CONSIDERING DEMOCRACY in Occupy Wall Street & the Classroom

October 27, 2011

  for grades 4-7  Students explore the meaning of democracy and how Occupy Wall Street is using elements of democracy in their protests. Then students think of and analyze ideas that might make their classroom more democratic.


  • Students will learn the definition of democracy
  • Students will identify some ways democracy is practiced in the country, city/town and school and classroom
  • Students will learn how the protesters at Occupy Wall Street are using democratic principles
  • Students will consider ideas for making their classroom more democratic
  • Students will determine the feasibility of their democratic ideas

Materials Needed:

  • Chart paper
  • Markers
  • Copies of Idea chart

This lesson is geared towards upper elementary and middle school students. It helps students explore the meaning of democracy and how it plays out in our society, as well as how Occupy Wall Street and other "Occupy" movements are using elements of democracy in their protests. It then asks students to apply the principles of democracy in their own classroom, developing ideas and strategies for making their classroom more democratic. 



Have students....

  • Stand up if you've ever voted.
  • Stand up if you've ever decided what kind of report you were going to write.
  • Stand up if you've been on the Student Council.
  • Stand up if you've stated an opinion clearly and strongly.
  • Stand up if you've helped a group of friends come to a decision in which they all agreed.

(Add your own statements if you like.)


Defining Democracy

Create a semantic web with the word "democracy" in the center.

Ask the students: What is democracy? What are some words and phrases that come to mind when you hear the word democracy? Record their responses on the web, drawing lines between ideas that go together. It might look something like this.



When the web is completed, ask: What do you notice about the web? What does it tell you about democracy? What kind of feeling do you have while reading it?

Together with the students, define democracy as follows:

1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Ask: In what ways is our country democratic? How about our city/town? What about in our classroom and school? Get students to think about key elements of democracy which include:

1. Representation/voting
2. Participation/having a voice or say
3. Free speech
4. Communication (making sure people understand what's happening)

Have students share examples of how democratic principles are present in the country, city/town, and school/classroom. If they have a hard time coming up with ideas, suggest some of your own first to get the discussion going.

You might also note that there are some ways that our country isn't always democratic, even though people do have rights such as a vote and free speech. Ask students if they can think of some examples. (Examples include: People and corporations with lots of money can make political contributions that give them more influence over our government than other people. Another: People who have a lot of power and resources can pay to have their opinion heard.)


Class discussion:

Democratic Principles of Occupy Wall Street

Ask students: Have you heard about Occupy Wall Street? Do you know what the protest is about? Do you know how Occupy Wall Street is organized and how they work together? If they don't know anything about Occupy Wall Street or how it is being organized, share the following with them:

Occupy Wall Street is a group of activists who want to change the way money, wealth, and income are distributed in the U.S. They want to change the fact that there is a very big difference between how much money and wealth rich and poor people have. Also, they want to make our country more democratic so that even people with little money and power can have more of a voice.

A group of people, mostly young people, came together in New York City on September 17, 2011, and began gathering in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street. Several hundred stay overnight and sleep in sleeping bags. Since then, they have organized many protests and marches, and thousands of other people have joined in these protests.

There are now hundreds of "Occupy" protests going on all over the country and even in other countries.

At Zuccotti Park, there are information stations, a recycling center, a medical station, a media center where a gasoline generator powers computers. At the east end sits the library, labeled cardboard boxes brimming with donated books: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, legal. There is a lost and found. The protesters are concerned about many issues, and have varied points of view. But the main focus of the protest is about inequality in our country.

The way they have organized themselves and how they make decisions is different than other movements. In protests, they sometimes chant, "This is what democracy looks like." They are trying to show the kind of society they want to live in by the way they act and the way they organize themselves. They have been called a "leaderless movement."

Ask: What do you think it means to be a "leaderless movement?" Do you like that idea?

They have a General Assembly, or "GA," every day, that includes hundreds of people in Zuccotti Park. Anyone who is at the encampment at the time of the meeting can participate. The meetings are led by facilitators who rotate on a regular basis. They offer training in facilitation so that anyone who wants to participate as a facilitator can. Occupy Wall Street has working groups - open and inclusive - to address particular needs of the encampment, including food, medical and legal needs, outreach, and security. The working groups periodically report back to the GA. Occupy groups use a consensus process, and anyone can join in the decision-making and propose an idea. 

Ask: What is consensus? How does it work?

At Occupy Wall Street, if you have an idea, you state what it is and then you have to respond to questions, justify why you think it's a good idea and how you would go about making it happen. Then the whole group discusses it and votes on it. Votes are cast using hand signals (waving fingers up for yes, down for no). Proposals are revised until 9/10 (90%) of the group agrees.

Because New York City requires a permit for "amplified sound" (bullhorn or microphone), at Occupy Wall Street they have to use what's called a "human microphone." Ask: What do you think that means?

It works this way: When someone needs to communicate with everyone, they make their statement, and then everyone who can hear them repeats back what they said in unison to amplify the speaker's words. This creates a democratic feeling among the people who are participating. It feels as if everyone's words are heard and valued. Because of this, Occupy movements across the country and the world are using this same process - even when they have a microphone!

Ask: How are democratic principles being used to organize and communicate about Occupy Wall Street? Why do think it's important to the protesters to use these principles? What do you think about it? 


Small Group Activity:

Democracy in our Classroom

Distribute large chart paper and markers and divide the students into small groups of 4-5 students each. Ask each group to draw a picture of what a democratic classroom might look like. What would be in the classroom? How would it be arranged? How would students feel? How would students, teachers, administrators relate to each other? How would the class be organized? All of this should be represented in their drawings.

Give the groups 10-15 minutes to do the drawing, and then have the students hang the pictures around the classroom. Have students do a "picture walk" to look at all of them and then have each group present to the class.

Ask: What are your ideas for making our class more democratic? (This can include new ideas, in addition to what is already happening in class that they want to continue.) What about in our school as a whole? As the students are coming up with the ideas, record them on the board or chart paper.

The list could include:

  • Decide what we are learning in class/make curricula decisions
  • Have a student council in the class to create and enforce rules 
  • Create the classroom rules and consequences as a group
  • Students decide the menu for school lunch
  • Use consensus decision-making for important decisions 
  • Have students take turns teaching the class

List all of their ideas, grouping together ideas that are connected. See where most of the energy is and work with the group to narrow the list down to five ideas they will be pursuing in greater detail. If you can't come to consensus about which five to choose, vote.

Have students divide into five small groups of 4-6 students each. Their task will be to take one of the ideas and discuss it together, coming up with the pros and cons of the idea for students and for the teacher, and to answer a list of questions about the idea. (For whole school ideas, you could also add pros and cons for the school.) The goal of the small group work is to determine if the idea will make the classroom more democratic, if it is a good idea, and what would be needed to make it happen.

You might want to make sure students understand that this is an exploration, and that there's no guarantee that the class can implement a particular proposal. You as the teacher have a certain role you must play. Also, there are many people outside the classroom who make decisions affecting your classroom - and who also have a real stake in what happens in the classroom.

Students will use the following chart and list of questions to work out the idea. (A specific example is given but you should distribute blank sheets for the students).


Sample Idea Pros-Students Cons-Students Pros-Teacher Cons-Teacher

Students decide what books they read for English literature class.

Students like the books because they choose them and are more motivated to read.

Students might not get to read as wide a variety of books (genre).

It might be hard to make a decision in which all students agree.

Students will be motivated to read the books since they choose them.

Teacher might not know the books well and have more to read and plan. 
Teacher may not be able to cover everything for standards and prep for high school.

Idea # ___:












After completing the chart, the group should answer the following questions:

  • What is the reason you are proposing this idea? 
  • How does it make the classroom/school more democratic?
  • Is it a good idea? Why or why not?
  • What would be needed to implement the idea? What conversations would be needed?


Large Group Discussion

Have each group present their idea (pros, cons, response to questions) to the whole class. Allow students to ask questions. As a group, try to determine which ideas could actually be implemented, and which are the best one or two ideas. Make a plan for implementing them.



Synectics: a method of identifying and solving problems that depends on creative thinking, the use of analogy, and informal conversation among a small group of individuals with diverse experience and expertise.

In the large group, ask students to think of:

  • five machines (e.g. TV, car, ipod touch)
  • three things that occur in nature (tree, mud)
  • two thing people like to do (e.g. eat, dance)

List their responses on the board or chart paper. Give students the following sentence:

"Democracy is like a __________________ because ____________________."

Point to the first machine and use that word to fill in the blank ("Democracy is like an ipod touch because it includes many different voices.")

Go through the list of words, having students complete the analogy for each one. 


This lesson was written for by Jinnie Spiegler. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: