“Democracy in the classroom”

This is a piece I wrote about how we negotiate democracy in the classroom at the Infinity School where I work. I enjoy this practice as it fits in with the teaching I do independently as part of DEMOI:

Democracy in the classroom

Democracy is difficult. It requires a great deal of patience and comfort with disagreement. Citizens who take democracy seriously have to be prepared to have their ideas rejected by their neighbours, friends and peers. They also have to be prepared to accept the vote of the majority even if they strongly disagree with it.

At Infinity School, we practice democracy. This is done as part of each of day with a specific time each Thursday morning set aside for the democratic process to be honed. On those mornings we spend half an hour doing something called “Town Council.”

From 8:45 to 9:15am the Eagles and I have a meeting that follows an Agenda, which they have set. I open our council by asking the Eagles what they feel are the most pressing issues facing our community. By a vote, they place their chosen items on the Agenda and then we address them in the order of priority the Eagles selected. We follow the “Process Map” system used by our model school, Acton Academy.

My role as Guide is not to choose the items or to come up with solutions: the Eagles do that. When an issue is raised it is then “on the table” where it is discussed and debated.

When the discussion/debate has come to a conclusion (they vote on this, too), the Eagles are asked to come up with solutions. They write their ideas down and post them on the blackboard. I then list their solutions and see what proposals are the most popular.

After we have narrowed down our options we hold another vote until a solution is chosen. During the “narrowing down” process there is further debate and discussion.

If this sounds complex and involved, it absolutely is. And funny enough, the Eagles love it. They enjoy voting, debating, discussing and, above all, they love setting the Agenda. As their Guide, it can be both maddening and delightful to watch a debate become contentious or inspired.

But as I watch the Eagles in action I am reminded of all of those texts, articles and tomes about democracy I read over the years as I studied history and political science. Our Town Council is democracy in action: this is community dynamics at work; this is political science.

At Infinity and across the Acton Academy system, the Heads of School and the Guides are asking for something that today seems extraordinary from their Eagles. We are asking for their commitment to experimenting with a democratic system in the classroom.

We are asking them to take the lead in designing their education and establishing the ground rules and policies, which govern their community. This is an intensive preparation for adulthood, citizenship and the working world. This is also an attempt to bring back a frequently missing component of education: self-reliance, personal responsibility and active citizenship.

Anyone who is familiar with democracy and democratic systems knows that sometimes the process of proposing ideas and arriving at solutions is messy, confusing and (dare I say it?) chaotic. But this process is the basis of a free society; it is a requirement of a community-wide commitment to personal liberty, individual creativity and the principle that each mind, heart, voice and individual matters.

We believe that our Infinity community cannot truly be a community without the participation of every member. We also know that for young people to grow up and be successful in a competitive and often contentious world, they need to be prepared to participate by proposing ideas, attempting solutions and accepting that disappointment and failure are part of life in the “adult world.”

As a Guide, one of the most important life lessons I am learning from my Eagles is that this process of participating, of problem solving, is an ongoing process that one never masters. If you and your child believe that life is a call to creativity and that the best communities (and societies) are those which reward creativity, I think your child has a home here at Infinity.

You can visit the website here: http://infinityschool.ca/education-concepts/democracy-classroom-infinity-school/

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Socratics?

“It is dangerous to encourage people to talk -to express their feelings in words, to shape their ideas into coherent forms. The person in charge cannot predict what will happen; he cannot control the words. It is an open situation, and everyone becomes more vulnerable, more exposed, and thus more equal.” -Nancy Milio (from 9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn, 1970)

Thinking philosophically is essential to becoming educated

Apparently the English have shown that when you teach students philosophy they improve in mathematics and logical reasoning skills. I am pleased to say that I teach and discuss philosophy with my students. The Socratic approach is the very core of what I do; it’s what I’ve been doing at DEMOI for three and a half years and it is what I am also doing at The Infinity School. http://infinityschool.ca

I’m also pleased to say that my students love the challenge of thinking philosophically and would excel in any school that makes philosophy a core subject:
http://bigthink.com/…/teaching-students-philosophy-will-imp…

London Literacy in Action

London Literacy in Action

We are living in a time characterized by a widespread desire to improve -even rescue- our world. Across North America these past five years we have seen an explosion of impactful social movements demanding that our communities revisit and reassess notions of fairness, justice, and inclusion. This summer has seen a dramatic spike in that urgency for constructive action.

In response a new group, London Literacy in Action (LLA), is being formed. This group will be led by Jeremy Marks, a London-based writer and educator and will enjoy the sponsorship of both the London Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) and the London Central Library. This group seeks committed young adults between the ages of 15 and 25 who desire to participate in an ongoing conversation about fairness, justice and tolerance in our city and who are prepared to commit themselves to bi-weekly discussion sessions on Thursday evenings from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Central Library. These sessions will be driven by our close reading of contemporary fiction, literary nonfiction and memoir dedicated to the very issues which are behind the impactful social movements of our time. LLA wants (and needs) young people who are not only prepared to tackle a book every month, but who know the power of story and recognize how literature and memoir can spark the necessary conversations capable of moving our city and our society forward.

London Literary in Action will be more than just a discussion group; it will be a team prepared to interact with diverse communities of race, class, gender, colour, religion and ethnicity in London. LLA will also be a springboard for its members to become active in civic life as we will produce a narrative report of our findings which will be presented to City Council and made available to the community-at-large. In order for our group to succeed we need committed and creative youth-of-conscience.

If you are interested in joining LLA please answer 3 of the following questions. When you have completed the application please return it to Jeremy Marks at marksjn@gmail.com and include your contact information in the form of either your email or cell number (if you have one). Thank you very much for your interest! If you have any question please do not hesitate to contact me.

Application: literacy-in-action-application-pdf

Reading list: london_literacy_in_action_book_list

Pleased to report I will be teaching at the Infinity School

I am very excited to report that I have signed a contract to work for London’s Infinity School. I will be teaching Civilization classes for the 2016-2017 school year. The Infinity School’s methods are in perfect synchrony with my own: it is a school built around Socratic discussion and individual initiative and whose mission is to encourage self-reliance and self-direction in its students.

I cannot express how pleased I am to be part of a brand new school (which is opening its doors next month) that has been founded to bring progressive educational alternatives to the families of London, Ontario. (I should add that I will still be taking clients and DEMOI will continue as before.)

I recommend visiting the Infinity page for more information:

http://infinityschool.ca

 

London Literacy in Action

Starting September 22nd, 2016 I will be facilitating a literature discussion group through the London Central Library. Here is a preview of the advertisement that will be appearing in the Library Newsletter this summer:

London Literacy-in-Action
(Public Affairs Discussion Group for Young Adults who are Thinkers and Activists)

Ongoing, 1st and 3rd Thursday evening every month, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Flex Space, London Central Library

September 22nd: Introducing Our Mission & Team Building Session

October 6th: Discussion of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel Aristotle & Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

Join a team of young adults (ages 15-25) dedicated to reading, discussing and debating contemporary works of fiction, literary non-fiction & memoir which cover pressing questions of ethnic, racial and gender identity and address matters of social, political and ecological importance. We will be presenting our findings to the City of London and the Community-at-large.

Further Information and Sign Up available at https://demoiindependentlearning.com

 

Utopia/Dystopia and listening to teenagers

I am in the midst of teaching what I am calling a mini-seminar series on utopian ideas. The course is in five parts with each session devoted to a specific book. The course is broken down like this:

Week 1: The Communist Manfesto (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels)
Week 2: The God That Failed (Richard Crossman, ed.)
Week 3: Utopia (Sir Thomas more)
Week 4: Winnipeg’s General Strike (Michael Dupuis)
Week 5: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Already the course has become for me a fascinating discussion/rumination on the question: What is a utopian society?

What I find most interesting about this course is that I am witnessing a group of teenagers who have grown up in a post-Cold War world where the threat (or spectre) of communism no longer carries any of the weight that it carried during my own early childhood. Their opinions are free of the Cold War, East vs. West polarities I was reared on growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

What I also find fascinating is that this is a generation that has grown up with a profusion of dystopian books, graphic novels and films. Over the past three years I have been introduced to vast literatures detailing for young adults what a dystopian future might look like. These books range from The Hunger Games to the Divergent series to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and World War Z. And of course Margaret Atwood has also made her own contribution (The Year of the Flood). All of my students are familiar with at least one dystopian novel or film and consider dystopia to be a very real possibility for their futures. I honestly do not remember a similar interest in dystopias when I was a teenager, then again I came of age during that oddly buoyant period known as the 1990s before the towers fell, before the “Great Recession” and before the broadening discussion/controversy of Global Climate Change.

I believe that it is appropriate for young adults to read, consider and discuss literature whose primary concern is asking the question: what does a fair, just and equitable society look like? It is frankly refreshing to hear them discuss these matters intelligently, politely and passionately without the cant and hackneyed phrasing so common in the popular media. But more importantly, I think that introducing young adults to literature of this calibre and indicating to them that they are ready for it is immensely important because it not only encourages them to voice their concerns, observations and opinions but it also teaches them that serious questions deserve serious consideration and that they, with their enthusiasm and verve, can make a contribution and have the intelligence and aptitude to do so.

I would like to see more air time and screen time in the media devoted to roundtable discussions and Socratic seminars where young adults are the participants. I find their observations and interactions not only enlightening but in fact more enlightening than that of pundits and wags because they have not reached a point where they feel they have found the grail for all of our problems or have a vested concern in one ideology or programmatic solution.

Jeremy Nathan Marks