“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/

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

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

 

Taking ideas seriously

I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.

Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist ManifestoThe God That FailedTo Kill A MockingbirdWinnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.

It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriously and embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

 

What is DEMOI?

The name DEMOI is plural for the Greek word “Demos” meaning “the common people of a democracy.”

I decided upon this name because I fervently believe that education is a democratic enterprise capable not only of encouraging literacy, self-awareness and mutual understanding but that education is also an exercise in empowerment. I use the word “empowerment” with a specific meaning in mind.

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that democracy requires a “democratic conception of vocation”: a person’s “work” should be their calling. In a democratic society each student has a right to be educated and to be given the opportunity to choose the work they would like to do. This is not a whimsical matter but goes to the heart of independence and self-responsible authority. Democracy requires vigilant and intelligent citizens who are capable of debating and discussing the pressing issues of the day and holding powerful private and public officials accountable through their own steadfast commitment to literacy, empiricism and intellectual honesty.

I share Dewey’s belief in the importance of a calling which is why I decided to become an independent teacher. I believe in public education but I also am promoting the need for one-on-one and small group Socratic learning. In one-on-one and small seminar sessions I am able to help students shape their own curriculum and pursue a rigorous course (or courses) of study that encourages personal independence and the idea that education is a lifelong objective. I model my pedagogical approach on the Oxford University Tutors who meet regularly with students to discuss what they are reading, to ask them penetrating questions as well as requiring them to write and debate the themes and problems which arise in their studies.

My goal is simple: I want each student to know that education is made for them. I want them to learn how to trust their own judgment, become critical thinkers and learn the dual art of rhetoric and literary expression. I am convinced that by acquiring these skills they will be able to discover and acquire their vocation and use it to better their own lives and the lives of others. Informed citizenship, personal autonomy and meaningful work all begin with independent learning.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

What kind of teacher am I?

What kind of teacher am I?

I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.

How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.

I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.

When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.

I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.

I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.

I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.

Thank you for reading.
Jeremy