Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Taking Steps Towards Democracy

by Jean Ann Hunt,
Teacher Associate, Institute for Democracy and Education, Athens, Ohio

In the early years of the Institute for Democracy in Education, several of us discovered that in our classrooms we were, to quote Joette Weber, "only as democratic as we could stand to be."

This statement exemplifies that each moment in the process of creating a democratic classroom is challenging. In the years since, that statement has served to remind us that each day we take a step we are moving ourselves and our students toward a more democratic future. Whether the steps are giant joyful leaps or small cautious shuffles, each makes the path a little more certain. Recently several teachers were asked to think about democratic practices in their classrooms. It appears that many teachers are taking giant joyful footsteps:

In this lively classroom students are given the opportunity to call class meetings when they feel the need for the class to address an issue. Usually these meetings are called when there is a re-occurring problem in the room. During the meeting (which is held "on the rug" in a special part of the room) children use a "talking stick." This magic wand, complete with stars, is passed from speaker to speaker. At the beginning of each meeting, Joyce reminds the children that they can only speak when they have the talking stick. "It's magical," she whispers to them.

Recently some students brought up the issue of clear-up. They were frustrated by not being able to find the materials they needed while working on a project. They pointed out to the rest of the class that items were not being put away properly. After a go-around where each child got to say what he or she wanted, the class agreed to take care of things better.

The benefits of these discussions don't just result in more awareness, according to Joyce, "They [the students] feel they are making the decisions. It's their classroom and they feel empowered because they can speak up. The decisions go into effect, and if they don't work, we try something else. They are doing what people do in real life. They are communicating with each other, listening to each other. We are a community. We make decisions together. I try to facilitate. If something is outlandish, I try to steer it in another direction. But we make the decisions together."

Joette's answer to our inquiry was quick and direct. From the beginning of each unit of study, the students in this primary classroom make choices about what they want to learn. After choosing a theme from the curriculum guide, Joette then poses two questions to her students: What do you already know about this topic? What would you like to learn? Thus the students are engaged from the word go. This method also prevents the students from having to learn or be taught something they already know.

Children in this classroom have choice and control over their reading and writing. They are not given topics at the start of each class session: rather, as a group they decide what the topics for that day will be.

Since the students came up with the rules for the room at the beginning of the year, they know that everyone is protected in terms of his or her right to share or not to share. "I try to uphold their right to not be put down or criticized in an unthoughtful way. This helps them feel secure. The availability of choice also helps them feel non-threatened," explains Carrol.

There are days when Carrol sometimes feels she should be more authoritative. However, she quickly points out that the students hold her to the process, "If I have a bad day and I'm not following our procedures, they [the students] are incensed!"

Carrol strongly believes that in order to be democratic, one must be willing to look at his or her own life. "What do I do that's fair?" is a question each of us should be willing to entertain.

In Barb's classroom you will find a "talking chair." No, it won't chat with you, but it does symbolize an open invitation to sit for any student who feels he or she has been "wronged" during a conflict.

"Sometimes I just don't have time to do a full scale conflict resolution meeting," Barb explains, "so the student can choose to take a time-out or go to the chair. If I see them in the chair then I know they want to further negotiate."

Sometimes the dispute is still not settled to the student's satisfaction, but as Barb points out, "They may still have to go on a time-out, but at least I've heard them out!"

Like Joyce Hanenberg's first and second graders, these 6th graders also have the right to bring up issues for discussion in the classroom. However, the student who raises the issue in Bill Elasky's class also is responsible for leading the discussion. As a facilitator, "They have a real interest in what they are leading. The fun part is when they have to get the class to agree or compromise. It gets them thinking that discussion is more than just saying your piece," states Bill.

During these times, Bill is right by the student whispering ideas and offering a few suggestions. After each student acquires some practice as a discussion leader, Bill becomes just another member of the group. This process helps students to stop seeing Bill as the center of the classroom. "If they look to me,I can say, 'I'm not in charge of this.' It also gives me a chance to see what's happening because my efforts aren't spent on keeping things together or trying to reach consensus."

This process also allows students to do two activities vital to a democratic community: I) learn to get their opinions out and 2) learn to compromise. Of course a good sense of humor is also important. Bill quickly adds that if these efforts don't work, the student can "always scream for help or just scream."

Petitions are an important part of initiating change in this Villa Park classroom. When an environmental issue or concern is raised by students, a petition campaign is begun. Such a campaign involves several steps:

Recently the students began a campaign to ban styrofoam from their school. Seventy-two percent of the faculty and students supported this effort and as of January 8, 1990, styrofoam was banned from Willowbrook High. This action prompted two plastic companies to send representatives requesting a meeting with Students for a Better Environment. All parties involved were impressed with the students' ability to dialogue with the corporations. In Richard's words, these students, "...see that they can really make a difference and they have the opportunity to make a difference."

John begins each school year with the basic belief that healthy democratic behavior is based on reflective questioning. The first few days of class are spent answering some key questions: "What are good teachers like? What are bad teachers like? What is good learning and how does it occur?" By mulling over these questions, the class is building a vision of what a democratic classroom can be.

As a second step in creating a democratic classroom, John introduces consensus decision making. Since cooperative learning is an essential part of democratic school life, students must learn to listen to each other. "Read-arounds" and "talk-arounds," where everyone gets a chance to speak and listen, are frequent events.

John readily recognizes that there are tensions created by this process. "One tension is between the democratic classroom and resistance to school. Sometimes they [the students] don't like the openness. It's different and it requires that they take on more responsibility. Some students have very little experience with this, so there is a slow, uneven process of taking responsibility. The best way to bring in an alienated student is to provide as many choices as possible in terms of content, form, and social dynamics within the constraints of the curriculum."

As such, the students often have the job of choosing special topics and whom they will work with on specific projects. When things don't go as planned, John takes a very matter-of-fact approach: "I regroup my ideas and modify my practice and make the best of a tough situation." While regrouping, he also keeps in mind another belief: "It is important to nurture students within the authoritarian structures which govern most of their lives."

Whether you are dedicated to, or just experimenting with the notion of creating a democratic classroom, you may find useful one or more democratic practices. Our experience tells us that the process is filled with individual decisions, but is facilitated by the support of others. Use what you can.

(Reprinted with the kind permission of George Wood: Jean Ann Hunt, 1990, Taking Steps Towards Democracy, Democracy and Education 4, 3, pp. 27-29.)

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