Tuesday, May 8, 2012
14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum -- Think Sheet Responses
At the beginning of last week’s 14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum (panel topic: “The Education and Schools Our Children Deserve”) at the Center for Education, Equity, and Diversity, we (i.e., the forum organizers) distributed a brief question sheet that asked each audience member to “list three characteristics that describe an education and school our children deserve.” Then, after the forum was over, we asked the audience to take a moment to write down any changes and revisions that had taken place in their thinking. We then compiled and analyzed their responses, which I will now summarize and discuss here.
By far the most commonly cited characteristic of desirable education was a sense of equality and inclusivity, with an ideal educational institution being one that provides guidance and quality education to students of all cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Over 75 percent of the audience members who turned in their question sheets cited this as being particularly important. This demonstrates both the abiding concerns of the forum-goers in general, and the fact that issues of educational equity remain woefully problematic: obviously if instances of severe inequality did not exist on a large scale, it probably would not have loomed sufficiently large in the respondents’ minds to become the common touchstone among their responses.
Also present in many people’s answers was the notion that schools should provide a sort of safe haven for students: a safe, comfortable, healthy learning environment where no one should feel threatened or uncomfortable. The primacy of a “whole child” approach to teaching, the appointment of knowledgeable, well-rounded, enthusiastic teachers, and a pedagogical focus on inculcating a love of learning in children also came up quite frequently.
Almost everything else that people mentioned—teacher consistency, caring relationships, diverse teaching styles to accommodate different ways of learning, instruction in critical thinking—more or less fell under subheadings of the common elements discussed above. One respondent facetiously suggested that the ideal school would have a “state-of-the-art detention hall where students are held in place with magnets” (obviously a quote from The Simpsons), but by and large the responses painted a portrait of the ideal school as an inclusive, holistic space of multicultural learning.
Meanwhile, the post-forum part of the question sheet, as I mentioned, asked audience members to discuss changes and refinements that had occurred in their thinking as a result of the panel. Many people cited an increased consciousness of the importance of relationships—between teachers and students, students and other students, teachers and the larger community, and so on—as their primary take-away from the forum. Several of them cited the video Vale Hartley showed of her class meeting at the Whatcom Day Academy as being particularly enlightening in that regard. The overall importance of the “humane aspect of teaching,” to use one respondent’s words, was definitely the throughline of the various post-forum responses.
Likewise, a large number of respondents asserted that their opinions were not changed so much as augmented as a result of the panel: no one’s broad convictions were really altered, but many people were moved to consider aspects of education that they had previously not given a great deal of thought. One audience member put it thusly: “my opinions have not changed but I now feel I now have many additions to what I believe children deserve.” It is this sort of response, perhaps, that might be used to answer the concern that forums of this sort amount to little more than preaching to the choir: while it is certainly true, if the answer sheets are any indication, that almost everyone at the forum agreed with each other in broad strokes, that certainly doesn’t mean they had nothing to teach one another. Much was clearly learned in terms of specific details, and the answer sheet responses as a whole attest to the vitality of the sort of public discourse the forum represents.