Birth of a democracy

Let’s face it.  Teachers are dictators.  We are the ultimate leaders in our little fiefdom and no matter how student centered we try to make our classrooms,  ultimately we are the ones calling the shots, creating the fun-filled lessons, doling out the privileges and meting out the punishments .  What if all that changed?  What if the teacher takes on an advisory sort of role and helps the students govern themselves.  Let the students decide what to learn, what to do, when to do it etc.

We did just that in my middle school classroom.

This time last year, it was the end of OAT testing and the students were mentally wiped.  As far as they were concerned, school was OVER!  However, they still had many things to improve on their report cards.  But, they didn’t care.  The last month of school was full of battles, bribes and brouhaha.  This year, we decided to do something different.

For the past couple of years we have observed our students not caring about their learning, rebelling every chance they got.  Sitting in class and drumming, fiddling, talking, whispering, passing notes, acting out etc. etc.  Even when lesson were “fun” there was always the few who thought it was lame and basically put a damper on everything.  I was not the type to take this personally but still I wanted to know get them hooked on learning. I created  a complicated classroom economy, which most of the students enjoyed to force some responsibility and accountability on them other than the their report cards.  I Sent home weekly progress reports.  I e-mailed parents.  Still, I felt most of my time was managing students behavior.  The most dreaded task of any teacher.  I have to admit, I was controlling.  I was a fair and benevolent but a dictator nonetheless.

As I was dreading yet another repeat of last May where the students groaned and griped as soon as I mentioned any sort of academic learning, we changed everything.

We decided to let the students take control of the classroom and decide what they will do and we would just be members of the community.  We put theses basic parameters on the table:

  1. First and foremost the teachers are here to facilitate learning and our priority will be given to academic subjects.
  2. You can choose to do anything you like as long as it does not interfere with the learning of others.
  3. You can choose anything to do as long as the physical, social and safety of each person is observed and also that the school property must be kept in tact.

Well, you can imagine the joyful shouts of glee when the students first heard about this!  Free at last!

Well, those shouts of joy quickly dissipated when our first “problem” occurred on a walking field trip to the local park,  less than an hour of the birth of our democracy.  I decided to take  all the students (we combined most of the students from two classes) on an all day excursion to some wonderful parks within a few miles of our school.  We packed our lunches and set out for a day of adventure. Some minor incidents happened but were quickly resolved.  Then the “ORANGE” incident occurred.  I was sort of in the front third of the group of kids when I turned around to check the back just in time to see a student about to hurl a orange at the kids further back.  Well, I stopped that from occurring.  I gathered all the students together and wanted an explanation.  I expected the truth, and was ready to say we shouldn’t throw food blah blah blah and then carry on.  Instead, I got these bizarre accounts of what happened,which my Spidey sense knew were lies.  It got to the point were the students were shouting, blaming, spewing lies etc.  So, in consultation with my prinicpal, I marched them all back for a meeting.  On the walk back I heard from three different students about what actually happened.

We wrote the problem on the board:  “Who threw the orange.”  Rather than fess up, no one admitted it, even though students told me what happened on the way back.  Instead, the same crazy stories I heard initially came forth, accusations flew once again.  More problems were written on the board  (issues of trust and safety).  The students were anxious to solve the problem to get going but none of the problems were solved.  It took 2 hours for the students to decide to let the teachers pick who should go on the walk.  After those students were chosen the rest spent another half hour complaining why they weren’t chosen.  No punishment was meted out.  The consequence was simply not going on the walk.  The students had just completed their first foray into the messiness of democracy.

Thursday and Friday were also event filled.  Rules were created to manage the problems that keep occuring (too loud to work, students wandering around and bothering others, consequences of behavior).  Rules changed because students suggested and voted on solutions before even discussing the problems, so the essence of the problems did not get solved.  As teachers, we tried to suggest discussing the problem before deciding on a solution but the stubborn students insist on quickly making a motion and voting; only to gather again in a few minutes to try to solve the same problem!  I distinclty remember the “messy classroom” problem, which was discussed and “solved” three different times before an adequate solution was found.

After only three days, many of the students have had enough.  They want to go back to the old way.  They are begging  for their dictator!  The one they loved to hate and blame before.  But, she is gone.  She is a member of the newly formed democratic classroom and like Washington who did not want to be King of the United States even though they wanted him to,  this teacher does not want to return to her role as dictator.


One response to this post.

  1. What a breakthrough! What an unburdening! For you, Silvia, more than for the students. They are just beginning to learn what life is (should be) for them… choices, choices, choices. You, on the other hand, have let go a rarely acknowledged dictum in our profession: maintain control first, so learning can occur.

    Of course, classroom management issues can be eased by creative lessons that spring out of connections to real life. For most of any class, engagement ensues. But, there are those students who will test even the best teachers (you’ve alluded to that). Now you’ve set them free to sink or swim by the choices they make. And glory of glories! Their peers have sought justice and shown compassion for each other (the very character traits you’ve been working to instill at TIS).

    I was concerned that the democratic experiment at TIS was too hastily adopted. But I’ve changed my mind about that. You and Cathy (Dr. Whitehouse) know your students well. The TIS culture of civility and high expectations is the ocean in which these 31 students have been swimming for some years. Some students were ready for a channel crossing to self-directed learning. Others have now been asked to go the distance on their own… for the first time. Before UDS, they were rescued by TIS rules and Queen Lily’s good graces. Now they are dependent on their own wits (and peer pressure). You can abdicate your queenly authority to become a “commoner” learner with them.

    From a distance, I sense this is what you’ve aimed for all along. There will be no relaxation of your role as chief learner and guide for the group. But, it’s pretty great to read that in Week Two of UDS you are seeing students accept responsibility for their decisions in concrete ways. TIS has built the scaffolding for their success in this experiment. Even adults don’t like meetings that interrupt the flow of good things happening… i.e. “Let me be; I’m busy learning something cool.”

    BTW, I watched a Netflix movie last night called Chalk. It was so real that I thought I was watching a documentary about three rookie teachers and one new assistant principal in an urban middle school. I laughed and cried recognizing what life can be like in a school where expectations are mixed and respect is dictated rather than earned authentically. Talk about contrast.

    I’m wagering there will be students who don’t want UDS to end in June. Summer school anyone?


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