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.