Things I Know 52 of 365: My classroom should be as democratic as twitter

A great democracy must be progressive, or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.

– President Theodore Roosevelt

Teachers dig Facebook. They like ning and twitter and youtube and social networking. I mean, they really really like ’em.

A TON of teachers who like these online affordances also like to build the case for their inclusion in classrooms and education.

Of the Ton,I get the feeling many, if not most, of them work in schools or districts where those online affordances are blocked, banned, outlawed and censored.

I’m not sure many of those teachers really want the access or understand the shift in pedagogy that use would imply.

I’ve been reading Sam Chaltain’s American Schools: The art of creating a democratic learning community. You should too.

Chaltain holds that American schools should be places of democracy, but are not. No whiner, he then works to outline what he sees to be the keys of democratizing classrooms.

Before I picked up the text, I had been reflecting on the role democracy plays in my own teaching. While I’d wager it’s greater than many, I still struggle moving from compliance to choice.

Most recently, I’ve struggled with accepting the idea that saying, “Pick one of these three options,” isn’t the same thing as choice – not true choice.

Chaltain quotes Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick:

[I]f the world takes our ideas and changes them – or accepts some and discards others – all we need to decide is whether the mutated versions are still core. If they are, then we should humbly accept the audiences judgement.

When the Ton trumpet the use of the aforementioned online affordances in learning, they invariably speak of students’ abilities to choose, create, re-arrange, remix and “like” in the spaces they can inhabit online. In essence, they like that those online spaces would give their students the chance to do what the Heaths say sticky ideas do.

This leads me to question what’s been limiting those options in the physical spaces of their classrooms in the first place.

I know what’s been holding it back in my classroom – me.

No pedagogical prude, I attempt to take learning styles, intelligences and modalities into account as often as possible. I differentiate and modify and accommodate. In the end, I’m realizing much of the work in my classroom is still closer to conformity than I’d like. And perhaps, that’s limiting the contribution of those voices from whom I’m most waiting to hear.

“We should evoke contribution through freedom, not conformity,” Chaltain writes.

I agree.

To the extent that I work within a system that expects certain outcomes from my students, I agree. To the extent that I have a picture in my head of what my students can do once they leave my classroom, I agree.

It might be fear that leads me to the caveats above, but I don’t think it is.

There are pieces of being able to read and write that I know will prove detrimental if they are not within my students’ abilities when they leave my care. The democratic classroom I envision isn’t one without goals. It’s chock full o’ goals. Those goals are also balanced with choice.

When I write about improving choice in my classroom, I do not mean to imply the abdication of structure or goals. I mean to say I need to give greater and truer choices to my students in how they journey to those goals.

And to the Ton, I want to reference something Jerrid Kruse brought up tonight on twitter. He referenced his frustration with online ed discussions veering toward the tech and not the teaching. I don’t yet know if I agree with his claim that this happens in the majority of online conversations. I do know that it’s complicated my thinking.

If you’re clamoring for these online affordances backed by the argument of the democracy they bring to learning, have you done the hard, uncomfortable work of making your classrooms democratic so your students are better citizens when the tools show up (or don’t)?

8 thoughts on “Things I Know 52 of 365: My classroom should be as democratic as twitter

  1. Hi David,I really like this post. The idea of making a classroom more democratic sounds great. I am wondering what specific changes you will make from past practice. (I don't mean this as a critique because you sound like a wonderful teacher!!!) You said that you will offer greater/more/truer choices. Are there other aspects of democracy that you will incorporate? I'd be curious to know how you would define a democratic classroom. It is something I wonder about. I look forward to more on this topic :)Ingrid (@mmeveilleux)

  2. I think your caveats are essential, although I think some would disagree.I have also found that when I have given my students the most freedom, they have asked me, begged me even, to assert my position as teacher to define, focus and give advice. My grade 11s design their own essay topics in the second half of the year, but they do so successfully partially because I have given them models for the first half of the year. The key here is that there is a way of measuring how successful their choices are, and in the end I get to do that because I have more experience with the subject matter and the process. Is that a violation of democracy? I don't think it is.

    • Mark-I try as hard as possible to provide a bevy of pathways to success for students and large projects. I would however, caution too much of the modeling on the front end of the work, can be more detrimental to creativity and true choice. Working with students to get them to truly choose and not just comply or please… is tough. The balance of those ideas is tricky. I have found that when I give too much suggestion for success, I receive projects that look like projects I would have done, rather than tap into the creative potential of the students. I also accept that by giving the students choice, sometimes there will be moments that do not have as much success, but that is also part of the learning process.

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  4. Man, is it hard to give up control in favor of freedom,creativity, authentic learning. I get better at it everyday, but my kids are often unschooled in the art of thinking and problem solving when they get to me as juniors and seniors. Right now, I am living through their choices for investigative essays: the better your topic, the easier the essay. It is so hard to live through 1) their bad choices, and 2) their lack of interest in accessing me as a resource. ( A teacher is Google squared, I think) Those who made less fruitful choices are stilling learning, but there I sit with so many ideas and the need to help–there has got to be a happy medium. I guess I had better read the book.

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  7. Mr. Chase,This is a great post!! I believe having a more democratic classroom would be a great idea. I like the fact that the teacher would then be able to hear the students' sides so to speak. I like the idea of having students' being included in certain things. Sharing in decision making can be a great thing. It could possibly allow the students' to feel that they contributed to making the classroom a fun and good place to learn. I feel that if the student(s) feel that their ideas or opinions are valued then they will not hold back when it comes to being involved in the classroom.

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