Kate Hennessey's Learning Story


The Empty Classroom: What role does democracy have in education? By Kate HennesseyOne main goal of education is democratic citizenship. Democracy is based on the core foundation of human nature, choice. Democracy begins with decision making, exercising one’s freedom of choice, yet with respect to the millions of other people on the planet. While learning to uphold, honor, and celebrate our democracy, students must learn to be effective decision makers. In order to become informed decision-makers, students need to learn to listen, think about challenges from multiple perspectives, and work collaboratively as a group. Is this what students learn in school? To become a good decision-maker, one must practice making decisions on a regular basis by thinking in depth, understanding multiple perspectives that form a collective effort, and relating knowledge to the real-world outside the classroom. Is this what students practice at school?Are classrooms democratic? Do students get to practice decision-making and thinking for themselves? If we as a nation value our democratic society, we must ask ourselves how students truly learn to be part of a democratic group where they have choice, but make their own decisions as part of a larger whole. Does our education system give students the opportunity to feel both the freedom and weight of holding the power in their own hands?Democracy is essentially about power, the power of choice, and classrooms have long been about the power of the teacher, imparting knowledge while students take in and demonstrate knowledge. Students listen to the teacher tell them, maybe show them, though notes, textbooks, and high-tech white boards what they need to know. Students jot down the information, maybe ask questions, maybe do projects, or take a test to show that, yes, they were listening, and, yes, they know what was taught. Dictatorships, in contrast to democracy, give the power to one person, and dictatorships, benevolent as they may be, are still dictatorships. As loving and spirited as teachers may be, most classrooms are still places where students are not given power or the opportunity to make many decisions. What about discipline? Curriculum standards? And, of course, standardized tests? Is it possible to have a democratic classroom? Maybe. Maybe not. For those who automatically claim no, the question still looms in the recesses of our ‘democratic’ psyche: How can we have a democratic society of thoughtful decision-makers if we do not believe the classroom is or can be a democratic place? If we do not believe students can handle power in their learning experience, how can we trust them when there is no teacher or authority figure at their side after graduation?These questions ran through my mind as a 9th grade Language Arts teacher at a large, diverse, urban public high school in Cambridge, MA. I wanted to see for myself if democracy could have a place in classroom learning. While, of course, my students did not elect me as their teacher, or could we vote on what novels we would read, there were routines we could do that were more ‘democratic’ in that they gave the students more power in their learning experience. There was an intellectual space that could be provided and agreed upon to explore. I did not have all the answers. That’s what I wanted them to know. What could they do together, without me telling them what to do? That’s what I wanted to know.We proceeded with caution. When I talked to them the first day about this option, exploring democracy in our semester long course together, there was pin-drop silence. Should they celebrate the fact I wouldn’t tell them exactly what to do? Should they be fearful that there might be confusion? What about their grades? An invisible door had been unlocked, allowing a flurry of tiny birds of power to fly about our consciousness. We all knew that ultimately I still had the key to that door. I could still give them a detention (thought I didn’t). I could still call their parents for inappropriate behavior (thought I didn’t). I could still make them repeat the course (though I didn’t). However, the space it the room had been changed, just by talking about how they, the students, usually didn’t have power and asking them what would happen if they did.While we could not aim for a perfect democracy, we established democratic routines. Students would grade each one of their papers and assignments with the same rubric as I would, which would often be a rubric we came up with together, depending on the assignment. If there was a huge gap on the rubric, we would talk. (Usually, they were much harder on themselves than I was.) We would do a check-in on Monday and Wednesday by standing in a circle around the room, and each student would tell us how they were doing or tell us news about something that was going on in their lives. It would help us get to know each other, practice listening, and speaking in front of others. On Friday, we would end the class with Compliments and Appreciations where students would share a compliment for someone in the class for something they had done that week or say thank you for anything in general. All ideas where recorded on post-its and placed on the compliments and appreciations wall of our classroom. The students listened to each other almost all of the time during these activities; listening was as important as speaking. If someone wasn’t listening, we would pause, look at them, and wait until they were listening.When we read Lord of the Flies by William Golding, I left the room for ten minutes to introduce the novel. The students had to decide among themselves who would get a one-week homework pass. Only they knew what happened in those ten-minutes, but they surprisingly wanted me to decide when I came in who would get the pass. As we studied the novel, we looked at how the plane-wrecked group of British school boys tried to set up democratic routines with their conch shell for turn-taking in their meetings led by an elected leader, Ralph. We saw how fear weakened the democracy into a split between the two groups, with Jack, as the torturous dictator of the hunters. We explored the symbolism of his leadership style of absolute power through fear and torture in the novel’s post-WWII context as a representation of Hitler and the Nazis. As the boys in novel dwindled into a state of anarchy and self-destruction, the need for democracy and the challenges of maintaining democracy were clear in an intellectual sense for the students. We looked at modern day examples of the struggle for democracy in nations including Haiti, the homeland of many of my students. The oppressive regime of Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and their personal army, the Tonton Macaoutes seemed like a modern day echo of the boys on the island. We read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder, the story of Paul Farmer, a doctor from Harvard who dedicates his life through an organization called Partners in Health to helping bring health care to the poor in Haiti. When Tracey Kidder and Paul Farmer visited our school one day before giving a talk at Harvard University, our closest neighbor that seemed worlds away on the other side of the street, the students saw the ‘before and after photos’ of patients in Haiti. The effects of a society long controlled by an oppressive regime could be seen on the faces of those suffering from illnesses cured long ago in our area. Democracy had become more real in our reading, placed in a historical and modern-day context in our historical and current event analysis, and was taking hold through our democratic routines; however, it was still an idea more than a feeling. We understood it, why it was important, what could happen in society when democracy, choice, individual thinking, and decision-making were not present. But, had the students experienced themselves the challenges of democracy, what it really took to truly overcome the challenges of working in a democratic way, balancing ideas and opinions, work-styles, personalities, strengths, a
nd weaknesses? They still had not decided who to give the homework pass to’So, the final project began. Students had one week to design and build a model of the island in the novel and a model of a current place in the world where their group’s theme, which they had traced throughout the novel and posted notes and quotations on a group board on the classroom wall, was present. They would need to connect the two models with a bridge that would clearly state their group’s theme. The models would include many references to the text where the theme was present and research on the current world event where they saw the theme played out in a modern day context. For example, one group had the theme Blindness and Sight, which appears throughout the novel with many references to eyes, sight, and blindness, including classical references to Oedipus Rex. The references are hidden, buried in the thick jungle of Golding’s descriptive text which mirrors the island terrain, and the reader must search through the details in order to ‘see’ the themes emerge. This group chose to relate their theme to Darfur and how the world chooses to be ‘blind’ to the need to for help there. Each group then formulated a Plan of Action on how they would transfer what they learned into action in our school or community. For example, the Darfur group put up posters around the school about Darfur, sold candy bars, and donated the money to a non-profit helping in Darfur. During the project, each group was given a camera to take a picture each day during the project week of some moment they felt they had acted democratically, possibly by listening to each other, considering multiple perspectives, or effectively making a decision together. The photos usually related to a list of behaviors the class had brainstormed that they felt were ‘democratic group behaviors’. The photos were posted on each team’s banner hanging around the room throughout the week with quotes explained the ‘democratic moment’. As it turned out, these photos were much needed reminders that collaboration was possible as the week progressed’ We were surprised, all of us, even those groups with dear friends working together, even after months of learning about democracy, it was still hard to do. The groups had to make so many decisions about design, quotes, materials, and division of labor. There was also the pressure of time, one week in class meant time had to be used effectively by all. If one person did not come to school or do their part, someone had to do it. I tried to keep my mouth shut and keep printing out their photos of democratic moments so we knew they were possible. Parents fretted about how the work would be graded. Students had to work creatively with the ideas, materials, and each other. Absent students were called by group members and told to get to school the next day. The classroom was open and used until 6:00 p.m. Then, the week was over. The classroom looked like a tornado had passed through. Amidst the rubble of plaster, glitter, cardboard, hot-glue guns, paper-mache, crepe paper, and emotional exhaustion, were tangible models of our ideas. The ideas had taken on a form and life of their own. The walls were covered with photos of democratic moments and an explanatory quote from each day. It deserved to be shared. I asked the kids what we should do. The parents had donated money to buy supplies; maybe they would want to see the final products. The kids had worked very hard and put a great deal of thought and effort into the models. Should we have an exhibition? I suggested doing some kind of fundraiser for Partners in Health. They liked the idea. I suggested that we make the room into the island for everyone to visit. They agreed. Students said they would bring what they could- some green crepe paper. I though it would be for their parents mostly. I didn’t even put it in the daily school events paper or announcements, as I hadn’t expected them to bring much in to decorate the classroom. I just wanted to give their parents a chance to see their work and it seemed a natural progression after so much work. I was surprised! So many students brought in decorations that the classroom truly looked like the island. There were leaves, tiki torches, rolls and rolls of green crepe paper, and even symbolic locations from the island, like Simon’s place, Castle Rock, and the place where the mother sow was killed, complete with a paper mache model of the mother sow. We had plants and even an electronic white board borrowed and rolled in for a group that had a power point element to their project. Some students had set up a bake-sale outside the classroom to earn extra money for Partners in Health. The models were nestled in the green tropics, and the democratic moment pictures still covered the walls. We charged one dollar to tour the island and listen to members of each group explain their work. We earned $236 for Partners in Health in two hours with just a few flyers students delivered after lunch that day. The principal, parents, and friends came to listen too! The event had come together so quickly, that what we had not had time to do in class was practice what the students would say to explain their theme and models. One parent told me on the way out that she noticed how it seemed the students had not rehearsed what they were going to say, that it seemed raw and sincere. While at first, it seemed that maybe we should have practiced what they would say to all the visitors, but then I thought that maybe the explaining was the learning, not just the telling of what we learned. The visuals and model seemed to take center stage; the democratic moments placed around the room went unnoticed. It was too much to explain with the models, themes, and current events, but we had proof, if only for ourselves, that we tried to learn about democracy in a democratic way, and we had ended up helping others along the way. The students evaluated their projects as a team and individually, and wrote about what they had learned that semester using the photos, quotes from the theme walls students created while reading and democratic moments during the projects, and compliments and appreciations wall. The check-ins, compliments and appreciations continued. I can say that every birthday was celebrated that semester, and students knew each person in their semester long freshman language arts class. They knew each other’s names, what they liked to do outside of school, and their sense of humor. The last day of class we looked back at all the photos from the semester. Students wrote anonymous reflections about the learning experience: Should I do this again next semester with the students? I wanted to know. The results were positive on the reflection survey. Thier words are below. The students hugged each other or gave each other five after our final round of compliments and appreciations. Then, they left. Of course, later, after they had gone, I cried because I missed them so. I had gotten to know them in a way I had never gotten to know another group of students. We would not be together as a class again. But that was not the point. The whole course and effort to work together democratically was for that moment, the moment of the empty classroom, when the students had scattered to their own lives and were left with what they had truly learned, what they could truly use, and who they had truly become as a result of the experience. I hoped that they had felt, not just understood, what democracy means in even a small group of four students or a class of 28. I hoped they had gotten practice making decisions individually and as part of a group. I hoped that they had taken the knowledge, skills, and practice with them, not simply returned the information to me’. and left the classroom purposefully empty (except, of course, for me and my box of Kleenex). As a teacher, I learned that trying to set-up democratic routines in the classroom was as powerful as it was exhausting. I had had the encouragement and guidance of a group of teacher-resea
rchers in the school. We worked closely with researchers from Making Learning Visible, a Reggio Emilia- inspired branch of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. I presented my work at our exhibit for the school community. A university research group came the next night to look at the teachers’ projects. As much as I wanted to be there to hear the ideas and comments of some of the most thoughtful educators I have encountered, I was in my bed asleep before seven for the next week, completely exhausted. After much rest, I continued the next semester, with many modifications, a newcomer, more curious after a sampling of this new kind of learning and teaching. As we see on a large scale in current situations such as Iraq, democracy is not easy. In my little quasi-democratically-intentioned-classroom, I felt the exhaustion of trying do something entirely different than I had ever experienced, as a teacher, student, or learner. It is easier and faster for all, students and teachers, to tell kids what to do, what to study, what to learn, and even what to think. It is easier to tell students how to solve their problems and make their decisions. But, then there is that moment when the classroom is empty”..hopefully.Some student reflections:On the Compliments and Appreciations routine (Students write down and share a compliment about a classmate or an aspect they appreciate in their lives inside or outside of school, 5-10 minute activity at start of class every Friday):’I think it helps the learning environment, because you are making someone feel good. If people feel good, it’s easier to learn.”It feels good, because it feels like I was good enough. I can put a smile on someone’s face. I have learned that it doesn’t take a lot in life to accept someone and be positive.”It can make someone’s whole day.”When people receive a compliment, they get a positive energy boost, and that helps the class.”It’s fun to notice things about classmates that are worth complimenting them for.”I love to get a compliment, and I love to hear someone else get a compliment.’On the Check-In routine (Students stand in circle and share one main idea from their day, share how they are feeling on that day, or make an announcement about an activity they are involved in that week. Students may choose to pass, 5-10 minute activity on Mondays and Wednesdays):’When you speak in front of 25 kids every other day, inevitably, you become a better speaker. The same can be said for listening. You, without even noticing it, become a better listener.”Because there are no right or wrong answers, the check-in is a light, fun listening and speaking activity. I feel like I can relate to people more if I know what they like to do.”It is a way to tell someone how you feel, and it might be the only person all day.”I like the whole class sharing in a big group. You know everyone’s story, instead of just a select few.”You stop and think about who you are, and talking to others helps in that respect.’ ‘The check-in helps us learn as a group by hearing each other out if anyone needs advice, or just to have someone look after you.’On democracy in the classroom (Small group book clubs, Lord of the Flies project, documentation of democratic moments and group themes, plans of action):’Thinking about democracy and practicing in on a smaller scale has influenced me because now I know it can be done. Democracy IS a hard thing to create, but we did it. All I’d ever known was the dictatorship led by a teacher, but democracy has always been an invisible option. Democracy is better. I will try to pass it on.”Thinking about and practicing democracy affected me because I have learned better ways to work in a small group. For example, in a small group, you should all share ideas, vote on things, and use teamwork. These ways will help me when I move in high school, college, and out in the working.”Practicing democracy has brought this class closer together. It has created a society in which one feels safe to ask questions and give ideas. By having everyone contribute, I have learned how to look at things from new perspectives. For example, when working with my LOF group, Mei-Mei suggested making the ocean out of a collage on our model. I had never thought of this and realized what a great idea it was. The creative ocean turned out to be something the whole group was very proud of.”Practicing and thinking about democracy helped make it seem more real. While thinking about democracy, I realized how hard it was to achieve and how good it felt to achieve it.”Thinking about democracy in here made me realize that I should be acting more democratic in daily life when there’s a conflict or just helping someone out.”Thinking about democracy, Darfur, and LOF has given us more of an understanding of the value of life. Being in this class has helped me see values in my life and how I should appreciate it. I have also learned how to value others.”Practicing democracy has helped out class because it allows us to open up and speak our ideas, which gives the class an important voice.’