Years ago as part of a curricula piece focusing on the Bill of Rights I set-up an experiment in fascism in 5th/6th classroom which soon developed into an examination of power and democracy by my students. Though the set-up was a “set-up”, i.e. not a real life situation it soon played out in very “real” ways to my students. What was real was that I was dissatisfied with the level of community responsibility my students exhibited.
Students were introduced to a scenario where an alien being, Rotat-Cid, had arrived in NYC. She soon summoned the populace to a Central Park Town Meeting where she promised to rid the community of the scourges of unemployment and poverty, drugs, crime and racism. All Rotat-Cid asked in return was a simplification of the Bill of Rights. She felt some of the10 were out-dated and too confusing to her. She asked all the students were to order them 1-10 so that the 3 least essential would be dropped.
Oh, did I mention that there was an element of a “set-up” involved here?
Off to work the students went and by week’s end “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” was dropped. Then I went to work. Over the few days the classroom community they were comfortable in was transformed into an unsafe, edgy place and their beloved teacher became a punitive ‘dictator’. Zero Tolerance became the standard. Lateness or missed homework was not put up with. Excuses or extenuating circumstances were not accepted. Infractions and rules abounded. Work was now done alone and silently. Recess was revoked. Girls were required to wear ties. By teacher whim boys and girls now had separated lines. Fines were assessed and collected by the teacher. Tension filled the air; saturated it with accusations and blame.
By Tuesday of the second week when I went to the cafeteria for morning pick-up I was surprised to only find a half dozen students waiting for me. When we arrived at our classroom we found the doors barricaded by book bags and chairs, the entrances blocked by the missing students. They refused my order to allow us access to the classroom. I reacted quickly by calling the school’s Director. She responded to my request and summonsed the (uniformed) building Security Guard. He informed them that they had a right to picket but that they’d be arrested if they continued to block entrance to other students.
They quickly organized a picket line complete with chants and signs. The day went on. Six students crossed the line into the classroom and went about the 3 R’s. They complained about the picketers: they were too noisy, they shouted threats, their banging on the classroom doors made school work impossible.
By the end of the day feelings were running high. The hallway was a mess with papers and picket signs strewn about. A meeting was arranged and an agreement brokered whereby I would cease and desist in my new approach to classroom management in exchange for their return to class the next morning. The picketer’s demand that the “scab” students not benefit from any roll back of my “abusive behavior” was tabled. Both groups agreed there’d be no recriminations between students. Additionally a tribunal was set up, chaired by a (lawyer) parent who agreed to act as an impartial mediator. No solution would be imposed on anyone; we sought a consensus. Students selected representatives to ‘testify’ at the tribunal. Two weeks later a very seriously prepared for tribunal was held.
As you can imagine there was quite a bit of de-briefing regarding this event. Colleagues ‘commented’ – some criticized - on the un-real, set-up aspect. But it took on a real life of it’s own to my students. Over the years they referred back to it. One student analyzed her feelings as a student during that week. She was sure that this couldn’t be the real me. In her words, “99% sure but that missing 1% made me nervous, made me feel unsafe.” It became the topic of another student’s successful college application essay. In it she discussed her belief that I wanted them to “organize and rebel”. Imagine that!
As a teacher in a progressive elementary school in the East Harlem section of NYC I came to learn quite a bit about democratic schooling from my students. I suppose that’s as it should be – a partnership between teacher and students. I found that if it’s going to be a full partnership then not only is it required that the teacher create space and rituals for student expression but that the teacher also hear and take into account those expressions. And that space can be quite messy as students ‘play’ around with the responsibilities that democracy brings to a community. All of this necessitates careful listening and a commitment of time and patience on the part of the teacher. Providing lots of time for growth is essential as the development of a social consciousness in youngsters isn’t linear or marked on a calendar. Rather it can follow a time line that’s full of long time positive experiences with adults in a community where social justice is abundant.
welcome to the ning world, sid. enjoyed reading your post.
Olga Joyce Winbush said:
Hey Sid, love the picture and I loved your story. Your story reminded me of a time when I was teaching 2nd and 3rd grade and we were studying the Civil Rights Movement and like you I became a prejudiced hard core remnant of segregation, giving the brown eyed children all the privileges and the blue-eyed children were separated in the classroom and treated as less than human. I informed the children that this was now the new law of our Group Three class. The children went home that night, organized and the next day picketed me. I was thrilled. They refused to enter class until I changed the law and they had written up a new law which stated that I would never again separate them or be prejudiced against them but our class would be fair for everyone. I signed the law and then we had a very long discussion about the use of laws to support what is right, but that some laws can be made to support what is wrong and must be changed. I learned alot from my kids that day about social justice and democracy and the power of children to take action to bring about change. This is why we educate, this is why we teach, to support our children's voices and to help them develop into agents of social change so that they will continually strive for a true democratic society.
Will miss all of you this year,but will be there in spirit.