking the idea of allowing our students to challenge “the rules,” for my eighth grade U.S. history class, I instituted a democratic classroom, which has worked in extraordinary ways this year.
We began the year by setting classroom expectations as a class. I gave the students two words, respect and responsibility, and asked them to come up with a definition for each word and what it would look and sound like in our classroom. Then we looked at the state standards and determined what it was we were supposed to learn this year.
I then gave the students a choice. We could go through the content chronologically throughout the year or use thematic units. The students chose thematic units. As we moved through the year, I offered lots of choices and asked the students how they would like to learn about things. I usually had a few options in mind but was flexible and willing to alter the ideas based on students’ thoughts. We were very democratic about decision making in that the big decisions went to a vote. This led to some great discussions.
For example, there was an end-of-quarter project that some students didn’t do well on. This affected their final grade, so a group of them asked if we could move the project grade to the beginning of the next quarter. There was a lot of discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of both options.
Some students brought up the point that it would be much more difficult to bring up a grade in the next quarter. Others reminded the class that they had been expecting it to be on that quarter’s report card, and that they had a rubric to follow, so it wasn’t that expectations were not clear. In the end the class voted and chose to leave the grade in the original quarter.
As another example, some of my students didn’t feel ready for our Constitution test, so they wrote and signed a petition to postpone the test, with an alternate activity of using the class period to study. To help illustrate what we had learned about the democratic process, I vetoed the petition. The students knew they needed a 2/3 majority vote to over-ride the veto—and they got it! The students then took it upon themselves to lead small study groups and games to continue to prepare for the test.
Erin Scholes teaches social studies at Mabelle B. Avery Middle School in Somers, Connecticut. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org