Learning About Citizenship from an Alderperson

Alderperson of the 43rd Ward Michelle Smith recently visited the school for a special Morning Ex with 3rd grade students to share more about her role in the larger context of our country’s democracy and each of their roles as citizens in the democratic process.

After taking the time to shake the hand of each student in attendance, Smith provided a broad overview of federal and state governmental structures to better acquaint students with the an alderperson’s work.

“Aldermen are the elected officials closest to the people they serve in our democracy,” Smith said. “There is nothing that stands between them and folks they serve in their communities.”

Smith noted that that Chicago is composed of 77 neighborhoods, but only 50 wards—meaning many wards include more than one neighborhood. Each ward is home to more than 50,000 Chicagoans, with a single alderperson elected to serve their needs.

In demonstrating the fundamental rule of democracy, majority rule while respecting the rights of the minority, Smith asked students to imagine a sleepover with seven friends, two wanting to dance and five wanting to read, and wondered how they might decide what to do. She worked with students to define the words “majority” and “minority” within the context of democracy, and by having students share their affinity for a range of sports and activities, she also demonstrated that most individuals could identify with the majority and the minority, depending on the topic at hand.

“Today you might be in a large group of students that doesn’t like baseball, but tomorrow you may be in a small group of students that likes soccer. In a democracy, you take turns and respect the rights of others because there will come a time when you are in a situation when you are in the minority,” she noted.

Smith then broached the topic of rules, asking students why they raise their hands in class. After agreeing that raising hands helps to maintain a sense of order in the classroom, Smith continued with the idea that, in a democracy, we create rules to help things function in a smooth and orderly way. Using stop signs, red lights and no-parking signs as examples, Smith shared that an essential part of democracy is working together to decide in general what types of behaviors are acceptable or not.

She offered, “In a democracy, we make decisions as a group about what is ok and what isn’t to keep order, and we have things like police and jails to help enforce these rules so we can spend our time doing things we like.”

Smith then turned her attention to the true power in a democracy—its citizens—pointing out that, through their direct participation in the democratic process, citizens help to make the rules and establish who is in the majority or minority position on an issue.

“Helping to make rules and vote for a majority is what makes a person a citizen. When you are a member of a democracy, you have the power to vote for the things we should be doing—the things we should be doing to protect the minority, which might be you some day, and to help make the rules.” The means by which citizens participate is voting, which is the number-one rule of being a citizen in the United States.

Smith then fielded questions from her 3rd grade audience, ranging from topics of street flooding, environmental sustainability, sanitation, snow shoveling and more, before leaving the school to return to her post serving the 43rd Ward.

All who participated in this special experience left with a better understanding of their alderperson’s role in the neighborhood and a citizen’s vital role in a fully functioning democracy.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.