Liberty Bell Project – life… and the pursuit of happiness

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Believe it or not schools can be the most undemocratic and uncreative spaces.

The Philadelphia Arts and Education Partnership (PAEP) and the National Liberty Museum have developed an exciting program entitled “Let Art Freedom Ring” that infuses democracy, character education, and art making.

“Let Art Freedom Ring” seeks to reinvigorate students’ civic mindedness and artistic muses through 12 sessions. During the sessions students explore themes related to liberty, study Philadelphia’s role in shaping our democracy, and collaborate with resident artists to create a 6′, 3-d interpretation of the Liberty Bell.

Sixth grade students at Beeber Middle School along with students from four other schools are participating in this initiative. The additional schools include: Sharswood Elementary, Kenderton Elementary, Hunter Elementary, and Lingelbach Elementary. The completed bells will be displayed at the National Constitution Center starting July 2 for the summer of 2010, then traveling to New York for display at an art gallery in SoHo during the fall.

Collaboration is at the heart of democratic practices. Crafting our liberty bell has required cooperation by students; the visiting Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) rostered artist, Debbie Williams; Beeber’s art teacher, Sonya Smith; and me, a 6th grade literacy and social studies teacher. Because we started the project toward the end of the school year, we had to address rostering issues to allow Ms. Williams to have requisite visits. We also had to deal with the end of year syndrome that makes it hard to keeps students engaged.

Getting students to be responsible and reflective citizens versus maintaining safe and productive academic settings is a vexing undertaking. Through this project I am learning what my 6th graders understand about their “unalienable Rights." During the project kick-off with the National Liberty Museum staff and the initial studio session with Ms Williams, I observed that most of my 32 students were excited about the project, but many were too chatty or distracted when adults were providing instructions or sharing information. I decided to hold a class meeting to address students’ behavior and elicit more cooperation. This class meeting ended up being a powerful civics lesson for both my students and me.

While explaining to my class the magnitude of this Liberty Bell project and importance of not wasting time Miranda raised her hand and made a comment that respectfully challenged me. She said, “I am not trying to diss you Mr. Reed, you do some interesting projects with us, but we might not listen to you because every time you bring in something that we students like, you take it away."

She won over the mob with her remarks and her classmates started clapping with a loud applause. I was stunned.

She continued, “You might not know it but, at lunch about half of the students came over to the table either to play or watch people play chess, and when you took it away everyone noticed that you’re not devoted to what you start. Also this liberty project that we‘re doing talks about the pursuit of happiness, well my fellow classmates aren’t happy because you took away our extra activities like chess and hip hop."

Miranda may one day run for public office. The mob was swayed even more.

I didn’t want to get into a debate. So I allowed other students to voice their concerns; many echoed Miranda’s remarks. “Mr. Reed, you don’t listen to us.” One student countered, and said “Mr. Reed is right we do waste a lot of time, and maybe that’s why we don’t get to finish some of the projects we start.” After I dismissed class, I spoke with Miranda, one on one, and explained to her that chess club stopped because the competitive chess season ended. I used to play chess with students during my lunch time.

She explained how some students were not pleased with the dance residency I arranged because it didn’t incorporate hip hop. I explained to Miranda that the plans I made did not turn out exactly as I wanted, but I made the best effort. I praised her for respectfully disagreeing with my intentions. And she calmly said, “Next time things don’t work as we planned, just tell us right away."

That was easy!

Through engaging my students in an authentic democratic exercise, it has forced me to reflect upon my actions as teacher and role model. I came up with a plan to try to address the lack of focus and waste of time during the Clay Studio and bell making visits. In consultation with Ms. Smith, we split the class in half. Half of the students, with a mix of abilities, were selected to work in the studio space. The other half of the class would work on the media literacy components of the project. During the regular scheduled art class Ms. Smith and I would come together with the whole class to advance the completion of this mixed-media project.

Although this decision to split the class up was not fully democratic, students welcomed it. The subsequent visits with the PCA artist Ms. Williams are going more smoothly–less time wasted, students more focused–and the media literacy group has been able to contribute images, symbols, visual poems, and began to create podcasts that we plan to accompany our interpretive sculpture of the Liberty Bell.

My students and I are learning that classroom democracies evolve over time. Our burgeoning classroom democracy may be a bit messy, but I think the founding fathers would say the same of America’s fledgling democracy.

While crafting our liberty bell, we are concurrently drafting a “Student Bill of Rights” that students will present to the principal to let their voices be heard. I plan to share a follow up post describing the lessons and outcome of our "Student Bill of Rights" activity.

The completion of our liberty bell project is still a work-in-progress. However, I believe my students are inspired, motivated, and more focused to learn how the symbol of liberty helped build our nation and it is now helping to improve our own classroom democracy.

Miranda captured the essence of our learning, in the poem she composed entitled “Liberty." Her first stanza reads "Liberty / to be me/ to be free."

Save the date:

  • July 1 at the National Constitution Center 5-7 PM, Unveiling of Let Art Freedom Ring, Liberty Bell Projects.