Sunday, October 11, 2020

When a School is a Democracy

This is a really interesting time to be a teacher.

Knowing that I may only have students in person for a few days at a time, what is our best use of that time?

I decided that social-emotional learning (SEL) was going to be key this year. Not only have our children been isolated from their peers, possibly losing communication and negotiation skills, but the research shows that PLAY and outdoor free play in particular is the best way to practice those skills as well as supporting neurological development that underpins academic learning (and it's a wonderful antidote to trauma).

I decided that the primary chunk of time in our school day would therefore be free undirected play.

Another important goal of our time together is academic content, of course.

Each family has a tote bag at home of academic work to do throughout the course of the two weeks -- whether we meet in person or not -- largely because I wanted to invidualize things and also because a lot of the hands-on Montessori materials and educational board games can't be used at school this year, because multiple people would be touching them. Lending them to the families a few weeks at a time and rotating them through seems to make the most sense. But we still are having Main Lesson time together, and I am still doing explicit teaching for the groups.

The Phoenix Tribe is exploring the good/evil dichotomy through the powerful long-handed-down stories about people who overcame internal and external challenges and strove for constant calm reflectiveness and goodness: the Legends of the Saints. The Magnolia tribe is exploring Civics and the U.S. Election process, as well as the biographies of some of our past Presidents.

Both of these themes tie Cultural and History/Geography lessons in with real-life discussion of how to navigate social and emotional realms.

How do you have your personal needs met successfully when you're in a group? Where do your rights to exist and be happy meet the rights of others to exist and be happy? When is something fair and when is it not fair?

This stuff is real and it matters and it's a question for NOW.

As was so beautifully stated in the book we are reading in our Parent Book Group, The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children by Shefali Tsabary:

Even as our children need to foster a sense of inner connection and the ability to be authentic, they also need to learn how to live in a world of rules and get along with others in the sandbox of life. For this to happen, children need to listen to their own voice and, in equal measure, absorb the voices of others. (p.214)

[A]s our children discover that the world doesn't revolve around them, they learn to tolerate frustration. They accept that, since they aren't the only ones who have wishes and needs, they can't achieve instant gratification all the time. (p.214)

What better way to have explicit practice in SEL and lay a foundation for philosophical discussions about friendship, responsibility, happiness, justice, courage, humanity, compassion, and freedom than to have our little school operate as a democracy?

Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids

by Marietta McCarty
our Philosophy text for the year

I have been fascinated by democratic schools for a long time, and Natalie attended Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro MD for a year (she would have stayed for longer except we moved to IL). Children in democratic schools don't have an absence of rules. Far from it! When kids write the rule book it is detailed and thick. And when they have an equal vote, they take it seriously. We had two tribes, of different ages, go through the process in our first week of drafting initial versions of the rules. Here is how it went.

Like Water: The Extraordinary Approach to Education at Fairhaven School

by Mark McCaig

I introduced the process by having them vote on their tribe name. We had a brainstorm time and then I taught them how to make and second a motion and how to take a vote. Once the tribe name was unanimously decided upon, I wrote it down. Then I told them that we would make the rules for our school using the same process. Note: Rules have to pass with a majority; only the tribe name had to be unanimous. But I observed that they would stay with it and redraft motions and tweak language for each rule until they came up with wording that every child was comfortable with. Interesting!

I explained to each tribe that I would like the first four hours of the day to be Choice Time (free play and I would also prepare and present some activities that they could choose from if they were interested) and that the last two hours be our Main Lesson Time. Everything I've read about teaching in an Outdoor Classroom is about how the kids should get to move around, work together, and be creative. So I didn't think starting the day with seatwork was the best idea! Each tribe voted unanimously to accept this schedule.

Then I told them that they could vote on any other rules they thought we should have. Categories for the rules are Safety, Respect for Human Rights, and Learning & Exploration.

The Phoenix Tribe


The first thing the Phoenix Tribe wanted to do was ban gun play.

This was obviously a still-simmering issue from last year on the playground. There were a lot of long discussions last year about what wording to use that would eliminate the gun play that made most of the kids uncomfortable, while one or two children were adroitly negotiating the precise language of the rules to keep their gun play secretly alive (pretending to shoot people with weapons, including triggers and explosions, that they swore were not guns and therefore allowable... ie., 'it's not a gun, it's a flamethrower').

This group also insisted under the category of Safety that each child bring a back-up mask to school (a rule that surprised me) in case one got muddy. I guess as an adult I never ever dreamed that my mask would get muddy!

After spending an hour establishing the first round of rules, they got a tour of the school grounds, got their Certifications, and went off to play at 10 am. I showed them the silver bell that they could ring at any time to call for a School Meeting, in case they had a problem or they thought of any more rules we should vote on. At 10:45 am someone rang the bell for a conversation about hitting. At 1 pm someone rang the bell for a conversation about name calling. At 2 pm someone rang the bell for a conversation about excluding others.

Here are the rules they came up with on Day One:

    Everyone has a right to be safe, so no play that encourages dangerous behavior.

    The magnolia tree is the only climbing tree. No one may climb higher than the lower roof of the house. No one may be helped into the tree.

    Bring a back-up mask.

    Certification is required before using the hammock, pulley, or water pump.

    Respect the needs of other peole.

    No running with sticks.

    No sticks in the Canteen Tent and only go in and out through the door.

    Everyone must eat only in the Canteen Tent unless certified to eat on the school grounds. All food trash must be picked up right away.

    Everyone must come to School Meeting when a meeting is called. A meeting may be called by anyone at any time by ringing the silver bell.

    People should only be called by the name that they like.

    If you are doing something and someone asks you to stop, stop right away.

    Games should be fair and fun for everyone.


On Day Two, we addressed the excluding others concern that had happened at the end of the day on Day One. I also asked that we modify the rule about calling for a meeting at any time, since calling for two when I was in the middle of teaching a lesson made it hard on me. (One happened at 1 pm right when I was getting ready to start Main Lesson, and the other happened when I was warming up the milk for our Dragon Bread so the yeast would rise.) They revised that rule and created some new ones:

    revised rule: Everyone must come to School Meeting when a meeting is called. A meeting may be called by anyone at any time by ringing the silver bell between 9 am and 1 pm. Except for emergencies, between the hours of 1 pm and 3 pm all outstanding issues and motions should be tabled.

    Private conversations should happen in the Peace Garden. Other conversations on school grounds should include everyone.

    Questions of safety will be decided by the Safety Officer [that's me, but I can designate someone else when I am not available, like if I have a substitute teacher that person would be the Safety Officer].

    Keep your distance from wild animals [we didn't have an incident; this was in response to someone being worried about rabies].

    Don't interrupt other people.

    Be thoughtful of the feelings of other people when you're giving them feedback.

The Magnolia Tribe


On Thursday, I went through the same process with the Magnolia Tribe. This tribe has children who are quite a bit older. It also has children who largely don't know each other. Either because they didn't have a lot of longstanding history with each other, or because they were more mature, there were fewer conflicts and fewer rules. There was one meeting midway through the first day, when there was an incident of Zac throwing a rock carelessly to be silly and accidentally hitting another child with it, but the first meeting took less time and there were no meetings at all on Day Two.

It was really fascinating to see it unfold in a different way in the different groups. I had originally thought that the rules that each group votes on would become all-school rules, but that isn't really fair, is it? If you get a voice in the rules, you get a voice. So I have two rule books now! It will be fun to introduce the idea of a Representative Democracy in Civics later on...

Here are the rules the Magnolia Tribe came up with.

    Raise your hand before you talk.

    Be kind to everybody. Think before you act.

    Include everyone but also give them choice.

    Follow reasonable requests.

    No dangerous and violent behavior.

    Apologize when you make a mistake.

    Be true to your word.

    No throwing.

The first three were the three original rules. The other five were written after the rock incident.

It has been a wonderful and thought-provoking experience for sure. It gave the children the social time they were craving, the time to consider deeper questions about rights in a democracy, and an opportunity to set the tone for the school year and help them feel that at school they will be respected and cared for.

You know that the brain science says that people can't learn if they don't feel safe. With the COVID crisis, making the children feel safe and cared for is a top priority. Otherwise, I can plan all the lessons I want to and they just won't go in. Our first week was really primarily about sending the message that I value them, and letting them show in return that they value me and each other.

I will propose shifting the schedule if we end up meeting in person more often than I think, or if this schedule doesn't work for a tribe in some way. And I think they will be responsive to it -- even if I'm proposing putting some more academic work in the Choice Time -- because they will trust that I am putting an idea on the table that I believe will truly benefit them. And, as you can see from the rules, children are wise. They know what a healthy social environment that combines freedom with responsibility should look like. And they will enforce the rules to make it happen! I was blown away by the seriousness and fairness of the School Meetings at Fairhaven, and I am proud that our first week was equally sincere and just.

This post contains affiliate links to materials I truly use for homeschooling. Qualifying purchases provide me with revenue. Thank you for your support!

No comments: