Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Courage And The Democratic Teacher

This post is a little different because I am writing about my philosophy of education and a few examples of how I resolved the on-going struggles of teaching in a democratic classroom. I have three books to recommend for adults about democratic education and one book to recommend to middle and high school students about people working for social justice/change.

Teaching is often said to be the hardest job in the world, after parenting, but if good teaching is hard being a good democratic teacher is even harder because many people do not understanding what it is like to teach in an institution that promotes "democratic ideology"  but isn't a democratic structure -it is a paradox that entangles teachers. I often felt alone, unsupported, and misunderstood and struggled working in an environment that really did not support democratic teaching practices, as it challenges the status quo. Those in school leadership felt threaten by the shift in the balance of power when students question the relevance of what they were ask to learn. Teaching demands that one examines and questions ones belief systems because our actions have profound impacts on our students. Self examination is often painful and lonely but we cannot live our life trapped in the confines of our egos. And while we should sometimes practice megacongnition (thinking about our thinking) alone, we should  much more often reflect with others, especially those who are different from us, and be wary when we walk in drumbeat rhythm of our suppose nature, fate, or calling. It is important to develop a support systems and not only did I have important on-going discussions with my colleagues, I read about what other democratic educators, like Deborah Meire, Art Pearl, Nick Meire, Paulo Freire, and others, were doing in their classrooms, schools and communities. They taught me the importance of aesthetics,democratic education and social imagination. I wondered, looked at, revised, acted, questioned, and change my world because of my connection to these profound educators.

Democratic educators help students develop citizenship skills through explicit attempts and practices required of democratic citizenship.This takes deliberate construction of experiences and knowledge systems built into students everyday practices. History and civics while important, represent only a part of democratic values. The world is faced with many problems. These problems cannot be solved without a democratic process, and becomes worse the more the intelligence of the public is insulted, it is known as a "dumbing down" process. Essential to a democratic resolution of social and personal problems, is a reconstructed school that prepares all students to be effective problem solvers. It must be understood at the outset that an ideal "democracy" is an unattainable goal. Democracy can only be a hypothetical vision used to measure progress much as infinity does in mathematics.

There are six attributes if democracy that have been generally recognized and I have applied them to education. These are: 1) the nature of authority, 2) the ordering and inclusiveness of membership, 3) the determine of important knowledge, 4) the definition and availability of rights, 5) the nature and participation in the decisions that effect one's life and 6) equality. I add a seventh which I believe derives from democracy - an optimal learning environment available to all students. It is the entwining of these different democratic requirements that determine whether the school and classroom are able to become more democratic. The long-term goal for a democratic classroom is that all students are capable of fulfilling the requirements of an informed, active, and responsible democratic citizen.

1) Authority. A democratic authority in a school, be it principal, teacher, administrator, advocate, coach, counsellor, or para professional, leads by persuasion and negotiation. No education can be even minimally democratic, or inclusive, if no persuasive case can be made for it. No teacher can be minimally democratic and inclusive if she/he cannot make a persuasive case that what is being taught is worth learning, or, when students accept the value of the curriculum, the teacher cannot make a persuasive case that all students in the class are capable of mastering that which is being taught.

2) Inclusiveness and the democratic classroom. The classroom is democratic and socially inclusive to the extent to which it welcomes all students as equally valued members of the school community. Democratic education, by definition, is deeply concerned with injustice and asymmetrical power. However, the democratic teacher does not allow inequity to be an excuse for poor student performance. Democratic authority responds to students when they claim to be treated unjustly, or have been victimised by abusive power, by suggesting ways that the problems raised can be made part of the curriculum, or, when injustice or abusive power interferes with a problem solving project, suggest ways to remedy that situation.

3) Important Knowledge -- The democratic curriculum. A school is a place where students acquire important knowledge and develop important skills, or going there is a waste of time. Democratic education cannot be effective unless it is a persuasive and coherent response to existing curriculum directions. It is not easy because curriculum and testing have become centralized, where process is more important than content, and where it has become increasing dumbed down, trivialised, and important subjects such as the arts, music and PE have been eliminated. The evidence is overwhelming that all students resist efforts to coerce them to master that which they find irrelevant. Even the few that do excel do so for utilitarian reasons - as a necessary means to succeed in a credentialed society. Just what is important knowledge, and who decides what is or is not important? Important knowledge in this case, is that knowledge that students believe can be used to solve important problems. While ultimately it is the student that decides what is or is not important, it nevertheless falls on the teacher to make a persuasive case for school derived knowledge. A good teacher inspires students to be interested in academic content, social justice, environmental and other important issues that must be addressed if we are to survive as a species.

4) Rights. Students are guaranteed a finite number of very specific rights. If a foundation for a democratic classroom is to be established, student rights will be few in number,(at least originally), and will be universal and inalienable. Students enter a democratic classroom with rights established, and then learn to be responsible. These rights have stood the test of time (1) the right of free expression, (2) due process, (3) the right of privacy, (4) the right of movement (i.e., not to be a captive audience). Part of the mandate of the democratic classroom is to help students define rights. Such a discussion is likely to be most profitable when the teacher advances the notion that a right is any unabridged activity that does not restrict the activities of other, or, require from others some special effort.

5) The nature of participation in decisions that affect one's life. Democracy, by definition, is government by the means of the people participate in the decisions that effect their life. Here, we confront two problems. One, a decreasing number of individuals committed to participate in citizenship activities. Two, those that do participate are too often insufficiently informed to be responsible citizens. We have through a variety of changes become consumers of politics, not producers of politics. It is important to organize schools to derive knowledge for the solutions to important social and personal problems, it is also necessary to organize classroom activities to create opportunities for all students to develop a variety of citizenship arts. These arts include the ability to engage in civil exchanges with a wide range of others, to listen with understanding and empathy, to develop coherent proposal based on logic and evidence, and to create visions, to negotiate differences between what others propose are negotiable, and to hold one's ground when differences aren't negotiable (and be able to tell the difference), to learn how to organize a constituency in support of a proposal/vision, and to learn how to meld coalitions with other groups on particular issues.  It's only under democracy that all students are equally encourage to reach her/his potential.

6) Establishing optimum learning environments for learning.
 a) Encouragement to risk. Decreasingly the classroom has become a place where students take chances. There us too much to lose and not enough to gain when students risks opinions and challenge authority. The emphasis on high stakes testing (fraudulently defined as standards) and increased effort to control student behavior only serves to discourage risks. How can we expect students solve pressing personal and social problems, how can we expect them to create visions of a better world if we cannot provide a classroom climate where risk taking is the norm?
b) Elimination of unnecessary discomfort. Classrooms are not very comfortable places. Some discomfort is unavoidable, learning new things is at times uncomfortable, but my concern is with those discomforts that are avoidable and routinely become part of classroom practice - public humiliation, boredom and loneliness.
c) Meaning. Meaning is an important gratification. Humans struggle to make sense of their world. Meaning has two definitions. One deals with utility, how can I use what I am being asked to learn. The other is understanding what is expected of me in the classroom.
d) A sense of competence. A good part of a teacher's life is devoted to establishing a ranking of competence, something I always struggled with, because competence is too narrowly and arbitrarily defined, it is time to bury letter grades and traditional report cards. With competence it is not so much what students have done, but more what they are encouraged to believe they can do that determines student performance. In other words, when students have a positive sense of ability and efficacy to do a task, they are more likely to choose to do the task, persist at it, and maintain their effort. Efficacy and competence beliefs predict future performance and engagement even when previous performance is taken into account.
e) Belonging. Humans are a gregarious species. If the school does not take pains to welcome all students as full fledged members of centripetal learning community, students will search elsewhere to gratify a need for belonging. Cooperative learning is one strategy that can facilitate feelings of belonging and breakdown prejudices.
f) Usefulness. Schools are organized for future usefulness. Students are asked to put their lives on hold as a kind of promissory note. In a democratic classroom activities are organized for immediate utility. The problems solved are problems students perceive to be real and important. All students are recruited to help with the instruction and serve in many different capacities. All engage in cross age tutoring (when our kindergarten teachers had 36-38 students in a class for several years before class size reduction, my students were "life-savers"). All share research results, all have valuable roles to play in cooperative educational projects. All engage in community service that is integrated within the curriculum. All are part of a socially inclusive curriculum.
g) Hope. Hopelessness now comes at us from many different directions. Pessimism is reflected in opinion polls and loss of confidence in one's ability to influence one's future. Pessimism and social exclusion is becoming the one common characteristic in modern post-industrial life, many fear the capitalist dream is not for them. In a democratic classroom serious effort is made to equally encourage all students to be hopeful. But it's more than mere optimism. In a democratic classroom all students are given reasons to be hopeful, they are encouraged to dream and keep their options open. Problems are presented as opportunities for the creation or discovery of solutions.
h) Excitement Excitement is a legitimate and important human need and is another hallmark of the democratic classroom. Teachers must relinquish control, and students must participate in activities where they generate important knowledge, make important discoveries, participate in important decisions, and create visions of a better world.
i) Creativity. Humans are, by nature, a creative species. Each generation creates a new world. In a democratic class all students are encouraged to be constructively creative and to use creativity for community building i.e., to make the class far more interesting, exciting and creative place than is currently the case; and, far more interesting, exciting and creative than any of the current "reforms" i.e. The No Child Left Behind Act!
j) Ownership. Students are motivated to learn if they believe that learning is in their or their community interest. If everything done in the class is done to please or impress some external authority, performance suffers. All of this should call for a re-examination of intelligence - intelligence should be considered an ecological attribute - it is the expression of individual capacity to learn under optimal learning conditions. I talked about my own deficiencies, limitations, and the like, all the while getting students to challenge their own personal limitations and relationships to forms of alienation, oppression and subordination. Teaching for me presented a platform to both critique the present social and cultural structures as well as find ways to etch out possibility and social imagination.
7) Equality. Equality is a vital principle in democracy and it also difficult to define and difficult to achieve, no matter how defined. Effective social movements have been organized to make society equitable. Issues such as, race, gender, class and sexual orientation have been prominent. In the 20th century the campaigns for women' suffrage, the organization of industrial workers, and the civil rights movement are examples of progress towards equality. Sadly, history teaches us the progress made can also be lost. We now have a government in grid lock, with two costly unresolved wars, political unrest around the globe, economic downturn brought about by many factors, including greed, technology and the negative consequences of a global economy. And young people with huge debts, and lack of livable wage employment opportunities. The ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots (plus countless social, environmental, and other problems) we still have a long ways to go. Whether equality is attainable is a political question that cannot be ascertained in advance. Moreover, while absolute equality is beyond reach, progress toward such a goal is realistic and is what a democratic education strives for.  Progress toward greater equality can only be made if the processes by which inequality are maintained, can be precisely identified, and specific action taken to reduce their effect. After 30 years of classroom teaching I found that  by equally encouraging all students, much of the differences by race, ethnicity and class disappears.

Moving towards democracy. Some practical issues the classroom teacher faces and though it may seem trivial these are important issues that impact the way students feel about themselves and each other. Every school has its own culture and some practices teachers may not feel comfortable with but they have pick and choose their battles. Many of us (staff) didn't like the school awards program because it was always the same students that receive awards, year after year. But after several staff meetings our principal over road our desire to eliminate the academic achievement awards. Since I had regular class meetings I decided to discuss this issue with my class. I told them that I felt the awards were detrimental to building community. I talked to them about how I felt it was unfair and that I didn't want to be put in the position to choose the six who would received awards each semester.They all worked hard and deserved acknowledgement. I wanted to boycott the awards assemblies and wanted my students support. Well, it didn't work out that way. Students that wanted to participate in the assembly were the ones that have always received good grades/awards in the past. Others shared how bad and disappointed they felt because they thought they would never receive an award and they liked the idea of boycotting. But in the end, they didn't want to be the only class that didn't participate. Someone proposed a solution that they all agreed was acceptable. They decided a random method of selection would be fair and allow them to participate in the assemblies.   I had a shoebox that students decorated at the beginning of the school year. I put slits in the top for popsicle sticks. Each stick had a students name on it. I drew the sticks at random when questioning students during lessons as a means to insure that everyone participated. So my class decided that six sticks would be randomly pulled and those students would receive the awards. It still made me feel bad because I knew and my students knew that there would be students who would never receive an academic achievement award. They decided everyone should receive adwards and I made each student an award and they made awards for each other. After the school awards assembly we had a classroom celebration of learning. I had hoped they would take a stand and boycott but I gave them a problem to solve and respected their solution. I guess it bothered me more than my students, and my lesson was the awards were about them, not me or my feelings.

Another issue I found troublesome was the old Carnegie unit (i.e. letter grade) and the traditional report card. What does an A or B in reading or mathematics really mean? We need to have deep and thoughtful discussions about what it means to be an educated person, what is worth knowing and how do we fairly measure academic growth. I used informal as well as formal assessments that included teacher and student generated rubrics, projects, portfolios and most importantly, student self-assessments. I met with each student individually to review their portfolios and completed their report cards together. It was hard and a  huge undertaking in a class of 33-35 students, but the results were worth it.

Schooling continues to be antagontagistic to democracy. Too many students look elsewhere to get a sense of the world and their responsibility to it. Strong constituencies are marshaled to maintain the present educational system. While students resist authoritarianism, they are no better off because of that resistance. They too often enter the world ill-equipped and overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. That condition is the logical conclusion of the education they receive. It is in the context of history that I believe democratic education should be tested. Ultimately, I support democratic education because it enlist and prepares students for informal participation in efforts to solve problems critical to our survival as a species.

I will always engage in the constant and often difficult processes of meaning-making, dialogue and reflexive questionings of my actions in the world. In attending to how things could be otherwise, I don't want to sound like I have a "solution". 30 years of classroom teaching has taught me that there will always be unanswered questions. But I keep trying to choose the possible against the limits,  because I'm most afraid of numbness.


Recommended Books for Adults:
The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier
The Atrocity of Education  by Art Pearl
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Recommended for middle and high school students:
101 Changemakers Rebels and Radials Who Changed US History  edited by Michele Bolinger and Dao Tran
In the great tradition of Howard Zinn, 101 Changemakers offers students a "people's history" of the individuals who have changed our world. In the place of founding fathers, presidents, and titans of industry, are profiles of those who courageously fought for social justice in the US.


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