My Upcoming Books

Dear friends,

I have not written since December 2016. On this page I mean. Actually I have been writing a lot on demand so this frivolous web page (or whatever it is called) has been ignored.

I am faithfully writing a weekly Bridging Differences exchange with Harry Boyte on our EdWeek blog, while involved in various degrees on three books that I claim to be co-authoring. One, the work primarily of a former Mission Hill colleague Matthew Knoester, is now pretty much finished and Teachers College Press will be printing it soonish. It is on alternative forms of assessment to standardized testing that are more accurate, more useful and in keeping with the democratic spirit and intent of schooling. No number can sum us up, and the presumption of experts in data ad technology to think that is possible has an old and dishonorable history.

The second book is the product of examining my own work which led to a collaboratively reframed idea with another Mission Hill colleague, Emily Gasoi. It will (we hope) appear next fall under the title This School Belongs to You and Me. Publisher, Beacon Press. We are both worn out and excited about it. It is a dialogue about the issues that have bedeviled me for fifty or more years. We explore together how schools can be a force for nourishing democracy or for squelching it. If it is not visible in our schools, where else can the young see it played ?

The third is still in the formative stage. Two colleagues (Shane Mage and Matt Alexander, the founders of June Jordan high school in San Francisco) are putting together the stories and thoughts of colleagues who have intentionally tried to create democratically governed schools—stories with sometimes not so happy endings. We hope to figure out, as we read them, what wisdom they may offer us as we, each in our own domain, carry on the fight to build a more perfect democracy. ASCD is interested and we have collective some great stores and are still playing around with how to present them and others we hope will contribute. (While also being as active as we can in the critical fight to prevent what we have from disappearing altogether under Trump.)

More on that activism in my next blog. In the meantime, be on the lookout for my aforementioned upcoming books!

 

Democratic Schooling

I have argued in speech and writing for years that democracy is not “natural.” Although it is well within our human capacities it is not our “default” position. To demonstrate this would take longer than this blog/web allows. But I think there are good solid reasons why as a specie we retreat to authoritarian solutions so often. We cut corners when it seems too important to trust “our members,” our fellow citizens, etc. Sometimes we do it with open eyes and often we do it with eyes closed. We organize our organizations, our schools, our towns, cities and federal governments in ways that make some have a head start, extra weight, etc, etc. I am even in favor of some of these obstacles we place on “pure” forms of democracy.

As an educator the place I have tried to explore and work with creating Democratic organizations has been in my schools. As we designed and lived with our original plan at Mission Hill (the K-8 school I was one of the founders of in Boson in 1997) we saw flaws and we wrestled with them. Some we changed, others we lived with because we could not see how to improve them. We did not include everyone on our Governing Board, like the cook and maintenance staff. Probably we should have? We did not include students for many years, and then just 7th and 8th graders. I can defend this decision but what were the trade-offs? We worked out a consensus system that required the approval of three out of the five elected representatives of each constituency group to move ahead. We also gave the principal the power to delay a vote if he/she felt it was a matter of the health/safety of children or fiscal irresponsibility—two areas he/she was legally responsible for. In case of a paralyzed situation (like we have had in D.C.) we had a plan for bringing in mediators and if need be, a new vote of representatives, or a change in leadership.

It was in working these out that I learned to understand more about the problems a democracy inevitability runs into. It worked for us as well as it did because it was only the tip of the iceberg. Democracy pervaded the school’s culture in so many particulars, including how we held family/teacher conferences, how we arrived at curriculum decisions, how we decided on the agenda of staff meeting and retreats, and much more.

I believe that it is such experiences that most citizens lack—have literally never seen or been participants of. We spend 12 years of our youth in authoritarian settings, where no one we encounter has democratic rights over the important decisions being made daily. In a school like Mission Hill, and some other brave public schools, we are exploring what would happen if all our constituents felt “this place belongs to you and me.” We agreed to disagree in public on purpose, so we would all learn to disagree in useful ways that did not hurt the school. We discussed power—who had what powers—with the students and among ourselves—the adults. It is time consuming, but it is probably no more time consuming than adding a Civics class, which isn’t a bad idea either.

We cannot afford to let our citizens reach 18 without such real life experience. It is far too costly. They need to be apprentice citizens first, and they need to be real citizens of their schools long before they are of age to be legal independent citizens of the larger society. And, course, we need teachers who are citizens of their schools and play a part in all decision made, except where it is agreed to delegate them or where basic rights are in play. And even then, nothing should be delegated permanently. We need schools that focus on habits of mind that make it easier to trust each other, including habits of examining evidence, imaginings alternatives and the other three of Mission HIIl’s and Central Park East’shabits of mind”, plus a few we forgot: like “compared to what?” Plus quite different ones others come up with.

The first reform I would make if I were … what? – is that every publicly funded school (and maybe institution) must develop a plan of governance that can be defended as explicitly democratic and where those most affected have the freedom to make important decisions with the fewest possible exceptions. In Catholic theology this is called “subsidiarity.” Yes, there must be exceptions laid down by larger and broader based governing bodies (like a locally elected school board, Congress of the United State or the State Legislature or the Supreme Court). Mistakes will be made. But that is at the heart of democracy—the right to make one’s own mistakes— and one reason it is “not natural” for humans who seem inclined to shrink from uncertainties and mistakes. .

It requires a kind of unfounded “as if” trust that has some limitations but which we feel we can safely, although not always happily, abide by. Let us start by practicing it where governance hits the daily road of young people’s lives. Tomorrow is already too late, but we are paying a piece of not having done it long ago.