Student revolt!

Wow, what could be better than a school where you can choose whatever you want to do?  No one “makes” you do anything that you don’t want to do.  You can learn about anything you wish to learn about.  And the teachers are there at your beck and call to help, guide, find resources, tutor, mentor, encourage.  No homework unless you choose to do extra work at home.  Sounds like utopia, or edutopia as others have coined the term.

Today, day 3 of the Urban Democratic School, we had student revolt!

Amazingly, we had 4 solid learning periods.  Yesterday the class had decided that we would plan our entire day at the beginning so that we could proceed from learning block to learning block without the need to meet and plan between each block.  The first 4 blocks were amazing.  I was in the quiet academic room.  We had students reading (and one dad who had dropped in for the day), partners working on social studies and writing projects, individual writing, conferencing about reading comprehension.  We even had a teacher meeting during block 2 that went  on while the students were working independently.  No problems, no interruptions, no need to be every alert for misbehavior.  It was heaven!

Then chaos descended.  When one group returned noisily from lunch, the entire process crumbled.  Time to solve a problem.  Silvia’s blog describes the gory detail, but disappointingly one problem led to another and before we knew it the remainder of the day was taken up with class meeting to solve problems.

Perhaps the most interesting “problem” was the plea to be able to go back to “regular school.”  Comments like this is stupid, this doesn’t make sense abounded.  The student who actually wrote this problem on the board was one who was highly unengaged in “regular school,” rarely put forth effort into schoolwork or homework, and was very often a behavior problem.  The problem was written as “can we go back to regular school?”

The first question (from the teachers) was a request to clarify what exactly the problem was.  We patiently answered (for about the 20th time) why we were doing this.  The students complained that they wanted to just come in and look at the schedule on the board to find out what they were supposed to do (even though in the past they would have then spent much of the day in “regular school” complaining about what they were assigned to do).  “We should come in and have math for 1 1/2 hours, then social studies, then a break, then lunch, then reading…”  Well, why not plan your day like that, the teachers replied.  You can schedule math for the first 3 learning blocks if you like.  Then social studies, etc.  “But we need the teachers to tell us what to do.”

The students seemed to have forgotten that as we planned the day, the teachers offered a variety of “courses” for which students could sign up.  I offered reading comprehension for block 1, read aloud of Barack Obama’s book for block 3, review of patterns and algebra for block 4.  Each teacher offered a variety of options.  These possibilities were announced during the planning time (after having been requested by individual students) and were open to everyone.  I ended up having ONE student in each of those blocks.

Another interesting argument from the students was that we are choosing games (actually critical thinking activities) because they are there and you are letting us choose them.  It is so curious that the students don’t hear how ridiculous that sounds.  It is YOUR (i.e. the teachers) fault that we are making unwise choices, because you are letting us choose.  We really wonder how long it will take them to begin to develop a sense of inner responsibility and accountability.  In our society, many seem to think that any bad outcome just has to be someone else’s fault.  (I am reminded of the “twinkie defense.”)  Clearly the beginnings of this attitude are present at 10 years of age.

We have begun to see the subtle shift from the non-academic choices to more academic ones.  I suspect that this shift will continue.  By the beginning of June, when school ends, will we have evolved to a mostly academic environment?  Will the students settle in to work on accomplishing self-chosen learning goals? Will the number who are growing impatient about the problem-causers begin to take an active role in standing up for their own rights? Will the students finally figure out that there is nothing to rebel against except the rules and expectations of their own peers?  If this happens, will “regular school” have a whole new and more effective look next year?  Will the Urban Democratic School continue?

Silvia and I were both reminded of the analogy to Iraq.  Suddenly the dictator is gone.  There is no one to tell you what to do, when to do it, and to chop off your head (or worse yet, call your parents) if you don’t.  The student revolt is on–we want the dictator back.  We don’t want to have all the work and trouble of making decisions for ourselves.  We want someone to complain to and about, someone to solve the very problems we create, someone to blame our failures on–because that way our failures are someone else’s responsibility.

If this experiment works, we may have just taught the most powerful lessons of the entire year–to them and to ourselves.

By the way, the revolt failed.  Our fledgingly democracy is still alive and well.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Peter Whitehouse on May 7, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Congratulations on starting the school and the blog. I have subscribed to your RSS feed. I also sent you a PDF about challenge-based learning from the New Media Consortium. Your challenge for the kids (and you) is how do you learn to start and maintain an unschool! I also love that “spirited citizenship” is thriving. Peter


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