IS THIS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE? Considering Occupy Wall Street's 'leaderless movement'

Students work in groups to come up with a definition of 'democracy,' then read and discuss an article on Occupy Wall Street's decision-making process.  


Students will:

  • define democracy
  • explore democracy by "doing" democracy
  • read about and discuss democracy and the Occupy Wall Street movement

Social and Emotional Skills:

  • active listening
  • democracy: having all voices are heard
  • compromise 
  • choose leadership/representation
  • explore the idea of leadership

Materials needed:

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Index cards and flipcharts 
  • Access to Heather Gautney's Washington Post article, "What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements"





Defining Democracy 

(15 minutes)

Ask students to break into pairs, and give each pair an index card. Ask each pair to come up with a definition for democracy. Give them about two minutes to discuss this and write down their definition on the index card. Next, instruct each pair to join up with another pair. Now in groups of four, ask students to compare their two definitions of democracy and come up with one definition that works for all four students in the group. Each group will now write down their new definition (on a new index card if needed). Next, instruct each group of four, to join another group of four and go through the same process again, this time in groups of eight.

Provide each group of eight with a sheet of chart paper. Instruct them to write their definition so they can present it to the rest of the class. Ask each group to select a representative who will post their chart paper and read the definition out loud (but don't specify how that representative will be chosen).

Next, facilitate a dialogue about democracy by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the different definitions of democracy? 
  • Do you notice similarities? Differences? Possible surprises?
  • Ask students to compare the student definitions with the definition from Merriam Webster:

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

Also ask students about the process they just went through to create a definition for democracy

  • What was the activity like for you?
  • Do you think the process was democratic? Why? Why not?

Elicit and touch on such perceptions as: hearing all voices, inclusion, involvement, handling differences of opinion, negotiation. Students might also mention that the process is time-consuming, messy, frustrating, etc.

  • How did you work towards consensus (group agreement) over the definition in your groups? 
  • Was it easier to reach consensus in your smaller or larger groups? Why do you think that is?
  • How did you select the representative from your group? Was it by consensus? Did the process make sense to you?

Review agenda and opening discussion (7 minutes)

Explain that in today's lesson you'll be looking at Occupy Wall Street and its connection to democracy.

Ask students what they know about Occupy Wall Street.

Elicit and explain that after months of planning, on September 17, 2011, a group of protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to march on Wall Street to protest the greed, corruption and power of the financial institutions, big corporations and the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

Since that day in September, a dedicated group of protesters has established an ongoing physical presence in Zuccotti Park, creating a hub for what has become the Occupy Wall Street movement. People around the country and the world have protested and created their own "Occupy" encampments.

In the lesson that follows students will be asked to take a critical look at Occupy and the message it is trying to send.


Small Group Discussions in Microlabs 

(23 minutes)

Ask students to take 10 minutes to read excerpts from Heather Gautney's What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements, published in theWashington Post on October 10, 2011.

Have students break into groups of three or four. Ask them to discuss what they just read by answering some or all of the following questions:

  • Based on Gautney's article, what is Occupy Wall Street about?
  • What does Gautney say about the role of leadership in OWS? What do you think about that? 
  • Some people accuse Occupy Wall Street of being unorganized and not having a clear message. What are your thoughts on that?

Back in the large group, ask a few volunteers to present what was discussed in their microlabs. Continue deepening students' understanding by exploring some or all of the following questions:

  • Gautney talks about the integrity of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What does she mean by this?
  • According to Gautney how is OWS a "laboratory for participatory democracy"?
  • What are some of the ways in which Occupy practices participatory democracy on a daily basis?
  • How does all this relate to the activity we did earlier in the lesson? 



(5 minutes)

Ask students to read and/or listen to the following three quotes.

"Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country." 




— Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the U.S.

"I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it."
Alexander Woollcott, American critic and commentator for the New Yorker magazine

"There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship."
Ralph Nader, U.S. political activist and consumer advocate

Ask a few volunteers their thoughts on these quotes and how they relate to today's lesson.


Homework Assignment

Ask students to explore the interactive map of Zuccotti Park at:

Follow up with a class discussion of this map. What do students think it reveals about the nature of Occupy Wall Street?



This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: