Thursday, December 03, 2009

Democratic Schools a book by Michael Apple & James Beane

For most people, democracy has been defined as a governmental system, not as the foundational values and principles of a society, such as the concern for rights and dignity of others, being informed and active about social and political issues, with a focus on being critical citizens. I don't remember civics in high school and only vaguely remember it in college, but the focus was on the governmental structures and voting. Trying to image democratic schools is even more difficult, which is the point of this book – to give models of classrooms and schools that embody more than just student voice, but that the whole design of the curriculum, environment, and personal relationships is based on balancing the rights and dignity of individuals with the needs of the collective good.

One of the most powerful quotes, that I think should be at the front of every school building, is that education must “never forget it is dealing with Souls and not Dollars” (p. 23). I think this imperative has become reversed – with too many schools focusing on the dollars generated by test scores and grants, rather than the children being served. This has led to “the feelings of frustration and sometimes cynicism that many educators and community members experience [as] the result of not hearing each others stories” (p. 24).

LaEscuela was a clear example of how a grass-roots movement can make change within a seemingly unchangeable system. The list of problems they faced, on page 32, is the reality of most reforms – resistance from many fronts including administrator, teachers, parents and the public, plus money, materials and time. However, it is clear that with determination and vision, LaEscuela was able to accomplish its goals and continues to support democratic methods. What I found interesting was the recognition that the process of developing LaEscuela is on-going to continually regenerate the understanding of the uniting philosophy that founded the school. As some of the other examples in the book show, if the founding team leaves and the philosophy isn't continually renewed, the school disintegrates. Also, LaEscuela uses many ideas that are often touted as “best practices” such as cooperative learning, thematic units, cross age tutoring, whole language, and common planning time. However, what makes LaEscuela unique is using so many of these practices to compliment each other and as a foundation of its philosophy. Each of these practices, individually, has little impact on student learning – but together are very powerful. Reflection is also built into most of what happens in the school – and not just for the students, but the teachers, administrative team and parents.

Cabrini Green shows what happens when kids are asked real questions without preordained answers -the students became active participants in their own learning and were able to read and write well above their grade level when the motivation was intrinsic. In addition, test scores went up without specific focus on test prep. This doesn't surprise me, but I certainly understand how scary releasing that much control is for teachers and I've heard the types of criticisms he heard. But, it ties well with the classroom described at O'Keefe, where students were actively involved in planning, assessing and participating in curriculum development. I was able to do similar things at my school in Lithuania, which was fostered by several factors (some of which Barbara Brodhagen mentions): a supportive but uninvolved administrator, small class size, interdisciplinary block scheduling, lack of textbooks, and creative students and teacher. The two years in which I taught 6/7 grade social studies, language arts and science was the most challenging, yet productive time in my teaching career, and quite rewarding. I provided overview of topics such as Ancient Egypt or China and the students created questions, gathered materials, designed products and assessments and performed for authentic audiences. I was also able to have student-led parent conferences, which were a joy to watch.

I love the quote from CityWorks, “You can't learn to be good at something you've never experienced” (p. 133) and schools are good places to learn real democratic principles. I would whole heartily agree – and this should also be the basis of our teacher training. However, as it later states, “Until we understand what it takes to nourish the successful innovations and their offspring, we will always be starting over from scratch” (p. 147). This, I think, is one of the major take-aways from this book. Good things are happening in schools around the country, however, they are not being published nor sustained. Most people can sprint 100 yards – but it is those who plan, train and have a supportive team that can finish the marathon. This should be our goal!

Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (Eds.) (1995). Democratic Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.