I have been thinking a lot about democratic education since starting work on the collaborative blog CoöpCatalyst. If you haven’t yet considered blogging or blogging with an audience of peers dedicated to improving teaching and learning for kids, I urge you to start.
The following represents my best thinking so far about growing democratic education within a public school system, beginning within one classroom. Please comment – this is a green paper, a suggestion, an idea, a vision. It needs work and discussion. I thank you sincerely for your help.
The Shoestring Democratic School (SDS) is a new model for self-directed, project-based learning and student service and entrepreneurship in the public, open-enrollment, chartered middle school. It could start as a pilot program and grow into a charter school or a network of democratic classrooms spread throughout middle schools in a division or region.
The SDS is a one-room-school-house-within-a-school. One full time teacher with multiple endorsements will facilitate students’ project-based learning, students’ interaction with virtual mentors in other disciplines, the school’s operations, the school’s community and parent partnerships, and technology or transportation to and from learning opportunities outside school. Virtual mentors will give blended feedback on content area performance in students’ project-based learning (PBL) work.
The teacher will work with approximately 30 students from 7th and 8th grades.
Students will learn to think for themselves and learn to use tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources. They will develop the ability to make clear logical arguments, and deal with complex ethical, moral issues. Through self-initiated activities, as they direct their lives, they will take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.
Trust and respect willl be the keys to the school’s success. Students and teachers will enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they will gain the internal resources needed to lead effective, productive and responsible lives.
The school will be a model of democracy: messy, growing, changing, always questioning the role of the individual in society and the role of education for democracy
The SDS will work to
- Push students successful in a traditional school to seek out opportunities to demonstrate learning in new, unfamiliar contexts closer to those of workplaces, especially in the service and start-up sectors.
- Innovate and disseminate new models of teaching & learning.
- Provide school choice to the community.
- Extend authentic learning outside the classroom.
- Bring authentic audiences and feedback into the classroom.
- Disrupt secondary school cultures of compliance and capped curriculum, instruction, and assessment through student activism fostered by honest conversation about schooling during morning meetings and tutorials.
- Establish a scalable, networked/viral model of democratic education for every division middle school.
Operations, Curriculum, & Instruction
The SDS will share the following services and resources with its host school: a classroom; furniture; a printer; the clinic; the cafeteria; the library; the gymnasium; counselors; classified staff.
Curriculum, instruction, and assessment will come from students’ self-directed projects, as well as from feedback given by educators and expert practitioners. Parents will receive narrative feedback twice quarterly about students’ work, growth, and mastery of standards from their children, the school teacher, and virtual mentors. The school will assess and report students’ mastery of mandated learning standards, but it will not use grades.
Students will have the opportunity to teach and learn from one another organically inside and outside school, as well as by setting up student-run courses and exchanges during morning meetings – daily gatherings dedicated to fostering a school-wide culture of valuing all community members, pursuing excellence, and celebrating and owning our learning.
The school will allow students to use personal electronic devices to build a 1:1 classroom. Surplus hardware, scholarships and donations will be sought from the division and community for students in need of 1:1 learning technology.
The teacher will carry at least 2 core subject endorsements. She will direct the school and facilitate daily learning. She will help students design projects and align learning outcomes to state standards for PBL body of evidence portfolios. She will also help students create daily and weekly schedules for project-management, service to the larger school community, and physical education.
Moreover, the teacher will facilitate student communication with virtual mentors and with volunteer and school-contracted tutors for student-directed language and music learning. Finally, the teacher will be responsible for the fiscal and day-to-day management of the school, with support from the host school and division central office.
Virtual mentors will round out the staff. These mentors would be highly qualified teachers already at work in the division. Ideally, each would receive a leadership stipend of at least $1500 and an division-subscribed SmartPhone to use for communication with SDS students. These mentors will be expected to make weekly F2F or virtual contact with each student to give guidance in discipline area learning and to assess discipline area work embedded in students’ projects.
The mentors’ credentials will cover endorsements not carried by the teacher. The mentors will serve as teachers of record for the school in their respective areas.
Additionally, the teacher will work with students to manage per-pupil funds for project materials and tutoring in languages and music as required by students’ projects. The teacher will also pursue funding and learning opportunities in financial literacy for students interested in entrepreneurial learning.
To customize their learning space, students will use the red paperclip approach to classroom design and ownership. They will solicit and barter goods and services from home and private business for additional classroom furniture, supplies, materials. The class space will reflect their work and communications needs and wants rather than the teacher’s pedagogy.
Students will spend part of each week on service projects and/or gardening/farming at the host school and/or nearby elementary schools with elementary school buddies.
Learning outside school, including service learning and physical education activities, will be welcomed for sharing and feedback at school with the entire school community.
SDS will reverse middle schools’ loss of parent volunteerism by inviting parents to be tutors and experts in the classroom and to provide micro-field trips for students to local businesses and studios for learning and feedback. Community organizations and local professionals will be invited regularly to contribute to students’ learning at school or on site at their places of operation.
SDS students will share governance of the school with the teacher according to the democratic education model. All community members would work together to establish daily routines, schedules, norms, consequences, and celebrations. Each community member will have an equal vote in setting policies and practices that don’t garner clear consensus.
SDS will have opt-in summer “office hours” for students to continue their learning with school resources. Before its inauguration, the school will have summer hours for students to help design the school and start projects on an opt-in basis.
To showcase and celebrate students’ work and provide the school with a measure of public accountability, the school will have quarterly, whole-day and early evening Expo Days that students will plan and host for parents, school division personnel, and the media. Students will schedule the dates, create promotional materials, make media contacts, design and print invitations, provide refreshments, and arrange the room for Expo Days.
All school community members will work together to provide collaborative professional development to teacher-and-student teams from other schools during the summer. SDS students will prepare round-table and workshop sessions on self-directed learning, project-based learning, service, entrepreneurship, and democratic education for attending teachers and teacher teams. All participants will receive tech for participation and the commitment to implement some level of of PBL, service-learning, student entrepreneurship, and/or democratic education the following year.
Part of the SDS mission will be to engage students in discussions about how school works and how it can work better for all students. Students will learn how to talk about school and resist pressures to be compliant when compliance doesn’t help them learn. Students will learn to challenge their teachers in constructive ways and to suggest learning and assessment alternatives for themselves and peers that are more authentic than traditional schoolwork.
SDS is a public school dedicated to open enrollment and finding best-fit learning opportunities for all students who enroll.
Students likely to experience early success at the SDS might, in some combination:
- Already be over the game of school.
- Experience difficulty finding challenging work at school.
- Experience difficulty learning through traditional instruction, especially in the traditional amounts of time given to it.
- Experience difficulty demonstrating learning through traditional assessments.
- Frequently challenge or mistrust the structures of school.
- Experience social pressure to dumb down his or her work or affect.
- Pursue a life-long learning passion that doesn’t fit into the traditional school day.
- Be willing to exchange authentic responsibilities for authentic freedoms in learning.
- Exhibit an aptitude and appetite for service learning and/or entrepreneurship.
- Experience anxiety in competitive and/or large-school settings that keeps him or her from fully engaging in or demonstrating learning.
SDS will use the following pieces of assessment for state accredidation and division-level accountability.
- Fall & Spring norm-referenced, growth-model literacy and math testing.
- Published projects & critiques.
- Expo Days.
- Body of evidence binders written into an alternative accredidation plan to provide students with an opt-in alternative to standardized testing.
SDS will require the following resources:
- Shared services as part of existing, recurring operational costs at a host school.
- 1 FTE for director.
- X mid-range leadership stipends for X highly qualified teachers serving as virtual mentors.
- SmartPhones & subscriptions for virtual mentors.
- Per pupil costs allocated to the school for ordering student supplies as needed by students’ projects.
If these resources are not available, the teacher will pursue teacher volunteers and/or federal and private funding to open the school pending approval from the division and board.
Students will have regular opportunities and encouragement to raise funds for the school, its projects, and organizations that benefit communities such as a local food bank or Kiva. Student work may be sold or licensed, and instructional materials created by school community members for projects or professional development may be recorded and serialized through services like Supercool School to bring modest revenue to the school’s work and a greater sense of ownership over the school to its students.
During the summer after its first year, the SDS will train virtual mentors in core content areas to establish their own one-room democratic schools the following year. Each teacher in the network will serve the other democratic schools as a content-area virtual mentor, as well, thus brining each core teacher participant’s student-load to approximately 90 kids. At this point, teachers might establish a weekly rotation to substitute for one another in order to confer with virtually mentored students at other school sites.
During the school’s second summer and third year the first cohort of teachers will train another network of teachers to open one-room democratic schools for the fourth year of the network. Thus, by the network’s fourth year, depending on the distribution of participating teachers, each middle school in a division or feeder pattern could have its own democratic classroom.
As local and state revenues recover and opportunities for charter funding increase, the model could be scaled more quickly into a larger school with a core faculty and perhaps 100 students housed in space aligned to the needs of project-based democratic education.