Last March, Esquire revealed what it called the current “War on Youth.” In July, Newsweek dubbed millennials “Generation Screwed.” In the middle of this mayhem, young people have been left on the sidelines, given the cold shoulder, and ignored. In my life, I’ve been told to shut up, sit down, and listen. I witness this every single day at school. Top-down, rigid policies dictate word-for-word what students and teachers must do and learn. As a young person, very few seem to be on our side and even fewer attempt to strengthen our voice. Education thought leader Paulo Freire once quipped, “If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.”
In keeping with the “listening to students” theme this week, Nikhil Goyal over on Good has a short piece on Democratic Schools where students are empowered to choose their learning environment. The pro-reformer/charter school warrior in me reads the article’s subtitle “Adults need to get out of the way” and envisions a Lord of the Flies situation. Who among us teachers doesn’t have a little bit of the Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and short” view of human nature? Have you seen what happens in PE when there is a substitute? Seriously.
The state of nature aside, I also know listening to children and allowing them to make meaningful choices are cornerstones of becoming self actualized people. What troubles me is which children are afforded the opportunity to attend these Democratic Schools; they are largely privileged and white (for a visual illustration of what I’m talking about, check out the contrast in uniforms between minority/low-income charters and white/wealthy private schools). At the same time all children need clear boundaries and students from underserved communities in particular need to be explicitly taught the rules and norms of what Lisa Delpit calls “the culture of power.”
As it often does, the answer here must lay somewhere in the middle. Could we potentially diagnose scaffold and assess our student autonomy in the same way we do their academic skills? What new school-wide structures could be built around this data set? I believe, along with Paulo Freire, that “to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” As educators we have an obligation to afford our students the opportunity to make choices that go beyond choosing between making a diorama or writing a poem for their book report on “The Giver.” Lord knows I have failed in this area but here are some thoughts I have:
- Allow students to choose topics that interest them: As much as possible, give students choice about what they learn and how they learn it.
- Let students create classroom charters and social contracts: Check out Ms. Thompson’s example here.
- We must change the way our school days are organized: When we want the same outcomes for all students (objective mastery or “college readiness”) we cannot expect all students to reach those goals in the same amount of time. Students who are behind or who have special needs will require more time to learn as well as more one-on-one feedback and coaching. At my former school we experimented with “Working Wednesdays” during which each 12th grade students were given an individualized schedule depending on their 1) needs and 2) ability to manage their time. I’d love to see a school where daily schedules were differentiated and lock-step progression was thrown out the window. Anyone know of examples?
- Our instruction should be authentic: Students absolutely crave the chance to be treated like an adult and to learn in relevant ways. Why not mix internships at local law offices, police departments, and city halls with a few lectures, papers and exams and call it a government credit? Why not teach World War II via a research project on your city’s involvement complete with field trips to the local museum or archive and guest lectures from local veterans?
Does anyone have experience teaching at a Democratic School? I am particularly interested in learning about people who have used these ideas in underserved communities – anyone? What other thoughts do you have about the role of student choice in our schools?