Democracy is Alive in Classrooms

How can we guide the next generation to internalize and understand democracy? How can we bring what feels out of reach sometimes in our society to a shared and common space? The classroom.

Years ago, I read the book City Kids, City Schools. In an introduction by Willian Ayers, I learned about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, which says that students have the right to an education which,

  • allows you to demonstrate your talents and be your best self;
  • protects human rights and personal freedoms;
  • respects and honors your cultural identity;
  • prepares you to act in the spirit of tolerance, peace, and friendship towards all people;
  • promotes the importance of sustainability and respect for planet earth.

When I read these, I knew I wanted to share them with my students, and also to weave them into the micro-society of our classroom. So I created a series of short lessons that leverage these United Nations Rights as a springboard into the democratic process of creating class norms.

Last year, I dusted off this old lesson from when I taught 8th grade and reimagined it for a fresh start in a new school. Before sharing, I want to acknowledge that the traditional school system birthed from industrialization imagined classrooms to function as dictatorships rather than democracies, and that until we can revolutionize that system, all classrooms have power systems that are out of balance. I’m not above having “dictator” moments in the classroom sometimes. But as educators we can flip the script of what classrooms can be and do.

This is what I did with my kids:

Day 1

  1. I asked student to choral read the UN Rights in their groups of four. (They were so cute. They actually counted “1, 2, 3” before starting)
  2. I had them put their heads down and raise their hand as I read unfamiliar terms that they may not understand or be able to define. I knew freshman may not come forward with their lack of knowing without a safe way to do so.
  3. Then we discussed the meaning of terms they flagged like ‘sustainability’ and ‘tolerance’.

Day 2

  1. We reviewed the rights and then I asked students to write down on a post it one behavior or expectation they have of themselves and their classmates that help then be their best student selves.
  2. On 5 posters labeled with the UN Rights, I asked students to put their post it on the poster that upheld a matching right. I rephrased the rights again to help them think through where their post it should go before they moved around to match them.
  3. We looked at where the students put their post it’s and where they didn’t. The posters about ‘sustainability and respecting planet earth’ and the ‘honoring cultural identity’ had one or no post-its in all sections.
  4. In order to push their thinking, I gave two post its to each group and asked them to think of one behavior norm as a group that would fit those two rights. They added post its to the posters that didn’t have norms on them previously.
  5. Students were asked to do a silent galley walk. They could “star” one norm each per poster to vote for the one that they thought most upheld the right to education.

Day 3

  1. Before class: I looked at the posters from all the classes and made a ballot using the norms that received the most stars so that the ballot had the most voted for norm per class.
  2. I gave students a ballot and told them to vote for the norm that they felt best upheld the their right to education explaining that the ballot included the collaborative best thinking of all the students from all of the sections.
  3. I tallied the votes (one student volunteered during lunch to come help me), and turned these into our agreed upon norms for the year.

Day 4

  1. We’ll read our norms chorally at the start of next class and I’ll have every student sign the poster as a sign of agreement.

This lesson can be done over two days, but there are many other things to cover, so I spread the activity out over a week. Plus, I want students to hear us talk about and return to the idea of classroom values, rights, and norms over multiple lessons to give weight to the importance of them for everyone in the room.

My Freshman Academy team will adopt these norms and they’ll be used in their social studies and physics class as well as mine.

Here are the norms my students created this year:

  1. Be accepting of one another’s differences and don’t judge others
  2. Give everyone equal voice to share their perspective
  3. Respect one another
  4. Guide, assist and support one another
  5. Conserve materials and clean up after yourself

Over the next few weeks, we inevitably have non-examples of these behaviors come up in the classroom. I try to use these moments as an opportunity to return to our norms and discuss the meaning of the one that has been violated. If students are about to leave my room a complete disaster at the end of class, I return to norm #5 and they stay a few moments after the bell to take care of the space. If one student has started to tease or bully another student over a personal preference, I crouch down next to them at an appropriate time to talk with and remind them about #1 and #2 of our norms. It’s not a magic bullet for everything, obviously, but because all students were a part of the process, there’s buy-in.

I’m always inspired by how seriously students take the work of developing classroom norms, and I hope that they can see democracy in action through the process as well.

Comment below to share the ways you would change this or use it in your classroom!

Slides to get you started:

Day 0 

Day 1

Day 2

Note: These slides also contain a Random Autobiography poem lesson, which was part of our first unit, Identity Lit Circles.


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