Democracy in Action: Following Up on My Students' Questions

(This is a long overdue follow-up post)

A few weeks ago, my students left me with a wonderful problem: they generated so many great questions leading to larger inquiry, that we had to narrow down the list in some way.  I must admit, when I came to school that Wednesday morning, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I took a chance.  I gave my students the entire list of questions, and told them they had 30 minutes to democratically choose five of them that would help us answer our unit essential questions: “How democratic is the US?” and “Does my vote count?”  I held an election for a facilitator, told students they first had to decide how they would go about making the decision, and then sat down and took notes on their process.  What followed in each section captured the American political process in all its flawed messiness.

First Period

This class held no discussion of how to make their decision.  The facilitator started by asking everyone which of the categories (that I had rather arbitrarily created) they were most interested in.  At one point, the facilitator said, “I think we should take 2 questions from each category with more than 4 votes.” Another student responded, “that doesn’t make sense, we’ll have too many questions,” but the discussion about how to go from there ignored the complaint.  The class was much more focused on their objective rather than discussion how to create a better process, much like the American electoral system, where we still vote on Tuesday for antiquated reasons.  The conversation also showed just how much ballot construction can influence the results of a vote.

At another point, one student took on the role of the media, encouraging people to continue arguing for his entertainment.  When a student lost a vote, she said “I feel like this classroom is not a democracy.”  The facilitator asked her, “What would you like to change?”  But the instigator then shouted “Fight fight fight fight!” distracting everyone from the base issue that was raised.  The process of deciding continued without any discussion of how to create a better process.

Second Period

Much like first period, there was no discussion of process.  The facilitator on her own decided to go question by question asking for yes or no votes.  People were voting on their interest levels.  At one point, a student reminded the class “We need 5 questions to answer these [essential] questions [on the board].”  Her comment was ignored, much like how in American democracy, we rarely focus on big picture and long-term, but rather on the issues right in front of us.

About 15 minutes into the process, one student noticed “No one’s even voting!”  Nonetheless, the voting continued.  Five minutes later, another student berated the class, “Can everyone participate, because you are going to start complaining about our decisions?”  Despite the complaint, no further effort was made to include other’s voices.

Third Period

Much like the earlier periods, the facilitator decided how to proceed on her own without discussing with the class.  She too went category by category, and then had students vote for one question within each category.

In the end, these were the questions students chose:

First Period

  • Where is the government when Black Friday events happened?
  • Why is pepper spray legal when police use it?
  • If people are allowed to protest, why do police attack protesters for protesting?
  • Can we manage to have safer Black Fridays?
  • How do we eliminate poverty without becoming Communist?

Second Period

  • What makes the US democratic?
  • Can my vote get canceled out?
  • What limitations do voters face?
  • Is there a way to make our country more democratic?
  • What would the US economy be with a Communist government?

Third Period

  • Why is it okay for shoppers to campout out and not for protesters?
  • How are citizens affected by police decisions?
  • Why hasn’t there been another form of government in the US?
  • How much power should one person have in the government?
  • What would you want to pursue other than a capitalist lifestyle?

The questions about communism and capitalism were tabled until our second semester economics course.  The remaining closed questions were discussed in class the following days, which eventually led all three classes to questions about the influence of money in politics, which we have been examining for the past two weeks.