America was built on democracy, a set of rules that governs the people in a state or country. Most elementary classrooms can follow this same doctrine by establishing rules and polices that guide and govern activities in that classroom.
Allowing students to create their own classroom procedures and policies helps them to understand how learning environments are similar to communities within our society. Building participatory citizenship starts with creating and building a democracy. You can help younger students understand the importance of rules and how they protect us by teaching how to build unity in your classroom.
Creating your democratic society
Start by establishing a set of rules in your elementary classroom to help ensure management. Linking this activity to the political process in our country is relatively seamless. This will give you an opportunity to collaborate with your students and help them engage in the process of classroom rulemaking. You can also connect this to the themes of rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society by comparing the difference in roles of teacher and student. The classroom version of this process addresses the essential role of school in society and the primary responsibility of social studies to build participatory and democratic citizenship skills through education.
Reflecting on the philosophical belief by Dewey (1944) that classrooms are embryonic communities or societies, classroom life should simulate life in the broader and adult community. From a learning perspective, students better understand and then commit to the rules when they participate in the process—they develop a deeper understanding as well as ownership over the process and their own outcomes.
Establishing these rules helps to build ideologies in our students that affect how we live and establish our well-being in society.
Adapting to virtual learning
How is this accomplished in the online classroom with elementary students? You can mirror the same process used in the face-to-face instruction.
First, establish classroom rules early on in the school year. When you set foundational tenets in your class, younger students tend to function better when there are clear expectations on how to perform in a virtual school setting.
Secondly, if you are using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or any other instructional platform, place your students in breakout rooms so they can brainstorm ideas that are essential to succinct learning in a virtual environment. Ask students to think about items like whether or not students should mute themselves or turn cameras on, when to use the chat box, etc.
Third, after students have met in small groups, bring them back to the main classroom so that you can compile a list of rules that were generated in their smaller groups that can be voted on. When you establish the norm of voting, you inform your young students that rules are comparable to laws in society that must be voted on! No one can establish a law unless it goes through a political process like the one your classroom is mimicking by developing rules.
Fourth, when you feel the list is complete and established, create a poll allowing students to vote on the rules that they feel are essential for their virtual classroom. This process is similar to an election. You can also discuss the topic by having students come up with the pros and cons of certain rules. This can also be an informal debate. A student may feel strongly about a rule that they contributed to the list, and it may be important for them to discuss with the class why they feel like it should remain on the list. This helps students to see and understand points of view in an informal way.
Fifth, ask students to summarize, categorize, and convert the rules into areas of commonality so that they can synthesize the purpose of the rules. For example, the list may include “no yelling out responses,” “instructing the class without interruptions,” and “working independently without extraneous noise.” These can all be included in the synthesized category “Raise Your Hand and Respect Others.”
Finally, when the rules are established and agreed upon, post them in your virtual classroom so your students can see them each day. This process and subsequent reminder post helps you support student understanding of the democratic process in our country.
This is a critical election, and the elementary setting provides the opportunity to ensure that students know that their voice and their vote count whether in the classroom or in society when they become active participatory citizens. By teaching young students about being governed by officials who are elected with the premise of upholding the laws we have created, we let democracy rule and ensure that students at the earliest opportunity comprehend their community and citizenship rights. Elementary classrooms are just one environment that can open their eyes to the electoral process and teach the central tenets of democracy.
Storypath: Elections can enhance student civic skills through simulation learning
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1944.
Sheree Turner, Ph.D. is a Master Teacher Leader in an urban school district in Atlanta and a 27-year veteran educator specializing in English Language Arts (ELA) and social studies. Dr. Turner is also an adjunct professor with University of Phoenix in the School of Education graduate studies. She is certified in middle grades social studies, gifted-learner endorsed, and reading endorsed. Her area of interest is ensuring social studies does not become extinct in the 21st century classroom.