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Residency at New-York Historical Society Inspires Fifth Graders to Participate in Democracy

For four days in November, fifth grade students had the unique opportunity to call the New-York Historical Society home, gathering in the museum classroom and exploring its various galleries and exhibits. They were there as part of the Tang Academy for American Democracy (TAAD) residency program, an immersive experience meant to teach fifth and sixth graders about democracy—from ancient Athens to the present-day United States. Through experiential learning and hands-on activities, students examined how democracy has evolved since its initial founding and gained a better understanding of the importance of civic participation. 

Fifth grade social studies teacher Giovanni Pucci,
who organized the trip, envisioned the residency as a continuation of what happens all year in the classroom
at Calhoun. As he writes, the trip supported his efforts to help fifth graders analyze “how the governments and the people we study are living up to the promise [of democracy].” He hoped the trip would encourage students to “think critically about the systems of power around them, and the active role they have an opportunity to play in this one.” 

The three central questions students contemplated during their residency were: 1) What is a democracy?; 2) How does
a democracy work?; and 3) How do disenfranchised people make change in a democracy? The group began by studying ancient Athenian democracy and its early roots in America. This part stood out for Felix L. ’30, who stated he
knew a lot about government in the United States, but not
its Greek influence or the role played by individuals like
the Athenian statesman Pericles. As the days progressed, students continued their deep dive: examining the difference between direct and representative democracy, the significance of theater in ancient Athens, and the impact of activism
in the U.S. Their days were broken up by art sessions that allowed them to create symbols and slogans to depict the concepts they were studying, like voting rights and civic engagement. Woven into their lessons were conversations about how different groups of people experience democracy and how to advocate to make society more just. For their final presentation, students worked in groups to make an exhibit that captured the key takeaways from their time at TAAD. 

Throughout the four days at the museum, students worked collaboratively and made decisions as a group.
“It felt like we had our own democracy, and it was fun
to participate,” Téa P. ’30 recounts. This was best exemplified by an activity on the second day, when the group experienced firsthand the difference between direct and representative democracy. Students donned togas, stood in a circle, and voted on whether to get rid of all athletic activities or all arts activities in Athens. After voting, they learned that only two people’s votes counted, as just 10 percent of the population in ancient Athens 
was enfranchised. To simulate representative democracy, students broke into teams and used the game Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who their representative was; the representative then cast a vote on behalf of the entire team. Amaryllis M-B. ’30 noted her representative “voted for what he believed in, not for what we believed
in. . . . It’s not democracy.” As Giovanni observed, “It was powerful to see students realize, ‘I don’t have a voice in this.’” The activity offered students a window into the idea of exclusivity and how power functions in a democracy. 

Their time at TAAD impressed upon students the importance of democracy while highlighting the need for everyday citizens to get involved. After the trip, Amaryllis stated, “Democracy isn’t always fair, and you can change that, so when I grow up, I want to change that.” Though as fifth graders they’re too young to vote, Felix said the trip made him want to, “because it’s a right to vote and not everyone has that right.” Overall, their time at TAAD motivated students to find ways to have their voices heard— from protests to boycotts—and to “participate more in democracy,” added Téa. 

At school, fifth graders have already begun getting involved in the community around them through the Leadership class taught by Giovanni and Director of Community Service Learning Debbie Aronson ’79. According to Giovanni, the group has gone to soup kitchens, planted bulbs in the park and engaged in the participatory budgeting process for District 6. The goal of the Leadership class echoes the purpose of the TAAD residency, where students “begin to understand the direct impact our actions have on our fellow citizens.”

Learning beyond the classroom, whether through a field trip or volunteering, “helps kids to make connections between what we’re learning about the world outside and the community that actually exists,” Giovanni explains.
The concepts of democracy and civic participation aren’t just ideas in books; they involve “actual people’s lives, and our own lives and our own ability to make change.” Their time at TAAD reaffirmed for fifth graders that even children can make a difference in democracy, and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to get involved.