The primary reason for establishing public education in this country was the recognition that an educated citizenry is essential to the maintenance of a free, democratic society. But the ways that elementary schools teach students about the history and current workings of our democracy do not give them an appreciation of either the system or how each of them is essential to its health. History and government are presented as book learning, not life.

For the past three years, three schools in different parts of the city have taken a different approach. The schools were Addams on the East Side, Haugan in Albany Park and Sawyer in Gage Park. Their 5th-graders participated in VOICE (Violence-prevention Outcomes in Civic Education), a social studies curriculum that incorporates conflict resolution, law-related education and service learning, and that features the use of outside resource people and field experiences in courts and police departments. Developed under the auspices of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, VOICE complements the traditional social studies curriculum by helping students develop a deeper understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the three branches of government.

VOICE has undergone three annual cycles of testing and feedback by Chicago teachers, formal evaluation and then revisions. The many hours given generously by teachers have been instrumental in its success. The evaluators found that students studying VOICE:

Learned three times more about the U.S. Constitution and government than did control classes.

Substantially improved their scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Had fewer problems with discipline and fighting.

Had a better understanding of how to help others solve problems and successfully engage in projects to address problems in their schools.

Were more aware of their rights and the rights of others.

The blending of VOICE with an American history textbook provides a powerful intervention that contributes to students mastering content and reducing violence.

For example, after students have learned mediation skills and begun their formal study of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, teachers used a dilemma that was real to them to help them understand the delicate balancing act between keeping people safe and respecting their freedom.

Fifth-graders were challenged to come up with a win-win resolution of a problem that a California school principal faced recently: A 5th-grader who is a Sikh came to school with his sacred kirpan, a knife worn to symbolize the Sikhs’ pledge to defend the defenseless, but the school had a no- weapons policy. The question was: Could the boy’s religion be respected and the school kept free of weapons? The boy was wearing the kirpan under his shirt, and someone spotted it during gym class. He wore it because he was supposed to, much in the same way some Christians wear crosses. He did not intend to show it off or use it.

Living lessons

Teachers had students read about and discuss freedom of religion, but they also connected students with resources in the community. Attorneys helped students examine the intent of the no- weapons policy, think about how to define a weapon and consider our country’s freedom of religion. Students then held a mock mediation session, with their principals observing and reacting to their solutions. Principals also had the opportunity to talk with their students about the challenges they face over similar issues.

The students came up with a variety of plans, mixing and matching in a sincere attempt to have a school that both was safe and honored freedom of religion. Suggestions included:

Educating the school about the Sikh religion.

Dulling the knife.

Securing the knife in its case during school.

Leaving the knife with the principal or parents during school hours

The children then looked at their own community and devised ways to resolve conflict peacefully. They planned and successfully carried out cross-age teaching projects. One 10-year-old, who was very shy and timid when he began 5th grade, wound up organizing a neighborhood peer mediation project. He had seen too many fights that could have been avoided if kids believed in and knew other ways to end their arguments.

Through these projects, students developed a deep understanding and appreciation of the tension between safety and liberty in a free society.

Making it happen

Many schools use community resources. But too often they fail to capitalize on them for teaching about the underpinnings of our society. Community members talk at students rather than work with them. Field trips are rewards for good conduct rather than an avenue for learning. Service projects are conducted because they seem to be a good thing to do; their potential for teaching young people about democracy is rarely tapped. By giving community connections short shrift, schools only make it harder on themselves to teach the importance of intellectual inquiry, diligent work habits, well-rounded skills and knowledge of current issues in civic life.

Many teachers would like to take advantage of programs such as VOICE. However, they need support from their principals for long-term staff development, and money must be found to pay for it. Teachers need to be encouraged to use a variety of ways to assess student progress, not just standardized tests. The intense pressure to raise test scores tends to drive teachers away from programs like these even though students in them often end up scoring higher.

Fundamentally, though, schools and communities must value teaching about democracy as much as they value teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and computers. Democracy is the primary reason our nation’s founders believed reading, writing and arithmetic needed to be taught to everyone in the first place.

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