The Noise of Democracy

[From The Calhoun Chronicle, Winter 2017]

“I like the noise of democracy,” President James Buchanan once famously said. Buchanan’s quote resonates with Calhoun fifth grade students, who took a deep dive into the workings of democracy this fall as part of the fifth grade social studies class.

“One of the great things about Calhoun is that teachers have the freedom to change the curriculum to fit the time we’re living in,” says social studies teacher Andrew Marsiglio. “And during this election year, learning about civics was more relevant than ever.”

But for Calhoun’s fifth graders, civics education is more than a survey of democracy; it means learning to think for themselves.

The students began their studies with a look at the roles of the three branches of government and the process by which bills become laws. However, their exploration of government wasn’t limited to a mere memorization of the facts; in each project, students’ voices were brought to the forefront.

Civics education is more than a survey of democracy; it's about helping students learn to think for themselves.

For example, students were asked to come up with their own ideas for potential laws and then vote on which of their classmates’ bills should become law. Some students proposed bills that would have an impact on the entire country, such as a nationwide ban on smoking, while others focused on issues at the local level, such as a mandate promoting animal adoption. The goal was to have the students assume the mindset of a legislator while drawing connections between government and their own lives.

Each class began with a quote from a U.S. president, which students responded to through conversation and free writing. In addition to Buchanan’s words, other class favorites included quotes from Dwight D. Eisenhower and Chester Alan Arthur. This exercise was meant to give students the freedom to express their thoughts and open a dialogue on a variety of issues, such as the relationship between public and private life and whether or not a president is above the law.

The importance of meaningful dialogue in the democratic process was driven home in yet another group activity. Andrew made a series of contrasting statements, ranging from the generic (“I like salmon; I hate salmon”) to the political (“I like Hillary; I hate Hillary”). Each statement inspired strong emotions on the part of the students, from cheers to exclamations of “Eww.” The students were then asked to revisit their responses, going beyond their initial emotional reactions to more thoughtful explanations as to why they expressed a preference for or against each one.

When it came to forming their own political opinions, the fifth graders were continually challenged to dig deeper and not accept statements at face value. During one class, they examined a chart that represented the positions of the political parties on such hot issues as tax policy, labor and free trade. The names of the parties were kept hidden, and students were asked to put an x in the box representing the stance that they felt more comfortable with. They were surprised to find that, in the end, their viewpoints often crossed party lines.

In any discussion, Andrew notes that he is always careful to avoid sharing his own opinion on issues. “My job is to encourage [students] to think and do research independently,” he says. “That’s what Calhoun is all about.”

 “Being president is a responsibility you earn, to help the country be its best self.”

Bianca Ulrich, 5th grade


For their final big project before Election Day, students wrote an essay addressing the question “Would you want to be president?” By putting themselves in the shoes of our country’s leader, they found that their expectations for the qualities a president should possess emerged organically. It was a responsibility not taken lightly by any student. “Being president is a responsibility you earn, to help the country be its best self,” wrote Bianca Ulrich. Another fifth grader, Owen Llodra, admitted, “I would feel very pressured to do well if the country would want me to be in this position.”

The day after the election, fifth graders received a special visit from Calhoun seniors, who talked about the importance of voting. “I think it’s a really amazing thing to have the right to vote,” reflects fifth grader Molly Fox on the experience, adding, “it takes a lot of different people to help make America a better place.” Hearing from older students was a powerful reminder to fifth graders that one day they too will be voters—and they might even be Calhoun students when they cast their first ballot. “It was really mind-blowing for my class to see that Calhoun students who they know can actually vote, and to hear another voice besides mine,” says Andrew.

It would have been safe to avoid certain conversations during such a contentious election year, but Andrew never balked at helping the children in his class wrestle with the real issues. One can’t help but hear the echo of Buchanan when he adds, “I like my classroom to be noisy, to allow space for students to have questions and engage in conversation.” By learning to think critically and engage in dialogue, fifth graders developed the tools to not only understand the current election, but make important political decisions in the future. And when it does come time for these Calhouners to vote, there’s no doubt that they’ll be ready. They will have already practiced putting democracy in action right here in the classroom. 

We Asked 5th Grade Students
"Would You Want to Be President?" 

Main Building 3rd - 12th Grades 433 West End Avenue New York, NY 10024 212.497.6500

Robert L. Beir Lower School Building 2.8 Years - 2nd Grade 160 West 74th Street New York, NY 10023 212.497.6550

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