From Education Revolution

“Tactics means doing what you can with what you have.”
– Saul Alinsky.

The Journal and What’s Missing

I started a few months ago by gathering together papers and scribbles and agendas and class meeting minutes from several years of teaching. Then I began a web page, putting up this information and adding comments and self-interviews. It came to nothing for lack of time. Finally, I began the Journal, which was to be a running report combined with thoughts and explanations. The idea being that at the end I would sit down and make sense of it. The problem with reading the Journal in this form is that it isn’t finished, and won’t be for another year and a half. The broad outlines of Club House Democracy begin to emerge, but a lot remains to be said.

The Journal Begins

I have several years of experimenting with meetings and self-management at my school to look back on. It has twisted and turned in shape as I have become more experienced, and as the kids have, year after year, taken up previous classes‚ ideas and run with some of what went before and then added new things.

Last week, for instance, we introduced the idea of a “strong warning‚” which I stole from my Summerhill visit last July. I didn’t intend this, but a situation came up that seemed to fit such a meeting proposal, so I told the kids about how Summerhill used the idea, and they immediately adopted it. I imagine it will remain as an option for some time to come.

I’m not sure where to begin – the whole business at my school changed drastically with the retirement of older teachers and the arrival of young people who were interested in what I was doing. This year, for the first time, there is the prospect of students starting the process of what we call “Club House Democracy‚” at eight years of age and moving through five years of teachers who are committed to the same ideals of sharing power with children.

Last year the grade 4 and 5 teachers, Ben and Nora, began adopting my basic methods with considerable success. However, another teacher, in her first year, took my grade 6 kids into grade 7, and it didn’t work out that well. She was sharing responsibilities with a very undemocratic teacher (a tyrant), and the class I passed on to them soon fell apart, often reverting to either out of control or passive-aggressive behavior, depending on whom they were with. This year is turning out quite differently: the tyrant has left, I am seeing my last year’s class‚ at least once a day, and they are ardently pursuing class government and management – with the encouragement of that new teacher, who is going to be very good indeed.

So I have moved up and am starting the year with grade 8 instead of grade 6. We have initiated grade 7 and 8 meetings and activities to help make it all seem like one unified place. There is a concerted effort to get all five classes on the top floor feeling that they have common democratic foundations by mixing up teachers and activities and meetings as often as possible.

The question mark is going to be the grade 6 class, who had the Club House Democracy concept introduced to them in grade five. They have ended up with two teachers, neither of whom knows anything about what we are doing. We have promoted our ideas, given them workshop benches and tools and supplies, encouraged them to start meetings and so on, but they are a bit older and more experienced than the three young teachers in grades 4, 5, and 7, and so are more conservative – and a bit afraid to bust things loose (after all, democracy ain’t in the curriculum).

Last week, however, one of the teachers took me up on an offer to help with meetings and to help with getting the workshop going. The kids here are not the issue – they can run a meeting and administrate a workshop – it is the teachers (who are willing, but hesitant and inexperienced). So this sets the scene…Ben had his very first meeting with the grade 4’s last week. We chatted beforehand and then he went in and basically said to them “Listen, I’d like to share my authority with you. I’d like you to make rules and solve some problems yourself. Would you like to share the authority or do you want me to make all of the decisions?” He took a vote and of course 100 percent voted to share. He then proceeded to chair a first meeting, which, to his astonishment, ran to recess – at which time an 8-year-old raised his hand and made a motion to adjourn and then continue after the break.

Maureen’s Class

Maureen, the grade 7 teacher, needed a supply on Friday, and in the past that class has done nothing but torture supplies. In grade 5 they were quite traumatized. They had two teachers as a result of contract stuff, and the one they saw the most hated them (really). When she wasn’t predicting that they would all end up in jail she was away so much that the supplies – short and long term – must have been there at least a third of the time. So when they got to me in grade 6 I promised them I would not be there unless deathly ill and I managed to keep my promise. Even on days when I was due time off I would give it to others and teach them instead – in order to prove to the children that I did care about them.

The supply teacher who arrived to teach the new grade 7’s was a guy who looked about eighteen. We all stared at one another with “eyes of demise.” We thought – Oh well. However, Maureen was there for the first hour and had time to let the kids run the start of the day. She also explained how the students are involved in class decisions and a bit about our philosophy. The fellow, attending teacher’s college, had of course never heard about the type of program we were running but was very much taken by it. The kids knew he had made the effort to come in early to see them do things, and when Maureen left he was able to get into that space. The result, to our general surprise, was a decent day for all.

The “Mess Up The Class” Game

Ben is trying to get the grade 4’s to loosen up a bit (they had quite an old fashioned teacher last year), and at the same time he wants to get them to be disciplined in certain areas. Last week, after their second Class Meeting he came to me and said: “Gotta find a way to get them to vote against a motion. They always pass everything.”

I responded, “Make a proposal to cancel Phys. Ed. and another to double math and see what happens.”

Anyway, Brad and I play “mess up the class” games, where I come into his room and change things around, or take things that are his while the students are there, or if he leaves (on purpose). I come in and ask the students why they are working if the teacher is gone, and challenge them to stop, or get them to leave the room with me and hide, etc. He, on the other hand, tells them I am going to try such things and asks them not to let me interfere.

We were doing this in the area where the grade 4’s enter – they have two flights of stairs and a long hallway to walk down. This is hard for little kids, who see an empty space and want to run into it. It is also an area of bureaucratic surveillance. So we try and get the kids to relax and be invisible.

Anyway, as they were coming in I smiled at Daisy, who is a bundle of natural energy – it bursts out of her body. I yelled, “Let’s dance Daisy!” and ran over and put my arms out. She grabbed my hands and we proceeded to sing in nonsense and dance in circles in the middle of the hall.

Suddenly, though, she looked around and went, “Oh no!” and ran back in line. I tried various ways of disrupting the rest, grabbing at sleeves, standing in front of them, growling and so on. They kept on going.

This is only a useful exercise if it‚s properly followed up. If Brad doesn’t explain the concept of “context” to the students then it is quite wrong. Daisy must be told that the dancing was great, that her desire to play was wonderful and so on, and then she must be told that the only reason that she is to ignore me is because of the time and place.