Democracy: How it is taught in the U.S.
Chester, Vt. — The first-graders were listening intently--they had volunteered to help a journalist test a lesson on democracy. She told them that she had just written the lesson and thanked them for being willing to let her come and see if it was any good.
''Does anyone know a rule in this school that everyone must obey? That even the teachers and the principal have to obey?''
Several hands shot up. A boy in the front got the nod.
A girl in the back of the room: ''No running in the halls.''
The journalist-teacher then showed the class a fascimile of the Constitution of the United States, and pointed out ''We the people.''
She explained, ''I've changed what that says just a little bit so that first-graders can understand the words. Here's how it goes:
''We the people of Chester-Andover Elementary School want to be fair, and give everyone a chance to learn, and to be happy.
''We the people at Chester-Andover Elementary School want to have rules that everyone obeys.''
She held up the Constitution again and told these little ones that when those laws were written, their state was not included, but that the people who wrote those laws did such a good job of making them fair that their state, as well as every other one, had agreed to these same laws.
Next she explained that in a democracy everyone had to obey the rules, even the President. And that the Constitution told what would happen to the President if he broke the rules.
''Can you guess what the Constitution says?''
A lot of hands. Correct answers. ''He'd lose his job.''
She next told a story--a true story about when she was in elementary school and there was a fire in the ceiling of the Grade 4-8 classroom.
''Do you line up when the fire bell sounds? And is there supposed to be no talking, no shoving? And are you supposed to walk outside as quickly and quietly as possible?''
The children were giving this democracy teacher their full attention. They were assuring her they knew the proper method for filing out the door.
''What about the teacher?'' she asked.
They knew that, too. The teacher was supposed to go out last to make sure everyone was out and safe.
She continued with the story.
She was the last one in the line, and her older brother was among the first. Suddenly the children knew it wasn't a fire drill but a real fire and the ceiling was coming down.
''The teacher got frightened. He was a big man. And when the ceiling and the lights looked like they would crash into him and some of the last ones in the line, he broke the rules.
''He screamed and pushed and shoved and hit one little girl very hard as he pushed his way out.''
The first-graders were looking stunned, and began to smile and feel better when she told them that her brother, when he heard the commotion, had come right back into the room and told his sister and the other little ones to get under the desks.
He got under a desk as well, and not one of them was hurt at all.
She told them that the ceiling was fixed right away over a weekend and that all the children came back to school on Monday.
Then she asked: ''Did that teacher come back?''
A chorus of ''No!'' greeted that question.
''Did the parents and other grown-ups help that man get a different job--one where he wouldn't be working with children?''
Again a resounding ''No.''
''Oh, but yes they did,'' she explained. ''He needed a job to take care of himself and his family and to pay expenses for the little girl he had hurt.''
And then she repeated how ''We the people of Chester-Andover Elementary School want to be fair, and give everyone a chance to learn, and to be happy.
''We the people want to have rules that everyone obeys.''
That was the end of the first day's lesson. She'd taught the same lesson to the first, second, and third grade.
Next day she came for the second session, and every one of the classes told her they remembered what she had taught them about democracy.
How in a democracy it is the people who make the rules, and that these rules are made the same for everyone, and that even if the leaders break the rules they are punished.
On the second day she explained about voting for two people in the class who would make laws--how they would represent those in the class.
She lined the class up in front of the blackboard, tallest first, and had each one write his name as high up as he could.
She passed out ballot sheets, and asked that each one vote for two people, two who would be good representatives and would make fair laws.
''Before you vote, can you answer this hard question: 'Should you vote for yourself?' ''
All answered ''No,'' and she told them she disagreed. That if they thought they would be a good and fair lawmaker, they should vote for themselves as one of the two people.
Next she invited the two who were elected to sit up in front of the class with her. She told the rest of the class that they could listen in on the lawmakers, and voice opinions, but that just those two could make the actual laws.
She then said, ''I'm going to pretend that I'm the President and I'm going to tell the two lawmakers that I want them to make a law. Here's my law:''
And then she laughed and said: ''No child in this room is to eat cake and ice cream for the rest of this school year. Will you make that law?''
Of course, they said ''No.'' But then they went ahead and passed an excellent law about not throwing mud or splashing others and decided on punishments for those who did.
This democracy teacher next sent a set of instructions and a cassette tape to Wingrock School in Rolling Hills, Calif., and asked if the first-grade teacher there would test the lesson with her pupils.
On the first day, the teacher discussed what ''We the People'' means and played the tape of the story about the teacher who broke the fire drill rules.
The Wingrock teacher then reported on the second day.
''We followed your procedure for electing two representatives, with a discussion preceding about what kind of people to vote for.
''Will we elect the person who is our best friend or who can play the best game of soccer? What kind of qualities should the person we elect to make rules for us have?
''The students elected Jenny (a leader very conscious of fairness) and Dario (well liked and a hero to most of the class).
''Our rule concerned our playground sand pile: 'When someone builds a fort, don't walk on it or wreck it up.'
''3rd day. Before the school started today, I got a report from some of the older students that Dario and a friend had kicked the sand fort down.
''First order of business was to discuss what had happened.
''Should Dario keep his job?
''With surprised expressions it dawned on the students that no, he should not be allowed to make rules that he was not willing to obey.
''So we had another election and Thomas was elected.
''Dario was very subdued--maybe stunned is not too strong a word for his reaction to being relieved of his office.