I plan to begin my next classes with the following quote from Abraham Lincoln, in his 1862 annual message to Congress. “It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” I first heard part of this quote in a speech delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talks (two of the best ones viewed below) have been viewed millions of times and have served as a major source of inspiration for others and myself in the pursuit of an Education Revolution. Lincoln’s words have taken on great significance for me in recent days as our class is taking on the task of designing our course for the year.
As much as my students are excited at the possibilities of our class environment can create, I continue to find it challenging to set their minds free as it pertains to their ‘learning’ this year. Our most recent class discussion centered on how we want to learn and use the course curriculum throughout the year. So many of them wanted to revert to traditional ways of learning, assessing, and running a classroom, mainly because it allowed them to stay in their comfort zones. Over the course of 10 years or so, they have become accustomed to a particular way that school information should be learned, grades established, and content knowledge assessed, and while it that way has limited their potential as learners, they have come to accept it as the norm.
It is moments such as this that our class statements of purpose should come in so handy. Reminded that our goals dismiss conventional approaches and seek opportunities to challenge ourselves in new and creative ways, we can only choose a path that dares to be different. Lincoln’s challenge means that we must both think and act anew. To think anew means to see new purpose in education, set new goals, change what we wish to achieve, and reevaluate what we value in our educational experience. To act anew means to have the courage and determination to stand up to outdated ways of thinking and make sure that we carry out that which we are capable of.
One of the major concerns I have heard from people regarding democratic education goes something like, “What if the students decide to do nothing or vote for chaos or something that is contrary to learning?” My explanation has been that a class founded upon values and dedicated to those values could never vote in such a way. With this in mind, we set out last class to create a statement of purpose to state our intention as a learning community.
We began the process by identifying the values we wanted to emulate. I prompted the class with a few thoughts before we began. I spoke of the word ‘potential’ and what it meant to the class. I reminded them that we have a unique opportunity to make this class more amazing in every way than any class we have ever experienced, but it could only happen if we set that as a goal for ourselves. I wanted them to know that the goal wasn’t to be good or successful, but rather to be as close to our fullest potential as a class community as possible. I then asked them to write words on the chalkboard that finished the following sentence: The best class ever would be (blank). One student stood at the board writing down every word suggested by the class until we had a list of 30 or so values.
After this, I recited the Preamble to the Constitution to the class, and we discussed how it, as a statement of purpose, set the table for the founding of the nation. Similarly, I wanted us to create a statement of purpose with strong, clear intentions. We worked in small groups to create powerful sentences, using the values we listed on the board. The next day, everyone shared their sentences and we collected them and arranged them in ways that completed our statement of purpose. After completing a few statements, we took our first vote as a class and chose the following statement to be the words that would guide all we do this year.
“This is our class and we are ready to take responsibility for it. We are devoted to creating an environment that allows our natural ability to learn through real experience to flourish as it once did when we were very young. By creating an environment that values trust, respect, participation by all, and reaching our potential as learners, thinkers, and members of a community, we will enthusiastically challenge ourselves and take risks on a daily basis. Our class will be run by a democracy that is guided by purpose and principles, restoring dignity to our education and demonstrating that we can exceed academic and social expectations if truly given the opportunity to do so. We will embrace our struggles and mistakes, as much as our successes and breakthroughs, and everything we do we, we will do with love.”
In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, I spent hours every day brainstorming on my own and with friends and colleagues trying to come up with the right way to fully implement democracy in the public school classroom. According to friends who teach at democratic schools, running a democratic classroom is hard on its own accord. So considering that I am attempting to do this for the first time in my life, with students who have no experience with it, on a school campus where nothing like this exists, I have my have my hands full. A breakthrough in the planning came when I more clearly defined what some of the keys to a good democracy were.
Above all, it seems to me that the idea that every member of the class has a voice that carries weight among peers is paramount. This has two implications. Firstly, it means that everyone in the class needs to be able to have the courage to speak and share their thoughts and opinions. Secondly, it means that the class must value the thoughts and opinions of each of their classmates. The prevailing understanding is that each person has the best opportunity to reach their potential only when the class environment is at its best, and furthermore that the class environment can only reach its potential for greatness when each member is contributing at their fullest. It is with this mindset that I determined that establishing the classroom community would be task number one.
I have seen each of my classes four times so far this year. That time has been spent doing a variety of activities and exercises designed to break down some of the natural social walls that exist between most high schoolers (and most people in general it seems). Author of The Social Animal, David Brooks said in an NPR interview earlier this year that “The reality of education is that we learn from people we love.” So while I’m sure that this sort of thinking induces eye rolls and cynical remarks, the ultimate goal is to create a classroom where love is at the core of everything we do. A classroom community founded on love gives respect, encourages emotional and intellectual risk-taking, is more creative, maintains dignity, and feels amazing. In this environment, students are going to want to show up every day, want to give their all, and want to learn.
While we have not scratched the surface of content learning yet in the school year, I can tell you this: the classroom feels incredible. There has been more smiling and laughing than I ever remember happening in the first weeks of school. Students are sharing their stories and connecting with fellow community members on a level greater than I hoped. We are a work in progress, and each day will be an opportunity to grow in love and community, but I love where we have gotten in just four short classes, and I am excited to see where we go from here.