2013-06-17

By Jonny Yao '13, AmeriCorps member serving with the Mattahunt Elementary School team

Occasionally, students in the Starfish Extended Day program would wrap up their homework before the end of homework help hour or be in blissful position of not having any homework on a given day. When this happened, my teammates and I believed in seizing any moment as an additional learning opportunity. In brainstorming a project that combined history, civic learning, art, and writing skills, it was my intent for our students to become heads of state.


When I witnessed fifth-graders spontaneously arguing over on whether  a representative democracy, absolutism, or constitutional monarchy was the best form of government for them, I knew that they were engaged with their learning.


Beginning with a declaration of independence from a fictional empire, they formed their own countries. Our students worked hard making maps, flags and constitutions for their fledging civilizations. In doing so, they took the first steps of forming an identity for these sovereign states and created government structures. They built national ideals in the laws they established: Troy* and “X-Canadia” outlawed fighting in its constitution. Michelle* and “South Gravity Falls” made it a national right for all citizens to live in a large house. And when I witnessed fifth-graders spontaneously arguing over on whether a representative democracy, absolutism, or constitutional monarchy was the best form of government for them, I knew that they were engaged with their learning.

South Gravity Falls Dragon Island

Country Name: South Gravity Falls
Constitutional Excerpt: “The people have a right to be respected.”

Country Name: Dragon Island
Chief Export: Water from the Fountain of Youth
Motto: Safety for All

Thanks to the lessons of Mattahunt Bucks (a school-wide currency rewarding good citizenship and used to purchase prizes) the students were familiar with the basic needs of a successful economy. With this knowledge, they chose certain goods from their countries to export so that their governments could maintain trade relations. Those goods came in the shape of resources as simple as gold to the wondrous waters of the Fountain of Youth.

What they did with the revenue afterwards also demonstrated their remarkable knowledge and curiosity. With very little guidance on how they could use their treasury, we saw fifth-graders balancing defense budgets, social supports, and putting a high priority on advance education in their nations. Beyond that, many also admitted that they would also love a mansion with their role as head of state.


Our students’ investment in learning about how they could make their countries better places was an inspiration to my entire team.


Since I introduced the project, whenever students finished their homework, they asked about the next step in nation-building. Other assignments established their founding stories and foreign policies with neighbors. A war erupted between three nations—it ended when the belligerents agreed to trade graphic novels in a peace treaty. Later in the year, some students rethought their governments, which led to mini-lessons about elections and, in Alex's* case, revolution. Perhaps it was the idea that this project was reflected the students’ visions of an ideal world, but our students’ investment in learning about how they could make their countries better places was an inspiration to my entire team. One day, I hope they move to see their visions become realities. But, for now, I relish the privelege of serving these future leaders.

*Name changed to protect student privacy

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