This is a dialogue between Leigh Pourciau, an educator at a public middle school and blogger at http://www.bestinclassblog.blogspot.com, and Anna Baker, a rising senior in a public high school. Both live in the Jackson, Mississippi, metro area. Anna’s sister, Stacy, is a teacher; Anna has considered becoming one, too, but is deterred by the current system.
It wasn’t the first time a left-brained colleague had come to me with such a request. Stacy, the pragmatic and exceptional science teacher from the 7th grade hall, sent me a Facebook message, “If you don’t mind, I may refer my little sister, Anna, to you…She is considering education, but is losing faith in our current system. She reminds me a lot of you…I’m a bit too pragmatic to advise her, I think!” As my school’s resident, right-brained, rabble-rouser, my colleagues and friends occasionally send me the free-spirited question-askers that remind them of me.
I had no way of knowing then that my interaction with Stacy’s sister would convict me in a way that no professional development ever had. That she would make me want to break apart my current teaching philosophy and put it back together. Once we realized (via some mutual Facebook stalking) that we had both “liked” IDEA, the conversation turned to democratic education, and that’s when I became the student, and she became the teacher. I began to ask the questions. Below are her thoughts – which serve as one of the most authentic indictments of the public education system that I’ve ever encountered.
Leigh Pourciau: I’m familiar with IDEA because of my friend Melia, but I struggle with what democratic education would look like in my classroom. What would it look like to you?
Anna Baker: As a student, a democratic education would look like heaven.
It would just be really nice if we students were given more of a say when it comes to our own education, and I don’t mean getting to choose between P.E. and study hall. I mean having the freedom and support to explore our own interests, interests that could turn into passions, which could turn into careers.
LP: From the limited conversations that we’ve had, I can tell that you are intrinsically-motivated and self-disciplined. You have an innate curiosity to figure things out. One could argue that these are all characteristics that a student must have to flourish in a democratic environment. Think about your current classmates. Do they all have these traits? If not, why do you think they lack them? Is the current system at fault?
AB: Well, the only place I see the majority of my classmates is, of course, in class; there, very few seem to have any intrinsic motivation or self-discipline or curiosity. But I don’t think what you see in class gives a good picture of what any of us are like. If you had seen me in my Algebra II class, for example, I highly doubt you would have listed the same character traits about me. I assumed the same zombie-like alter ego as my classmates while trying to learn how to find the horizontal axis of an ellipse, but once the lecture was over, I’d be secretly googling the difference between Absurdism and Nihilism, or reading the parts in my English book we didn’t have time to cover, or journaling about education. And when I looked around the classroom, I would see a few kids drawing in sketchbooks and reading in novels that were kept closed on their desks during the lecture. A lot of us have burning passions and curiosity about certain subjects, but we are forced to dull them and put them in the back of our minds, all for the sake of standardization. This gives us the feeling that our own individual interests and passions, which make us who we are, are less important than passing tests.
I do not know if my peers have any of the traits listed above because it does not make sense for them to show them in the classroom. Look at what happens if you are actually motivated to learn what is being taught. You are forced to slow down to the pace of your peers, who are usually bored out of their minds. And everything that you are so excited to learn and what it has taught you about yourself or your future, doesn’t matter unless it’s on the test. Unless it’s on the test, it becomes wasted energy. Curiosity has no place in school, because everything you (allegedly) need to learn by the time you graduate, at some point will be handed to you in neat bulleted points.
LP: I’ve always considered myself a teacher who values what students can bring to the table, but you’re really making me think that I’m still not giving them enough credit. That I need to relinquish more control and not assume that my classroom is going to descend into automatic chaos!
Think about the teachers that you’ve encountered during your education. Can you picture them working in a school that is a true democracy? Why or why not? If not, how would they need to alter their thinking and practice to be productive members of such a community?
AB: I think a lot of my teachers could function really well in a democratic setting. I’ve seen them nourish the individual interests of their students and encourage them to play an active role in their own education. Mrs. Shivers, who has so many lovely qualities that they would take paragraphs to express, tells us to “get off the escalator” of achievement that school has had us sitting on passively since kindergarten and to play an active role in our own education. She encouraged families to think about the value of school performance by sending home an article about “Tiger Moms.” She’ll also recommend and lend books to students based on their individual interests (she told me to read The Day I Became an Autodidact).
Also there is Mrs. Reed, who once sacrificed a whole class period (that included a grammar quiz) to a political discussion that a few students started with her at the beginning of class. By the end of the class period, every student was involved and thinking critically about real life problems.
These teachers, plus many more, are already pushing for an educational environment centered around the students’ real-life interests, and would only need to break free of the limits of the state standards to be a part of a learning environment that could really knock some socks off.
But there are, of course, other teachers who would have a hard time shifting their focus from the state’s goals to the student’s goals. However, that’s just judging from what I see in the classroom which, once again, is usually a synthetic environment where no one is really herself – just a catalyst for good school achievement records.
LP: Phew…my new mantra might be to “get off the escalator.” You’ve mentioned the flaws of the current system. It’s true that you have attended school in an extreme age of standardization. What and who, in your opinion, have been the casualties of this legislated trend?
AB: I’ve seen the standardization in today’s education negatively affect so many things for my peers, my teachers, and me personally. It has hijacked our lesson plans, our curiosity, our creativity, our potential, and, well, even our damn love of life! You know?
The days of childhood to explore and learn about the wonder of the world and to see how wonderfully you could fit into it are replaced with school, where learning about the world becomes a burden and where you’re told where you fit into the world. When you’re fifteen, you’re legally stuck in the 9th grade while at the same age, Ben Franklin, for example, was already apprenticing for his brother’s newspaper. The brightest kids of our nation, the would-be Benjamin Franklins, are having their potential strangled by the state, who is setting their goals for them.
But the absolute worst thing is the loss of creativity. Although we’ll have creative writing assignments and chances to express ourselves in class, we are always being graded. We’re always afraid of failure, and therefore are afraid to try new things that haven’t been done before because they are more likely to fail. So we take the easy and trite way through our creative assignments. This is particularly detrimental in a job market begging for innovative minds. (That’s right, right? I don’t know too much about the job market.)
LP: Well, Anna, I’ve never hired a soul, but I don’t have to see your grade point average or ACT score to know that I want you to be a teacher! Or, at the very least, President of the United States.
(This piece is cross-posted on www.democraticeducation.org.)