Encouraging Student Leadership in First Grade
Young students benefit from having a chance to practice leading their peers in ways that encourage responsibility, fairness, and fun.
In a recent opinion writing unit, I was looking for a way to make a more meaningful connection between the writing and a change that the children could effect. So often, we ask our students to write persuasive essays without giving them a chance to act upon them or see if their persuasive opinions work.
We started with writing book reviews, but then I decided to offer my students a chance to persuade me to make a change in the classroom. The essays would have the same structure and content as required by the writing curriculum:
- Begin with an introduction that has a hook and a clearly stated opinion
- Present at least two reasons with evidence
- Include and address one counter-reason from me
- Finish with a conclusion and a call to action
The students generated ideas such as having a class pet (a common request), having more science learning time, having more time to read books on the iPad app Epic, and having longer recesses. All fair requests. By far, the most popular idea was about student leadership—a student president—an idea that I used for my model writing.
Making it Fair for All Students
For my first-grade students, I wanted the student president to have responsibilities and privileges but did not want it to be a popularity vote. I’ve done voting with older children as part of government and civics studies, but the goal here was to give as many students as possible an age-appropriate and manageable experience of being a leader.
So (as part of my model writing), I informed the children that anybody in the class could be the kid class president for a day, but only if they took action to write (in choice writing time or as optional homework) two reasons why they would make a good president. They then had to present those reasons and be prepared to answer questions from their peers.
The fact that 15 out of 19 students all wanted to be the president demonstrated the power of persuasive writing. Now I had to make it happen. Over the next few days, the students came to school with their two reasons, and they sat before their peers and answered questions. The most common of which was rooted in concern for fairness: “Will you always pick your friends?”
The Privileges and Responsibilities of the Presidency
There were numerous privileges to being the student president, aside from the positive attention gained from the role. The student president could choose to do some or all of the following:
- Sit at my teacher desk
- Sit in my (semi) comfy chair
- Pick a table buddy to sit with them
- Call upon peers who want to contribute to lessons, with their ideas, answers, or opinions
- Decide on the order of who goes to recess
- Decide who takes our lunch box cart, which we take to the cafeteria
- Give feedback on our “soft start” morning routine of a page of our handwriting practice books
- Use my handheld tallying clicker to record how many people have put the date in their math notebooks in a timely fashion
- Choose the student storyteller and story to start each day
- Choose how we end each day in the final 10 minutes: dance party, choice drawing, reading books on Epic, reading and phonics games on the iPad, storytelling, etc.
Being the student president also required students to address certain big responsibilities—big for first grade, at least. The biggest issue was resisting the temptation to favor friends. This occurred a few times, and it was a great opportunity for my students to model communication skills in the way that classmates pointed out that this was happening and gave the student president a chance to adjust. Fortunately, they did, and no impeachment was required.
Another issue that arose was one student president overusing his right to choose where he stood in the line, committing the dramatic crime of repeatedly “cutting in.” This presented another great opportunity to briefly explore how the overuse of power can create conflict. When we did a week’s worth of buddy poetry writing with our little buddies in kindergarten, the student president had an even bigger responsibility to model their role in front of younger students.
The Benefits of the Exercise
Many students paid special attention to their attire on their day in the big seat. This allowed the whole class to see them in a new light. It created additional pictures that we shared on our digital class platform, Seesaw, which stimulated more responses from proud parents as they scrolled through the images.
After the first run of 15 presidents, many of my students wrote fresh mini-speeches to become the student president for a second time. The role was great in supporting the development of communication skills, personal confidence, and leadership skills. It shifted the focus from a teacher-led classroom to one that was a more shared, democratic, and student-led environment. It was also the students’ first taste in civic responsibility and aligned well with our school district’s drive to give K–12 students age-appropriate career-ready experiences.
In theory, any American citizen can become the president. The reality is not quite that simple, but at least in my first-grade class there are no gender, poverty, or ethnicity-based barriers to achieving that goal. I aim to continue the initiative as long as students write reasons and want to take the role. Perhaps there is a future president in my class right now. Certainly, based on the commitment and enthusiasm of all the student presidents, the future looks promising.