Friday, April 30, 2010

Schools that Make a Difference: A Look at the League of Democratic Schools

Several years ago, the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University partnered with a local school, the Whatcom Day Academy, to be part of the League of Democratic Schools started by John Goodlad. Our partner school is now featured on the website of the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal at Woodring, the institute that also houses the Journal of Educational Controversy. While the journal provides a format for a national and international exchange of ideas on important and controversial issues in education, our partnership allows us to put some of these ideas in practice and share them with others across the globe.

Recently, at a regional meeting of the League in Bend, Oregon, I was able to experience another school in the League, the Westside Village Magnet School. It is a wonderful example of a democratic progressive school and provides a model of what our schools can achieve. The first thing you notice when you first arrive at the school is the sense of activity all around you. The children are everywhere, and there is a sense of joy that permeates the building. Without the usual bells and teacher talk, the children just seem to know where they should be, something that they have internalized though the culture that the school has created.

A young boy walks up to me and introduces himself as Paul and shakes my hand as he welcomes me to the school. There is a sign in the library of the rights and responsibilities of the students, but it isn’t just the usual mission statements that one finds in schools. It is internalized in the students. We had arrived around noon and students were walking all around cleaning the school. We learned later that the multi-age school is broken into families that represent every level. For ten minutes each day, each family has an assigned set of chores that each student is responsible for. Other times groups are organized around interests.


We arrived too late to see the morning community meetings, but we were told that each day starts with different community meetings that are conducted by the children. Each age group has a chance to conduct the meeting and the students raise the issues that concern them.

There is also a peer mediation council made up of students where conflicts can be worked out. On this particular day, a video crew of volunteers from the community was videotaping the mediation process to show to other schools in the community who had requested more information about it. The children would role play a conflict (they played out an incident in the girl’s restroom today) and then take the conflict to the peer mediation council. The student mediators learn to use active listening, search for feelings as well as facts, paraphrase responses, and ask clarifying questions. The mediators then frame the situation, write up the issues and begin to discuss solutions. All discuss win/win solutions and continue to brainstorm until the conflicting students find a solution that they can both agree on. Both the role playing conflict and the mediation process were videotaped to show other schools how it works.

The school is organized around themes. The theme this year was on global issues. Each hub of multi-age student groups – broken into k-1, 2-3, 4-6, 7-8 or something like this – approach the themes at their own developmental level and in an interdisciplinary way. I visited a room where children were making masks. The criteria for the technical making of masks were posted on the wall along with two other sets of criteria – a Research Mask Criteria and a Mask Museum Display Card Criteria.

The artwork was easily connected with their research projects (the school is very inquiry-based) and the following criteria were used to guide the students with the creation of their masks on two dimensions other than just the technical criteria.

Research Mask Criteria:

1. Create a mask that represents the culture, living beings or environment impacted or affected by the issue.
2. Focus on a critical component /issue/solution from your research.
3. Personify your mask.
4. Exaggerate at least one feature.
5. Create Balance and unity.
6. Sketch your design first.
7. Follow Deb’s mask-making technique.
8. Adorn mask to enhance the message.

The third set of criteria that was posted on the wall dealt with a museum display of their work. Notice that many of their state standards that as a public school the school has to incorporate in its curriculum are easily integrated into this interdisciplinary approach.

Mask Museum Display Card Criteria:

1. Create a museum display card
2. Use a thought-provoking quote to inspire
3. Write a complete paragraph using a topic sentence that explains specific information from your research to support your opinions and conclusions.
4. Capture the reader’s interest.
5. Use descriptive language that includes adjectives, vivid verbs and adverbs.
6. Include a title.
7. Follow the writing process.

Many of the children had been studying the artwork of the Oregon artist, Betty LaDuke. The school places great emphasis on the arts and the creative process. As I wandered around the room watching the children draw and paint, I couldn’t resist asking them some questions. They very competently described their use of colors and patterns that they found in LaDuke’s paintings. The task was to create a painting that incorporated Betty LaDuke’s painting criteria. The assignment asked them to capture the essence of their research topic. They were also asked to share the people the topic mostly impacts, show how a change we might make would make a difference for our earth, capture the essence of the culture, include a theme, include a focal point, use vibrant, strong colors and repeated patterns, line and color (all reminiscent of LaDuke’s paintings), include people in the painting, and use Betty LaDuke’s folk art style. They were later to title it and mount it.

Drawings and paintings were all over the school and classroom walls -- most with a cultural and social theme. In fact, the social consciousness that the students exhibited was seamlessly intertwined with the academics and extracurricular activities.

We had arrived on a Friday which was a day for exploration. There were any number of classes going on from baking bread, repairing bikes, making mosaics, working in and exploring the garden and the streams, creating ceramics, engaging in drama, videotaping, and the Rise up for Nicaragua –sewing quilt. Again the social component was connected with the academic explorations in which the children were engaged. When a child read on the internet about “The Great American Bake Sale” to end childhood hunger in America, she brought the idea to her community meeting. As a result, one of the exploration activities was to learn to bake bread. The school has a huge oven in the garden where some thirty loaves could be made at one time. (It was tasty) The loaves were then donated to the poor and homeless in the community. The school also has its own greenhouse where the children are raising vegetables to give to the poor.





One of the parents was working at the oven in the garden and I had a chance to chat with her. Of course, I asked why she sent her child to this school. At first, she mentioned the focus on individuality, creativity and community and then thought about the freedom from so much trivia she had seen in the two earlier schools that her child had attended – the obsession with gum chewing, wearing tank shirts, etc. Then after a few moments, she said, I guess it really comes down to the fact that this school respects children.

That mutual respect perhaps characterizes the school the best. There was so much more that I witnessed that I might share in a later blog posting. The school has a video on YouTube where you can see more. You can find it at:

Of course, the question that many of you probably want to ask is the question about children’s achievement and test scores in this kind of environment. Well, the school is high achieving. It reminds me of something that John Dewey always said – that one does not necessarily hit the goal by directly aiming at it. One of the sad consequences of the current reform and its obsession with a standardized test score is the elimination of everything that makes learning and life worthwhile – the arts, music, dance, drama, physical development, etc. It is one of those unintended consequences of the policies we construct. But as Dewey always reminded us, when our curriculum is embedded in meaningful activities, when it has a function other than achieving a test score, children not only ironically achieve but also learn to love to learn. After all, as Dewey would say, education is life not just a preparation for life.

The next issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy will focus on the theme, “The Education and Schools our Children Deserve,” and we will be featuring articles, ideas, and video from other League schools. Susan Donnelly, the head of the Whatcom Day Academy, the school we partner with in the League, will co-edit the issue. Our hope is to provide a vision of what our schools can be.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Whose History Should We Teach?

We reported in several postings below some of the conservative pressures on the curriculum decisions made by the Texas Board of Education on its proposed social studies curriculum. As a journal devoted to the discussion of the controversies in education, we ought to become clearer about the nature of the controversy that is surrounding the recent decision that Texas made. Certainly, introducing the conservative tradition in American political and social life is a legitimate topic in any history textbook. In his article below, Eric Foner from The Nation discusses some of the deeper issues underlying the Texas decision.

Twisting History in Texas
By Eric Foner
This article appeared in the April 5, 2010 edition of The Nation.

“Reprinted with permission from the April 5, 2010 issue of The Nation magazine. Portions of each week’s Nation magazine can be accessed at”

The changes to the social studies curriculum recently approved by the conservative-dominated Texas Board of Education have attracted attention mainly because of how they may affect textbooks used in other states. Since Texas certifies texts centrally rather than by individual school districts, publishers have a strong incentive to alter their books to conform to its standards so as to reach the huge Texas market. Where was Lee Harvey Oswald, after all, when he shot John F. Kennedy? In the Texas School Book Depository--a tall Dallas building filled with textbooks.

Most comment on the content of the new standards has focused on the mandate that high school students learn about leading conservative figures and institutions of the 1980s and '90s, specifically Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the Contract With America and the NRA. In fact, there is nothing wrong with teaching about modern conservatism, a key force in recent American history. My own textbook has a chapter called "The Triumph of Conservatism" and discusses most of the individuals and groups mentioned above.

More interesting is what the new standards tell us about conservatives' overall vision of American history and society and how they hope to instill that vision in the young. The standards run from kindergarten through high school, and certain themes obsessively recur. Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.

Here are a few examples. The board has removed mention of the Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention, the letters of John and Abigail Adams and suffrage advocate Carrie Chapman Catt. As examples of "good citizenship" for third graders, it deleted Harriet Tubman and included Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Helen Keller (the board seems to have slipped up here--Keller was a committed socialist). The role of religion--but not the separation of church and state--receives emphasis throughout. For example, religious revivals are now listed as one of the twelve major "events and eras" from colonial days to 1877.

The changes seek to reduce or elide discussion of slavery, mentioned mainly for its "impact" on different regions and the coming of the Civil War. A reference to the Atlantic slave trade is dropped in favor of "Triangular trade." Jefferson Davis's inaugural address as president of the Confederacy will now be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's speeches.

In grade one, Veterans Day replaces Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the list of holidays students should be familiar with. (Later, "building a military" has been added as one of two results of the Revolution--the other being the creation of the United States--an odd inclusion, given the founders' fear of a standing army.) The Double-V Campaign during World War II (blacks' demand that victory over the Axis powers be accompanied by victory over segregation at home) has been omitted from the high school curriculum. Japanese-American internment is now juxtaposed with "the regulation of some foreign nationals," ignoring the fact that while a few Germans and Italians were imprisoned as enemy aliens, the vast majority of people of Japanese ancestry who were interned were US citizens.

Students in several grades will be required to understand the "benefits" (but none of the drawbacks) of capitalism. The economic system, however, dares not speak its name--it is referred to throughout as "free enterprise." Labor unions are conspicuous by their absence. Mankind's impact on the environment is apparently entirely benign--the curriculum mentions dams for flood control and the benefits of transportation infrastructure but none of the problems arising from the exploitation of nature. Lest anyone think that Americans should not fall below a rudimentary standard of living, the kindergarten curriculum deletes food, shelter and clothing from its list of "basic human needs."

Americans, the board seems to suggest, do not need to take much notice of the rest of the world, or of noncitizens in this country. Kindergartners no longer have to learn about "people" who have contributed to American life, only about "patriots and good citizens." High school students must evaluate the pros and cons of US participation in "international organizations and treaties." In an original twist, third grade geography students no longer have to be able to identify on a map the Amazon, the Himalayas or (as if it were in another country) Washington, DC.

Clearly, the Texas Board of Education seeks to inculcate children with a history that celebrates the achievements of our past while ignoring its shortcomings, and that largely ignores those who have struggled to make this a fairer, more equal society. I have lectured on a number of occasions to Texas precollege teachers and have found them as competent, dedicated and open-minded as the best teachers anywhere. But if they are required to adhere to the revised curriculum, the students of our second most populous state will emerge ill prepared for life in Texas, America and the world in the twenty-first century.

About Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author of Give Me Liberty, an American history textbook.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April salon to reflect journal's theme

The 12th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum this year will present an evening salon of music, art, poetry and conversation on the topic Art, Social Imagination, and Democratic Education, the theme of our current issue of the journal. Authors whose work is published in the issue will join the audience at the salon. We hope that both the salon and the journal will engage the community in a conversation around the public purposes of our schools and the role of the arts in promoting both a meaningful education and a vital democratic society. It will be both experiential with live music and art and interactive. The audience is invited to join the conversation with the authors and share their own works of art as well as their own justice poems about resistance and empowerment, about finding one's own spirit in freedom and community and about the nature and development of social imagination for democratic living.

The Woodring 12th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice ForumPresents
An Evening Salon with Music, Art, Poetry and ConversationOn the Topic:
Art, Social Imagination and Democratic Education

Wednesday, April 28, 2010
5:30pm Reception
6-8pm Salon
Solarium in Old Main – 5th Floor
Western Washington University

Sponsored by the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity and the Journal of Educational ControversyWoodring College of Education
Western Washington University


Reception with music and refreshments
Welcoming interlude
Bellacorda String Quartet
Selections from Mozart Quartet in C Major “The Dissonant”
6:00 Musical Introduction to Salon

Quartet No. 1 in d minor (Mvts III & IV) Randall Thompson (1889-1984)
Vivace ma non troppo
Allegro appasionata

Bellacorda Quartet:

Christine Wilkinson, Violin
Rosalie Romano, Violin
Michael Neville. Viola
Noel Evans, Violoncello

Art Slide Show and Discussion of Children’s Drawings – Susan Donnelly, Whatcom Day Academy

Conversation on Social Imagination, Art and Education with Authors and Facilitators and the Audience:

• Facilitators: Lorraine Kasprisin, Editor, Journal of Educational Controversy and Kristen French, Director of the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity

• Authors: Daniel Larner, Susan Donnelly, Rosalie Romano, Anne Blanchard, Matt Miller

• Video clip of Maxine Greene will be shown. This issue of the journal was dedicated to Maxine Greene.

Audience will be invited to bring and share their own justice poems as well as works of art.
Free and open to the public.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Diane Ravitch: A New Agenda for School Reform

A new agenda for school reform

By Diane Ravitch
Washington Post
Friday, April 2, 2010

I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice. But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program enacted in 2002 did not produce large gains in reading and math. The gains in math were larger before the law was implemented, and the most recent national tests showed that eighth-grade students have made no improvement in reading since 1998. By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency, the law encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, the law stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.

Choice, too, has been disappointing. We now know that choice is no panacea. The districts with the most choice for the longest period -- Cleveland and Milwaukee -- have seen no improvement in their public schools nor in their choice schools. Charter schools have been compared to regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and have never outperformed them. Nationally, only 3 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters, and no one is giving much thought to improving the system that enrolls the other 97 percent.

It is time to change course....

To read the entire article, go to the Washington Post.

Diane Ravitch is an historian of education. Her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.