Riverdale R-7 School is located in Adelaides northern suburb of Salisbury Downs. It is a growing state school with approximately 350 students.
The ethos of the school promotes and protects the fundamental belief and practice of democratic decision making and maximum, effective participation of staff, students and parents. Student representatives from all home-groups make up the backbone of a number of committees and working parties that ensure the careful planning and implementation of school and community based initiatives. This committee structure allows students to have direct input into much of the day to day running of the school as well as future directions.
For a large portion of 1998, I worked with my years 2-4 homegroup on trialing and implementing the Discovering Democracy materials. In particular, we focussed on the unit of work entitled "Joining In".
The 28 students in my group had a background of strong and authentic student voice opportunities. This was encouraged through regular, formal class-meetings and representation on student committees. At the classroom level, we had also done a lot of work negotiating expectations, the physical layout of the room and curriculum issues such as content and timetabling.
We believed that this trial would be an exciting opportunity for us to compare the most current theories with our existing practice and to challenge our thinking and hopefully find ways to expand our work to include more local community issues.
Initial concerns were in relation to whether the younger children would be able to effectively participate as the materials had been written for year 4 and beyond. The trial materials also provided limited resources and a very tight deadline.
As it turned out, I need not have worried. The children accepted the challenge and worked tirelessly to complete the unit. The younger children had no problem understanding the concepts covered in the unit (although some support materials needed to be modified slightly). In fact, I found that these children had a wealth of ideas and well thought out discussion points and I strongly urge teachers of younger students to investigate the possibility of using this unit in part or its entirety.
The major successes of the unit are that it encourages children to identify the skills needed to participate in group situations and potential barriers to effective participation. It encourages children also, to develop strategies to overcome these barriers. It is a very powerful skill base and has far-reaching implications for the students beyond the Civics and Citizenship curriculum.
Children should be partners in the planning and implementation of these units. We found that the most effective way to run the program was to run hour blocks every day for several weeks. This took quite some juggling of the timetable to achieve, but was effective in that it allowed the momentum to be maintained and the skill development to be consolidated. It meant that we could reflect on the previous days learning before moving on to the next section. It also meant that children could see results quickly and this in turn, motivated them to go further.
This would be an excellent unit of work for teachers and students to work through near the start of the school year. It sets the tone for maximum participation and individual and group rights and responsibilities.
However, it is important to note that these materials are not definitive. I suggest using them as a guide. Teachers should not be afraid to change sections to suit the particular needs of their students and/or structure of the school. We found it helpful to supplement the materials with publications from the community. Human resources such as representatives from the local council, sporting/recreational roups etc. were essential to the success of the program.
The students and I thoroughly enjoyed working on this unit. It helped to clarify the issue of personal rights and responsibilities as well as giving the students a sense of their place in the grand scheme of things. It opened their eyes and minds to a range of possibilities not previously considered.
In summary let me say this ... let the children be the judge. Some of the activities seemed a little dry to me at first. I thought my students would balk at some of the tasks included in the unit. Not so. They relished the opportunity to work in groups and explore their thinking. They whole-heartedly accepted the challenge of taking this theory and putting it into practice. They embraced the fundamental principals of Civics and Citizenship.
Most importantly, the skills they worked hard to develop were relevant and purposeful and continue to be a focus throughout 1999.
In 1998 my two Year 9 Society and Environment classes trialed the Discovering Democracy Unit, Getting Things Done. Most of the students in the class were 13 or 14 at the time of the trial. Maitland Area School is a small State rural school with about 420 students R-12. Maitland is situated in the middle of Yorke Peninsula about 180 km from Adelaide. The town has a population of around 1300 and sits in a rich agricultural area. Around 10% of our students are Aboriginal from the local Aboriginal settlement at Point Pearce. We have a strong technology focus in the school, so all of my students had access during the trial to computers and the Internet. Forty four students were involved in the trial. I hae a Society and Environment background particularly in Middle School, having taught the subject for the last 15 or so years. My main area of teaching is English years 8-12. At the moment I am teaching all Middle School classes. During 1997 I was involved in trialing the new Civic and Citizenship Units of work developed at a State level under Shirley Dally from Curriculum Services. I trialed four different units for her with years 8 and 9, so by the time I trialed Getting Things Done I was quite familiar with the aims and desired outcomes of the whole Civic and Citizenship project.
I was asked to trial Getting things Done (The Franklin Dam dispute in the late 1970s and early 80s and how we get things done using institutional frameworks and though direct citizen action) and was sent the unit of work in its rough draft form. It has been improved significantly since then and the unit as it now appears in the Discovering Democracy Kit is much clearer and more student friendly in its format. Having said that it still remains a quite "heavy" unit to teach in its existing form. There is a lot of emphasis placed on Government and different political parties and it assumed extensive prior knowledge on the part of the teacher. I found myself looking at the structure and role of the High Court, the Constitution and re-reading Australias political history of the late 1970s before I began and it was very time consuming. I also rewrote a large number of the Activities in the Focus questions to make them easier for my age group to understand. I also tried to add greater visual interest. The original draft had a large section on Terms of Reference for an inquiry into how our system of Government works to get things done in the best interests of the country. This was involved and I found I had to constantly guide the students in answering the questions associated with it. There were focus questions that revolved around each of the Terms of Reference. Thank goodness this has been revised. The activities and assessment tasks are now much easier to follow.
If you intend to teach Getting Things Done you need to prepare a unit synopsis before you begin. The unit starts off with pair work thinking of tactics the student uses to get what they want from family, parents and friends. They enjoyed this activity and we collated our tactics into a combined class list. Looking at the history and geography of the south west region of Tasmania is easy to follow and interesting.
The main part of the unit involves watching and rewatching! The Australian Experience the segment on the Discovering Democracy Secondary Video for this unit and doing the work related to it. In the original draft there was a section on Are you a Citizen outlining the characteristics of an Australian citizen. This has been removed and I thought it was quite valuable. I intend to include it when I re-teach the unit. In the revised unit you are now given much clearer definitions of political parties and public policy and of how decisions and public policy making occurs.
Another activity which existed in the original draft was to investigate an issue in your local area and to establish a range of actions taken by community members. This activity was very successful with the students because they could directly relate to it. We looked at the building of the Central Yorke Peninsula Airstrip. Looking at this issue involved student interaction with the local community. This included health services, local government, community services such as Apex, Lions, and Rotary, the Maitland Show Society and the Country Fire Services etc. They researched which groups were involved and what actions were taken to achieve a result. I will include a similar case study when I teach the unit again.
The range of assessment activities involved in the unit is huge and I think teachers need to select appropriate activities to suit the needs of their student cohort. The majority of tasks are teacher directed with written answers. There is a debate which I think could be successfully incorporated, however, it will require a substantial amount of background reading by the student. The final assessment task is writing an extensive report on how well democracy in Australia operated to resolve the damming issue. I think this is a valuable exercise but too much depth is required. I will base an assignment around it this year making suitable adjustments.
Overall I think Getting Things Done is a valuable unit to study. In some ways it is very appropriate for use in the Australian Studies Course in South Australia in either Year 10 or 11. To teach the unit to a Year 9 group is possible with modifications. I feel that the students who did the course with me last year gained a huge amount from the experience. Whilst some of the information probably went over their heads, they were exposed to the Australian political system, the Constitution, the role of the High Court and the powerful voice of the media in many cases for the first time. (Whilst many had heard of them before they really didnt understand their makeup and roles before the case study.) They also found out how to get things done through direct citizen action. This was a very significant discovery because it suddenly gave the whole notion of being an Australian Citizen and its associated responsibilities some practical meaning.