My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 3 of 3)

In the previous installment, I overcame my apprehension at introducing the politicolors, and began to share student responses to political theory.  At one time, I had been worried about the abstract nature of such an approach, yet here they were truly excited to use colored pencils in their notes and making connections of which I couldn’t have dreamed.

I usually turn up the heat on critical thinking skills once students hit sixth grade, but here the fourth and fifth were sweeping off my socks.  I also found that they were a bit more realist than I had been at that age.  This was saying something, in that our police resource officer always comments on our kids’ intelligence, yet inevitably adds that they are oh-so sheltered.

Maybe it had been our cool conversations on the state of nature, but the students saw plenty of disparity between the real world and American ideals.  Whether it be a news story or their own experiences in Detroit, the kids knew that the world wasn’t completely shiny and happy.  Delving further, we explored why they thought that was; if anything, what prevented the notion of Utopia?  Could government make people be better?

Somewhere in here, I suggested that the boxes might move.  Very quickly, A., my sole sixth-grader, realized that if the blue box grew outward, it would effect the red.  “The government would control the people,” he said.  “It would be a dictatorship.”  I offered up several bows.

Fifth-grader J. referenced an earlier conversation on perfection, born out of the wording of the Preamble.  J.’s attentive and he recalled the Aryans, commenting that pushing for a utopia can lead in the opposite direction.

C’mon, I told them.  Our blue box wants right.  We’re America.  (It didn’t come off so sarcastic.)  Couldn’t our government be trusted to mandate good behavior?  Debate ensued with no clear consensus.

Conversely, could the red box push as well?  Would it if the blue box began to grow too big for its britches?  What happened if the red box pushed back so totally that it obliterated the blue?  Didn’t Aristotle also warn of democracy run amok, of mob rule?  What was the consequence of no government?

The model proved itself remarkably effective.

In the end, the students understood quite well when I added the purple box.  The notion of limits had arrived, just before the tug of war ended with a crash.

The boxes also helped in another way.  One of the trickiest concepts to impart to the kids had been the differences between a constitution and a constitutional government.  Once they could contrast a purpleless system with a checked one, they easily got it: all governments had a make-up, but not all of them had a healthy one.  This allowed for a connected conversation to propaganda, including places on our maps with “Republic” in their name yet not in their nature.

Our unit’s culminating activity brought out another surprise: Legos!  Using a photo of James Madison’s temple at Montpelier,  we first discussed the importance of order and balance in architecture.  From week one, the kids had been tickled that the structure doubled as a refrigerator.  Now, we went beyond that still-important function to other aspects of the temple’s order, then on to its elegant balance.  Since we’ve been studying the middle ages in history, the students noted parallels with the great cathedrals as well as St. Anne’s , a  cruciform church we’d visited downtown.


We connected the temple with We the People‘s lesson on the contributions of the Romans to republican government.  Using the computer, we accessed photographs of Washington, DC, then discussed the great buildings as well as the city plan.

Finally, I dumped thousands of building blocks into the center of the room and offered only this direction: build a structure that is balanced and ordered and be prepared to explain how it is each.  Again, I’ve got to exclaim the merits of teaching middle school students.  Yeah, I’m spoiled by small class size (too small with the Michigan economy!), but middle years kids have a ton of energy and they are not so socially focused that they’ve lost their excitement for learning.  The colored pencils elicited ooos and ahhs, but the Legos–in more ways than one–raised the roof.

house1 windmill1 robot bike-factory yellow-pyramid factory

What impressed me is that many kids didn’t sacrifice creativity in the process of fulfilling the parameters.  Some of the creations had elaborate stories which added to their order, such as G.’s–a factory that ran on pizza grease while it created hats.  This activity goes beyond its initial success; it’s an investment in future We the People lessons.  We’ll come back to the ideas of balance and order, and the kids will feel invested as I relate ideas to their structures.

As I said in the beginning, for me, this material has to unfold as a story.  So, I’ll share with you that I’ve already got the climax of our tale.

For, after all of the students had gone, I created my own structure.  It’s a pyramid of Legos: one with the politicolors stepping upward.  Ready to emerge upon the given day–timed smartly with Unit 6, I hope–the seventh color.  From the structure’s center, with each of my student’s names inside.  Hokey?  Hell, I’m glad I can get away with it.  I’m incredibly lucky to teach kids that are yet open enough that this moment can affect them.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress…

politipieces politipyramid lego-boxes

(I don’t believe there are purple Legos…  Is that because Denmark’s a constitutional monarchy?  ; )

The politicolors are another investment.  We’ll continue to reference them as we delve into the American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Philadelphia Convention; the boxes are that powerful a model.  And, although I’m too restrained to declare them a resounding success, I’m damn giddy to see so much of my own excitement reflected in my students’ eyes and all-new thoughts hatching from their minds.

I’ve been fortunate to have dozens of my students return to our school’s annual picnic and remind me how much our little school has shaped them, how they hit the ground running.  I’ve felt vindicated for teaching toward the older students, offering what Will aptly terms a “surplus of knowledge”.  Now, though, I know that given the right structure, even fourth-graders can be mighty theorists; and these kids, they’re capable of flying.

As opposed to last year’s tact, the key lies far from the text.  In fact, the key is the key itself.  That is, creating a classroom open enough for plot twists to be interpreted, for new lines to be added to the script.

What I hope I’ve done is create a much more federalist classroom.  Whether through the construct of the National Academy or the concrete pillars of Madison’s temple, I’ve allowed myself to leave more space.  It’s not about locks on knowledge and thought; for, even elementary students can supply the mind to support (and lift!) the ceiling, if we allow them the will.

This year, that’s what I’ve so far learned.  To get there, I just had to get over the fear of trusting myself even more.

Thanks for sitting by the fire,


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