Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Reflections from Students…

In a very undemocratic way I asked (no, I’ll be honest…I demanded) students to write a reflection about their Urban Democratic School experience.

Here are some of their musings…

I liked the whole unschool thing.  When I was in regular school we did not get to have choices.  When we were in unschool I got to work in all the things I knew I had to work on.  In school we have to do subjects that we don’t want to have anything to do with.  – Girl (11)

We started this thing called unschool.  We got to do whatever we pleased but we had to follow all these rules.   There were about 40 rules we created.  Every time someone was disturbing someone we had a problem.  It felt like we had a problem every two minutes.  I really hated it.  With a passion.  Everyday we had to make choices, either academic or non-academic.  Academic was to help with our grades on the report card.  Non-academic was where we could play games all day and do nothing.  I tried my best to do all academics but I wanted my free time also.  – Girl (12)

I liked the unschool because sometimes I don’t want to do school work all the time.  So, sometimes I did some non-school activities.  I liked that we had two rooms.  We had a academic room and a non-academic room.  One thing I didn’t like about this was that every five minutes we had a problem.  It felt like we spent two hours every day  solving problems.  And then we never got to do anything.  Also, I didn’t like the progress reports.  They were too much to explain to parents.  I didn’t want to explain my choices.  –   Boy (13)

It was kind of fun and sometimes not.  We can choose whatever we want to for the day.  We had ten blocks in a day.  The choices can either be academic or non-academic.  I made my choices in a pattern, academic, non-academic, academic, non-academic. The not so fun thing about unschool was the problems took a long time to solve.  The ones that took long were the problems the teachers put on the board.  When the students put a problem on the board, they usually didn’t make sense so those got solved or dismissed quickly.  – Boy (12)

UDS was pretty good.  I got a lot of work done in a short time. I got all Ms on my report card because of UDS.  The only thing I did not like was the long class meetings.  Also I did not like the when we combined the classes.  It was too chaotic sometimes and we had to have a lot of meetings.  Sometimes it took us two hours to solve the problems.  But I liked how we had a room for academics and a room for games and talking.  I got a lot of work done in the academic room.  There were no distractions and it was nice and quiet.  The fun room was fun because we didn’t have to worry about distracting the people who were trying to learn.  Overall, UDS was fun at times and boring at times.  I kind of hope we have it next year.  – Boy (13)

UDS is a community that allows you to do whatever you want without disturbing others. I was happy we could do anything we wanted.  I could do games instead of work. In the beginning it was rough.  We always were in a meeting trying to solve problems.   I did not like how long the meetings took.  Whenever we had to do a meeting we made up rules and a lot of times the rules did not make sense. Sometimes meetings were called because someone got a reset.  It’s not the end of the world to get a reset, but some kids think that it is. I like, however, the split rooms.  One room for academics and one room for games.  All in all if we follow the rules and make good decisions it would be fun.  – Boy (11)

I disliked unschool.  I hated the meetings.  I hated how I  had to leave what I was doing to try to solve problems that were none of my business.  I also did not like the fact that we had to plan our day in the morning and then start and stop the timer for each block. [Teacher Note:  The student who actually devised the timed “block” system to organize our day is the one who wrote this reflection!] I didn’t like being with the other class.  UDS was a failure.  – Girl (12)

I  think unschool was unique in a sort of good way.  It attempted to teach us about responsibility for what we did in school as far as our learning choices and behavior.  I thought at first that I wouldn’t get anything out of it because the students would be able to do what they pleased and we wouldn’t get suspended.  Instead of trouble though, we wrote a problem on the board and then sit there and discuss the problem.  Sometimes it would take two hours to create one rule.  In general, I am 50/50 on the unschool thing but I am also 50/50 on the regular school. One word that describes unschool is responsibility. – Boy (13)

The unschool system was different.  I felt weird planning my own school day, and making my own choices.  At some points, it was hard, but at others it was fun.  We got to do what we wanted, when we wanted.  But in my personal opinion, I wanted regular school.  The meetings were annoying.  It felt like every 30 minutes we had a meeting over something stupid.  I had no choice but to participate.   If we could do something besides a meeting, to come together, it would be less boring and then I would want the system.  I really liked the system, but we need something better to do than a meeting.  – Girl (11)

For me USD or unschool was great.  What I didn’t want to do, I didn’t have to do.  I could have just played games all day long or I could do academics all day long.   I could sleep til’ lunchtime if I wanted to, which I wouldn’t be able to do in regular school.  I liked the freedom of being able to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.  The other great thing about unschool was that I got to choose what specials I wanted to take.  If I wanted to take two computer classes I could.  If I wanted to take one art class and one computer class I could do that too.  I didn’t have to go to any specials that week if I didn’t want to. Some people wanted unschool at first, but then they didn’t want it anymore because we had problems that nobody wanted to solve. I admit the problems were aggravating but overall it was worth it.  – Girl (12) [ Teacher Note:  This young lady is a  well-behaved and hard working student during regular school]


In the Trenches of Regular School

For the past three days I have been stuck in my classroom with my students as they desperately try to complete the required assessments.  I am spending my time shushing,  lecturing,  and inwardly crying.

I hate this.  Regular school sucks.

The same kids who earlier in the month felt that they will not learn if they are allowed choices, now balk at the choice- less world of regular school.

“Do we have to go to special?”

“Yes, you have to go to special.”   I need a break!  – something I didn’t have during Urban Democratic School.  However, what was different, is that I felt I didn’t need a break.  It was enjoyable to learn with and be with the students all day.  I actually felt like a “teacher, ” and it felt good.

“I don’t feel like working on writing.”

“Well, we are all working on the same thing at the same time,   just like regular school. ”  I know how my students feel.  I don’t feel like doing something at a certain time.  Some things we don’t have a choice on (paying bills and taxes, taking out trash, grading assessments  etc.)  but some things we can choose to work on at our convenience.  Not in regular school, students are scheduled to death.

“This is so boring.”

“Oh, well.”  What can I say to that.  Tell them it’s not. Some things we have to teach according to the State Standards are boring and irrelevant as far as I am concerned.  Furthermore, I think it’s boring and frustrating managing behavior.  I am not teaching.  I  am a controller and manager.  I am trying to make students do what they don’t want to.  The only reason some are motivated is because of grades or I planned an extra fun lesson/activity.

Of course teachers can make learning fun.  Indeed fun and creative teachers are praised and lauded.  I am praised for that.  I have come up with many exciting lessons throughout the years ( we studied bread as a year long social studies theme, took a simulated trip to Brazil (complete with airplane snacks and mailed postcards home), built a scale model of the Great Lakes, produced and sold little toys,  created a forest, produced  wonderful class picture books, did author studies, used movies, plays and songs, went on field trips, read amazing books,  etc.  etc.)  Year after year I change what we do because I am not one to stick with the same old same old.  I get bored too!  Students may remember a fun activity or a particular mnemonic for memorizing – but what did they really learn?  Will knowing a certain body of knowledge help them in life  or just help them score well on a test?   Where is their passion to continue with something once the “entertainment” is over?    Is that what we want for our students, to equate learning with entertainment?  Or, do we want them to possess that inner drive, that fire in the belly passion for a subject – any subject.  If students have the inner desire to learn, do we need entertaining lessons?

More than ever I am committed to the idea of the Urban Democratic School philosophy.  I believe it is the cure-all for public education.  Last year someone asked me what is the answer for failing urban schools.  I think I flippantly said, bomb the system.  Start fresh.  I still think that way.

This is my answer:

Public schools should be the neighborhood community center (replacing churches and boys girls clubs as the traditional glue that hold neighborhoods together).

The school hours should be flexible:  6am – 9pm, to accommodate working caregivers.   Students do not have to attend the whole day but there should be a minimum required amount of hours.

Students and teachers and school community members will govern the school and establish rules that ensure the safety and well-being of people and the up-keep of the  property.

Official school should be publicly be funded beginning at the age of 4 and go on until the graduation requirements are met…whatever that age may be (let’s say until 21). The fact that some kids come in several years behind makes sense to extend the age of graduation.  (Though having a daycare/pre-school as part of the School makes a lot of sense too).

These community schools  should be small – no more than 250 kids.  We are trying to build a neighborhood-family feel.

The classrooms should be divided into learning centers:  reading room, writing room, math, biology, chemistry, physics,  gross motor areas,  a full kitchen,  cafe,   dining area, crafts, dance, arts, gym, technology,  safe outdoor areas, animal room, shop with woodworking, welding etc.

Students would pursue their passions and learn according to their pace.  Collaboration and sharing is encouraged.  If an adult has not learned how to read yet, what is wrong with an adult and a five or six year old reading and learning together?

Teachers would be in charge of rooms, but can also float around facilitating learning and guiding students in their pursuits.  They could offer course,  but more importantly they would let the students determine their learning.

There would be no grades and no grade levels.  This would eliminate the stigma of “failing”.  How can we expect a child who came two to three years behind learn twice and three times as fast as their peer who came in on track.  It would also eliminate the even more dangerous habit of schools who pass students for social reasons, which I think is the real reason for high dropout rates in grade nine and ten.  The students are frustrated, they clearly are not ready for the rigorous demands of high school and just drop out.  It does not surprise me that Cleveland has a 54% graduation rate.  Their test scores indicate that more students should be failing than get failed…eventually this has to catch up.  No more grade levels…no more stigma.  You are not the “dumbest” one in class…how can that even  be determined if you are in a math room with students ranging in age from 4-21?

Rather than report cards or progress reports or open houses, parents would be encouraged to drop in and see what their child is learning and perhaps even learn with them.

Community members (properly screened for safety purposes) would be encouraged to volunteer and also to pursue their interests, so the classrooms would become  multi-age centers of learning.  (Being a part of the Intergenerational School I have seen first-hand the many benefits of the generations working and collaborating together).

In order to graduate, an exit process will be devised that will show the student is ready to become a spirited citizen of the community.

No grade levels, no grades, no artificial construct of how long learning should take,  truly is a system where no child is left behind.

That is the answer.  It seems lofty but doable.  There are schools that exist like this around the world.  They are all private.  We need it to be public.

I like it!

Yesterday at dismissal a student and I were sharing seating space on a rock waiting for her parents to pick her up. A teacher came by and asked me how are things going in the “unschool.” Before I could say anything, the student piped up, “I like it!”  Wow, I thought.   You do?  Why?   She said that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and then she can give herself little breaks throughout the day.  Her passion is writing,  so she chooses quite a few writing blocks throughout the day.  This student is not a problem student. She is well behaved and works well under any circumstances.  What urban democratic school  did for her was allow her the time to pursue her passion. As a result, instead of the  traditional  hour per day of writing workshop, she can have multiple times per day to visit and revisit her writing – just like a real writer would do.

9 Learning Blocks!

On the very first day that  our democratic community was born, we decided to divide the day into 1/2 hour learning blocks.  Anyone, we thought could stick with something (even if it was boring) for a half an hour.   We thought wrong.    On that very first day there were so many problems and  we took seemingly forever to solve the problems, that I believe we managed only  two completed blocks.  On the third day, I think we managed three.   Our reading mentor would walk in and think this is all nonsense because we were always having problems.  Growing pains, I countered.  It’s bound to get better.  Just wait and see.

Sure enough,  ay when he walked in to see the smooth running class he was pleasantly surprised.  He watched as students were engaged in a variety of activites, engrossed in what they were doing.  A far cry from the seeming mayhem that was happening barely a week before.

And today.  This glorious day.  Just our eighth day into our democratic school,  we managed to complete 9 learning blocks!  By the time the eighth rolled around I was so excited I high-fived all the students that were in the rooms (some were in specials).  They thought I was crazy.  What’s she so happy about ?

We did it!  You did it!  You wrote a plan and stuck with it without too much todoo (we had some minor problems, which we cleared up rather quickly)  and we completed our day!

We still have a long way to go but every milestone on the journey is worth a little celebration.

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.

Another day…another “problem.”

By the time the fifth learning block rolled around today at about 11:30 pm, Cathy (Dr. Whitehouse) and  I looked at each other in delightful shock.  We just completed two solid hours of learning blocks, without a “problem” that required a class meeting.

To clarify, our set of guidelines or rules that we created in the past few days stipulate that if someone has an issue or a “problem” then the protocol is that they write it on the board and convene a class meeting with all the students.  The meeting is  held immediately so that the problem can be resolved.  The first few days were filled with problems, thereby the plethora of rules to help us adhere to the simple principle of making choices that do not interfere with the rights of others.  These meetings are usually greeted with loud groans…”not another problem!”  The lack of enthusiasm for these meetings also leads to quick-fix  motions being raised and voted upon without adequate discussions.  These motions often do not solve the problems and before you know it…we are back at solving the same problem!

So, when the the fourth learning block bell sounded indicating the block was over,  we were so excited.  This was working!  This was working!  Some kids were choosing academics.  They were working quietly and productively in the academic room. Other students were earnestly playing games. I was working with a small group doing Numbers and Operations in math.  Life was good. For learning block five,  I and about eight students  just settled in on our comfy couches to do a read aloud book when the other class returned form lunch in a loud and noisy manner complete with arguing and banging.  Uh Oh!  I thought in my head, this will be a problem.  I looked around at my group of students and they all rolled their eyes….they knew what was coming  …a problem! Sure enough, we had to stop the block and go into the room and have a class meeting.

During this meeting, my  class’ lunch period would probably occur. So, before the meeting began  I promised that I would take the students who wanted to go, to lunch, but that we would be giving up our right to vote on an issue that may affect us.   Right at the same time we were to go to lunch, the vote came up.  I lined up my students.  Only two out of 15 elected to stay and vote.    I popped into the room and voted.  The motion was that if the whole class comes down noisily and we cannot discern who the noise makers were then the whole class gets a reset.  I thought that was fair.  Unfortunately, the motion was voted down because my class (who during the discussion supported the motion) was not there to vote and the noise makers class was!  It was interesting how my students were so willing to give up their right to decide a rule that would affect them!  They think,  you decide for me,  whatever.  I think that leads to the problem with school as we have it.  The powers that be are making the decisions. They are deciding what is best for the students.   Students are comfortable with that.  Someone else makes the rules and  then they decide whether they will abide with the rules.  It’s different now.   It is the students’  rules and their consequences that they have to adhere to.

This one problem generated a plethora of other problems.  There was almost a mutiny of sorts.   First, there was the issue of not allowing teachers  (first they said teachers who are older than 33 …darn just 9 years too old, then they changed it to older than 18) to present problems, thereby denying us the ability to be active participants in our democratic community.  Most of the students loved this idea.  If the teachers did not write problems then there would be nothing to discuss because the teachers were  the ones writing most of the problems.  What was fascinating was that many students still did not grasp the concept that the teachers were not creating the problems.  It was the students’ actions creating the problems.   Yesterday, one student pointed that fact out.  Today, two more meek  but courageous voices also spoke to that fact.  One suggested that the teachers keep us in check,  and without them there would be anarchy because we would just do whatever we want.  How wise of her to figure out that we do need a system of law and order.  Isn’t that true of our adult society as well and also the structure of our  government, which was designed to have checks and balances.   This problem was also  interesting because we likened it to disenfranchising a minority.  Dr. Whitehouse pointed out that this was like denying African-Americans and women the right to vote.  Dr.  Davis (another teacher) concurred and said minorities have been discriminated against throughout American history and that we as a society have grown to overcome that and accept people as equal.  I questioned that if I am not an active member of this community, why should I participate at all.  Why should I be an active member if my rights are not protected.  How fascinating that the students did not care that others were excluded as long as it was not them.  (After much discussion, the motion was voted against.  Whew! )

There was also a problem to stop this school and go back to the way things were.  The students who were having the most problems with this democratic approach to learning were the same students who did not choose to learn the traditional way!  Their arguments almost made me laugh because they said all we do is play games and we don’t get homework.  It was reflected back to them, is anyone forcing you to play games – no.  Is anyone stopping you from getting homework – no.  Is anyone stopping you from choosing all academics in learning blocks – no. Is anyone preventing you from planning your day or week anyway you would like – no.  Did you consult with a teacher to help you plan your day/week – no.  So, what’s the problem?

I think the problem is that these students who thrived on receiving negative attention for refusing to do work, acting out in class, disrupting lessons have lost that power.  They are not choosing academics.  Fine.  No problem.  There is a room where you can play or chat or sleep or one of our “favorite” choices, eat chips and drink pop. How can you be rebellious if there is nothing to rebel against?  Their power to “run” the room with their antics is gone.  Students who want to concentrate on academics can truly concentrate with a teacher who does not have to worry about looking over his or her shoulder about what so and so is doing.  Homework, was done consistently in the past about 30% of the time throughout the year.  Now, if you do homework at home, I will check that you did it at home, you will check the answers, if you have questions I am here to help you.  No more punishments.  You did it.  You get a check for doing it at home.  If you don’t understand something come to me and I will help you.

The responsibility for the learning belongs to the student.  It is his or hers to own.  It’s not the teachers’ job to make the student  do anything.  We are here to help them,  facilitate their learning but not force them. That is the fundamental difference and that  is a scary prospect for some kids.

Non-coercive Education–Is it possible?

Most successful urban public schools seem to be pretty good at getting students to do what teachers want them to do, and TIS is no exception. We have developed a clear all school behavior plan that is positive in approach, has clear expectations, and defined consequences. In general students behave well and comply. However, they truly have not taken the next step toward inner governance. In a democratic level of behavior, we don’t do the right thing because someone in authority is there making us do it; we do the right thing because it is good for both us and the greater community of which we are part.

We greatly fear for our students who are not able to achieve this final step, especially before high school. There, they will have many choices to make, both behaviorally and academically, that will either keep them on the path to academic and life success or derail them. We feel an urgency about instilling this capability in them.

We sometimes explain the term character to students by using the definition that character is what you do when no one else is looking. Our students are generally great when the teacher, visitor, mentor, or principal is looking, but things can quickly go awry when a responsible adult is not right there “looking.”

Academically, we have the same worries. Sure we can coerce most (or at least many) students to complete their classwork and homework, but to what end? It is coercion, pure and simple. You complete these things because you don’t want the bad grade, or your parents will put you on restriction, or some other bad consequence will result. But where is the joy and interest in learning?

At times it has seemed that our students don’t have any interest in learning anything–or at least anything that is part of the expected curriculum. Yet all children are born with a compelling drive and need to learn. Even newborns actively explore their environment. From the moment they can ambulate, toddlers seem to have a drive to get into everything. A kitchen cabinet filled with pots and pans can be an endless source of exploration and active learning. Toddlers crawl, climb, put everything into their mouth, bang, throw, sniff, examine, and , once they can talk, ask endless questions. All children have this innate impetus to learn.

School seems to wring this joyful exploration our of them. While most kindergartens still are places of exploration and wondering and constructing and experimenting, increasing standards and the accompanying tests are forcing schools to cut down on those kinds of activities in favor of experiences that will produce good test results.

The essence of “lifelong learning” is not in stuffing kids with a lot of content (as the test makers would have us do) but in teaching them the process of learning. No matter what their learning passion, a student should have effective tools for exploring that passion. And, most importantly, they should know how to recognize those passions and how to pursue them.

Before starting the Urban Democratic School, we asked students, “If you could come to school and learn anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, what would you want to do.” They were dumbfounded. Some said they would “do their work,” but when asked “what work would that be?” were unable to give any ideas. Most seemed unable to identify anything at all that they would like to learn about. This is frightening. Has education become so dysfunctional that is literally squeezes the inclination to learn out of children? Is this also a part of their toxic environment, in which electronic entertainment in all its various forms has replaced conversation, creating, pondering, and learning?

What we know from past years, is that our students work very hard to review and prepare for the state tests and THEN THEY ARE DONE. The remainder of the school year is a fruitless exercise in attempted coersion. So we decided to turn this into an opportunity rather than a daily battle and hence the birth of the Urban Democratic School, where students would direct their own learning (within a few broad parameters), teachers would facilitate that learning, and students would create a system of self-governance through the use of democratic principles and processes.

We, as teachers, will document this process and see if we have been successful in rekindling that innate curiousity and desire to learn that we know is lurking inside of each student.