As an adult, the word bureaucracy makes most people shudder with some painful memory of trying to accomplish a task that involves waiting in line and being transferred from department to department, filling out form after form, until your goal is accomplished or isn't, and you just give up.
Interestingly enough, bureaucracy does not typically have negative connotations for students, because lucky them, they've never had to encounter the dysfunction and inconvenience the word provokes in their parents and teachers.
However, even though the word doesn't bring up negative images, it also isn't necessary an obvious concept to students.
When studying Ancient Egypt, bureaucracy is introduced as a concept to explain how Pharaoh's ruled ancient Egypt. I teach the concept in three parts:
1. Students interview someone they know about their experience in a bureaucracy.
2. Students embark on mission to obtain cookies for the class. They have to get signatures from all of the necessary administrators (viziers) and assistants (scribes) at the school, culminating in a trip to the cafeteria to get their cookies.
3. After reflecting on the activity, students have to think about their own personal interaction or potential interaction with a bureaucracy and report back to the class.
This lesson takes quite a bit of set up. I sent an email to all of staff that I needed to participate with the complete lesson plan. I followed up with a Google Calendar invitation and a reminder. Even so, one person wasn't available to sign the form, and the students almost didn't get their cookies.
They were pretty shocked when the Vizier of the Cafeteria said no, but it was a great tool for debriefing. We also talked about why the connotation int he textbook is positive, but often times it's viewed negatively.
"Well, Ms. Marcus," one student said. "If you are expecting cookies and don't get them, you aren't going to be happy."
Then I taught themperhaps not a historical lesson, but a useful one.
"If something doesn't work out, you should be persistent," I said.
They plead their case again to the Vizier of the Cafeteria and in the end he gave them their cookies.
In case you were wondering, they were chocolate flavored. They disappeared before you could say the word....
Click here for the assignment. If you would like a copy of the lesson plan (I used it for a formal observation. It went very well!), email me (sharnamarcus at gmail) or on Twitter @mssmarcus.