Snowballs, PJs, and the three branches: the art and science of an emergent curriculum

The phrase “I’m Just a Bill” will likely bring back memories for many Generation-Xers and late Boomers. Now with children of their own, today’s parents might be surprised to discover that the classic “Schoolhouse Rock!” feature hasn’t gone out of style. The lo-fi graphics—coupled with just the right amount of pratfall—still resonate with today’s Minecraft generation.

“I’m Just a Bill” helped kick off a recent exploration of participatory democracy in Waynflete’s 4-5 program. With the November midterm elections in the news, students examined the inner workings of the three branches of government and how senators, representatives, and the president pass laws. Typical of Waynflete’s hands-on approach to learning, each of the program’s home stations transformed into a committee to debate how to make 4-5 a better place for its “citizens.” Students brainstormed possibilities, selected one cause to work up as a bill, then wrote proposals to share at a community meeting of the entire 4-5 program.

Up for consideration were proposals on PJ days, snowball rules, additional playground equipment, and alternative recess locations. Group members selected a representative to present the bill and, importantly, to ask for feedback from students in other home stations on both the benefits and drawbacks of the proposed new rules. “The challenge for kids at this age is to find the negative in something that they support,” says Tim. “They learned that listening to counter arguments can help you shore up your belief.” Teachers took on the role of the executive branch, either enacting bills into laws or vetoing them—sending them back to “Congress” for revision.

How did teachers ensure that ideas like “no school on Tuesdays” were not proposed as bills?  The Lower School mission—“take care of yourself, take care of others, take care of the environment”—served as a limiting factor. “This belief system permeates everything that students do,” says Tim. “Students are always using this language; in this case, it helped ensure that the draft bills were reasonable.”

Emergent curriculum

The concept of the student-directed “emergent curriculum” permeates all three Waynflete divisions, starting with the Reggio Emilia-influenced preschool program. Faculty members are always on the lookout for student interests that might benefit from further exploration at the program level, for a smaller group, or even one-on-one with individual students. How do teachers determine when the timing is right? “It is an art that complements the science of pedagogy, lesson development, and curriculum planning,” says Tim. “It’s built on the foundation of close relationships between teachers and students.”

So when students in Tim’s home station suggested the idea of creating their own government, he saw an opportunity to dive deeper with a teachable moment. Students appointed a three-member executive branch (the odd number allowed for tie-breaking) and a speaker of the house. Remaining students served as congress members charged with bringing up bills, finding co-sponsors, driving debate, and convincing the speaker of the house to hold votes. With Tim serving as the judicial branch, students successfully passed a bill to change the layout of a small room adjacent to their home station. The bill also included provisions for a “winter tree” to be erected (debate had revealed that some students don’t celebrate Christmas, so new language was found to create a sense of belonging for the whole community).

New laws, new rules

All four bills were enacted as laws. Snowballs may be used at recess, as long as new rules are respected (consent is required, nothing above the shoulders, and no snowballs if students in other Lower School programs are nearby). Students will be able to choose an alternate recess location one day per week; they will also use a limited budget to purchase new recess items, including balls, hula hoops, chalk, and bubbles. A “PJs at school” date will be selected in the near future. Additional bills have been recently passed, including one that calls for the creation of a student book recommendation display.

Students were thrilled to learn of another bill that had made national news: in Severance, Colorado, a nine-year-old had successfully overturned a centuries-old municipal regulation barring snowball fights.

Listen to an NPR segment on the Colorado regulation

Watch the Schoolhouse Rock! classic, “I’m Just A Bill”

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