Home News At This Museum Sixth Graders Learn Lessons in Democracy

At This Museum Sixth Graders Learn Lessons in Democracy

by Staff

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

Feelings were running high as everyone lobbied their representatives. The constituents had only a few minutes to make their arguments, and it seemed no one was listening. At one point, someone tried to unseat a delegate.

This was politics at work at the New-York Historical Society’s democracy program, with 21 sixth graders from Middle School 244 in the Bronx.

The setting was the museum’s Skylight Gallery. The question at hand, relayed by Emily Bumgardner, a museum educator, was this: Given the choice between weekly tests and no homework or daily homework and no tests, what would the students opt for?

The voters were quickly separated into groups of four.

Valerie Decena and Lixander Delacruz, both 12, argued heatedly; Valerie preferred homework, saying it meant less stress. Lixander wanted tests, saying it meant less work.

“I don’t like tests or homework,” complained Miranda Nuñez Polanco, also 12.

It was passionate, confusing and at times contradictory. There were those who felt their voices weren’t heard, some who didn’t like any of the options and a few who thought the system worked just fine.

In other words, it was much like policymaking in the real world.

Welcome to the Tang Academy for American Democracy, a free program — including transportation — offered by the historical society, primarily to fifth- and sixth-grade New York City public school students.

The four-day, four-hour program attempts to answer “three big questions,” said Leah Charles-Edouard, associate director of school programs for the museum. “What is democracy? How does it work? And how do we make change in a democracy?”

It includes mini-lessons and activities emphasizing ancient Athens and the colonial United States, as well as modern-day activism, integrated with the museum’s exhibitions.

“What really motivated us to do this program was looking at statistics on the percentage of young people that voted in the 2016 election,” said Louise Mirrer, the museum’s president and chief executive. Many said “that democracy really didn’t matter to them very much — they didn’t really care whether they lived in democracy or not. And those numbers seem to be rising.” The issue is especially timely, given the challenges to democracy around the globe.

The program started in 2019, went online during the pandemic and resumed in-person in 2021, she added.

There are now three versions: on-site, online for students all over the country, and in the schools, taught by museum educators, Ms. Charles-Edouard said. The museum also offers professional development for teachers to use the curriculum in their classes.

Since 2021, almost 6,000 students have taken part in the academy.

Typically, such a program would be aimed at high school students, who are closer to voting age, but museum officials chose younger students because research shows that it’s often in fifth or sixth grade “when kids decide to get into school or hate school forever,” Ms. Charles-Edouard said.

So far, 75 sixth graders from M.S. 244, also known as the New School for Leadership and the Arts, have attended the academy.

For the 21 students from Stephen Dowd’s social studies class, who participated in late March, the second day came with togas.

About a quarter of the students donned them over their clothes, ready to embrace the spirit of ancient Greece. Others, like Isaiah Fernandez, 12, weren’t interested.

“It’s not my style,” he said.

Asher Kolman, the other museum educator teaching the class, laid out a quandary: Greece is at war, and there’s not enough money for both the arts and sports, so the students have to vote on which to keep.

Kelvin Garcia, a toga over his hoodie, asked, “What will music and painting help them when it comes to a war?” And won’t they need sports to keep fit? he wondered.

“Interesting,” Mr. Kolman responded, noting that music may “make people living in Athens less anxious.” He added, “Or maybe it means that people are in a better mood or mental state when they go to war.”

When it was time for the vote, sports won.

“I love music and sports,” Miranda said. “I want to be a singer and a dancer, but I always love basketball. I voted for music, but sports won because the boys really wanted sports.”

Making the decision, she said, “is harder than I thought.”

After performing their civic duty, the students received a brief lesson on how democracy doesn’t necessarily mean everyone gets to participate. In ancient Athens, Mr. Kolman noted, only 10 percent of the people actually had the right to vote — women, nonnative Athenians and enslaved people were excluded.

To illustrate how small 10 percent was, he passed out Popsicle sticks. Two were marked green. Only those students with the green sticks — out of the whole class — could actually vote.

After a break for granola bars, the students returned to learn about representational democracy.

On the way to their second vote, the class stopped at one of the permanent exhibits. When asked if they knew what it was, Kelvin shouted out, “Barack Obama’s office!”

More specifically, the Oval Office, with a jar of jelly beans representing the Reagan era. They were then invited to sit in the chair behind the Resolute Desk. At first the boys rushed in, then some girls worked up their courage. Miranda said that maybe after a career as a dancer, she would run for president.

Then came the homework versus test vote. Of the five representatives, four voted for tests — despite Valerie’s intense lobbying — and one for homework.

But Isaiah’s constituents weren’t happy. They had sent him to vote for homework, but he had followed his colleagues and approved tests.

“I was confused,” Isaiah said.

Politics, right?

Because the students have about six years before they’re eligible to vote, “we couldn’t just finish this with OK, go vote,” said Allyson Schettino, the museum’s director of curriculum and instruction.

“So, our final days are teaching them about ways to participate in a democracy when you can’t vote,” she said.

“We look at examples from the civil rights movement, from the Chinese exclusion resistance movement, Indigenous activists in the United States, and we look at how they march, how they petition, give speeches. We’re trying to ask, ‘What can we do to make sure we’re improving our American system?’”

A new wing, scheduled to be completed in 2026, will allow the museum to serve thousands more New York public school students and their teachers annually through the Tang Academy for American Democracy, Dr. Mirrer said.

At the end of the lessons, the students practiced printmaking in the lead-up to the final day, where they would make posters.

Rainer Valentin, 11, chose to write, “Your Voice = Power.” He wasn’t familiar with what democracy was before the academy, he said, and “I’m still learning about it.”

Asked if he would now urge people he knew to vote, he said: “It would depend on why they don’t vote. If they say it’s because they don’t want to, I would say you have to. Your voice equals power.”

You may also like