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West Linn students create bill of rights

Kid power' should be the bywords of Daniel Sloan's class of fourth and fifth-graders at Willamette Primary School.

Sloan introduced the topic of American history, circa 1780, and his students' exploration of the American Revolution took on a life of its own.

Discovering that women and children had few rights in the 18th century, the Willamette class applied the precepts of democracy that already governed their class and forged ahead.

How unfortunate, they thought, that the new nation's Constitution and Bill of Rights were written to benefit the men who inhabited the colonies.

What about the women and children?

They wanted to make a statement of the rights that young people should be entitled to, and then share that information with other interested groups of students at Willamette Primary School.

Sloan's class read an article about a kids' bill of rights that was written in Portland a few years ago. Oregon was the first state to have a published bill of rights for kids, Sloan said.

His students felt empowered by the knowledge that other kids were concerned about rights.

Taking the power into their own hands, Sloan's students voted unanimously to write their bill of rights.

Using poetic expressions.

Sloan introduced that dramatic idea because he is trying to integrate their learning of history with several disciplines such as reading, writing, speaking, critical thinking, mathematics and science.

And music.

As they hone their list of rights, they are rehearsing the presentation of some of those lyrical, God-given rights - backed by marimbas' rhythmic sounds.

While some of Sloan's students play an African prayer song from the Shona Tribe of Zimbabwe, groups or individual students read aloud their lyrical expressions of undeniable rights.

'Kids want to be treated as if they do have something to say,' Sloan said. 'They want us to give them the forum to say it and then they want to be heard.'

After all, they're not living in a male, adults-only world. Listen to a portion of a right written by fifth-graders Natalie Combs and Freyja Doherty and fourth-grader Ellie Jones:

'Our voices are the souls that our minds carry. Listen to us and hear what we say, and someday you might learn what we want, what we love, want we learn and what we care for.'

Among other rights the children believe should be theirs are education, family, health, respect and imagination.

Motivating this method of teaching, Sloan said, is the idea that giving kids a project to pursue imitates life more closely than just studying a single subject.

'They look at history and at contemporary issues,' he said. 'They plan and design products (posters and presentations) that effectively convey their thinking. This kind of work more closely parallels the kind of work we do in the real world, where knowledge is not neatly bundled into subject areas.'

The teachers at Willamette, Sloan said, believe in hands-on education that more closely matches the majority of children's learning styles.

'Unless we bring (a subject) down to their level and make it relevant to their lives,' Sloan said, 'they tend to not remember it or really understand it. (This method) brings the concept of rights and the Constitution into their lives and makes it personal for them.'

Sloan wants his students to think of a bill of rights as more than just a list, but as a way of living and thinking.

During the year, Sloan says his students will dig deeply into the concept of democracy and form their own classroom government. He calls it 'deep democracy.'

'Rather than just read the history books,' he said, 'we'll also recreate history in the classroom and try to bring it down into our own personal experience.'

In fact, the right to a good education was expressed well by fifth-graders Danny O'Brien and Jon Beckerich. Here are some of their words:

'Education.

As I walk to school,

I feel wisdom floating around me,

Science and history filling my brain

With knowledge.

Education flows through us

It makes the world go 'round.

Education.'

These students' words illustrate well the direction that Sloan is leading his students.

'We're not trying to teach kids to memorize or mimic things,' he said. 'We're trying to teach them to think critically, to develop their own thoughts and voice and be able to speak in the public commons.'

An example was provided by three of Sloan's fifth-graders -- Sarah Chung, Briana Smithson and Jordyn Cochrane - who wrote about their right to respect. Here is a portion of their writing:

'… Treat us the way we should be treated. If we come from another family, care and love us as if we were your own. Do not laugh or sneer at us because we are black or white; judge us the same. Give us our respect; that is our right.'

And nowhere is that respect shown better at Willamette, Sloan said, than in each classroom.

'We don't line kids up in straight rows and ask them to listen to what we say,' he said. 'We ask them to sit at tables, discuss things, think for themselves and debate. And we ask their parents to get into the debate at home.'

Sloan said his motivated kids will continue to work on their bill of rights throughout the school year, culminating with a staged presentation for other students in the spring. The stage will be built in Sloan's classroom for audiences of up to 80 people.

Meanwhile, his fourth and fifth-graders will be learning firsthand about the founding fathers' ideals as well as their mistakes.

'We're creating a community,' Sloan said, 'that operates on democratic principles, and we're giving these kids a public voice.'

A musical, poetic voice.