“Democracy. Every man was the master of his own soul. Although it was wisdom to cooperate, a person was not required to if he did not think it was right.”-Jean Craighead George, Water Sky, p. 132
My Top Ten Ways to Create Democracy in Schools
1. No Grades
2. Explain to students that it is everyone’s job to be involved in growth and learning.
3. Show students that you are.
4. Make the school structure as simple as possible, but no simpler.
5. Create the most supportive and least restrictive environment possible.
6. Create ground rules together with students.
7. Create goals together with students.
8. Invite life into the classroom, and invite the classroom out to life.
9. Don’t talk all the time. Listen.
10. Remember, ultimately, it is the student who understands how she learns best.
Structures and Defined Roles
To build democracy in education, we must remove all but the most necessary structures. These necessary structures are the ones that ensure safety (facilities, transportation, etc), facilitate communication (front office, technology, etc.) and sustainability (e.g. accounting).
Nearly everything else can be directed by the faculty and students. By removing all but the essential structures we create the least restrictive environment possible, a prerequisite for democracy.
All members of the community will create the norms, including students. Once an inaugural set of norms are established, this need not be redone from scratch every year, but rather refined as time would need it. Anyone can create the impetus for such a refinement and methods such as “fist to five” consensus should be used to move motions along or end them.
As is done in the Sudbury model, there is no need for every member to always be present for voting, but rather it is trusted that those who are present for the vote are capable of making the decision. Decisions can always be refined later as new points of view emerge.
Just as it is trusted that those present for school decisions are capable, it is trusted that faculty and students are capable of developing curriculum. Any curriculum guides will be as non-intrusive as possible, and shall be developed by faculty, students, families, and alumni. If someone who is teaching doesn’t know well enough what skills and knowledge a high-school graduate needs to possess, I suggest another line of work. Again, I advocate for the use of The Earth Charter as the guide for curriculum development and aims.
Furthermore, the aim is must be larger than high-school graduation and college entrance. It is a fulfilling and well-evaluated life. If students are living such lives, which by their very definition contribute to the wealth (not just monetarily) and the vitality of their communities and nation, what else could we want? Why should a school be geared towards any other end?
Students must be principal architects in their own learning. I repeat, students must be the generators of their own learning.
Beginning in early childhood education, students must be shown respect. Models such as Reggio Emilia, are wonderful in this way. While 4-year-old’s cannot be expected to state their desired goals and outcomes (or can they?), teachers can began facilitating the meta-process of teaching learning. Thus, over time the balance shifts from faculty being responsible for designing the supporting structures for a student’s interests to the student being responsible herself.
There shall be no grades! Carve it stone, put it on a mountaintop, I don’t care, just stop worrying about grades and scores!
There are two tiers of assessment that need to be differentiated. The first level is per task assessment, and secondly assessment over time. Per task assessment is the usual marking of a quiz, paper, etc. However, this shall be done not with a grade but with a dialogue. Students should assess themselves through reflection. Teachers shall discuss the task with students in detail including its successes and what it reveals needs further work.
Assessment over time, is currently a report card, either quarterly or per semester. Report cards shall be used either in compost bins or as fire starter, they no longer have any other place in schools. Assessment over time will build upon the assessment strategy used for tasks. Students will continue to self-reflect, while teachers provide detailed feedback including strengths and areas for growth. Portfolios are also an acceptable means of documentation for assessment if the student elects such a format.
The basis of assessments shall be made clear at the outset. I personally am not a fan of complex rubrics, but they may have a place. My bent is towards straightforward expectations that may seem to be black and white, but actually accommodate many shades of gray. For example, for a writing assignment: Writing shall be clear, intelligible, and coherent. If a teacher can not facilitate the discussion that goes along with this statement, then again, please find another job.
Rather than students learning to “pass” instead of learn, learning is kept at the forefront. There is nothing else to be gained from the assignment other than increased proficiency and the inherent satisfaction that comes from learning and doing a job to the best of one’s capability.
A Day in the Life
School days begin with greetings and celebration, like the peacemaking traditions of indigenous people in the Yukon, school should be framed with the same philosophy, “Begin and end in a good way.” Building a culture of kindness and celebration supports us in the tough times that are inevitable. Frustrations are inevitable, are time together should not embolden that.
Faculty hold open classes, meaning that anyone, may come if they think it is relevant or interesting to them (read: students choose). Reading The Giving Tree can be just as impacting to an 18-year-old (or 45-year-old), as it is to a 5-year-old. Project-based learning is also the norm whether in agriculture, aquaculture, environmental restoration, or community engagement. This multi-age interaction builds social/emotional skills, creates many teachers in the room, disallows for teaching to the middle, and is dependent on teaching in support of differentiated learning.
By self-selecting where they are throughout the day students are exercising their voting muscles by making choices, meaningful choices, every day. These classes are bound to be more vibrant as they are held together by common interest and inquisition.
Students regularly get together to play games, explore, and discuss the day’s happenings. They also take personal time to investigate themselves or a subject independently. Faculty are regularly available through “office hours” to meet individually or with small groups of students to discuss particular matters.
All Together Now
These strands together form the double helix of democracy—empowered citizens and supportive and least restrictive environments. This is the optimal form of democracy, where the participants are capable of interacting with a nimble system to ensure individual liberties are in balance with common good.
There are few models of this in schools, none that I know of as public schools. This must not be a discouragement to creating such organizations. For examples and further reading I suggest Sudbury Valley Schools, Salmonberry School, City and Country School and writings by John Holt, Ron Miller, Ira Shor, Steven Harrison, John Taylor Gatto, Alfie Kohn, David Bohm, and Albert Einstein.