Learning Democracy One Paragraph at a Time

[Canadians'] democratic literacy is so weak that suddenly concerned citizens are struggling and often failing to understand events in their capital.
James Travers, Canadians fail democratic literacy test,
Op-Ed, Toronto Star, Dec 04, 2008

Is it serendipity or synchronicity? I can never keep those two straight. And don't even get me started about all those idiotic hybrid "this-literacy" and "that-literacy" expressions.

Still, whatever and however it goes, we were working on "democratic literacy" this very morning in my class.

It was actually mid-morning, and everybody was yawning. I sat back and said to somebody, "Tell me about how government works."

This learner started with federal elections and ridings. They talked through parties and the selection of Prime Minister. Then they got a little stalled. So I - visual learner that I am - hopped up and drew out a small scale drew a small scale (mis-spelt!) parliament.

We were saying that the PM was chosen by, and served with the consent of, Parliament. I pointed out that since there were more Cs than Ls or Ns, it was the Cs' choice that counted. (I was skipping over the whole quasi-symbolic roll of the Governor-General, and feeling only slightly guilty about it.)

"But," somebody asked, "couldn't the other guys get together and vote that person out and chose their own prime minister?"

What? Oh! Quite by accident I'd drawn a minority government.

"Hey!" someone else said. "That's what's going on right now, isn't it? Whatever happened with that?"

Well, as luck would have it, there was something about that on the front page of today's paper.

It's worth repeating how accidental this all was... though I'm inclined to say something Churchillian like "Luck favours the prepared."*

In any case, we shared around our class copies of the paper, and I read aloud.

Thinking this was also a chance to explain how newspapers work, I labeled the masthead, title, sub-title (is that what they call it?), and by-line. Then we read and unpacked the first paragraph ("MP" means "member of parliament", "rookie" means it's his first time on the job...).

We read and and talked and unpacked. I drew more boxes and arrows. Somehow - I think via the term "budget" - we got talking about how government works through ministers and deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers and regional managers and....

We read and talked and unpacked. We mused about taxes and surpluses and deficits and who was a bigger crook: Paul Martin or John Chr├ętien? We talked about free trade versus tariffs, and why we shopped at the dollar store even though we probably shouldn't. And how come some people were allowed to go on strike and some people weren't. (And, what does that mean, exactly, "go on strike"?)

We talked about a gazillion things - people suddenly feeling able to ask all those so-called "stupid questions" that, when unasked, leave them puzzled by political news - and then it was dinner time.

"Well, frig" said one learner. "We never even read the second paragraph yet."

No, I guess we didn't.

Talking and thinking and asking and drawing about Social Studies takes time.

Hell, I never even got to show off everything I learned about Christopher Columbus!

Of course, when I ran across Bill Doskoch's piece after lunch I got all serendeputized again.

* I know, I know.... It was Louie Pasteur and the saying is "Chance favours the prepared mind." Yada, yada. :P

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