How the `Microsociety' Concept Evolved

THE idea of creating a miniature adult world inside the school took root in the imagination of a frustrated new teacher. In 1967, George Richmond stood in front of a group of unruly fifth-graders struggling to maintain order. ``I wasn't getting very far with the students because they were more interested in challenging each other and fighting each other than they were in reading and writing,'' says Dr. Richmond, now an associate with the Office of School Improvement Services in New York.

In searching for an explanation for his students' behavior, the somewhat bewildered and disillusioned teacher drew an analogy between the classroom and a feudal society. ``It seemed to me that the common currency was muscle,'' Richmond explains. His goal then became to create a revolution in that feudal society. Richmond printed up some play money and designed a game similar to ``Monopoly'' which he called ``Microeconomy.'' The game succeeded in engaging the young students in productive and educational rivalries.

As Richmond's career developed over the next few years, he began to build on the microsociety concept in his classes at New York public schools. In the early '70s, he and 14 other teachers at Public School 126 in Manhattan experimented with the first multi-classroom microsociety.

In 1973, Richmond's idea became accessible to others through his book, ``The Microsociety School: A Real World in Miniature.'' The most tangible thing to come out of the book, he says, was the interest from a group of teachers and administrators in Lowell, Mass. The founding of the City Magnet School in 1981 marked the first time a school was formed around the microsociety concept.

In 1986, Yonkers, N.Y., started a microsociety school at Public School 19, which is 71 percent Hispanic. At this two-way bilingual school, which teaches English to native Spanish speakers and Spanish to native English speakers, the program has proved effective in teaching practical language skills to students. The students in the bank or marketplace tailor their language to the speaking ability of their clientele. It's a ``realistic reflection of our society,'' principal Fred Hernandez says.

A new school building is now being constructed in Yonkers to house the microsociety school. It has a physical plan designed around the program. When completed in early 1992, the building will have a specially designed marketplace, courtroom, bank, and office spaces for children to do their microsociety jobs.

``One of the interesting things about the microsociety program,'' Richmond says, ``is it's very flexible.'' The program in Lowell, Mass., was designed to bring about voluntary desegregation in schools; the Yonkers project uses it as a vehicle to teach newly arrived immigrant students how American society works and to facilitate language ability in a bilingual setting.

Perhaps the most innovative use of the program is being discussed in Budapest, Hungary. Officials are considering starting a microsociety project in the high schools as an introduction to the free-market system.

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