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Blog Campaign, Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Permission to speak: content classes, democracy, and the end of school

This year I agreed to teach social studies instead of language arts. In return, I asked to teach civics and economics in multiage classrooms rather than to split preps – or plan lessons – for multiple social studies courses.

As a result, I’m re-learning familiar lessons in an unfamiliar place – the “content” classroom. In public schools we tend to view social studies and science classes as “content” classes because students get tested on factual standards. We view language arts and math classes as skills classes because students in these classes get tested on – well, they get tested on vocabulary, but there’s a lot of alpha-numeric window-dressing around it. (And we view arts, languages, and vocational classes as “electives,” which is grounds for another hundred posts). These disciplines do have fantastic habits of mind, and most states do have standards that deal with thinking like a historian and/or scientist (and/or artist, author, mathematician, or other craftsperson or explorer). However, if you look at state testing blueprints – which dictate the nature and topics of the items on standardized tests – they typically drop skills-based standards from content-class tests. For example, in Virginia, the first social studies standard for most middle school courses goes like this:

Virginia Civics & Economics Standard CE.1

Virginia Civics & Economics Standard CE.1

Although you could run a school system in pursuit of this single standard, it is excluded from testing.

Teaching “content” is profoundly weird to me. Not only do we in education tend to view content classes as different from skills classes, but we put them on semester-long schedules so that we free up one period a day for intervention classes meant to get more students passing the language arts and math tests because language arts and math are always used to calculate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), whereas social studies and science courses can be excluded from AYP calculations. Schools are indeed required to use a third measure for AYP, but something like attendance can be used in place of history or science scores.

Of course, we still test social studies and science annually. We call them content classes, we schedule them to make more time for the “skills-based” subjects, and we judge the classes’ teachers by their test scores – even though the scores don’t necessarily play into AYP calculations. It should be noted, however, that states do use scores from content classes to accredit schools. Why? I don’t know. For the same reasons we consider portfolios of student work to be inadequate evidence of student work.

How does this play out in my room? I don’t know.

I am fortunate to work in a public school with small class sizes and enough flexibility to schedule year-long social studies and science courses. I have made the decisions that brought me to this place, but I recognize it as a fairly unique place, especially in Virginia.

I still fear my test scores. I fear consequence. I pine after my superiors’ approval. I feel the pull of educational instincts honed by years of achievement as a student and teacher.

I try to push off of my fear, hunger, and instincts towards a more joyful, democratic, and inquiry-driven classroom. My teaching stands on the foundation of my anxieties. My work to transform public education is my fight against the gravity of my long indoctrination to the culture of public education in the United States.

In my content classroom, it’s scarier for me to take the risks I take in promoting student-directed learning than it was for me to champion student-led work in a language arts classroom. I am less patient with students. I am less patient with myself. I am less accommodating of silence and resistance. I am less willing to wait them out, but I have to figure out ways to do so.

I often miss the sweet spot of engagement with the work I design; I often fail to communicate how much I believe in my kids; I often hurry myself for no good reason, which means I often hurry my kids.

And then all my instincts tell me: plan the lesson; coerce the attention; give the quiz that shows you were right.

But those are the wrong things to do.

When I coerce a student out of silence – when I squelch resistance – I rob that student of his or her self-determination. I rely on a traditional teacher-student relationship rather than on the one we’re building as people. I ignore the information the student is giving me about his or her comfort and happiness with learning and focus only on the information he or she is giving me about his or her compliance with my expectations.

There is a better way. I know it. It took me years to find it. I can’t let go of it, no matter how much I want to.

I have to wait. I have to say it’s okay to wait. I have to help students make sense of my classroom and then the world and then (maybe) the content.

Kids own learning; we share our relationships. There is a difference between compliance and engagement – as well as between a student’s willingness to follow a liked teacher and a student’s own path.

So, I am thankful to be inadequate, to have a long weekend, to have another chance to get learning right despite all the divisions amongst this and that in the teaching I have been asked to do.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing, this year, despite all the pacing guides, to never get past the first standard.

I can go back to that first standard. I can identify the problems in what I do, weigh the expected costs and benefits and possible consequences of challenging the status quo of public education, and recommend solutions based on great learning instead of great teaching.

And so the problem I identify is this: while content isn’t obsolete, the way we teach it in school – as driven by our assessments and scheduling – is. Whereas learning opens the books of our lives to new chapters, schooling is increasingly about neatly ending those books and insisting that we review their contents ad nauseum. Those of us participating in narratives of privilege inscribe those stories on our hearts and forever look inward away from the world. Those of us participating in narratives of struggle inscribe those stories on our hearts and forever look for ways out. We are captivated by those who somehow go from one extreme to another, but we remain – as a whole – disinterested in the sacrifices necessary to share a sustainable narrative somewhere in between the American dream of ascension and prosperity and its complementary nightmare of downfall and loss.

Taking control of our lives and writing – or programming – the next chapter of our society requires of us the political and social will and compassion to end the beginning of our learning by beginning the end of our schools.

I think school will end. I think parents and students will leave for more authentic opportunities that may be called “schools,” but look more like apprenticeships, play, studios, and service. I think that the students left in schools will face increasingly crushing levels of adult expectation that the system transfers on to them. I think school will lose its claim on our imaginations as a rite of passage. Instead, it will become an institution from which we aggressively withhold meaning inhabited by generations who will keenly feel the sharp gift of our disregard. “You still go to school?” will be just another way we say all the things we’ve said to keep each other down.

We need to end school and to make its end humane for those of us who go down with it.

In the time that we have left in school – in the time that I have left as a teacher – in the time we have to figure out what comes next – I hope we can do these things:

  1. Share authority in the classroom with kids: This doesn’t look like chaos; it looks like inquiry, and it builds trust and enable students to become authorities on learning that matters to them. It looks like students posing questions, solving problems, and creating products we could never anticipate on our own.
  2. Share school governance with kids: Put kids in charge of tenure and renewal. Let them set the tone for school culture and decide what happens when classmates violate their norms. Provide adult guidance rather than sentencing. Involve kids in sourcing their own food and materials.
  3. Cede control of scheduling to kids: We should change how we manage staffing, scheduling, and technology so that students at school can “check out” their work and bring it to the kids and adults with whom they work best. Use the best relationships we can offer students throughout the entire day.
  4. Insist on performance assessment: Whether we evaluate students by a portfolio of work addressing discrete standards or one year-long project addressing a holistic rubric, we should help kids acculturate themselves to project- and problem-based learning. We’re leaving them our society, not a multiple-choice test.
  5. Be patient with one another: Even while we feel an urgency for change, we should cultivate a patience with one another. It takes time to shift from a traditional classroom to an inquiry-driven one. It takes time to trust kids’ decisions as much as we trust our own. It takes time to disentangle ourselves from tradition and from the pieces of our work that are about us, rather than about our kids. We face the future together; together we serve kids. We will all need the silence; we will all need to resist and be resisted; we will all need one another when the quiet is done and the conflict goes on.

I hope this post speaks to something in you. I hope it strikes a chord or hits a nerve. I hope you will say what you have to say and perhaps stop by our community here more often or join us at EduCon for a conversation about creating spaces of permission to speak about education. I hope you will think and talk about content classes, democracy, and the end of school.

There are many directions to go in together. Perhaps the best way to fight corporate privatization is to invest ourselves in students’ democratization.

Regardless, we must name the issues we face as a public school system to begin creating a better one. We have authority and permission to speak; we need to convince our kids that they have their own.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


24 thoughts on “Permission to speak: content classes, democracy, and the end of school

  1. One of the most logical posts I’ve read by someone who stands on both the educator and sensible thinker side of the isle.

    Posted by equalityschools | November 21, 2011, 11:03 pm
    • Thanks for the kind words – the place of ambiguity between what we have and what we could have is a kind of stressful and wonderful place to be and from which to become.

      Share more about you efforts to broaden the meaning of school choice?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2011, 12:05 am
  2. An amazing, poetic post. Thanks, Chad. Your language and ideas are engraved in my mind. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time…

    Posted by Scott McLeod (@mcleod) | November 22, 2011, 2:07 am
  3. Wow, Chad. This is a beautiful post. Thanks for your honesty and humility and for providing a window into your practice and pedagogy. Inspiring stuff!

    Since I just finished reading Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, it is on my mind that the kind of real-life project-based work he espouses is an ideal fit with a “content class.” Berger writes at length about how his students engage in meaningful research about their community, local environment and many many other topics that allow them to realize every one of your five goals (maybe with the exception of #2, school governance.) He is especially successful with #4, performance assessment. Whatever we can do in “content areas” to blur the rigid lines of our reductionist “disciplines” and provide kids with the opportunity to engage with the real world around them will re-animate the curriculum and move us a step closer towards wholeness and authenticity.

    In that vain, I’d like to offer #6: Keep learning real and whole – throw away the damn textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, and the technological tools that approximate them and strive for direct engagement, personal relationship and deep connection.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 22, 2011, 6:54 am
    • Here’s to goal #6, Paul – and thank you.

      I get frazzled in figuring out how best to help in the space between teacher-centric work and student-led work. The urgency I feel to get students engaging independently and deeply with life and citizenship sometimes triggers teacherly urges to dictate – uselessly – the pace of a kid’s journey towards owning his or her learning. In such cases I wonder how to serve, rather than order.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2011, 9:37 am
  4. This is a great post! I keep thinking we are leading kids to nowhere in our public education system. I feel a major disruption is on the way. And it can’t get here fast enough. And this morning I am sending my daughter off to a dreaded place called school. Not my words, but hers. It is sad! She learns more at home when she can choose what she wants to learn.

    Posted by wcgaskins (@wcgaskins) | November 22, 2011, 7:28 am
    • I think Leading Kids to Nowhere is the title for your book or long-form narrative, Bill.

      I sympathize with you regarding sending your kids to school. I’m grateful that my kids love their school this year, but I continue to ponder the what ifs…what if they got rid of kindergarten homework? What if they got rid of all the homework? What if they used the school’s gorgeous space to let kids go and learn with the kids and adults ready to teach and learn and scaffold to the kids’ interests? How much more would my kids love school then, and how much less harsh will their awakening to middle school be later on if all of their schools did all of these things?

      I’ve been fortunate in that my son’s teacher is especially receptive to his needs and to our questions and suggestions about his learning. I hope that we can encourage more parents to find ways to engage in civil, but firm, student-centered involvement in children’s learning at school.

      Schools have a fighting chance to remain relevant if they are willing to stop being such schools. I’m not sure they will – I’m not sure school boards and central offices can adapt and rewrite or break the rules quickly enough to recast and reorganize what schools do, but I hope some can and will.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2011, 9:43 am
  5. Yes, this is one of your best.

    “I still fear my test scores. I fear consequence. I pine after my superiors’ approval. I feel the pull of educational instincts honed by years of achievement as a student and teacher.”

    I admire your honesty, your humility, your struggle, and where you are going.



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 22, 2011, 9:44 am
    • Thank you, Kirsten. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from many sources over the years; here, your questions about the future of schooling resonate in my mind.

      How can we better help everyone involved in school to articulate their struggles? Their hopes? The actions they are willing to take alone and with others?

      I appreciate how your work pursues answers to questions like these and I look forward to reading more of it.

      What’s your read on the levels of permission to speak that teachers, students, administrators, and parents feel in the schools you serve?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2011, 9:50 am
  6. I love your honesty and vulnerability, Chad. You are a bold, humble voice that people need to hear. Wish I could meet up with you again and share a pint. Philly was a blast.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | November 22, 2011, 11:43 am
  7. I read this aloud to my husband. Beautiful! Thank you. I’m feeling very thankful for you and the other dear, thoughtful, essential voices here, and all those voices contained in classrooms across the country. Hopefully not contained much longer!

    Posted by Mindy | November 22, 2011, 2:32 pm
  8. Wow…you have beautifully communicated what many educators have been pondering for quite a long time. Many thanks for your frank, honest, generous, unselfish, caring assessment of the institution in which we toil and in which many children are subjected.

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | November 24, 2011, 12:46 am
    • Thank you, Francesca – how are things where you are?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 24, 2011, 10:50 am
      • Dear Chad,

        Because I am on Winter Break, I am finally able to reply to your question—-sorry for the delay. When people ask me how school/education is, I have to pause to respond because it is, as you well know, a complex question. I cannot simply say fine/great/horrible/hopeless/frustrating/criminal as it is impossible to apply a one word label to our institution. Therefore, I will give you some important “data” which I think explain our state of affairs.

        I am an educator in New Mexico, which on most lists is the 49th poorest state in the country (Mississippi is usually behind us). As you can imagine, this statistic has a profound impact on us. Today, our “wealthy” country has 1 in 5 children in poverty—in New Mexico, it is 1 in 4. At my elementary school, in whose neighborhood I live and where my children attended, we have 78% of our children receiving free and reduced lunch. When my kids went to this school 15 years ago, the free and reduced lunch rate was 35%. The impact of poverty in our school has been ravaging to our community. We have 2 bus stops at hotels where many of our families live. Our clothing bank has been nearly exhausted with the increased need. The number of visits from social workers and police have increased mightily—-an average of once a week from both departments. There has been an increase of violent behavior from all of our elementary students—both in the regular education and special education departments. Several of our staff have been injured this year, one is pressing charges against the student. Over half of our 500 students live in a part of my neighborhood with low income apartments. Most parents that live in these apartments do not let their children play outside (which is in the parking lot or street—-no parks in the area) because of the drug deals/gang activity/violence that happens within yards of their home. Our children’s health has also declined over the years. Last year, our school nurse reported that 38% of our students were obese according to their Body/Mass Index. Chad, with all of this overwhelming evidence that our kids and community are in crisis, you would think that our media, legislation, and social systems would be all over this. Not true!

        Our early childhood intervention position had been diminishing for years until it was finally cut in February. Our class sizes have slowly crept up to increasing numbers. Last year, we had a 3rd grade class with 31 children. Our school is the only elementary school (out of 90) with a program that serves children who have mental illnesses. The cuts to this program have really hurt—social workers, therapists, etc. Our school, as wonderful as it is to so many children, has never made AYP due to the mandate that children in special education take the NMSBA, a 17 hour standardized test. To have these children, most who are more that 2 grade levels behind in reading and math, take this test is inappropriate verging on abusive. Therefore, we have been labeled “Restructuring” for 4 years running. This label requires us to further impoverish our curriculum, fill out tedious but lengthy Educational Plans for Student Success for our state Public Education Department, and, communicate to parents annually why we are labeled a failing school. Currently, we are awaiting our grade from our governor who passed a law to give schools a grade of an A-F. Our governor will also be trying to pass a retention law in January for children who are shown (by a Harcourt/Pearson/McGraw-Hill test) not to be able to read by 3rd grade. Over the past 15 years, our children have been mandated to take an extraordinary amount of tests—-a 3rd grader, for example, takes the District Benchmark Assessment in Reading and Math thrice annually as well as the aforementioned NMSBA. None of these actions have helped our children.

        Chad, I apologized for going on for so long but I am passionate about getting the word out that our children are in crisis. Our educational/social policies seem to be completely ignoring our children’s health and well-being—it is not valued. We must be heard!

        Thanks for asking about what’s going on where I live—-from your writing, I know you understand. I would love to talk with you more about how we can further change education so that it will be what’s best for children.


        Posted by Francesca Blueher | December 21, 2011, 2:11 pm
        • Francesca – an amazing & bracingly honest response. I’ve been thinking about it all week, and will respond more thoroughly as break and its commitments wind down. For now, thank you.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | December 27, 2011, 12:09 pm
  9. Chad, great post.

    I feel your pain. Having taught United States History to high school students for nine years, I know what it is like to battle between standards, pacing guides, and mandated exams – and just doing what is right for our students.

    You are right on with our students needing to learn about the world around them. If only we [public education] made this a priority in designing our curriculum – but, unfortunately for most it does not appear to be about “that”.

    I battled with a colleague just the other day when they stated that they could not wait for students to learn the concepts – they had to keep up with the pacing guide. I mean you can not be serious… but this is what is out there – in our schools. It will continue to take people like you and I to fight this battle to do what is in the best interest of our students.


    Posted by mikemeechin | December 20, 2011, 10:02 pm
    • Thanks for reading, Mike, and for the kindness and determination.

      There are so many questioning strategies for framing a content-based curriculum that we also sometimes forget to try things without a curriculum or with an interdisciplinary curriculum or with a set of student questions, too. I kind of want to start over in January and just ask kids, “What’s does fair mean today?”


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 21, 2011, 1:42 pm
  10. Chad, Great Post.

    I am in school now and on my way to becoming a history teacher myself and it makes me feel great knowing that there are people addressing this. I’m in college and I have often wondered about these same things. Where is the Education of our Youth really going? What will the future be like when i finally begin my teaching career? The one teacher that I had that possibly inspired me the most to become a teacher was so passionate about the subject but, every day for the first 15 or 20 min we would talk about whats going on in the world around us today. I loved it and so did my classmates it’s almost as if everyone’s communication and comfort in the class with each other grew so much from just the discussions. Our knowledge level increased as well on many different topics from politics to sports to just our lives in general. Great post, will be reading more and cant wait to see how the future of education changes as i embark on my career.


    Posted by zackboone | January 30, 2012, 12:13 am
    • Zack, I hope you’ll frequent the Coöp often. I wasn’t ready to hear much about democratic education when I was in ed school. I was very focused on my success. I’m really glad you’re encountering questions and experiences that are helping you question the status quo so early in your career.

      What kind of school or learning space do you see yourself joining in the future?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 30, 2012, 5:05 pm


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