Young children enter school with many experiences.
They have heard the word no from the time
they were infants but have rarely explored notions of authority
and governance on a formal level. Although rules and expectations surround their
daily lives, young children have yet to examine how they fit
into the democratic context.
I have always felt that my students needed to play a
role in designing classroom rules. This year, however, I knew that I wanted to
incorporate an even deeper understanding about civics concepts
into this process. I
decided to do so using childrens literature.
In developing the unit, I strove to lay the foundation
for an understanding of how our political system works and how
the legislature operates. In order for young children to gain this understanding,
they need to participate in activities that are meaningful to
them. I knew that creating
our classroom rules was something that was of utmost importance
during the first few days of school.
I wanted to develop the ideas of authority, rules, and
justice. These ideas could then be built upon throughout the
year as the children learned that they have a voice that could
facilitate change in classroom issues.
Laws and rules are needed to guide
behavior and establish order in our country.
Students, like adults, must deal with rules and laws
all of the time. Understanding
the purposes of rules and laws and how rules and laws serve
similar purposes is fundamental for young citizens.
Children need to learn that there are several purposes
for having rules and laws. Firstly, rules and laws describe acceptable
and unacceptable behavior for citizens.
Secondly, they provide order, predictability, and security. Thirdly, they assign burdens and responsibilities.
Lastly, they limit the power of the people in authority.
Once students have gained this understanding they can begin
to see that our government can be described as the people and
groups who have the authority to make, carry out and enforce
laws, and manage disputes.
I helped my students grasp these complex
concepts by turning to literature.
Children can relate to characters in books, and I wanted
to be able to help them construct their understanding of civics
concepts through discussions of the characters thoughts
and actions. We started
out by reading the book Lillys
Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (1996). In this story, Lilly brings a special purse to class and has it
taken away by the teacher.
We discussed the classroom rules in the story and their
purposes. During our discussion the children were able to look at both Lillys
and the teachers points of view and surmise why each acted
as she did. We discussed
the fact that a rule is a guideline for behavior.
Next, the children brainstormed a list of rules that
they follow at home and talked about why rules are important
and need to be followed. Finally, we looked at guidelines for good rules
and compared their home rules to this chart. Are the rules clear, easy to understand, enforceable and fair?
Are the rules explained to everyone who needs to follow
This activity proved to be important
as the children began to see rules in a new light. They started to see that rules are meant to be helpful, even though
they may not always like them.
The children easily put themselves in Lillys place,
but could also understand the consequences of her actions.
The next book we looked at was Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear (Carlstrom,
1988). In this story, Jesse bear does a variety of things on
a hot summer day and is repeatedly told by his parents that
he better not get wet. Things change at the end when he puts on his
bathing suit to go swimming and is told that he better
get wet. My goal in using this book was to help the
children understand the
purposes for rules as well as their application to particular
settings and situations. As we read through the story, I paused several
times to ask the students if dont get wet
was a good rule in the particular situation.
Of course, when Jesse bear is washing dishes and watering
the garden, the children could see that the rule certainly was
the students were able to see that the rule about not getting
wet didnt make much sense when Jesse Bear went swimming. We began to think about other rules and when
they may or may not be applicable.
The children worked in small groups and were given the
task of deciding when a certain rule would and wouldnt
apply. Some of the rules
included, No talking in class, No tattling,
and Stay in your seat.
After identifying situations in which the rules would
or would not apply, the children were asked to rewrite the rules
so that they would meet our Guidelines for Good Rules.
No talking in class became Talk softly in
class when you are working. Listen when someone else is talking. No tattling became Solve
little problems by yourself.
Stay in your seat became Get your materials
and get right to work. The beauty of this activity was that it helped the children understand
that there must be some room for discretion in the enforcement
of rules and laws. They also began to see that it is rarely
easy to create a rule that fits every situation.
Issues of fairness and safety were raised as the children
formed and supported their opinions about the rules.
At appropriate and relevant levels, my students were
developing an understanding of the roles of legislators and
next book we explored was Too
Many Tamales by Gary Soto (1993).
In this story a little girl wears her mothers diamond
ring without permission and loses it as she makes tamales for
a family celebration. Needless to say, she and her siblings end up
eating more than their share of tamales as they look for the
ring. This book helps to introduce the terms authority
and power to the students. We discussed who made the rule and what the
rule meant in terms of wearing the ring.
I then introduced the term governance
and pointed out that Marias mother made the rule to govern
the family so as to protect her children from making mistakes
and to safeguard their property. My students saw that the mother
had the right to make the rule, and we discussed why.
We then began to think of other people who have the right
to make rules for them or tell them what to do. They came up with people such as the principal,
a bus driver, and the teacher.
Next we talked about people who do not have the right
to dictate their behavior. They had many responses and stories to tell
at this point. After
they told their stories, we created a chart.
One side was labeled authority
and the other side power. We talked about how we respect and support people who hold authority.
Conversely, we examined the need to use good judgment
in not allowing others to use their power to control us in inappropriate
ways. All too often,
young children who lack assertiveness are bullied by others
who abuse their power. One
of the skills that I hoped to instill was for children to be
able to recognize the difference between authority and power
and to respond appropriately. Finally, we talked about how parents, teachers,
and legislators are just some examples of the people who possess
The next book that I used in our unit
Dreams by Patricia Pollaco (1991).
In this story Applemando lives in an ordinary village
but he has extraordinary dreams that his true friends are able
to see. When it rains
his vivid dreams stick to surfaces and brighten up the drab
village. I used this book as a springboard for helping the children
think about their hopes and dreams for the coming school year.
After writing and illustrating their ideas, the children
shared their work with the group.
I elicited the idea that rules can serve as tools in
our attempt to fulfill our hopes and dreams.
Children worked in small groups to list as many rules
as they could that would be important to help our class run
fairly, peacefully, and orderly.
All of the ideas were listed on a chart and the children
saw that there were far too many rules to remember.
We next grouped the rules into categories and named the
categories (i.e., Rules About Classroom Materials, Rules About
Being in Charge of Yourself, etc). Finally, the children were able to come up
with four general rules that encompassed all of the other rules. These four rules were (1) Be in control of
yourself (2) Show respect to others
Show respect to others things (4) Try to have fun. The last rule caused a great debate. Originally it was Have
fun but some students objected saying that you cant
possibly have fun doing everything in school, but you could
try. Once the rules
had been written, we took a vote to see who could abide by these
rules. All of the children
agreed that they were fair, helpful, and met the criteria we
had established for good rules.
I explained to the children that this was our Class Constitution,
and we all signed it. The Constitution now hangs in a prominent place
and is the focus of many class meetings.
The final lesson of our civics unit
involved understanding the consequences of breaking rules and
understanding what makes these consequences fair.
This is the foundation of justice and lays the groundwork
for later investigations into the judicial system.
We read the book Arnie
and the Stolen Markers (Carlson, 1987).
In the book, Arnie spends all of his money only to realize
that he still wants a set of markers.
When a shopkeepers back is turned, Arnie steals
the markers and races home. Unfortunately (for him), Arnies
mother discovers his deed.
At this point I paused to engage the students in a reading
prediction, asking the children what should and would happen
to Arnie. We read to the end of the book and found out
that Arnie had to work at the shop until he had paid off the
markers. I asked them if they thought Arnies punishment
was a fair one and why. I introduced the term logical consequence. The
children saw that Arnie had to do something to fix
the situation. We talked about laws for stealing and other
laws that they knew. I
reminded them that there are people with authority called judges
whose job it is to deal with these matters.
We then discussed what happens when big rules
are broken in school. (The
teacher or principal sends the student to the interventionist,
students are sent home, etc.)
I reminded them that little hurts happen,
too. For example, feelings may get hurt if someone is not allowed
to play at recess. Would the same punishments be just or appropriate in those situations?
The students and I discussed why. Next, we brainstormed
some of the little hurts that happen when rules
are broken in the classroom.
The children were arranged in small groups, and each
group was given one of those situations in which little
hurts occurred; they had to decide on three fair consequences
for the infractions. Then
they had to come to a consensus about which consequences would
be best. We listed thse
consequences and used them when minor infractions occurred.
All of the literary selections examined
in this article allowed me to take abstract concepts such as
rules, laws, governance, authority and justice, and make them
accessible to young children.
While they will need many more experiences with these
concepts in order to understand their deeper meanings and relationship
to our form of government, the children were able to grasp the
understanding that they had a voice and were part of a democracy
in their classroom community.
Carlson, N. (1987).
Arnie and the Stolen
Markers. New York: Viking.
M. (1988). Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear. New
Henkes, K. (1996).
Plastic Purse. New York: Greenwillow.
M. (1998). Law in Your Life: A Publication of Street Law. Cincinnati: West
Pollaco, P. (1991).
Dreams. New York: Philomel.
L. (1997). C is for Citizenship: Childrens Literature and Civic
Understanding. Boulder: Social Science Consortium.
Soto, G. (1993). Too Many
Tamales. New York: