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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Schools SHOULD BE Where We Learn Democracy

I grew up, as probably many of us did, in a traditional school. It was a neighborhood school, where I walked or rode my bike to school, and often rode it home mid-day to have lunch with my Mom. We had between 250-300 students, with two teachers per grade. I don’t remember there being any diversity in elementary school. I encountered that later, after our governor had stopped stonewalling integration.

As a student in a traditional school, I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day. As a daughter of a former Marine, I was proud of my country and believed America to be the best country in the world. As a proud American, I believed in the “all men are created equal” statement and did not discriminate in my actions (and, I hope, my thoughts.) I grew up believing democracy was the RIGHT way to govern and that equal rights were a given.

I teach because I DO believe those things. When I was somewhere between 8 and 10 or 11, I was discriminated against by a saleslady because I was a child. I wasn’t of color. I wasn’t poor. I wasn’t from another country, speaking another language. I was discriminated against because of my age and size—qualities of my being I simply could not control. As Heidi Hass Gable said in response # 9 to one of my personal blog posts “adults often put children in a place of contempt.”  At the moment it happened to me, I clearly remember being furious that an adult would treat a child like that and vowing right then and there to work with children when I grew up so they would have an adult that NEVER treated them “with contempt.”

Democracy, Education, and the Schools by Roger Soder argues that the most basic purpose of America’s schools is to teach children the moral and intellectual responsibilities of living and working in a democracy.

Deborah Meier, in her book,  In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities Of Learning In An Era Of Testing, says, “Schools are where we learn about the possible meanings of patriotism–what it means to own one’s community and have a stake in its reputation.” I too, believe, as she does, that “Modern life requires an appreciation for the complexity and interconnectedness of people and other living things if we have any hope of maintaining both the planet and our democratic institutions.” She goes on to add, “We need to accept the public responsibility of seeing all our children as all of our common responsibility while at the same time avoiding the arrogance of thinking there is therefore only one right way. It is in schools that we learn the art of living together as citizens… All the habits of mind and work that go into democratic institutional life must be practiced in our schools until they truly become habits—so deeply a part of us that in times of stress we fall back on them…”

Not only do we need to make schools more democratic, to provide opportunities to live, breathe and practice those democratic habits of mind, but we must also set up schools as learning spaces that embody powerful cultures of thinking, inquiry and capacity building for profound –and playful–learning.  As Linda Darling Hammond says in The Flat World and Education How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, the new skills students must leave our learning spaces with “include the capacity to:

·      Design, evaluate and manage one’s own work so that it continually improves

·      Frame, investigate and solve problems using a wide range of tools and resources

·      Collaborate strategically with others

·      Communicate effectively in many forms

·      Find, analyze and use information for many purposes

·      Develop new products and ideas.”

She goes on to say we must “establish a purposeful, equitable educational system that will prepare all of our children for success in a knowledge-based society…[and] that will enable students to learn how to learn, create and invent the new world they will be entering.”

Our action plan includes

1.    Relationships with our students and each other that embody trust so that we can challenge each other to share, think together, question, debate, compromise, stand firm on our beliefs and grow and learn both together and separate as we figure out what we think and believe and formulate our teaching and learning strategies.

2.    A learning focus with all members of the learning community willing to apprentice themselves to others or mentor others to continue growing and learning as they share. All learners respect that everyone brings knowledge, skills and habits of mind to the table to share.

3.    Small schools (or units within large schools) that allow for building strong personal connections to and knowledge of all members of the community by all other members of the learning community.

4.    Master teachers who know how to and actively do influence or shape networks for learning in this connected world in which we now live  (See George Siemens blog on Teaching in Social and Technological Networks )

5.    Highly competent educators at all levels who increase academic rigor, promote critical thinking, make instruction and learning more relevant, use performance-based assessments and collaborate in both planning and problem solving.

Building a collective responsibility for and with each other, for our community and for not only maintaining our world but protecting and growing it for the better involves a healthy amount of respect for each other as individuals with many strengths, diverse experiences and perspectives. That structure requires that we look at equity—that we provide for ALL students and that we honor all differences as we strive to discover our connections and commonalities in a democracy.

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


2 thoughts on “Schools SHOULD BE Where We Learn Democracy

  1. Great post, Paula. I’m kind of haunted by Heidi Gable’s quote.

    Whether the quote is true or not, I think most students perceive school as a place of contempt for their passions and problems. You’re spot on in calling for trust-building and mutual apprenticeship in small schools run by educators who can be trusted to do right by children and their learning. Those ingredients are essential for making schools into places where we can learn democracy alongside our students.

    How do you address interconnectedness in your classroom? How do you get students to see it as a reality and necessity? To see its value? How do you get students to trust their peers as a network of experts?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2010, 3:23 pm
  2. Paula,

    Your theme of respect for children is something I hold dear. Giving children the opportunity to be heard is vital. My mentor teacher taught me “I am heard, therefore I am,” which comes from Africa. He created a classroom culture where routines embodied this and the kids knew it.

    I particularly like your point that students should be able to, “Design, evaluate and manage one’s own work so that it continually improves.” This is the means of being a life-long learner, and thus is one of the most important things any education system must impart to those in it.

    I am going to keep thinking about your post, and I will be back with more thoughts.

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 1, 2010, 8:31 pm

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