Values That Matter

How do you organize for action in an education sector that’s as fractured as glass, ripped by conflicting opinions, and undergoing seismic economic and technical shift?  Over at IDEA they have spent years getting clear on their values, honing them again and again, making mistakes, trying again, and showing up for the work.  This graphic is as clear an expression of the work as I’ve seen, and a good set of values to be alive in.

What do you value?


I Am A Citizen of A Country That Does Not Yet Exist

The great Dr. Vincent Harding, whose words and moral presence has inspired me and my colleagues at IDEA for years, has never been more powerful here.  Speaking at the Children’s Defense Fund Annual Convention in Cincinnati, OH in July 2012, at a town hall on national and racial healing, Dr. Harding proclaims a vision for activism, and of world that is emmanent, that calls out to me at a nearly bodily level.  He asks us to believe into being that which does not yet exist.

As activists in education, when the obstacles to real reform and profound, sustained transformation sometimes seem impossibly great, Dr. Harding’s message increasingly informs me, at a deep, soul level.

We are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.  “A just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multi-racial country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders. That cares about what the earth needs.  I am you are a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.”

The necessity of keeping on with the work, and proclaiming what is at the moral center of the work–both in action and in end–feels more and more like the project I am behind.  “After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.”  (Wallace Stevens).

How are we standing up together, and proclaiming the world that does not yet exist, in our work as educational activists?  Can we join together to do so?

Bowl of Wishes for American Education

Photo by elizabeth of course flickrDoes wishing have power? Is there danger in wishing? Are some wishes more worthy than others? And what about the ancient link between suffering and desire?

Recently we had an education party at my house.  The room was filled with high school students, activists, graduate students, policy makers, academics, deans of education, teachers, writers, and administrators.  At the end of the party we asked folks to make a wish for American education.

Here are some of their wishes, from the bowl of wishes they created…

“I wish that schools will embrace the arts, creativity, and alternative models.”

“My wish is that we leave the punitive/threatening language of a Nation at Risk, NCLB behind and become a Nation Inspired by activist organizations in education.”

“I wish government will organize large-scale conferences to pull together the multiple NPOs to share objectives.”


“That students experience joy in school.”

“My wish is for better school systems all over.  There needs to be a change not just in MCAS but in all aspects.”

“I wish for a day where students can feel that their voices are heard and they have an influence. Also that all students have a mentor to support them and encourage them.”

“My wish is that every child in our country experiences the opportunity to think, problem- solve and innovate.”

“I wish that we mend the broken relationships in our communities, in our schools, and in our homes.  That we work to build relationships of care and respect between young people, their parents, and educators.”

“I wish all students would feel valued and connected in school.”

What does it unleash to wish? What does wishing clarify?

What’s your wish?

125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

Back in December, on a couple of blogs, I asked folks to contribute how they’ve made their schools or classrooms more democratic.

Within days the list went from 15 (what we went live with) to hundreds, with contributions from educators in England, Israel, Puerto Rico, Brazil and all over the United States.  And they’re still coming in.  A couple of folks asked for a comprehensive list, so here it is.  Crowdsourced and growing…

Check out the list…


What have you done, as a classroom teacher, a student, a parent, administrator, to make your school more equitable, less hierarchical, more welcoming to everyone, and more like a place where real thinking happens?

1.  Invite 5 students to a faculty meeting

2.  Eliminate staff and student bathrooms

3.  Ask students to facilitate important school wide meetings

4.  Start each day with a morning meeting and check in, and listen to each other. (How are you? How are you feeling today?)

5.  Ask students to develop rubrics for judging “excellent” work

6.  End courses/units with a culminating projects designed by students, about something that really matters to them

7.  Have students read each other’s papers and comment on them, directly to each other

8.  Get students to determine the homework policy (even in the early grades)

9.  Charge students with deciding what goes up on the walls at school

10.  Pass a “talking stick” during intense discussions so that everyone gets a chance to speak

11.  Eat lunch with kids (or teachers) you rarely talk to

12.  Ask students to attend parent/teacher conferences

13.  Ask students to evaluate themselves prior to parent/teacher conferences

14.  Ask students to run parent/teacher conferences

15.  Have everyone practice “yes/and” more than “no/but” (because success is available to everyone!)

16.  Use participatory budgeting to engage the whole school community in setting budgets and involve students in staff appointments

17.  Make sure any school inspectors or visitors talk to any students, not just those staff select or who are self-selecting (e.g. student council)

18.  Keep track of student involvement as well as attainment (Who is taking on what leadership roles? Who is engaged in programmes that allow them to be involved in decision-making?)

19.  Make sure your student council isn’t just a fundraising or school improvement club, but is a students’ union – – make it clear that its primary role is to represent the views of students.

20.  Get students to research what helps them to learn

21.  Get them to present their findings to staff

22.  Give students the funding, trust and time to set up and run their own extra-curricular clubs and activities

23.  Get students involved in planning lessons

24.  Get students involved in teaching lessons

25.  Get students involved in evaluating lessons

26.  Make sure your School Development Plan has a ‘student voice’ column, so that every issue has a ‘student voice’ from reducing truancy to improving attainment. ‘Student voice’ should not be a line that is separate from anything else

27.  If you don’t have a School Development Plan, look at all your other policies, add in a student voice element

28.  Train students and staff together.

29.  Have student mediators

30.  Have student mentors

31.  Have student play and sports leaders

32.  Don’t have a staff room – or allow students free access to it

33.  Uniforms: if you’re going to be democratic they need to be as free/restrictive for staff as they are for students

34.  Invite students to budget meetings, listen to their unique perspective on what is important

35.  Let students be in charge of organizing school assemblies and gatherings

36.  Invite students to help plan learning

37.  Ask students to define what powerful learning looks like, and commit to implementing findings (see Harris Federation ‘Commission for Learning’)

38. Make students co-designers of projects

39.  Train students to coach each other to become better learners

40.  Instigate a ‘right to roam’: if students would better learn from someone else in (or out) of schools, let them (with responsibilities to report back)

41.  Set up staff/student research programmes

42.  Start a democratic school meant to take on traditional public schools in your community

43.  Focus on democratic education, rather than school, and credential experts and community volunteers to serve as circuit teachers meeting with a variety of students at a variety of sites for authentic, project and service-based work in communities. Let the credentialed experiential instructors pitch courses for students to choose, as is done at Steve Miranda’s school.

44.  Give students and parents equal votes and/or shares in consensus decisions about budget, facilities, catering, curriculum, materials, and staffing

45.  Allow students to leave classes that suck

46.  Ask all adult community members and interested students to read Doing School, Wounded by School, and The New Global Student

47.  Provide leave time for all community members to visit undemocratic schools and to discuss how similar and different their democratic schools are to and from the undemocratic ones

48.  Accept for credit (whatever that means) all service work and self-directed learning evidenced outside school

49.  Allow students to define “credit” individually

50.  Abolish seat time requirements

51.  Secure and defend self-pacing rights for students, including graduation plans, portfolios, and requirements

52.  Allow specialization

53.  Allow students to use public and private transportation to attend the school of their choice

54.  Study the sustainability of a democratic model within the context of your school and division given the predispositions of the rest of the staff, faculty turnover, and community values. Don’t do democracy to a community unwilling to participate in it. Start slowly unless you are in the perfect place

55.  Leave schools that aren’t democratic

56.  Abolish grading and resist all norm-referencing products and practices, including state tests which, while seemingly criterion/standards-based, are actually validated and scored by norm-referencing student performance on each item each administration

57.  Allow communities to democratically elect their teachers and administrators, as well as to democratically authorize new schools

58.  Look past your school, which is likely unrepresentative of all of our kids

59.  Turn off the damn bells! Feels like we are teaching inside a Skinner box! Let’s encourage kids to respond to their inner voices, to human requests, not to bells. While we’re at it turn off the intercoms too. Too Orwellian.

60.  Take the kids outside the classroom. Nothing democratizes like a natural setting. No overheads pointed to the front. No teacher at the board. If it’s not possible to take ‘em outside, how about the hallway. Can you at least arrange the seats in a circle or somehow allow students to see each other’s eyes?

61.  Create choice in any way you can. Ask yourself honestly, how many legitimate options does a given student have in any one moment? For example: they can raise their hand and answer the question. They can ask to use the bathroom. They can sit quietly. Challenge yourself to increase the range of acceptable moves exponentially. No secret formula here; what is possible depends entirely on your specifics. Be creative.

62.  Allow for physical movement. This needn’t mean anarchy. Establish whatever boundaries you need to on this, but again challenge yourself to allow for stretching, standing, circulating. This can be done without losing time, focus or completion of tasks. Truly.

63.  Aspire towards a sense of spaciousness. Allow for silence and time for reflection

64.  Have a sense of humor! If you must use your authority to exact desired behaviors, acknowledge to yourself and the kids that this is what you are doing, and recognize that doing so does not match your ideal world view. Notice the absurd when it comes up – especially when it comes out of your own mouth, i.e. “no, this is not a good time to use the restroom. You’ll need to wait.”

65.  Invite classes and parents to contribute to the development of whole school policies (values and citizenship, assessment, homework etc.)

66.  Involve pupils and parents in the recruitment of headteachers / deputes.

67.  Everyone, pupils and staff (teaching, admin, catering, janitorial) do the same child protection training for insight to peer mentoring

68.  Pupils build the class requisition for supplies

69.  Pupils choose what they will learn and suggesting how they might best learn it

70.  Let students determine what their homework is and have them show it to others. This is like Google giving employees 20% of their time to do whatever they want

71.  Allow each student to determine what they put on the wall from their own work. By the way, the wall has expanded to include school Facebook pages and blogs

72.  Get rid of the staff dining room

73. Let students decide when school starts

74. Let students decide if anyone gets cut from any team

75. Let students choose the cast for the school plays and musicals after open auditions

76. Let students take tests when they think they are ready

77. Let students take tests as many times as they want. This would include only taking the portions that they haven’t passes yet

78.  Let students continue with a course that they haven’t passed yet until they can show that they know the material. Nobody should ever fail a course again

79. Put students in charge of the assemblies

80. Put students on hiring and interviewing committees

81. Give everyone in the building 20% flex time to work on their own projects

82. Have a course (or school) for which the decisions about what is learned is up to the students

83. Vote on important issues for the school and bide by those votes

84. Replace standardized textbooks with student co-created ones using wiki technology and incorporating multimedia

85.  Take some time to just sit still, play, hike, sing, and laugh with students and across age groups.

86. Have everyone (teachers, principals, coaches, parents, school board members, administrators, and community leaders) take the standardized tests and report their scores right alongside the students and openly discuss everyone’s results together

87.  Eat lunch with kids you rarely talk to and then listen to everything

88.  Host an open lunch in your classroom and invite students and staff once a month (can include discussion topics, short films, YouTube clips)

89.  Always give students choice in assessments

90.  Start a multi-grade elective class and structure it for many interactions between age groups (Creative Writing works)

91.  Bring Show & Tell to the high school level! (Think of a version on steroids – introducing philosophy, art, music, etc.)  Have students and faculty take turns

92.  If at all possible, do the major assignments you assign with your students.  Show your work when possible

93.  Do in-class assignments with students.  Show them that learning is a joint process

94.  Start a Anti-Racism group at your school (You’ll be amazed how many students will join).  Prepare thoughtful, difficult, uncomfortable, fulfilling, honest, discussions between students.  Get staff to join

95.  Include custodians, paraprofessionals, office workers, lunch workers in everything:  faculty parties and luncheons, community events, staff/faculty meetings, school assemblies

96. Bottom-up – Teachers/Staff run faculty meetings, department meetings, etc. and help shape policies

97. Continuous dialogue with students about learning activities, deadlines, grading, projects, teaching effectiveness, how policy affects them in the classroom, etc. (lift the curtain)

98. Have small group multi-age group discussions about the challenges faced at each school

99.  All school clean-up, like what is done in Japan. Not as a punishment, but to foster community involvement

100. Invite parents and community members into the school to participate in discussions, work, and activities

101.  Tell your students that their final exam will be to create their own way of demonstrating their knowledge of the subject

102.  Spend the time you might use telling your students to “think critically” by asking provocative questions that cause them to think critically. If they are not responding critically, you’re probably not asking the right questions

103.  Don’t get discouraged. For those of you looking to try on something new and make your corner of the world a little more democratic, don’t get discouraged by the occasional squabbling over what is or isn’t “democratic education” or a “democratic school.” We’re all going to do things a little differently, and what’s most important is that we leverage our power as educators to bend our institutions a little farther in the direction of social justice

103. Have courses in which teachers and students learn together and peer review each other’s progress. Can be done with open courseware, teachers teaching classes with teachers and students as pupils, or simply the teacher offering revealing their own advancement of learning in a course

104. Have courses that allow students and teachers to involve themselves in their communities (organizing, speaking, aiding in community projects). Being an engaged citizen is a valuable component of democracy. Also, this creates a diversion from the norm of “community service” as a chore or punishment

105.  “Free dress” for everyone!

106.  Co-teaching: Teachers and students cooperate to (as often as they see fit) mix grade levels covering the same topics, or even drop in on other subjects to have conversation about parallels and connections. This helps relieve age segregation and subject compartmentalization, which in larger society is not as extreme as it is in school

107. Encourage students and teachers to use free media such as pod-casting, to examine school issues and promote ideas

108.  I also love the promotion of play time! I always feel sad when looking at the progression of people going through school, playing less and less in favor or more “age-appropriate” “maturity.” I’ve seen for sure that 12 to even 19 year olds (junior high, high school, young adults) like jungle gyms, trampolines, and other places to let out playful energy!

109.  Ensure all K-12 students have an understanding of Civics and what democratic values represent

110. Engage all students to contribute ideas of what would make their school more democratic – where more real thinking can happen

111.  Get students out of the classroom to interact with the real world to make those learning connections

112. Realize that students need real exercise every day in order to learn

113.  Switch the conversation from grades to metacognition – how do YOU learn best?

114.  LISTEN to kids–give them a chance in every lesson to share how they think/feel/question.

115.  Let kids sit where they want to, beside whom they want to. I tell them to make wise choices or we’ll have to re-negotiate the choice. (Again, they would give input and have decision-making ability to choose differently or decide to change the behavior that’s causing us to have this conversation.)

116.  Shake the seating up regularly, encouraging the kids to sit by someone they’ve never sat by before to get to know more people. (Again, they get to choose.)

117.  Let kids go when they need to go. Don’t make them ask to go to the bathroom.

118.  Teach kids how to have a conversation without raising hands–turn-taking with respect and considerate behavior is a crucial social skill.

119.  Help push toward: curriculum compacting, enrichment clusters, and total talent portfolios (as written up here

120.  Establish a class agreement for optimal learning, rather than teacher setting rules.

121.  Have students lead conferences where they share their learning with their parents

122.  Create a culture where thinking is modeled and valued.

123.  Step back and encourage students to take control of their own learning.

124.  Allow choice for assessment tasks, so that learning can be demonstrated in a variety of ways

125.  Analyze a “decision” a class has collectively made that has not worked out well, discuss the decision-making process, and what might be done to achieve a better result. What didn’t work? What can we learn from this? What should we be thinking about for next time?

Want to add  yours? We’re waiting?….

What Is Democratic Education?

In what do we believe?

We over at IDEA have struggled mightily with “our” unique definition of democratic education.  Wiki defines it.  Amy Gutmann defines it.  How do we–if we’ve got it in our title–describe it?

In other words, in what do we believe?

As a founding board member of an organization that tries to promote this concept, here’s mine.

“Democratic education is learning rooted in meaningful challenge to the individual learner, while also responsive and relevant to the larger community.  It celebrates the adventure of learning, while cultivating personal and social responsibility.  It helps individuals and communities find their voices.”

Going further, here are some notes I made at our first IDEA Board Retreat.

1.  Democratic education requires meaningful challenge to learners, and the larger community.  (I value challenge–a sense of rigor created by real curiosity and real world circumstances.)

2.  Democratic education aims for authoritative, not authoritarian, relationships between students and adults.

3.  Democratic education emphasizes learning as a process of human development.  Learning happens through development, development occurs through learning.

4.  Democratic education grounds the process of education in respectful, responsive relationships between individuals in schools.

5.  Democratic education sees greater social justice as a natural outcome of an approach in which individuals of many statuses and backgrounds are valued equally, and treated equally well.

6.  Democratic education seeks to highlight a broader range of voices in educational settings than we currently experience.

7.  Democratic education sees human beings as naturally primed to learn.

What have I left out? In what do you believe?