Third-graders learn about government



Thanks to a pilot oral history project, a local third-grade class now has a pretty advanced understanding of political science. The only problem: it seems some forms of government are quite a mouthful.

“It was really cute — they couldn’t pronounce ‘monarchy,’ so they kept saying ‘monachracy,’” said Mary Ellen Leuver ’06, one of five Yale students helping with the project at Dwight Elementary School. “Even now, they still say ‘monachracy.’”

Spearheaded by Dwight public school intern Natalie Spicyn ’05, the project aims to teach the third-graders about government by having them interview school and local leaders. The project — part of a school-wide focus on history and civic involvement — is designed to help the students understand the responsibility and power that comes with citizenship, Spicyn said.

“[It gets] kids to start understanding, at a young age, that they have a voice and that they’re empowered in certain ways,” she said. “[They] get a general gist that they already have certain ways they have made decisions, and that there are other avenues through which they affect change.”

After starting by interviewing the most familiar variety of elected officials — the class’ student of the month and student representatives– the third-graders will soon move on to Dwight’s adult leadership: principal Bernadette Strode, as well as the school’s librarian, parent liaison and head custodian. After that, Spicyn said, she hopes the class will be able to interview city government officials and even take a trip to City Hall.

Leuver, Spicyn and the three other Yale students involved in the project are helping the third-graders discuss civic concepts, formulate questions and conduct interviews. Pronunciation difficulties aside, Leuver said, the class so far has been “very eager.”

“They get to exert some kind of power in being able to be the interlocutor for people in their community, and I think they understand that,” Leuver said. “They’re already really excited about it.”

Though oral history and civics lessons may seem a strange combination, said New Haven Oral History Project Director Andy Horowitz, the two are actually closely linked. Horowitz, who helped Spicyn and teacher Shelby Irwin develop the project, said the idea of democracy is fundamental to the philosophy behind oral history.

“Oral history has a way of stimulating democracy because you say, well, the people in the newspaper are not the only important people to learn about when you learn about the past,” Horowitz said. “Oral history lets you learn about people who are not represented well in the historical record. You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history –this is a really important thing to teach students.”

After the interviews are finished, the tapes will be kept in Dwight’s library. Both Horowitz and Spicyn said this will help fulfill another goal of the project — to help the students understand their own role in shaping and preserving history.

“We introduced it to them as them creating a time capsule,” Spicyn said. “We asked them, ‘What if 80 years from now, third-graders want to know what it’s like to be a student here?’ — They’re going to have this tape recording, and it’s going to go into the library [so] people in the future can find out about them.”

Echoing Spicyn, Horowitz said the fact that the tapes will become a permanent part of the school’s collection is “great, because then the library is not just for people you’ve never heard of.”

Though this project will end at the close of the semester, Spicyn said the program may continue in other manifestations. She is working on turning the class discussions she’s led into a seven-unit civics curriculum for other Dwight teachers to use, and she said she hopes Dwight students eventually get a chance to interview other adults they know. She and Horowitz said they hope that by interviewing their grandparents and other community members, the students will see how everyone is involved in history.

“I hope it lets them feel that ‘Oh, my voice is part of history too,’” Horowitz explained. “That’s what democracy is about — it’s empowerment. I hope that they will learn in doing interviews that they, and their family and their community, are part of history with a capital ‘H.’”

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