Whose Voice, Whose Choice?

Whose Voice, Whose Choice?

Youth from Taiwan announcing their open space session, at the 2013 International Democratic Education Conference. (Source: democraticeducation.org)
Youth from Taiwan announcing their open space session, at the 2013 International Democratic Education Conference. (Source: democraticeducation.org)

In the past week, I’ve been at two amazing conferences, both dealing with democratizing education. The first was IDEC, the International Democratic Education Conference, held this year in Boulder, Colorado. The second, which I’m still currently at, is the National Leadership Conference, which focuses on bringing democracy back to our teachers' unions, put on by CORE, Chicago’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators.

In some ways, they’re very similar: both bring together people who care passionately about education, and feel that the way to improve education is to increase the voices of stakeholders, mostly students and teachers. But the differences were stark, and ultimately really interesting. The best answer to the current crisis in education lies at the intersection between these ideas, so I think it’s really interesting to look at the differences between the movements behind them.


IDEC was a really strange experience for me. The general philosophy—that children learn better when they’re interested in what they’re learning—seems like a given. Nuestra Escuela, which I wrote two articles about after visiting them in Puerto Rico this spring, is a democratic school for which I have infinite respect. And, in fact, I’m thinking of starting a democratic program within a Baltimore Public school eventually (I haven’t shared this link yet, but people at the conference convinced me I should put it out, so I share it here with the caveat that it is a work in progress).

At Nuestra Escuela, students make a lot of the decisions about their education, in conversation with teachers and parents. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, so their schools are forced to comply with policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In that context, it makes sense to form a school outside of the realm of the public schools to teach students their own culture and teach them to be citizens, since they have no real experience with citizenship in the larger world.

But some of the schools represented at the conference seemed less focused on bringing children together to learn histories the mainstream seeks to repress; giving them both space and guidelines to explore and learn from the world. They seemed more about creating space for privileged people to remove their children from the harsh realities of modernity, and shelter them in an environment in which the children believe themselves the center of the world. In many cases, these schools charged high tuitions and even had high enrollment fees, and still often asked teachers to work for a fraction of what the public schools could pay them.

There was a lot of talk of white privilege. Several white women were moved to very real, heartfelt tears (and several other people had to spend time explaining that this talk often moves white women to tears, and that it’s ok, and doesn’t mean the dialogue should end).

In some ways, that was the best part. Not people crying, but people being willing to be uncomfortable, willing to go outside of their comfort zones and really hear each other. That’s high praise: I don’t see a lot of spaces where this sort of work can happen, and I think it was handled with sensitivity and grace.

Another thing that impressed me a great deal was the sensitivity to speakers of languages other than English. Although I’m aware that it was still very frustrating for people translating into and out of Korean, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages, it was the first time I ever saw the challenges of interpretation so often brought to the forefront during a conference. Every time I heard someone request that a speaker slow down or pause for translation I noted that, in some ways, I was surrounded by very thoughtful, practical people.

Of course, finding my niche was challenging at a conference mostly of, by, and for people who have found voice for their educational philosophy by leaving the public schools. Many people tried to convince me that the system was irrevocably broken and oppressive, and that I’d never be able to engage in truly liberatory educational practice unless I left public education. I maintain that, while public schools were not founded on the basis of democracy, they are the most viable tool we have to spread it. I refuse to leave my people behind.

CORE National Leadership Conference

Now I’m in Chicago, building with people who are working to bring teachers’ voices back into the forefront of that last great bastion of the commons which we call public schools. In some ways I feel more at home here. One of the first things I heard when I walked in (late, after driving through the day and night 1,100 miles from Boulder to Chicago) was people brainstorming how to hold teachers to high standards without betraying our class-conscious need to not snitch out other workers.  So much of the rhetoric we hear is so negative, so down on teachers, and so disrespectful of teaching as a profession, that it was great to hear people unabashedly taking this on.

People in this milieu are very committed to bringing the voices of students and parents into the conversation. I attended a session dealing with the dangerous influence of standardized tests in public schools and the brave movement of parents and teachers refusing to subject the children in their lives to them. After hearing about the counterproductive nature of these tests, a woman got up and explained that she’s tired of being against things, and thinks our movement should switch its slogan from “opt-out” of standardized testing to “opt-in” to portfolio-based learning.

The woman showed us materials she uses in her class to ensure that students are choosing 90% of what they read and write, and are tracking their own progress through various learning objectives. It seemed sound, and she said she’s been able to engage a large percentage of learners with this method, whereas when she’s been forced to implement district curricula she’s had little success motivating students to learn.

This teacher's plans seemed very much along the lines of the democratic schooling models I’d been hearing about at IDEC. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to recognize the similarity. One woman, who has taught in the midwest for many years, asked “isn’t that a lot like unschooling?”

It turned out that the teacher being questioned had a very low opinion of unschooling. When I asked her about it afterwards, she said “I think we need to bring children up in the real world. In the real world, you can’t just do what you want to do all the time.” I agreed that it’s not possible to do what we want all the time, but pushed back that it’s probably not best to teach students that they must always look to others to find direction, acceptance, and acknowledgement, and that it’s good to let students explore things when they are curious to do so, rather than forcing them to learn things in an order imposed by others. She suggested it might be good for students to have some time to do self-directed learning, but that they needed some time each day when they were dealing with other people’s needs, not just their own.

I believe in workplace democracy. I believe that all workers should control all workplaces. Classrooms are workplaces for students and teachers alike. We need to bring together the best elements of both of these movements so that an active dialogue between students, teachers, and parents drives education.

Join the conversation: We created an online forum for discussing these ideas and shared it with participants at both conferences. Send your voice accross the democratic education bridge at www.DemEdBridge.org.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.