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Civics - Unit 0 (Introduction)

Learning to Participate

Introduction: Unit Overview

This kick-off unit engages students with the course, helping them understand what the course is about, what they will do in the course, how they will work together as a class, and how their work will be assessed. The unit includes five lessons. The first lesson focuses students’ attention on making change for the common good; it introduces the course’s Essential Questions and helps students “unpack” the questions through a vocabulary-development exercise.

The second lesson engages students with two of the curriculum’s key concepts: power and participation. Students take part in activities around each concept and then generate questions they hope to answer over the course of the Participate course. A key component of inquiry-based instruction is allowing space for students to develop their own questions. This lesson is the first of many opportunities students will have to ask their own questions throughout this course. Thus, the lesson lays a foundation for the skill of asking questions and offers an opportunity for you to show students that you are invested in their questions. 

The third lesson explores identity. Students are introduced to young Chicago-area activists and think about aspects of identity represented by these young people. They explore their own identities and consider how identity might influence the ways in which they participate as powerful civic actors.

The fourth lesson focuses on building a classroom community that will support the collaboration essential to success in the course. While we recognize that many teachers like to establish classroom rules/agreements on the first day, we suggest waiting until students have learned what this class will be like and gained some knowledge of their classmates. These insights will help them generate agreements important to the kind of classroom community necessary for Participator’s success. These agreements, when practiced over time, become the norms for the classroom.

The last lesson in the unit introduces the course assessment, including a Timeline of Learning tool they will use throughout the course. Keeping their Timelines of Learning up-to-date throughout the course will be one key to students’ completing the course assessment successfully; we therefore urge you to set aside time for students to work on the Timelines throughout the course.

Lesson 1: Introducing the Participate Course

This lesson begins with an introductory activity designed to help students get to know each other and themselves. After being introduced to the purpose of the course, students take part in a Wave activator to identify changes they would like to make to our community or democracy. A brief simulation introduces how decisions are made in different forms of government. Students take part in a vocabulary-development exercise to help them unpack the course Essential Questions. Finally, they learn about the structure of the course and predict what they will learn. 


  • What knowledge, skills, and dispositions (intention to act) does a person need in order to be a powerful civic actor in our democracy and in our community?
  • How will I use my rights and responsibilities to promote the common good in our democracy and community?

  • Democracy is a system of government based on big ideas. One of these ideas is that the power of government comes from the people. Another is that people must be informed and participate for our democracy and government to work.
  • Individuals in a democracy have many rights. These rights allow them to exercise their power. But these rights are limited, and some individuals’ rights are more limited than others.
  • Individuals and organizations work outside government to promote the common good in our community. The work they do reflects people’s different ideas of what is important in our society.
  • People’s identities shape the choices they make as powerful civic actors. These choices include the issues they use their personal power to affect and the strategies they use to influence those issues.

Part 1: Introducing Each Other and the Course Goal

1) Start of class, write the following instructions on the board:

Fold the piece of cardstock lengthwise (like a hot dog). On one side, write your name big enough for others to read it. 

On the other side write three things about yourself that you would be willing to share:  

  •     A positive trait people say you have
  •     A national, community, or school leader, today or in history, who inspires you
  •     Something in the news that makes you happy or angry

2) As students come into the classroom, greet each student and hand each a sheet of card stock and a marker, pointing out the instructions on the board. You may want to remind students to keep their answers classroom-appropriate and let them know that they will be sharing what they write with the class.

3) When students have had an opportunity to complete their name plates, ask them to stand in a circle, holding their name plates where everyone can see them. Ask a student volunteer to be the first to introduce themselves and share one of the things about themselves from the back of their name plate, explaining that you’ll go around the room clockwise from the person who starts.  Allow a few seconds for students to decide which item they’ll share about themselves and then ask for a volunteer to get the introductions started.

4) After everyone has introduced themselves, ask the students to gently toss their name plates into the center of the circle. Then have each student pick up a name plate other than their own. Students’ task now is to identify whose name plate they have, share one other thing about the student from the name plate, and return the name plate to its “owner.” 

5) Discussion Questions: 

  • Based on this activity, what’s one thing you have in common with at least one other student in the class?
  • What’s one thing  someone said that you would like to know/learn more about because it is different than what you think or believe? 

6) Tell students that, in this class, who they are as individuals matters. What they have in common with others and their ability to talk to people they disagree with are also important. Why? Because in this class,  they will be learning how to be powerful civic actors--that is, people who know how to make change for the better, in our democracy and our community. Making change in a democracy means that all voices must be heard--and not everyone agrees about the best way to solve our problems. Students’ voices and ideas will be a cornerstone of the class. They will be discussing controversial issues--issues on which people don’t have the same views. They will be trying to persuade others, in writing or orally, but also learning how to find common ground. 

Part 2: Thinking about Change and How to Achieve It

1) Acknowledge that the class is based on the idea that knowing how to make change for the better is important. 

Do you think there are things that need to change in our school, neighborhood, city, state, or country? (All answers accepted.) 

2) Tell students that you are going to do a Wave Activator to bring out some of their ideas about change that is needed--or why it is not needed if that is their view. Explain that a Wave is a way to hear a lot of good ideas really quickly. You are going to give students a prompt; they will have a few moments to think about their response. Then you’re going to challenge them to respond in just a few words and to stay on their toes so everyone in the class will have a chance to respond in just two minutes. Responses should be just a word or phrase.  You will ask someone to volunteer to start and responses will go around the desk clusters (or up and down rows, around the circle, etc.).  Students can pass but you will come back to them; it’s fine to say the same thing as another student.

3) Present the prompt:  Based on your experience--in your school or neighborhood, in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the United States--what is something you believe needs to be changed? Give students a few moments to think or write down their reactions; then ask for a volunteer to start the Wave, coming back to students who pass at the end.  

4)  Discussion Questions:

  • What stood out to you in the class answers? Did you agree or disagree with most of the ideas? 
  • Did you notice any patterns in the answers?
  • What was participating in the Wave like? Was it easy or challenging?
  • If your ideas are very different from the ideas of your classmates, will that affect your participation? What would help you feel free to speak up? 

5)  Let’s dig into the changes people suggested in the Wave. 
  • What changes did you hear suggested that sounded interesting, worth exploring, and/or worthwhile?  
  • Compile a list on the board as students respond.

6) Explain that students are going to see some different ways of making decisions by deciding in small groups which change listed by the class is most important. The class will be organized into four groups and each group will use a different way of deciding which change is most important. The groups are going to make their decisions one at a time so everyone can see the different methods being used.  
7) Students will be organized into four groups and give each group one of the versions (A-D) of  the Making a Decision Cards. Give the groups a few minutes to read through their directions and decide how they will start their decision-making demonstration for the class. Each group can take no more than 10 minutes to reach a decision. 

8) Have Group A come to the front of the classroom and try to reach a decision using the process described on their version of the handout. When they have finished, draw students’ attention to the four Signs:  Types of Decision-Making (Simple definitions) and ask which type of decision-making Group A represented. 

9) Continue the process with Groups B, C, and D, each time having students identify the type of decision-making demonstrated by the group. 

10) Tell students you would like them to stand by the sign or raise your hand in an online setting, that fits each description you read; allow time for students to explain why they chose the decision-making method they did:
  • Which decision-making method was most efficient/quickest?
  • Which decision-making method seemed most chaotic or disorganized?
  • Which decision-making method left a lot of people unhappy?
  • In which decision-making method did you feel heard? 
  • Which decision-making method did you like best?
11) Discussion Questions: 
  • What type of government does the United States, Illinois, and Chicago have?
  • Why do you think this form of decision-making was adopted by these governments? 

12) The Civics curriculum will help us understand how to influence decision-makers in our local, states, and federal government.

13) Open the President Obama Talks about Change Handout and answer the Critical Thinking Question: What is change?
Signs:  Types of Decision-Making (Simple definitions)

Totalitarianism or Authoritarianism

Decisions are made by one person


Decisions are made by a small group of (usually wealthy) people

Direct Democracy 

Decisions are made by all the people

 Representative Democracy 

The people elect representatives to make decisions for them

Part 3: Previewing the Essential Questions and Course Content

1) Review the Essential Questions below or from the top of Unit 0. Your student coursework will be organized around these two Essential Questions.  


  • What knowledge, skills, and dispositions (intention to act) does a person need in order to be a powerful civic actor in our democracy and in our community?
  • How will I use my rights and responsibilities to promote the common good in our democracy and community?

2) The Essential Questions are packed with vocabulary words that you may not be familiar with.  Let's identify these words.
In your own words, what do the following words mean (one by one)?  
knowledge, skills, dispositions, intention, civic actor, democracy, community, rights, responsibilities, common good. 

3) Refer to your own definitions and definitions below as we proceed through the lessons. 

4) You are going to be investigating  the Essential Questions by looking at several different topic areas. Please open the Participate at a Glance handout and notice how it shows the units of the course, with “Big Ideas” for each. Please complete the predictions column of the handout.

5) Do you have any questions about the units or how the course will progress? How do you think each unit might progress each of you to become powerful civic actors in the future?
Essential Questions: Key Word Definitions
Knowledge: Facts, information, and ideas acquired by a person through experience or education.
Skills: Abilities needed to complete specific tasks. 
Dispositions: Tendencies to act in a particular way.
Intention: Plan to take action.
Civic actor: Person who takes part in the public life of a community.
Democracy: System of government based on the ideas that the power of government comes from the people and that people must be informed and participate for the government to work. 
 Community: A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
 Rights: Freedoms or protections to which an individual is legally entitled.
 Responsibilities:  Things one is required to do as part of a job, role, or legal obligation.
 Common good: What benefits all people rather than the individual or a small group.

Closure:  Let's revisit the name plate exercise at the start of this lesson and unit.  

Discussion Questions:

  • Can you recall any specific positive personal traits from your classmates that could be useful in them becoming a powerful civic actor or a leader that works for the common good?
  • Can you think of an example from the current news (or the news of past year) that illustrates any of the ideas discussed in this lesson? Example: types of decision making, types of government, democracy, common good, authoritarianism, civic actor, rights, etc. 



The following resources can be used to extend and deepen the learning in this unit. 

Facing History and Ourselves, Facing History curricula include a number of lessons designed to help students understand identity, their own and others, easily accessible using a search on the keyword identity

Mikva Challenge, This Chicago-based organization sponsors a variety of activities that directly engage young people in “doing democracy.” 

Responsive Classroom, The Center for Responsive Schools provides resources for developing the classroom community and implementing culturally responsive teaching. 


Teaching Tolerance, Teaching Tolerance magazine, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has many lessons on identity, as well as on power. The site is easily searchable.   

Who Rules?, iCivics is a nonprofit launched by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It provides numerous free games and lessons, including this one on forms of government.

Lesson 2: Power and Participation

This lesson introduces two concepts key to understanding the individual’s role in a democracy: power and participation. Students generate questions about power and then watch an animation that introduces some of the complexities of power--its sources, how it is used, and what individuals can do to maximize how effectively they use their own power. Students then generate questions about participation and are introduced to three types of participants in democracy.


  • What knowledge, skills, and dispositions (intention to act) does a person need in order to be a powerful civic actor in our democracy and in our community?
  • How will I use my rights and responsibilities to promote the common good in our democracy and community? 


  • Democracy is a system of government based on big ideas. One of these ideas is that the power of government comes from the people. Another is that people must be informed and participate for our democracy and government to work. 
  • People’s identities shape the choices they make as powerful civic actors. These choices include the issues they use their personal power to affect and the strategies they use to influence those issues.

Part 1: Exploring Power

1) Please take a moment to recall earlier discussion(s) regarding change and some of the change you would like to see in our communities and our democracy. 

Discussion Questions:

  • What is power?
  • How does power relate to making change?

2) Create “Questions about Power” chart with students. Take a few moments to think about: What questions do you have about power? Let's think about the question(s) that you most want to know the answer(s) to. You will be sharing your top question in a “whip around,” in which each student will share as we go around the room. Don't worry if your question has already been shared, that just means it was a good question. 

3) We will be coming back to these questions throughout the course and we will be either noting when we’ve answered a question or adding to the list. Note that it is not necessary for these questions to have answers at this point. The class will be uncovering the answers throughout the course. 

4) Let's continue to chart the "Questions about Power". Do you as an eighth-grader have power? What is your evidence? (Accept all answers.)

5) We are going to watch an animation. Open the Viewing Guide for How to Understand Power Handout and take notes on key ideas from the animation. This animation has some complicated ideas and it’s okay if you don’t understand everything; there is even a spot on the viewing guide to make notes of things you don’t “get.” As you watch, you should write down questions about power that come up for them in their notebooks.

6) Watch the TedEd: How to Understand Power animation.  The animation is just over 7 minutes long. While brief, it presents complex ideas. We will stop at 3:09 and 4:43 to check for understanding. Please share the first three rows of the Viewing Guide for How to Understand Power Handout.

8) Debrief - Discussion Questions:

  • Did the animation raise any new questions you would like to the “Questions about Power” chart? 
  • Discuss the questions on the viewing guide. Do any of the answers to the questions in the viewing guide address any of students’ questions on the “Questions about Power” chart.
  • How was power defined in the animation? Do you think this is a good definition of power? How might you refine it?
  • Which source of power is most interesting or important in your view? Why?
  • Do the laws of power help you understand how power works? What questions do you have about power’s role in everyday life?
  • In the United States, have we done a good job of creating rules and institutions to keep individuals or groups from getting too much power? Give examples to support your answer. 
  • What are the sources of an individual’s power to make positive change in our democracy and community? 
  • What was the most important thing you learned from the animation? Which idea would you most want to share with your parent, guardian, older sibling, or other adult? 
  • What questions have we answered fully? What questions have we answered partially?
  • What powers would you add to the list based on the video?

9) Open the Understanding the People’s Power handout and review the instructions. Students are to share the most important thing they learned from the animation with an adult family member or adult. At the same time, they should ask the adult for one example of how they have tried to make change in our community or democracy.
Part 2: Exploring Different Ways People Use Their Power to Participate
1) What did you learn from the adults you talked to? How did the adults react to the ideas from TedEd: How to Understand Power animation? What civic actions did your adult participate in? Let's list the examples of the civic actions that adults shared.

2)  Questions about Participation - Discussion Questions: 
What do you think is meant by shareholder advocacy? (all answers accepted) 
  • How does what you have learned about adults using their power connect to the ideas about power presented in the video? 
  • After watching the video and talking with adults and other students about power, do you think you have power that you didn’t think about before? Explain. 
  • Has looking at power changed your thinking on whether you have power? Why or why not?
  • What questions should we add? Did we find the answers to any questions? Did you learn any new power that eighth-graders have that we should add?
  • In what ways can eighth-graders exercise their power and participate in civil action?

3) Scholars who have studied how people use their power have described three types of participants in democracy. Read over the Three Types of Participants in a Democracy visual below.  One is not more important or more powerful than the other and all three types work to solve problems and make our democracy and community better.  Let's go back to the discussions you had with an adult and their participation in civil action.  Were their actions done by personally responsible, participatory, or justice oriented participants, or more than one type of participant?

 Three Types of Participants in a Democracy

Personally Responsible  

Personally responsible participants have good character. They are honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community. Example Action: Contributes food to a food drive.


These participants are active. They take leadership positions within community and government groups. They work within the system to make the system better.
Example Action:  Helps organize a food drive
 Justice Oriented

Justice oriented participants look at the underlying causes of problems. They question how our society works. They take action to change the system when it is unfair to some people. 

Example Action:  Researches why people are hungry and takes action to solve the problem’s root causes. 

4) You are going to have an opportunity to further develop your understanding of the types of participant by taking part in a card sort activity. You will be organized into groups and each group will be given a set of Civic Action Cards and Civic Action Card Sort Organizer Handout

5) Debrief - Discussion Questions:

  • Did your group disagree on how to classify some of the actions? How did you resolve your disagreements? Could both points of view be correct?
  • What did you learn from the discussions in your small group? Do you understand the three types of participants better as a result of talking with your group?
  • As a class, discuss the following questions:
  • Do you think we need all three kinds of participants? Why or why not?
  • Which kind of participant do you most often see in day-to-day life? In the media? 
  • Could you be a personally responsible participant sometimes and a justice oriented participant at other times? Explain.
  • What kind of participant--personally responsible, participatory, or justice oriented--are you now? What kind of participant do you hope to become? What strengths do you have that will help you achieve that goal? What strengths do you need to develop? 
  • Challenge: Add any new question about participation or power.

Closure:  Think of a school problem and sketch one picture of you addressing the problem using one of the different type of participants:  personally responsible, participatory, and justice oriented. Then write a sentence explaining which type of participant you think would be most effective addressing the problem and why. Be willing to share with the class. 


Lesson 3:  Exploring Identity

In this lesson, students are introduced to young Chicago-area activists and identify and categorize characteristics of those young people that are important to who they are as civic actors. Students identify aspects of their own identities that they think will be significant in becoming powerful civic actors and represent those aspects of their identities in self-portraits.


  • What knowledge, skills, and dispositions (intention to act) does a person need in order to be a powerful civic actor in our democracy and in our community? 
  • How will I use my rights and responsibilities to promote the common good in our democracy and community? 


  • People’s identities shape the choices they make as powerful civic actors. These choices include the issues they use their personal power to affect and the strategies they use to influence those issues.

1) Please take a moment to recall earlier lessons when we discussed changes you would like to see in our democracy and community. With that in mind: What would you say if a newspaper reporter came in and asked if young people can be effective in making change? 

2) In groups, think of examples that would help demonstrate to the reporter that young people are effective change-makers. The examples can be current or historic and can be specific individuals or larger movements in which young people were active. When we gather back as entire class, please share your examples as we make a list of examples titled Young People Can Effect Change.  

Fred Hampton (1948-1969)

3) We are going to add to our Young People Can Effect Change list of examples by looking at some examples of young people who are trying to make change in our democracy and community today. Studying these young people will help us understand the Enduring Understandings. 

4) Open the Profiles of Young Chicago-Area Activists handouts and read each of the brief profiles. Look for qualities, beliefs, and characteristics that influence the way these young people use their personal power. Underline any key details about each person that you think tells them something about the person’s qualities, beliefs, and characteristics. 

5) Let's take a moment to see young Chicago activists participating in civil action: 
6) Open the Categorizing Characteristics of Identity handout and complete in groups. Remember to look at the details/characteristics you underlined and place them in categories; some categories are provided on the handout, but you can also create your own categories if something you have noticed doesn’t fit in any of the existing categories. For example: “Let’s look at Diego Garcia. How many of you underlined that Diego believes young people can make change? Where would you put that? Yes, I’d put it in the “person’s beliefs” category too. It’s a personal belief that motivates Diego to act so it’s an important part of his identity as a civic actor.” 

7) Discussion Questions: 
  • Which characteristic(s) do you think most influenced how and why the young people chose to be involved with their government and community? 
  • Which characteristic(s) do you share with the young activists? 
8) Who Are You? I am going to ask you a few questions and I want you to write down some responses. You will not have to share your responses, the idea is just to get you thinking: 
  • Who are you? What are some of your qualities, beliefs, and characteristics? How do you identify?
  • What are your interests?
  • What communities do you belong to?
  • What issues are most important to you?
  • Have you ever tried to make change? What part of your identity encouraged you to act or not to act?

9) Self-Portrait Assignment:  You are going to create a self-portrait that conveys something important about your own personal identity. Note this is a very personal assignment and I hope that we have built a positive and comfortable environment where you are excited to share with your peers.
  • The self-portraits can be drawings, collages made from images in magazines, silhouettes with aspects of identity inside the silhouette, or cartoon-style drawings--encourage students to be creative as long as they convey something important about their identities through the portraits. Students should also write captions or titles for their self-portraits that draw attention to an aspect of their identities they wish to highlight. 


Debrief - Discussion Questions: 
  • How would you describe our class based on what you learned from the portrait display? Did you see any examples of power and participation?
  • What part of your identity do you think most defines who you are and how you view the world?
  • Did you learn anything new about any of your classmates?
  • Suggest that students can add to their portraits as they learn more about themselves and their power in this class.

Closure: Remember that this lesson is built to help you understand the:  

  • People’s identities shape the choices they make as powerful civic actors. These choices include the issues they use their personal power to affect and the strategies they use to influence those issues.

With that in mind, complete the following sentence:  The fact that I am ____________ [a part of your identity important to you] could affect how I use my power as a member of the community because  _________________________________. 


Lesson 4: Developing a Productive Learning Environment

In this lesson, students are briefly introduced to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Student Bill of Rights (SBOR) and discuss how it relates to the Participate course. CPS describes the Student Bill of Rights (SBOR) as “a living document that spells out the rights that every student has and that everyone, including students themselves, should respect. The SBOR can evolve with student sentiment, policy, and societal change.  This makes the SBOR important to talk about and an important aspect of its continued evolution.  Learning about the SBOR provides a foundation for considering the characteristics of the Participate classroom that students want to see. Students use a Popcorn Activator to identify the type of classroom they feel they need to succeed in this class. They then develop agreements to help ensure they create the kind of classroom community they want. These agreements, when practiced over time, become the norms of the classroom environment.

  • What knowledge, skills, and dispositions (intention to act) does a person need in order to be a powerful civic actor in our democracy and in our community? 
  • How will I use my rights and responsibilities to promote the common good in our democracy and community? 

  • Individuals in a democracy have many rights. These rights allow them to exercise their power. But these rights are limited, and some individuals’ rights are more limited than others.

CPS Student Bill of Rights (SBOR)

Part 1: Envisioning an Ideal Classroom Community/Learning Environment

Remind students that one of the Enduring Understandings  for this class focuses on the rights that people have and the limits on those rights. Review the idea that a right is a legally protected freedom a person has. Students have rights as residents of Chicago, Illinois, and the United States, and Universal Human Rights. They also have rights as students in a Chicago public school.

Project the Visual: Chicago Public Schools Student Bill of Rights Overview. Explain that a bill of rights is a formal declaration of people’s rights. Go over the five items to make sure students understand them.

Chicago Public Schools Student Bill of Rights Overview


Every student has rights. A right is a freedom or protection that a person has. Rights define what is allowed of a person or owed to a person.

Your rights are part of you regardless of your age, race, creed, color, gender, gender identity, gender expression, religion, national origin, citizenship/immigration status, weight, sexual orientation, physical and/or emotional condition, disability, marital status, or political beliefs. Your rights belong to you and cannot be threatened or taken away.

Every student has a right to:
  1. Free Public Education
  2. Speak, Advocate, Organize, and Participate
  3. Health, Nutrition, and Personal Care
  4. Fair Consequences
  5. Safe, Secure, and Supportive School Environment

Remind students of some of the distinctive features of this class: Students’ voices and ideas will be a cornerstone of the class. They will be discussing controversial issues with people with different points of view from their own. They will be collaborating with their classmates on a variety of projects and engaging with members of the larger community. They are not just going to be learning civics but also be engaged in civic life. They will be trying to persuade others, in writing and orally and will be learning how to find common ground. Then ask: Given the special nature of this class, which of the rights in the Student Bill of Rights might have special relevance to this class? (The right to speak, advocate, organize, and participate and the right to a safe, secure, and supportive school environment.)

  1. Tell students they are going to focus on defining what a safe, secure, and supportive school environment would mean for the Participate course. Making the work of Participate possible will require careful thought to what the classroom environment should be like. Explain that in order to hear what a lot of students think about the kind of classroom environment needed, students will be doing a Popcorn activator. Project the Popcorn Activator visual and go over the instructions with students. The prompt you are posing is: What words would describe the kind of classroom environment we need in this class? Students will have a minute to jot down some characteristics of a safe and productive classroom environment for the Participate course. When you give the signal to start, students will share out their responses without raising their hands. If two or more students talk at the same time, they should make eye contact to decide who will go first, then share out in that order. All students should share before any student shares for a second time. When there is a pause, students should take that time to think about what they’ve heard and make connections to their own ideas, perhaps preparing to share again. The Popcorn, so-called because ideas pop up all around the room, will go on for three minutes.

  2. Read the prompt again--What words would describe the kind of classroom environment we need in this class? Give students a minute to jot down some words. Then say “The floor is now open.” Let students know when there is a minute remaining, and count down the seconds at the end of three minutes.

  3. Debrief using such questions as the following:

  • What things that you heard stood out to you?

  • What patterns did you notice in the answers?

  • What are some things you realized or are wondering about?

  • How did you feel during the Popcorn discussion?

  • What did you find yourself thinking or doing during the Popcorn discussion?

  1. Thank students for their ideas and tell them that they are going to have an opportunity to focus  on what they think are the most important characteristics of a safe and productive learning environment for Participate. Direct students, working in pairs, to list the five most important characteristics of a safe and productive learning environment; these can be characteristics they heard during the Popcorn discussion or other characteristics they thought of as a result of that discussion. They can be physical characteristics or human characteristics.

  2. After a limited time—three or four minutes should be adequate—ask each pair to team up with another pair. The two pairs should compare lists and come up with five characteristics they can agree on.

  3. Have foursomes write their five agreed-upon characteristics on the board. As a class, identify and discuss similarities, selecting five to ten characteristics that the class can agree on.

  4. Ask students to think about the challenges of creating the classroom they have described and write a few ideas about how those challenges might be overcome. 

Part 2: Creating Classroom Agreements

  1. Explain to students that one way to maintain students’ ideal classroom learning environment is to agree on and follow a set of agreements. Agreements are different than rules; they set parameters for how individuals act.  Ask: In our class, do we act in a certain way because we have learned certain “how to behave at school” rules? Would we benefit from developing some agreements to support our classroom learning environment? (Answers will vary.) Point out that setting down some agreements for the class can be a good way to equalize power in the class.

  2.  Organize students into groups of four or five and ask each group to nominate three agreements that they think will be useful in a classroom doing the kind of work your students will be doing in this class. The agreements can be for students, the teacher, or both. They should write each agreement on a separate self-adhesive note and place it on the board. If students have difficulty coming up with agreements, you might provide some examples:

  • Be positive.

  • Speak your mind, but don’t dominate the conversation.

  • Agree to disagree.

  • Give the benefit of the doubt.

  • Assume good intentions.

  • Ask questions.

  • Converse, not convince.

  • Be present.

  • (For teacher) Really hear students before giving feedback.

  1. Read all the suggestions aloud to the class. If any are too vague to be helpful, ask the groups that nominated them to describe what each would look or feel like in practice; agree with students on edits to make the suggestion clearer.  If any are in conflict with safety concerns, school/district regulations, or your professional judgment about maintaining a productive and safe classroom, point out the conflicts and ask students what should be done when a right comes in conflict with another right or interest. While students will likely not be enamored of the idea, help them understand that rights do have limits.

  2. Continue the work on refining the list by asking:

  • Are there any suggested agreements your group thinks we should eliminate? Allow a minute or two for groups to confer, then solicit answers. Let the groups who originally suggested those agreements make the case for keeping them on the list and conduct a class vote on whether to keep or eliminate each of the agreements nominated for elimination. 

  • How could we categorize or group these agreements? Read several of the suggested agreements aloud and ask: What is the topic of this agreement? Could that be a category? 

Repeat that process until you have several categories, writing the categories on the board. Then quickly go through the rest of the suggested agreements asking students to categorize each, creating additional categories when needed. 

  1. Assign each category to one of the student groups, giving them all the self-adhesive notes in that category. Ask each group to come up with one or two well-stated agreements based on the notes you have given them. When they have consensus in their group, they should write the agreed-on agreements on the board.

  2. As a class, decide on the proposed agreements, editing if necessary. Ask: Will these agreements help us achieve the classroom environment we want? Is anything missing?

  3. Post the resulting list of agreements in the room. If students establish any agreements regarding teacher behavior to which you will be unable to adhere because of safety concerns or school/district regulations, explain the reasons to students. Work with students to develop a workable norm that will achieve a similar goal. 

  4. Congratulate students on their work creating the agreements and point out that the agreements won’t actually describe your classroom unless the agreements are followed on a regular basis (i.e., become norms). Ask: What ideas do you have for holding each other accountable for “living” the agreements? (Accept all answers.)  Tell students they are going to work in their table groups to solve some dilemmas that might arise in the classroom in terms of living by the agreements and come up with ideas with how to respond. Distribute the Using the Class Agreements handouts and assign one-third of the table groups to each situation. If groups solve their situations quickly, they can move on to another.

  5. Review the three situations, asking groups to share the strategies they came up with for holding the class accountable for living by the agreements. Post their strategies on the board. When you have reviewed all three situations, ask students which of the posted strategies could become general strategies for accountability. Use a similar process for narrowing down the strategies as was used to create the list of agreements. Post the agreed-upon strategies for accountability in the classroom with the agreements. 

Closure: Bring closure to the lesson by having students complete an exit ticket listing their favorite thing about the process of creating the class agreements and their least favorite thing about the process, as well as a concern they have about the agreements or the strategies for accountability.


As an assessment, ask students to reflect on the activities they took part in in this lesson, identifying skills they used in this lesson that could be applicable in working for the common good.


0-5 Introducing the Course Assessment 2 class periods

The assessment for this course has three tasks: (1) developing a list of what eighth-graders in Chicago should know, be able to do, and be committed to doing in order to be powerful civic actors in the community, (2) writing a persuasive essay to a specific audience, arguing how eighth-graders can most effectively use their power to participate in our democracy and community, and (3) analyzing a final case study of a powerful civic actor. This lesson introduces the three pieces of the assessment, engages students with a tool they can use to track their learning throughout the unit, and gathers some baseline data from students.