What Is Democracy?

6, 7, 8

In this lesson, learners reflect on the meaning of democracy. They discuss and explore examples of participatory democracy in history. They read and report about concepts such as civic responsibility, patriotism, right to petition, and philanthropy.

PrintThree Fifty-Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • define democracy and compare and contrast spectators and participants.
  • identify historic examples of active participation in government.
  • discuss possible results of inaction on important issues.
  • read articles about civil society, civic responsibility, patriotism, and the right to petition the government.
  • summarize an article and present to their classmates.
  • read and discuss quotes about democracy by the founding fathers.
  • one copy of Handout One: Quotes about Democracy cut into eight quotes
  • student copies of selected articles (see Bibliographical References); students in each group have the same article to read
Teacher Preparation 

Copy the articles listed in the Bibliographical References for the small group reading. Give each group a different article to read. If you have computers for each group, you may give each group a URL link to read their article online.



  1. Day One

    Anticipatory Set:

    Ask the students to name some spectator sports (basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse, etc.). Discuss the role of the spectator in the sport (promote team energy and enthusiasm). Share a funny story or ask the students to give examples of spectators who are passionately involved in the game. Ask, "As hard as they try, how much can a spectator influence the game from the stands?"

  2. Tell the students that some groups have adopted the following quote as a slogan to get people involved in responsible citizenship: "Democracy is not a spectator sport." With the students' help, create a definition of democracy, such as "a political system in which the power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them." Discuss what a spectator in a democratic system would look like (ranging from lack of interest to yelling at the TV). Discuss how much a spectator can influence the political game from the stands. Ask the students to think about what it means to be a participatory citizen, someone who is in the game. Give them a few minutes to think.

  3. Tell the students that you are going to give them examples of people participating in government and examples of people acting as spectators. Tell them to give a hand signal to indicate which one it is (e.g., raise one hand for participating; raise two hands for spectator). One by one, give the following examples (fill in with more of your own with which your students are familiar), discussing after students respond to each because there may be different perspectives on the value of these actions.

    • peaceful protest in front of the White House
    • talking about issues at a gathering of friends
    • voting in a local election
    • blogging on a social network about elected officials
    • the Boston Tea Party
    • writing a letter to a senator about a civil rights issue
    • yelling at the radio
    • calling in to a radio talk show to complain about city government
    • the Montgomery Bus Boycott
    • declaring independence from an oppressive power
    • wearing a protest button or T-shirt
    • staying away from someone who disagrees with you
  4. Discuss how listening and reading, talking about ideas, and examining ourselves and the community are important to becoming participatory citizens, but if individuals only talk about problems without acting on these ideas or working for change, the value of the discussion is lost.

  5. Ask students to think of an event or individual that had a major impact on the development of the country (e.g., Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and the Minutemen, Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth). Invite students to hypothesize the consequences of non involvement in those events (e.g., What if Dr. Martin Luther King knew that social injustice was wrong, but then decided that he should not get involved because he didn't have the time? What if Paul Revere knew that British rule was hampering the possibility for a free country, but then decided that he was too tired and old to be involved? What if citizens recognized a local manufacturer as a major polluter in their community but didn't speak up?).

  6. Ask students to consider the power they (as young people) hold to create change and to work for ideas that are important to them. Ask them to consider what would happen if they did not act on the issues that are important to them.

  7. Day Two

    Anticipatory Set:

    Write the following quote on the board: "History is yours to make. It is not owned or written by someone else for you to learn. History is not just the story you read; it is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror and replete with hope. You shape the balance." (inscribed on the exit of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as noted by Joel Westheimer.) Ask the students to pick out words or phrases in this quote that seem important to them in their role as personally responsible citizens. Discuss the student responses.

  8. Share the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves."

  9. Tell the students that the U.S. government was shaped by the idea that all people have the power to make decisions. The constitution and other important documents form a solid foundation, but even as they were writing them, the founding fathers knew the documents would be changed and amended by the participating citizens to reflect the needs and circumstances of the changing times and citizenry. Indeed, the founding fathers knew that freedom and democracy depended on people challenging the way things are and fighting for the rights of the discriminated against and underserved.

  10. Ask the students whose responsibility is it to shape and improve the government and protect the rights of all people. Tell them that the core documents of the United States embody principles, hopes, and dreams of freedom. These documents were formed and continue to exist because of a robust nonprofit sector where individual citizens organize themselves to give, serve, and take action for the common good. From the social contracts of the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, people in the U.S. have advocated for freedom and the rights of individuals.

  11. Discuss who makes up that nonprofit, or civil society, sector. The learners may recognize that they, as well as the famous people from history and current philanthropists, are the volunteers and advocates who take action for the common good.

  12. Have the learners work in groups of 4-5. Give each group a different article to read about civil society, civic responsibility, patriotism, advocacy, and the right to petition the government. In their groups, they read the assigned article and discuss the major points, including how their topic relates to giving and serving. Then they write bullet points on a chart paper that they will share with the rest of the class. Give the students about 15 minutes to complete this activity and assign one of their members to report their results to the rest of the class. See Bibliographical References for the list of articles.

  13. Display the chart papers in the classroom. In the next class period, each group will present its summary to the rest of the class.

  14. Day Three

    Anticipatory Set:

    Write the class definition of democracy on the board. As students walk into class, hand eight students a quote to read aloud.(See Handout One: Quotes about Democracy.) Ask those students to stand in front of the class. When everyone is seated, have the eight students take turns reading a quote and naming the author of the quote. After all eight students have read their quotes, have them reread their quotes one by one. The rest of the class responds to the quote in the following context: What does this quote mean in relation to democracy and civic responsibility?

  15. Refer to the chart papers created in the previous class period. Have each group present to the class a summary of the article it read. Allow time for questions and clarification of concepts.

  16. Have students write a reflection of the question, "What is civil responsibility?"


Observe learner participation in discussions and small groups to evaluate personal effort and comprehension of the concept of participatory democracy and effort.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Describe how different needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society, and family.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Give political and historic reasons why civil society groups have formed in the nation and world.
      2. Benchmark MS.5 Identify historic examples of citizens using civil society organizations to petition the government.
    2. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Define civic virtue.
      2. Benchmark MS.8 Define civil society.
    3. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Explain the role of philanthropy in major themes and social issues in the nation's history.