Monday, November 23, 2009

Creating a Democratic Learning Community

is the focus of a new book by Sam Chaltain, National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. Sam previously worked with the First Amendment Schools Project, an experience that helped shaped this book. He is also founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which is a community educators, students and citizens committed to First Amendment Freedoms, democratic schools, and the idea that students should be seen and heard (and of which I am a member).

American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community has a Foreword by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor - herself long committed to a revitalization of civic education - and is valuable both as something to read to provoke one’s thinking, and as a resource for further exploration of the topic, especially for anyone concerned about preparing our students to learn to be citizens of a democracy.

While I want to concentrate on what Chaltain himself has written, it is worth noting a brief part of the Foreword by O’Connor. She writes on pp. xvii-xviii:
Ensuring that young people acquire the skills democracy imposes on us will require a concerted effort in school districts, at statehouses, and by the federal government. The pending congressional reauthorization of NCLB and the inauguration of our forty-fourth president make this an ideal time for American Schools to arrive, and for us all to remember that the primary purpose of public schools in America has been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge, the skills, and the values needed to sustain our centuries-old experiment in liberty.
As Sam Chaltain makes clear in the pages that follow, we can’t expect our schools to become more democratic if our school leaders don’t understand how to create more equitable school environments. And we can’t expect our democracy to perform well if our students do not learn about basic concepts of government or receive meaningful opportunities to exercise their rights responsibly.
Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene [ool. Every generation has to learn it, and we all learn best by doing.

In his own introduction, Chaltain equates being an American with the word Freedom and then tells us on his very first page
In that one word we capture the historic, partly fulfilled promise of the United States. And we name an irresistible, universal human impulse - to be in control of our own destiny, to feel visible to others, and to have a say in determining the shape of the world around us.

Those three ideas - control of our destiny, being visible to others, and having a say - are key ideas that run throughout the book, and undergird Chaltain’s understanding of the purpose of education, and hence how it should be structured.

He acknowledges the need for different degrees of freedom and the need for structure, but reminds us of the need to be attuned to the different degrees of freedom so that
we create the types of schools that confer not just academic diplomas, but also “degrees” of individual freedom, of civic responsibility, and of shared respect for the power and uniqueness of each person’s voice.

The book begins with the aforementioned forward and Introduction, those two sections bracketing a brief list of acknowledgements. It also contians a Prologue with the title “Ways of Seeing (and of Being Seen): The Art of the Democratic Learning Community” in which Chaltain shares some of his own teaching experiences, both in China and in a large public New York City high sc hool. From these experiences he offers what is for him an essential lesson if our learning environments are to be democratic, that the students feel that they are visible. From my standpoint as a classroom teacher in his 1ifteenth year of public school teaching, I found myself nodding my head at his criticisms of a structure of school that dissuades the development of long-term teacher-student relationships, and his recognition that a result can be that teachers and other leaders wind up not trusting, not having “opportunites to recognize the true worth and potential of the fellow human beings we are supposed to serve” because “we manage each other as we would manage inanimate things.” (p.6). One other passage from that Prologue also struck me, on the following page, where he writes
...if there is only one thing I would want schoosl to guarantee, it would be to help all young people acquire the skills and self-confidence they need to be visibie in the world.

The rest of the book has two main divisions. The first is labeled THEORY and includes chapters with titles that can be condensed each to one or two words: Reflect, Connect, Create, Equip, and Let Come. Each of these is parenthetically expanded, for example:

Connect (or, make the connections that let you “see the whole board”)

Each of these chapters thoroughly albeit briefly explores the concept and how it applies to the school setting , is well documented from the literature and often from schools Chaltain has visited, and offers resources to further help one explore the concept.

The second section is labeled PRACTICE and explores three schools Chaltain got to know from his days working with First Amendment Schools, a chapter each on Fairview Elemenatry in Modesto, CA; Nursery Road Elemnetary in Irmo, SC; and Mondanock Community Connections School in Swanzey, NH. We learn from the extended experiences of the three schools, which also gave Chaltain access to internal communications, contemporary news coverage, and a variety of other resources that enables the reader to go beyond Chaltain’s description and make her own evaluation of the experience of each school. For anyone contemplating making a commitment to making one’s own school more democratic, this represents an invaluable collection of experiences.

Finally, there is an Epilogue of about a half dozen pages. It has the title Ways of Seeing (Teec Nos Pos, Arizona) and is based on Chaltain’s visit to a schoo on the sprawling (almost 27,000 square miles) Navaho Reservation in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. My first encounter with the book was at a book party at the home of Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, with whom Chaltain has served as a co-author and who served as both boss and mentor for him. Chaltaiin chose to read from the Epilogue at the event, which after reading the entire book I can say was an appropriate choice. The brief pages present quite clearly the issues of democracy and freedom in our school settings, and will challenge most readers with the implications of what it means to be in a democratic learning community.

The material in the book covers only bit more than 150 pages. It is not a long read, but it is certainly worthwhile. There will be parts that you will want to ponder. Perhaps you will encounter passages that will make you want to argue - I found a few, and thus my copy is quite marked up with margin notes as I wrestle with the ideas. I have not yet fully explored even those of the resources that would be most applicable to be as a classroom teacher, one of more than 150 in a large suburban high schools. It is comforting to know that I can return to the book and explore ideas as occasion may warrant, even though I did choose read through the entire book in the two days after I purchased it at the book party, an event that included many people whose professional lives have connected with Chaltain’s, including a well-known Congressman and his spouse.

I’d like to offer a smattering of some the quotes that caught my attention as I read this work. (the page numbers are in parenthesis at the end of each blockquote).

Whether we teach, run a business, or make art, the work we do - if it is to be truly fulfilling - must connect in some way to a larger vision we find meaningful. (18)

Nothing undermines the creative and participative processes more than the naive belief that all a good vision needs is implementation and rollout. (18)

.. my daily goal is to model the behavior I want to see in others. (18)

Until implicit goals are recognized, any change or reform effort is essentially doomed to fail. Implicit goals are almost always a vivid reflection of the quality (or lack thereof) of relationships among the people who make up an organization. (44)

... for meaningful change to occur, the organization’s shared vision should not be seen as the property of any one person. (58)

The fact that so many schools struggle to change core behaviors or processes is particularly troubling when one considers that in essence, learning itself is change. But the greater truth is that people don’t resist change. They resist being changed. (70)

Having given you both a sense of the structure and a taste of the author’s thinking (and Chaltain has told me that the quotes I selected are a fair representation of his key ideas). let me explore a couple of points in a bit more depth.

Besides the descriptions of the three schools that Chaltain gives us in Part II, in Chapter Four (“Equip”) he presents us with a hypothetical 5-year case study of school taking on the process of change to a more democratic learning environment. This is one of the most useful sections of the book: Chaltain provides outside resources that can be used in such a process and shows how they might apply. As he tells us on p. 82,
Although the specific story of Roger Williams Middle school is fictional, all of its insights and challenges come from real schools that achieved real improvement in student learning using a similar approach to whole-school improvement.,
This section helps provide us with a framework to see how it all can piece together, and school leaders can begin to change the culture of their schools to something that is more reinforcing of the democracy that should be a principal part of the purpose of our public schools.

Chaltain makes reference to the work of the great Chilean educator Paolo Freire, who as much as anyone is responsible for our understanding that education is not merely a question of peeling back the scalp of a student and pouring in the knowledge, what Freire referred to as the banking model of education. Chatian notes that Freire believed educators were “particularly burdened” by the idea of change, in large part because of what he saw as the fear of freedom. On p. 88 Chaltain notes
What unnerves us most about freedom is the same thing generations of scientists were unconsciously ignoring about the universe - its unpredictability and capacity for disorder. In the classroom, this fear of the unknown has misled many of us into thinking that the relationship between freedom and structure is an either/or proposition. As educators, we’re either providing good, structured instruction, or we’re refereeing spitball fights. But here’s a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian...
and he notes that Freire explores this issue, as does contemporary American scholar Linda Darling-Hammond (who is a Convener) of the Forum for Education and Democracy, for which Chaltain serves as National Director). Chaltain quotes her:
”The middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism,” she says, “is authoritative practice. Authoritative treamtent sets limits and consequences withing a context that fosters dialogue, explicit teaching about how to assume responsibility, and democratic decision-makings.”

Let’s consider for a moment that the creative tension described applies generally in American society. It was certainly a part of the 1960s, and again was part of the context of the past administration in a time of international conflict and fear of further attack. It should not be a surprise that it also occurs within the context of school as well.

The distinction between authoritative and authoritarian is crucial. An insistence upon order at all costs is crushing of the democratic spirit in our politics. It is even more so of any attempt to develop the skills to be a participating citizen of that democracy when it supersedes the kinds of explorations necessary for students to develop the skills expected of such a citizen. As a teacher I would argue that it is equally crushing of real learning, in which the student must at some point find a way of connecting the material with himself, of assuming responsibility to some degree for his own learning.

There are other ideas in the book well worth pondering. In a review of this length I can only hope to give you a sense, to whet your intellectual appetite and to invite you to explore further on your own. As I hope I have made clear, I found it a more than useful read, and expect to return to it with some regularity as I continue to reflect upon ideas that matter to me, which intersects with my own concerns about the shape of American education as it is now, and work to help reshape it to something I think would be more productive and effective for our students and for our society.

It is worth noting that Chaltain explores the use of systems thinking. In the chapter titled “CONNECT” there is a section titled SEEING THE WHOLE BOARD: SYSTEMS THINKING which begins with words from Peter Senge about how we are taught to break apart problems, “to fragment the world.” Chaltain immediately offers us this:
This reflex makes complex tasks seem more approachable. But the truth is we all pay a price for deluding ourselves into thinking that everything can be broken down into cause and effect, accurately measured, and sufficiently addressed. Indeed, in the same way a reassembled broken mirror cannot yield an accurate reflection, “we can no longer see the consequences of our actions.” Absent that capacity, “we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.” (pp 37-38 - the additional quoted material is also from Senge)
Chaltain warns us that the tendency cited by Senge can too often lead to seeking a solution to address symptoms rather than addressing the whole within the concept of system. One paragraph clearly illustrates the dangers of this:
In fact, NCLB is an archetypal system structure that arises whenever people treat symptoms of a problem and then become increasingly dependent upon their own “symptomatic solutions.” Rather than tackle the myriad issues that exacerbate the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students (an extremely worthy goal). what we’ve done instead is isolate one easily visible symptom of “school success” - in this case, student test scores and schoolwide annual yearly progress (AYP) reports - and then prescribe a a cure: an increased emphasis on testing and accountability. But just as we must resist the urge to solve new problems with old thinking, we must beware of the symptomatic solution. (42-43)

For those who, like Justice O’Connor, consider preparing our students to be participants in a democratic republic, there is little doubt that we need to rethink how we do our schooling. For those who have not yet reached that conclusion, perhaps if you would read and consider what Chaltain offers in this book, you will also begin to move in that direction. I certainly hope so.

Wherever you may be on that issue now, I can assure you that reading this volume will be time and effort well spent. You will have a better understanding of some key issues in education, and will experiience an effective way of addressing them.

I strongly recommend this book. But then, considering how much of the words of Chaltain I have already shared, my high opinion of the volume should be apparent. I hope that after you read it you will agree.



Anonymous said...

At the risk of being labelled an a------ by the ever so peaceful teacherken, this is just a bunch of hot air. Self-serving hot air at that because if the Forum on Education and Democracy stands for anything it is protecting education's special interests at the expencse of the rest of us. Sorry, teacherken, we've already learned that lesson in education and democracy.

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