In their study of town government, fifth-grade students learned from the town’s annual report that few residents participate in town meetings, and that those who do vote are not reflective of the town’s great diversity. Students discussed these challenges and developed ideas for ways to increase participation in town meeting.
The students began by exploring how town government worked in colonial times and how local government was structured when the town was first incorporated. They traced how that structure evolved into the contemporary town meeting. When the students asked their parents about their participation in town government, they found that very few parents had attended past town meetings (particularly among those who had moved most recently to the community).
Students brainstormed ways to better educate adults in the community about town government. Ideas included posters, brochures, family discussions, and a mock town meeting held at every school (just before the community’s actually town meeting). Students decided to pursue all of these approaches.
With support from the Acton Area League of Women Voters, the students began planning their Mock Town Meetings. They created brochures and posters advertising the event, and researched the rules of debate and decision-making that would govern the meetings. They focused on one local issue, trash disposal, and created a series of “articles” for voters to consider. League volunteers helped moderate and staff each of the town meetings.
The meetings were a great success all around, according to Jo-Anne Berry, the League member who moderated all five meetings. “Clearly the kids learned a lot, and the teachers did as well,” she told an Acton Weekly reporter after the event.