Fourth Graders Lead Learning in Civics Lesson

19 Nov 2018
ByFaith Hunter, Assistant Principal, Grades 3–5

Recently, I attended a conference that encouraged educators and educational leaders to consider if developing the whole human’s capacity — head, heart, and hands — is essential to a child’s education. At EC, if asked how we “fit in” the important work of social emotional learning — that is, teaching empathy, a sense of purpose, and an urge to act — I immediately think of the ways our talented teachers cultivate those traits in our students. For example, relevant to the recent elections, our fourth-grade teachers have designed a civics unit around our three branches of government, taking what can be a dry topic and transforming it into an immersive, challenging, playful, and purposeful experience. In the past couple weeks, as I’ve walked through the halls and classrooms, I see fourth-grade students scattered around the floor — some working independently, some gathered in partnerships, all visibly engaged in creating posters, board games, songs, skits, and sculptures.

Fourth graders working on their board game

At one point, I noticed a student papier-mâchéing a large sculpture. His teacher walked over to me, smiled, and explained, “He’s building the three branches of government. On each branch there will be leaves explaining the people, their roles, and the duties of the executive, legislative, and judicial branch.” Two other children were huddled together preparing trivia cards that will allow players to maneuver around the board game they created — Define checks and balances. How long does a Supreme Court Justice serve? How many Senators make up the Senate? Down the hall, I heard the mingled sounds of children rehearsing songs they had composed. This work is a culminating social studies civics project in which fourth graders are experts who demonstrate what they’ve learned by creating a process to teach others about the three branches of government. They often consider these questions: Do I work better independently or in collaboration with others? What medium can I use that will best suit my learning style and help me express my point of view to others? I’m sure we can all remember a time in our own educations when we were asked to teach something to our classmates. Understanding why the topic was important — as well as which learning styles worked best for us — allowed us (or would have allowed us) to be better teachers!

Fourth graders refine many skills throughout the year. They spend months developing essential literacy skills like summarizing, forming mental categories of related information, and acquiring new vocabulary. They glean new information, analyze articles and videos, and interview visitors. Their writing classes are focused on developing organizational skills, prioritizing written pieces that solidify and communicate their learning about our government. In their culminating project, however, students learn to manage their own learning. When entire units and learning experiences are designed around how students can feel purposeful in their development and teaching, skills of the head, heart, and hands happen simultaneously. In this way, social emotional learning is not something to add on, but something that is lived each day in the classroom. We want our students to come to school to lead inspired, purposeful lives every day.