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Learning at its Best

Mentorship in Democratic Learning Environments

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This morning I sat in on a meeting to discuss the beginning of this years mentor program at The Free School. Sixteen students from grades 5 through 8 are eligible to take a younger student as their mentee for the year. I can recall the various mentoring I’ve participated in from high school through college. It was always a challenging, although rewarding experience. There were some interesting things my co-worker Caroline covered with the students about what mentoring at The Free School (AFS) looks like.
She opened the discussion by emphasizing that first and foremost, the mentors are there to “act as a guide for the younger kids”, which is something most people who’ve been in mentoring are aware of. But as the talk moved forward, Caroline covered other aspects of mentoring that are unique to AFS, and that make me think about peer to peer structures at public schools. She told these soon-to-be mentors that this experience is meant to “provide a certain sense of leadership, which is important in a place that has democratic processes,”and that in a democratically run environment it’s important for as many members to have valid ownership of said environment as possible. She followed by adding that this means “being a leader without being controlling”.
It is wonderful to see this aspect of democratic schooling be emphasized in real time. And I am looking forward to observing instances of this mentoring in action. In my school years past, I had seen various peer to peer mediation clubs and such be implemented. But unlike this meeting, students were not asked what they wanted out of the process, which is something Caroline really encouraged from the students (though they were quite shy and reluctant to respond). Another thing that intrigues me is the mention of the school being a democratic environment, and what that says about public schools across the United States. It amazes me to realize that although our public schools operate in a democratic country (albeit representative as opposed to direct/participatory), they rarely function as such. Mentors at AFS are expected to sit alongside the younger ones at council meetings (important mediation meetings about rules or behavioral issues, which are called into session by the students themselves). They are also encouraged to be a minor outlet for counseling about issues their mentee has, to get to know the student and help them learn the ways that the school works, how to be fair, etc. Kids at public schools are never trusted to have this kind of responsibility, and other than the fact that traditional schools are not structured for cooperative and egalitarian relations, there is not real reason for public school students to grow up with no real conception of how democracy works.
Caroline seems to have an awareness of the students’ personalities, and this allowed her to gauge what younger students are best paired with the older mentors. But she also encourages the mentors to make that choice as well. One student said she wouldn’t do well with a chatty mentee, because she tends to be more on the laid back and quiet side. There was an awareness that sometimes, certain groups or pairings of people do not flow well, and it’s better not to force otherwise. Caroline’s ability to observe group dynamics during the school day and special activities is something that I hope to develop over time.
The meeting came to a close with an annoucement that Caroline knows of an interfaith soup kitchen where the kids can be involved in helping a community in a way that is different from mentoring at the free school. She wants to have them be “exosed to the world of community service” and that they are all welcome to come up with their own ideas and plans of being active in the community. This was also something that stands apart from public schools in that service moves beyond a mandatory requirement that is left unexamined as to how it benefits you as a person.     
It is mind opening to see how alternative learning environments may be doing some of the same programs as traditional schools, but the language, meaning, and implementation are worlds apart.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Mentorship in Democratic Learning Environments

  1. “being a leader without being controlling”.

    This is a lovely post. It speaks to all that we are learning about what’s needed in leadership now: the capacity to create trust among team members, to lead through influence rather than coercion or positional authority, the ability to capitalize on our inherent interdependence in ways that are powerful for everyone.

    And it’s so right on about schools, and most conceptions of students as leaders in them. Thank you so much at this lovely look at democratic practice as it is unfolding beautifully at AFS and in Caroline’s world of influence.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 11, 2012, 8:58 am
  2. I’m sure everyone is packing up to move to Charlottesville to start a free school with me, right?
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 12, 2012, 8:42 am

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