Using Standards Based Grading in Social Studies (Portfolio #8)

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

Other than two angry reactionary pieces that got picked up by the press (why is that the case?), the most read piece I’ve written was Implementing Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in My Social Studies, Finally a year ago.  I’m updating that post here.  

Last year, I went 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.  All my courses at my new school will also using SBG.

Background

I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class two years ago, and updated my plan last year.  Before this year, I had three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote two years ago, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this post on that issue)

Changes Made for Last Year

I went in better prepared.  I had a clear list of historical skills standards from the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, which gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.  Two other teachers at Young Writers were also doing SBG, allowing me to plan using SBG from day 1.

For everyone in the pilot, there were three categories of standards: Unit Goals, Essential Skills, and Citizenship.  Somewhat arbitrarily, the units will made up 45% of the grade, Essential Skills were 45%, and Citizenship the remaining 10%. Here is one example of a standard for the year:

LG A: Argument – I can create effective written or oral arguments

SWBAT construct arguments that integrate and evaluate multiple perspectives, explanations, or causations, including counterclaims

SWBAT develop controlling ideas that clearly address prompts or fulfill assignments

SWBAT support their ideas using explanation of evidence

At the start of the year, I had 4-7 Unit Goals for each unit, 12 Essential Skills for the year, and 3 Citizenship Goals.

Unit Goals included skills or content, depending on the unit. For the most part, they were content heavy goals.  For example, the learning goals for my final unit on Financial Planning & Investing were: “Financial Planning: I can make a successful long term financial plan for myself” and “Economic Decision Making: I can analyze economic decisions in terms of risk/reward over short/long terms.”  However, my Project Citizen unit focused on research, with students working on a wide variety of content.  The goals for that unit were: “Governmental Decision Making: I can explain the short and long term effects of governmental decisions,” “Research: I can find reliable and useful information” and “Citing: I can cite information properly.”

The Citizenship Goals remained the same the entire year (Timeliness, Growth, Supportiveness).  I wrote the following last year, and stand by it even stronger now:

I know there are a lot of people using SBG who do not feel these aspects should be part of students’ grades, but I feel like most of these people teach in more privileged communities where most students know how to and are able to do these things.  It is very important for my students to get explicit feedback on these aspects of their performance so they can improve them.  With that said, no one will fail the course because they turn things in late.

I taught seniors last year, and 10% was an appropriate amount for this part of their grade.  In teaching 9th graders next year, I plan to increase it.

Certain large assignments were designated “Must Complete” assignments.  It didn’t matter what students have demonstrated from other assignments, they will not be eligible for credit without completing the large projects for the course.

It’s NYC policy that every student receives a number grade at the end of each semester.  Students received these grades using some form of a Bump & Space grading system.

Changes Made During the Year

I did not make any significant changes to the structure as the year went on, but I learned a very important lesson: you can only really teach to a small handful of skill based performance standards.  Yes, you can assess students for twelve different key skills during the year.  However, the main power of SBG is that it gives both teachers AND students clarity on how they are doing, which informs instruction and opportunities for practice within the class.  Here is the most important lesson I learned this year:

IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE WILLING TO EXPLICITLY TEACH, ASSESS, RETEACH, AND REASSESS A SKILL MULTIPLE TIMES THROUGHOUT THE UNIT OR YEAR, IT SHOULDN’T BE A LEARNING GOAL FOR SBG.

For example, nearly every assignment students did involved creating an argument of some form.  Creating an argument was a foundation of my class, and therefore, it was a good standard. On the other hand, “Oral Communication” while important and something students were doing regularly, was not something I was frequently teaching students how to do, nor assessing, and therefore was not a good standard to have.  This does not mean I should not have had students work to improve their oral communication, it just meant it did not need to be part of the formal feedback I gave students through grades.

I started the year with twelve key skills I planned on assessing throughout the year.  I finished the year using only six (Argument, Using Evidence, Sourcing, Content, Written Organization & Clarity, Complexity, and Audience).

Similarly, my first unit had five learning goals.  All subsequent units had 2-3.

For Next Year

I am in the unique position of creating a school, and the school has certain structures that will enable SBG (we have yet to decide if SBG will be mandatory for all teachers, or just strongly encouraged).

To this end, the school has four Habits of Mind that will be explicitly assessed in every course in the school: Evidence, Connections, Perspective, & Voice.

Each department crafted a list of transfer goals.  For each semester, teachers will focus on 1-3 of these goals.  For the Social Studies department, are goals are:

  1. (a) Students will be able to develop questions that help them understand problems in the world, and (b) be able to find and evaluate sources of information that allow them to answer the question
  2. Students can critically evaluate events, claims, decisions, and issues in their moment based on their knowledge of the past and present
  3. Students will have the tools to participate actively and effectively as informed citizens of a representative democracy.

Therefor, there will be 5-7 Essential Skills for each semester (4 Habits + 1-3 Transfer Goals), which will be relatively uniform within each department.  Each course will then have 2-4 additional goals for each major unit, where appropriate.

Why This Can Work for Me, but Might Not for You

I wrote the following last year:

The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I worry about my students learning this year.  I am focusing on depth over breath.  While I think SBG could work in a survey history course, I’m not sure there’s  reason for it, given the need for 200-400 learning goals.  The same would be true for a traditional government or economics course.  I am probably doing half of the content that one normally would in these courses, but doing so in much more depth so that my students can really develop the skills they will need as citizens and in order to be successful in college.  I am willing to have my students not be able to explain the entire process for how a bill becomes a law in exchange for them knowing how to research a policy, and to take action based on that research.

I stand by that, and am lucky to create a school where we will not need to worry about it.  With that said, I think the value of SBG for students outweighs the challenges a survey course presents.  The next time I teach a survey course, I will add “Content Knowledge” to the categories of Essential Skills, Unit Goals, and Citizenship.  This category will use more traditional grading, and will count for 20-40% of a students’ grade.

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Portfolio Entry #5: What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’m going to examine this prompt again a little differently when I reflect on my year out of school in Entry #7, but here, I’m focusing exclusively on my Government/Economics course.  Back in March, I posted the following question:

How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

I’m not sure I know the answer universally, but I do know how I wish I would have approached it for last year’s course.  I wish I would have divided the year into three equal parts, each mainly focused on one mode of praxis.

  1. For the first third, I would have focused on using inquiry using a slightly expanded version of Looking for an Argument.  I’d want the course to focus on a series of questions, many of them developed by students using the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique.  These questions would be based exclusively on current government events.
  2. The second third would focus on authentic intellectual work to make sure student learn how to research.  I still would use Project Citizen as the focus of this section of the class, but I would have added an initial research assignment where students choose one of the topics we looked at in the first third, and do something with that, perhaps an op-ed that would be submitted to local newspapers.
  3. The final third would be a more traditional course looking at the major ideas of classical microeconomics, budgeting, and investing.  I did six weeks of this; kids love it and need the info to be functional adults.  I think any attempt to do more with economics might be a huge disservice to students.  With that said, I actually think high school economics should be moved to math departments.

Next Entry: Top 10 Moments from My Year at Young Writers

Portfolio Entry #2: Best Things I Used from Other Sources

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’ve found the teaching truism, “good teachers borrow; great teachers steal” to be an inspiration as I progress throughout my career.  The more I teach, the more of what I do comes from others.  This year, I stole three different things I would highly recommend to any teacher who could use them:

– My highest recommendation goes to the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Someone on Twitter recommended the QFT to me last summer, and it was a perfect tool for an inquiry-centered class.  The questions I got each time I used this were phenomenal, and in many cases, became the foundation for my class.  I wrote about using the technique here.  Coincidentally, I was at a conference last week where I got to meet the folk from RQI. Over dinner, I told Dan Rothstein about my use of QFT, and how it seemed to work like magic.  Dan explained to me the science behind its brilliance: it combines divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and meta-thinking.  I could not do this full justice, so for further information, I’ll plug his book.

– I’m a big fan of the Buck Institute’s work around project-based learning.  Unfortunately, I only made time to use one of their Project Based Government units: The Better Budget Simulation.  It’s a great unit, that really helps students understand just how complicated government decision-making is.  It was even more powerful in that we did it as the Congressional “Super Committee” was failing to make similar decisions.  At the heart of this, and all Buck’s curricular units, is a very simple algorithm that can guide any inquiry based unit. For any given situation students are in:

  1. Have students create a problem statement
  2. Students draft a list of what they know and what they need to know to address the problem
  3. Students write questions about what they need to know (note to self: insert RQI here)
  4. Either as individuals, in groups, or as a class, students learn what they need to know
  5. Re-craft the problem statement, and repeat the cycle.

– Finally, one of the highlights of my year was Citizenship Night, where students presented their work from Project Citizen.  My next entry will go into more detail on the unit, but anyone looking to get their students independently and actively involved in policy should look to this curriculum.

Next Entry: Best Unit

Student Engagement Strategy: Make Learning Public

I’ve written a few times about the various social studies fairs I have held over the years (“National History Day: The Best Thing I Do” and “My Students Solve the World’s Problems”).  Over at Education Week, I write about the formula that makes these events successful:

I’ve led an annual social studies fair for six years now. These events bring out my students’ best efforts and showcase their authentic intellectual work. Here are my suggestions for ensuring that students get the most out of these public displays of learning.

• Give students maximum choice of topics.

Whenever possible, I let my students choose their own research topics—within limits. When I taught government this year, for example, students chose a public policy issue they wanted to learn about. And when I’ve coordinated with National History Day, students chose any topic connected to its annual theme, as long as we had previously studied the topic in class.

I always tell my students that selecting a topic is the most important decision they make for a major project. Students who find topics they are genuinely interested in have transformative experiences; others wind up doing just another class project. We spend a full day in class brainstorming subjects and exploring possibilities. Once students decide on a topic, they must prove to me in writing that they care about it….

Click here to read the whole piece. 

The Education of Amani A: Education (Calling)

I’ve never asked this before, but please share this piece with as many people as you can. My students’ poem deserves a wide audience.  ~SL

I never lack for reasons why I love my job, but none of them ever supersede the privilege of seeing young women and ment take hold of the views and positions they will carry with them into their adulthood.  In rare cases, I get to bear witness to a student who not only attains a mature and nuanced understanding of a complex issue, but finds her voice to share that position with the larger world.

This past Thursday, Amani A., who I am proud to be able to call my student at the Academy for Young Writers, took 3rd place at the annual Knicks Poetry Slam at a sold out Broadway theater.  I am hardly an aficionado of performance poetry, so I won’t comment on the quality of the poem nor its performance (though I can only assume she was robbed of first place), but I do want to engage with the content of her poem: the education of young men of color. There is much to admire and love in her message.

Amani starts by juxtaposing the media attention given to acts of violence committed by students against teachers with the lack of attention given to the violent results of  abdicating the responsibility for actually educating young men of color.  She notes that a Google search for “students hitting teachers” leads one to read, “A student hitting a teacher is a serious incident that merits a serious response.”  Yet when searching for “teachers miseducating students” all she found relevant was “Lauryn Hill” (an allusion to Hill’s 1998 modern classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill).  It is a powerful and attention grabbing opening.

Amani then goes on to describe the young men she has observed throughout her education, who “think fists are words” and that “they have to play God to make change.”  This is the most powerful and effective stanza of the work.  She rebukes the young men for their reliance on violence as she simultaneously calls to question society’s failed attempts to promote role models in the guise of Great Men (King, Malcolm X, WEB DuBois, Booker T. Washington, etc) who are taught typically as saints, or naturally gifted, or the product of remarkable circumstances, but nonetheless, as people who are far greater than you or I ever could hope to be.

Later in the poem, Amani attacks the classroom culture of criticizing mistakes.  This leads young men to build up “tension in his body” when condescended because of a wrong answer (something I hope I rarely do when it comes to my content, but must plead guilty to the crime when it comes to lack of math skills in my students), or worse, leaving the anger “caught in their throat.” This leads them to “package the silent treatment into their fists/ [to] make sure they’re heard.”  One could easily extrapolate that experience to apply to binary standardized tests that tell students they are wrong or lacking in skills.  Good teachers know that mistakes are wonderful, because they are the most powerful opportunities for learning and growth.  It’s disheartening to see that Amani has witnessed something different throughout her education.

My lone criticism of the poem is that the solution it posits is slightly simplistic; her diagnosis is far more sophisticated than her prescription.  Amani calls her audience to “Call these boys / Call their voice / Tell them its time / Tell them we’re listening.”  Giving students more voice in and outside of classrooms is an important step, but it is only one of the panacea of steps that are necessary to actually improve the four hundred year history of individual and structural racism in this country, let alone the educational component of it.

The full text of the poem is below, which Amani generously shared with me to publish, but this is a poem meant to be seen and heard, so please watch the video, and share with others you know. Continue reading The Education of Amani A: Education (Calling)

Help Wanted: Existential Teaching Dilema

This evening, everyone in my critical friends group is sharing an “existential” dilema we’re struggling with about our practice. Here’s mine:

This is the question I’ve struggled with since I began planning my Government/Economics course last summer: How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

Some notes towards an answer:

I recently re-read Horace’s Compromise, where Ted Sizer writes that schools should only really focus on four things:

  1. Helping students develop understanding, which is done by questioning.
  2. Helping students to gain knowledge, which is done by telling.
  3. Helping students develop skills, which is done through coaching.
  4. Helping students obtain decency

There seems to be a strong correlation between Sizer’s first three duties of an “essential” school and the three modes of praxis I struggle to balance. At the school level, I think there is a clear need to balance all three, along with ensuring all students are decent people (and given that most of my thinking right now is about macro-curriculum planning for the school I’m helping to open next fall, having that clarity is a huge help). My feeling is that a thoughtfully and intentionally structured school would be filled with classes that allow students and teachers to primarily focus on one of the three areas, to make sure that the course’s transfer goals are clear, and to decrease the cognitive load on students, allowing for maximum development.

In the overwhelming majority of schools though, there is little attention to how the entire curriculum works together. At best, there is some alignment vertically within subject areas, or horizontally across grades. It then falls to the thoughtful teacher to make an independent decision on how to address these three goals…

I’m very curious to hear how teachers, parents, and students would respond to this question.

Teaching World-Changers: Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement

Seven years ago I fell in love with two wonderful woman named Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark, who founded the Citizenship Education Program, the little known backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.  Without these two, I am certain we would not be celebrating Martin Luther King Day this Monday.  We in education have much to learn from them:

The primary goal of the Citizenship Education Program was to teach and develop first-class citizens. And every aspect of the program was grounded in this goal—from teacher training sessions to day-to-day practices to the rhetoric of staff correspondence. Dozens of adult literacy programs had targeted African-Americans in the South—but none were as successful as the CEP, because too many narrowly focused on the skill of literacy, rather than its application in citizenship.

In my opinion, we have made a similar mistake with skill-based competency testing under No Child Left Behind. A curriculum and testing regimen that only focuses on skill development outside of meaningful and relevant application cannot prepare students and communities for 21st-century success. I hope that with the implementation of the Common Core standards, we will not make the same mistake again. As teachers, we need to develop a clear sense of our own purpose—and make every effort to ensure that how we teach each day aligns with that purpose.

Read the rest at Education Week Teacher. It’s an honor to share part of their story.

Occupying the History Classroom

This is a history-centric follow up to my post asking Who Should Occupy the Classroom?  

The Rethinking Schools blog has an interesting post called “Occupy the Curriculum” up, by Bill Bigelow.  There, they celebrate responses to the Zinn Education Group’s Facebook page question: what are you teaching now:

Chris Conkling is teaching about “Forced removal of Native Americans/Andrew Jackson.”

Ariela Rothstein is teaching about the “Haitian revolution and the effects of colonialism on the Caribbean.”

Samantha Manchac is teaching about “the early women’s movement” from Chapter 6, “The Intimately Oppressed,” in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Bigelow celebrates teachers’

defiant We’ll decide what our students need to learn, not some distant corporation” needs to happen in schools across the country

While I think the re-evaluation of what is taught in history classrooms to include erased and marginalized history is important and necessary, I think those of us who approach things from non-tradiational perspectives miss the point when we ask “what should be taught,” rather than “how should it be taught?”  If we teach our students different information in traditional methods, it’s not radical nor transformative; we’re just stuffing a different ideology down students’ throats, and we’re no better than teachers who consider the textbook the curriculum.

Rather, we need classrooms that develop democratic citizens capable of of original, critical thought.  I don’t care too much if my students read Zinn.  I do care that students in my class could become the next Zinn (or Burke, for that matter).

Radical educators need to ask their selves, “am I a teacher who happens to be radical?”  or, “am I a radical educator?”  It’s the latter group, who equip students to make their own independent and potentially radical decisions, that give me faith for the future of the world. The former group, who think they’re radical because of what they teach, are just reifying existing power structures.

Who should #occupytheclassroom?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Let me start with a confession: I find most protests dumb.  I’ve been to a few in my time.  I believe I was at the first protest against George W. Bush’s election in 2000 in the country (and ended up getting my first byline for that one).  I marched with millions at the 2004 Republican Convention.  I’ve been to more UFT marches than I could list.  At every one, I’ve felt stupid.  There’s lots of people shouting, but no one listening.  The good protests got a story in the paper the next day, and were then forgotten.

I find most protests stupid in part because there is no risk involved.  Marches in the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War, which until September 17 have provided the dominant template for most American protests to follow, were acts of civil disobedience where people were beaten, arrested, and killed.  The courage of those marchers changed people’s minds.  When I march with the UFT, along a barriered corridor provided by the NYPD after the protest as been given an official permit, it does no such thing.

What started on September 17 at Liberty Plaza though, provides a new template.  I was slow to notice this.  I made my first visit to the Occupy Wall Street protest on September 30 just to see what was going on.  I expected to make a lot of snarky remarks to my partner, and then leave.  But there was something going on there.  I’ve been back three times since: once to take my in-laws from North Carolina to the #NoComment art show, another to hear Slavoj Zizek speak, and third to be part of a teach-in put on by my friends at the NJ Teacher Action Group.  Last night I Occupied Times Square.  It was the first time I ever felt like my presence at a protest meant something.

I think there are a lot of brilliant things about Occupy Wall Street, but two are more important than any other.  First, this occupation, and the others like it around the world, provide a space with a range of way for people to participate.  Do you want to make signs and chant?  Go for it.  Do you want to take a corner and hold a grade-in?  Great.  You can move in, or just stop by.  It allows people to enter as participants in a variety of ways, or to stop by and converse as interested observers.  But there is no way to participate from the sidelines, which brings me to the second point: the only way to support the movement is to enter into a conversation or physically do something.  You have no choice but to engage, just as the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement forced people on the sidelines to take a moral stance.  And anyone is welcome to engage, through the direct democracy of the movement, and as a member of the human mic.  Even if you can’t make it there, you can engage online or through their live stream.  The folks down at Liberty Plaza are providing a new template that is oddly old fashioned: they have brought a little bit of Athens to the 21st century.

Yes, there is not a clear message or a list of demands.  That is part of the point.  There is no right answer here; only just processes.  The occupiers have not given a 140 character or 10 second sound-byte that can be easily dismissed or disagreed with.  They are demanding to be part of the conversation, and they are demanding that people engage with them in conversations.

I think this thing has legs, and can be applied to a range of situations.  So I was quite excited when my dear comrade, and fellow teach-in participant, Jose Vilson coined the #occupytheclassroom tag.  Last week, Jose wrote:

Before teacher-bashers filled the coffers of national education committees, people stood boldly in the classroom and decided upon pedagogy for all. With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, some reformers have found a way to inject themselves into the pedagogical side of teaching. They’ve made a lasting impact on policy via No Child Left Behind / Race To The Top and these pieces have cemented a corporatist view upon all educators’ jobs. All the while, by recent research, nine out of 10 teachers across the nation have been rated satisfactory. Akin to the #OccupyWallStreet movement, this movement makes us the 90%, doesn’t it?

Now it’s time to take things back.

I had high hopes at this point, but I have to admit some disappointment at Jose’s list.  Four of his five ideas involved teachers putting themselves out there in various ways.  The fifth was taking care of business in the classroom, though without any vision for what that looks like.

I like Jose’s second stab at defining Occupying the Classroom on GOOD a little more, but it’s still about occupying the system.  Which we need to do.  But to occupy the classroom needs to be something different.

Occupying is about Direct Democracy.  It’s about recognizing power inequalities.

It’s an affront to models where 1% have exponentially more say than 99%.  If it’s anything, it’s an attack on the teacher-centered classroom.  The original call for occupation notes this:

We call for workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically. We call for students and teachers to act together, to teach democracy, not merely the teachers to the students, but the students to the teachers. To seize the classrooms and free minds together.

Jose is not wrong though; only teachers are not the ones who should be occupying classrooms.  Teachers should be occupying the education system.  We should be occupying Tweed Courthouse and other Boards of Education.  We should be occupying the test producers and textbook publishers.  We should be occupying Arne Duncan’s front yard and office.

But at the same time, perhaps our students should be occupying our classrooms?

I think we, the teachers, have to bare some blame for setting the conditions that led to the Occupy movement.  Too many of us (and as radical as I try to be in the classroom, I fall far short of where I need to be) are the gatekeepers of knowledge, the sole determiners of success and failure, and hold monopolies on the administration of justice.  In our classrooms, far too many of us are the 1%.

Classrooms do need to be occupied, not just to ensure teachers can do their jobs well, but to create the conditions for real democracy.  That will involve giving up some of the power we as teachers have, just as the 99% want an appropriate share of the power that the1% holds in this country.  This involves some real risk on our part, but opens up a world of possibilities.  One of my favorite educational theorists, Henry Giroux, recently said in an interview:

[D]emocracy doesn’t work without the formative culture that makes possible the skills, the knowledge, the ideas, the modes of dialogue, the modes of exchange, that can actually provide the foundation for people to be critical and engaged social and individual agents. If you don’t have that formative culture, democracy becomes empty. What you end up with is actually a culture that is so wedded, in this particular case, to a neoliberal logic, that people can only see themselves as individuals, they can only see themselves as competitive, they hate the social state, they have no understanding of solidarity; and what I have been arguing for at least 35 years is that you have to take seriously that education is a fundamental part of politics, and that we’re not just talking about schools…

It seems to me that until this question of pedagogy – of the articulation of knowledge through experience and how people relate to the world – until education is seen as a fundamental dimension of politics, we’re in real trouble, because if you don’t do that you can’t understand social media as a profoundly important political educational tool. If you don’t do that, you can’t understand how people come to internalise understandings of themselves that are at odds with their own possibilities for freedom. 

So here then, is an invitation to conversation.  What is a democratic classroom?  I have some ideas that I will elaborate on eventually (and are implied in much of what I have written here earlier), but the thing about this occupying movement is that it’s not about individuals on soapboxes.  It’s about creating communities where we have hard and complex conversations with ourselves.  It’s about a revolution that not only won’t be televised, but that also can’t be captured in a 140 character tweet.

I will offer this: we could learn a lot from how the occupation requires one to become an active participant in something that does not have a clear center or leader.  And if we don’t, our students might start demanding it from us.