Thursday, June 4, 2015

Explaining Democratic Education

A term unfamiliar to others demands an explanation. And, that is so with “Democratic Education” as it is a model of formal learning known to only a few, unfortunately in my opinion. This blog entry re-writes, edits and re-posts much earlier ones to provide a general explanation of the concept in one post.

Defining Democratic Education:

Democratic Education rests on its conviction of children as owners of their own course of learning and as full participants in their school governance.

Democratic Education sees children's native curiosity as a powerful learning driver making unnecessary any adult coercion to engage learning activities. It also fully acknowledges the draw of childern's different talents to pursue different aspects of knowledge. Through their native inclinations, then, children within a Democratic Education school self-select what is learned, when what is chosen is learned and the depth, scope and duration of leaning. This intrinsic motivated self-directed engagement in the accumulation of knowledge ultimately leads Democratic Education to an individualized and emergent rather than a uniform and mandated course of study over a term and over a school residency.

Additionally, Democratic Education views children as principal stake holders in school governance. It places its school governance in the immediate learning community where adults and children have equal voices and equal community decision-making powers on all issues open to community decision. Through democratic participatory practices the learning community self-governs its school.

Yaacov Hecht ( developed the principles of Democratic Education in the mid-1980’s and in 1987, in Hadera, Israel, he founded the first Democratic Education school. To spread the word and to advocate for this model of formal learning he founded the Institute for Democratic Education (

A brief history of Democratic Education in the U.S. starts with Francisco Ferrer, as my friend and colleague, Cooper Zale, maintains: “The ideas of ‘non-coercive’ and ‘learner-led’ schools have roots in the educational philosophy of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909)…” (if still available see “What is a Democratic-Free School?”,

Ferrer looked to develop children’s knowledge and skills according to each student’s abilities rather than through drilled instruction and uniform lessons. He opposed religious and nationalistic indoctrination, but frequently instructors in Ferrer schools would instill values of liberty, equality, and social justice into students, and Ferrer’s textbooks had a general anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-militarist line.  He was a firm believer in what today is called life long learning which impelled him to institute adult classes at his schools.

Ferrer’s ideas in the U.S. sparked the Modern School Movement which established a handful of schools beginning in 1910. The small number of Modern Schools shrunk as the founders either died or moved on with most closing during the 1920’s. The Ferrer Modern School in Piscataway, NJ, was the longest lasting, not closing until 1953. (

The Modern School Movement was a reaction in education to the moves by the American industrialists of the Guided Age to concentrate power, to be authoritarian bosses in their factory fiefdoms. But, as history rolled on, the Modern School Movement dissipated and disappeared leaving reaction to authoritarian social and economic structures for another time. Then in the fullness of another time there came to the surface another group of folks reacting in the same vein to a similar creeping authoritarianism. And in the arena of formal learning they discovered their own path to rebellion, to restructuring the education process: They found A.S. Neill and his Summerhill school.

From Mary Leue, founder of The Free School in Albany, NY, to Daniel Greenburg, founder of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts and to many other Americans in the 1960’s, there was a flat out rebellion against the authoritarian, conventional school. Like the progressive educators of John Dewey’s time, the rebels were looking to structure schooling as a mirror opposite. Thus, the confluence of vectors in time and in culture landed Alexander Sutherland Neill and his book, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing on an American shore prepared to take from it everything fitting their rebellion. And so, regardless of Neill’s insistence that day schools could not be free schools at all, the Americans of the 1960’s founded free day schools.

These “free schoolers” latched tightly to the freedom in Neill’s notion that freedom to choose means doing what you want to do, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. They as well focused on Neill’s idea that freedom to choose that which affects the child individually, that which is of interest, of passion, of felt need, is essential for only under this kind of freedom can the child grow in his/her natural way.

Under their rebellious zeal to construct a mirror opposite of the authoritarian, conventional school, free schoolers fixated on elevating child impulse over self-regulation, in my view, and, thus, confused and excused license for freedom. Free Schooling includes self-selected learning and community self-governance, of course, but it extends far greater sufferance to child impulse than the preponderance of other Democratic Education schools ever have to date.

Hecht, not a free schooler, but like many before credits Neill and Summerhill with opening his mind to children’s intrinsic motivated self-selection of learning. What Hecht saw when he visited Summerhill school during the 1980’s were the youngsters’ ability to choose what to learn and when to learn what was chosen to be learned and the school’s policy of non-compulsory instructional attendance. He saw that even conventional learning happens well when children decide for themselves to, in my words, freely accept the conditions of inclusion in such instruction.

What Hecht also found was the control over the relationship life of the school being vested in a school community governance structure using a democratic process. Neill’s contention was that only in a residential school, where there is a social life, can there be a self-governance of relationships applied. Day schools, Neill insists in his book, have no equivalent to residential life and therefore have nothing over which to govern. Neill did not consider what in this country is called “student life”-clubs, intramural sports, school socials, etc.- embodying the spectrum of living necessary for community self-governance and thus, student governments, which are everywhere here tasked with governing student life incapable of governing interpersonal relationships within a school. Yet, Hecht took away an appreciation of the power of a school community to regulate relations within it.

Thus was formed the foundations of Democratic Education where the unique biology, unique gifts, of each child act as fundamental drivers of individual education without adult coercion visited upon youngsters, where students decide the course of their learning, and where all in the learning community fully participate in the governance of the relationships within the community.

There are different ways by which to be a Democratic Education school. Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, ( represents the “free school” end of the spectrum where what students want to know is totally up to the them and where school policy and administrative governance is largely controlled by students. Summerhill School in Leiston, England, ( holds a middle ground with a conventional curriculum and administrative governance retained by the community adults, but with its social life governed by the learning community as a whole and with non-compulsory class attendance. Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY, a public school, ( offers a mostly traditional discipline curriculum but with a community shared policy and administrative governance.

The Democratic Education Learning System:

Regardless of where on the spectrum of Democratic Education a specific learning community is, there are common qualities marking the learning system as Democratic.

The Democratic Education learning system is driven by the individual social, emotional and cognitive needs of the students as manifested and understood by them, not by an interpretation of them by the adults in the school. Indeed, in Democratic Education schools the child is the definer of his and her own need and the decision maker as to how to satisfy the felt need. This goes counter to the traditional school adult over child relation where the adult is the one to define child need and is the decision maker on how to meet the interpreted need with the result that a Democratic Education school would look quite different in four critical ways from what people have come to expect in schools. 

First, Democratic Education individualizes knowledge acquisition and use, that is, learning would be intrinsically self-directed. Children possess different neurological constructions, interests, abilities, temperaments, learning and communication styles and rates of emotional, cognitive and social development. These natural inclinations and individual differences drive differentiated information seeking, acquisition and use yielding quality differentiated outcomes over the course of a term and over a school residency. An authentic intrinsic self-directed system would put in the way of children the widest possible range of subject matter and let the children’s natural inclinations and differences drive what is learned, when it is learned and the depth, scope and duration of leaning. The course of study over an entire residency, then, emerges unique to every child as each engages learning through his and her talents, passions and interests.

However, unlike the Sudbury Valley free school model of intrinsic self-directed learning which removes the adult from almost all of the child’s decisions, the more prevalent Democratic Education intrinsic self-directed learning fully acknowledges the need for a mentoring relationship of adult to child. All students need the support of deep mentoring relationships with those thoroughly versed in the social-emotional and cognitive styles of the school’s population, and in the negotiation among student native inclinations, intrinsically motivated self-direction and credentialing decisions to assist students in maneuvering through the channels of the academy and to help them help themselves to work through their natural inclinations, individual differences and intrinsic motivation to achieve healthy personal growth and schooling success. Here, an adult mentor and a youngster enter a process mutually respectful of the wisdom of each to attain a common understanding of and an agreement on learning goals and the action steps required to reach those goals. The agreements on what is undertaken to be learned and when and how learning is to happen is known as a “negotiated curriculum”. Mentoring also includes a mentor working with children on social-emotional, psycho-dynamic and learning deficit issues.

Second, in-school engagement within a negotiated and an intrinsic self-selected curriculum during a Democratic Education school day would be through the student choice of one or more of three ways: through independent, individual or small group engagement with the materials and activities open to students; through self-selected small, whole group adult facilitated topic study or activity; and/or through self-initiated one-to-one instruction either with another student or with an adult. However, since the community as a whole has the responsibility of structuring learning, it can, as in Lehman Alternative Community School, agree on conventional whole group classrooms and a more conventional looking class schedule. Still, in the authentically child-decision-centered learning environment of a Democratic Education school the initiation of learning engagement, including instruction, is up to the child's felt need to connect with the knowledge, the materials, the activities, the adults and the classmates, rather than the fully adult initiated whole group classroom process of the traditional taking all decisions away from the youngster.

Third, the adults in the room of a child-decision-centered environment of a Democratic Education school have an additional role beyond being facilitators and mentors in intrinsic self-directed study: They are to model passionate life long learning and the meanings of collaborative work, goal setting, task acceptance and completion by undertaking learning activities of interest to the adult, inviting youngsters as helpers, as apprentices, in what is being done rather than as “students” being told what to do, and to in equal measure with the children of the learning community maintain behavioral norms according to both individual child and whole community needs through The Democratic Process, peer mediation, Non-Violent Communication ( and LEAP pocess(

And fourth, Democratic Education schools are self-governing, like Summerhill. As A.S. Neill states: “Summerhill is a self-governing school, democratic in form. Everything connected with social, or group life…is settled by vote at the Saturday General School Meeting. Each member of the teaching staff and each child, regardless of his age, has one vote…Our democracy makes laws…The function of Summerhill self-government is not only to make laws but to discuss social features of the community as well. (Alexander Sutherland Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, New York: Hart Pub. Co., 1960, pp 45-47.)

In Democratic schools the community comes together in regular meetings of the whole to decide all issues. Adults and children have equal rights to speak and to persuade within community forums. Each has a single vote on questions up for community decision. The community can decide policies on such as curriculum and assessment, projects and assignments, advancement and graduation requirements, ceremonies, expectant behaviors consistent and inconsistent with the norms of the school as well as the means by which inconsistent behaviors are resolved.

Democratic Education Curriculum and Assessment:

Democratic Education resets the conventional schooling structure and the relationships of adult to curriculum, child to curriculum and adult to child. Democratic Education insists on students taking responsibility for their education choices by self-selecting what is learned, when learning happens and the depth, scope and duration of leaning.

In the conventional structure what is learned, the curriculum, is broken down into compartmentalized disciplines which are further broken down into subjects which themselves are divided into units which again are divided into smaller accumulations of specific facts and concepts available for the learner to take up into ready recall memory.

A basic outline of disciplines is as follows:

-English Language Arts


-Social Studies


-Arts (a sort of catch all for everything not included above)

The sociology of knowledge as discipline division is an inheritance of the expansion in knowledge from the late Middle Age European Classical grammar school trivium and the university quadrivium. Indeed, the growth in the complexity of the sociology of knowledge under the agency of print dramatically increased information circulation, popular understanding and intellectual discovery requiring ever more differentiation of knowledge into distinct disciplines which were taken by generations of school folks as the basis for general study, preparing the young for a world where such knowledge was supposedly required.

The more conventional academic end of the Democratic Education spectrum honors this history by providing standard discipline study. But the more free school parts of the spectrum act on their understanding of the contemporary knowledge society.

Indeed, with the growth and societal saturation of electronic information technologies, three distinct effects are recognized: 1) that the pace of information production exploded to the point where it is no longer possible, even if it were in times past, to hold the resulting amounts of information in memory; 2) that the need to hold vast amounts of information in human memory has been eliminated as information is now stored in immediate access, digital memory; and 3) that the connectivity of digital media has broken down discipline barriers to recombine specialized knowledge at intersecting points.

Thus, it makes far more sense today for school folks, especially at the free school end of the Democratic Education spectrum, to make available learning experiences whereby children can master learning rather than to master content, and what content is offered can take full notice of the recombination of specialized knowledge.

Leaning to learn in a child-decision-centered environment of a Democratic Education school is to provide a wide range of opportunities for children to engage using their native instincts and individual differences, their intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy, to slowly gain skills as they test hunches/hypotheses, as they explore, discover and unfold, as they bring to consciousness through meta-cognitive development the mindfulness necessary for intentional learning decision making.

Such a process would begin with the readiness to acquire learning skills as the objective of an early childhood program while the acquisition of learning skills would be the focus of the elementary. The mastery of learning would be the province of a secondary education.

Taking full notice of the recombination of specialized knowledge is to provide an integrated, interdisciplinary thematic curriculum which at the macro-level can be ordered through Curriculum Strands, such as:

-The Life Cycle in the Natural World

-Communication Between Individuals and Within Groups

-Identity Within Groups and Institutions

-The Nature of Time and Space

-Our Response to the Aesthetic

-Our Relationship to Nature

-Our Role as Producers and Consumers

-Our Efforts to Live with Purpose.

Broken down into theme categories the curriculum strand of The Life Cycle in the Natural World, for instance, might include Ecology. And the category Ecology itself can be broken down into themes such as: Geography-life’s web of place and climate, and their affects on the development of plants, animals and people; Change-evolution and extinction, natural and man-made; Conservation-soil, air, water, energy; Micro and Macro Environments-explorations of the smallest and the largest ecosystems. The curriculum strands and their theme categories and individual themes constitute the structural framework of the intentional learning community’s curriculum which the school constructors and governors are obliged to populate richly with resources and activities in order to provide the knowledge sets open to intrinsic self-directed and negotiated learning.

The curriculum strands, as suggested above, would supply the knowledge categories youngsters engage in the abstract and in the experiential. So, as a further example, within the curriculum strand of Our Relationship to Nature might be the theme category of Bugs and Other Creepy Crawly Creatures-explorations into insects and the role they play in ecosystems-whereby those exploring the theme could select a few square feet of property, describe the micro-ecosystem there, observe and note over a certain period all insects in the air column over the property, the creepy crawlers on and around the ground and under the surface to approximately 18 inches. Then they would investigate to uncover the roles within that micro-ecosystem the creepy crawlers and flying insects have. Having noted the findings, a report in a medium of choice would be produced and presented. And on to the next theme, the next inquiry and on the education in this manner goes.

Democratic Education leans heavily on what is generally called “authentic assessment” of student learning progress: Thus, Descriptive Process evaluates behavior (see; Performance Assessment evaluates academics (see Ultimately, the methods of assessing student progress in behavioral and academic growth are a school community decision. However, the individualized nature of Democratic Education so heavily favors evaluation such as Descriptive Process and Performance Assessment as to nearly eliminate conventional testing regimes.


Democratic Education:

-has the mission to cultivate in all its youngsters a solid psychological foundation for future growth and a cognitive dexterity for life long adaptability to life’s challenges;

-by its twin pillars of Mindfulness and Empowerment supports a consistent personal responsibility response to the learning environment rather than through compliance demanded of children by the adults in the class rooms;

-develops the healthy, happy growth in self-awareness, self-regulation and self-actualization so in this century and beyond citizens can leverage these qualities in which ever way they discern is in their best interest and in the best interest of family, community, country and civilization;

-realigns relationship of adult to child from adult over child to an adult and child in partnership respecting the wisdom each possesses;

- recognizes individual social, emotional and cognitive needs of youngsters as manifested and self-identified by them, not by an interpretation of them by the adults in the class rooms, indeed, where the child is the definer of his and her own need and the decision maker as to how to satisfy the felt need, and where, through a deep mentoring relationship, the child will be helped to help him-herself to satisfy the full range of need;

-alters the relationship of adult to curriculum and child to curriculum where what is learned, when learning happens and the depth, scope and duration of leaning is both child intrinsically self-directed and adult-child negotiated;

-fully acknowledges learning as being a child decision driven through an individual’s neurological constructions, interests, abilities, temperaments, learning and communication styles and rates of emotional, cognitive and social development individualizing curricula and yielding quality differentiated outcomes;

-greatly elevates the mastery of learning over the mastery of content, and what content is offered takes full notice of the recombining of specialized knowledge through an integrated, interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum;

-uses authentic assessment such as Descriptive Process and Performance Assessment evaluating student progress in behavioral and academic growth;

-institutes school community self-governance.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Consequences of Misjudging a Life

Papers, books, hand tools, thumb tacks, screws, plant hankers, drinking classes, sewing notions, clothes, shoes and other stuff here and here and here, all over the house, in fact...There are times when the stuff around our small house gets so high and scattered that it drives me to actually do a bit of straightening up. Neatly stacked piles, my mother used to say, is the perfect definition of straightening up; and I was always-well, almost always-an obedient son. So, I made a bunch of neatly stacked piles out of the chaos last week. In gathering a bunch of papers together I came across a couple of them I remember composing in early 2007 (yes, they were hanging around that long!).

I had just come off another episode of sticking to my well honed teaching principles. The professional acumen developed over the preceding twenty-six years got me in trouble with several students who complained to some folks in administration who called me on the carpet for using the principles I favored. For behaving as a professional educator, for being so calmly articulate in the defense of my practice and for having the audacity of pointing to the defects in the pedagogy and course design they were demanding I use, I was refused further teaching at this college. This was not the first and if I were ever to continue in higher education I doubt it would be the last. So, I was thinking about forever leaving The Academy for something else. A career counselor I consulted suggested I write down what I considered the most congenial working conditions and what kind of life I thought I was leading and wanted to live as conversation starters leading to the types of employment I could expect would best work for me.

I placed the most congenial working conditions in seven points (which I will list without comment):

  1. The work must intrinsically hold elevated levels of intellectual stimulation.
  2. There must be high frequency of professional and social conversation.
  3. The job should allow for creative communication through a single medium or through many media.
  4. The position must have sufficient autonomy for me to do what I think is professionally correct.
  5. The employer must highly value shared commitments where my commitment to the firm is shared equally with commitment to family and to community.
  6. The employer must highly value reciprocal commitments where a firm reciprocates my commitment to its mission by its commitment to my professional development, advancement, compensation and longevity.
  7. My job performance must be evaluated on how and what I am doing and the results produced rather than on mere compliance to a supervisor or a manager.

However, it is the life statement which is of far greater importance for it sums-up a dilemma enormously affecting my entire now forty-eight year adult existence.

I wrote:

“I've wanted to live a principled life. From a child's eye, I saw both my mother and my father as principled people. I have been formed and informed by my consistent perception of their principled actions founded in Forgiveness, Courage, Honesty, Integrity, Joyfulness, Compassion, Kindness, Commitment, Consideration, Creativity, Respect, Dignity, Enthusiasm, Morality, Justice, Fairness, Generosity, Gentleness, Patience, Graciousness, Helpfulness, Hopefulness, Humility , Idealism, Love, Purposefulness, Responsibility, Gratitude, Tolerance, Trust, Understanding, Wonder and Wisdom. As a consequence, I have developed a keen sense of right and wrong, of ways of being and ways of working best situated to help others help themselves. I have also cultivated insight into the fitness of structures within which people live, work, and play having the best opportunity to gain peace, love and understanding within themselves and with others and to acquire virtuous lives they themselves wish to cultivate and virtuous lives organizations say participation should develop.

And the reality of life since high school, some forty-one years [at the time of writing this statement] is that I have lived the principled life I wanted. However, keeping the faith of principle has put me at odds with 'the real world' where people, organizations and structures force decisions counter with the consequence that when given conventional parameters of living a successful live, I must say I am a definite failure.

Indeed, the parameters of life I've taken as the goals and measures of success, and, thus, of self-worth, are not those of a principled life but exclusively monetary/employment based, i.e., sustained professional employment and advancement with an upward slopping compensation and a substantial retirement nest egg. They have been given me by the communities within which I have lived, the society at large, and yes, my father-insisting out of deep love that I must be solidly on a permanent career path by age twenty-three else I will be a failure the rest of my life. But, with a deep rooted inability to reject or modify principle in favor of having to make a living subservient to wrong headed supervisors, adversely working organizations and destructive structures and with having the freedom to do so provided by a supportive family, I have a record of sporadic employment, barely any income and no contributions to a nest egg. In other words, by these standards, I am a failure as a human being and as long as I live failure will be a constant companion. No wonder I have always had a sense of being worthless!

But, I want to embrace the way I am, committing fully to a principled life, releasing the power to act accordingly without self-censure. To do so I need to somehow re-frame emotional anchors allowing me to switch from my community's imprint, the society's expectations and my father's demands to a self-acceptance, a self-love, of a who I am. Simultaneously, I need to develop and interiorize the goals and measures appropriate for my principled life. ”

Indeed, the crushing shame of worthlessness brought about by my own misjudging of my life through the years has resulted in a pattern of depression compelling me to withdraw within the four walls of whatever house I am in. More, I self-medicate with food over-eating so much that at one point decades ago I blew up to three hundred pounds. I once described the pattern as: feeling so worthless I hide in the house overeating, gaining a good deal of body weight which re-enforces being worthless...eventually after months have passed, I get up off the floor working through the self-hatred eating less and losing weight...after dropping a bunch of weight I feel capable enough to go out of the house...the more I go out, the more I am propelled to look for work, mostly teaching work...eventually I land an appointment...I do what I know to be professionally right, proper and necessary for the mental well being and the intellectual and the academic growth of the students I am given regardless of organizational imperatives, supervisory dictates or falling in line with what other teachers are standing on professional and personal principle I upset the expectations of a few students who complain to supervision...supervision is upset at me for being uncompliant with their wrongheaded methods and for upsetting the paying customers ...supervision, then, does not renew my appointment sending me out onto the street...I feel a failure, retreat to the four walls of whatever house I am in, self-medicate, gain weight, eat more, gain more, fell more useless...then months later I get off the floor working through the feelings of worthlessness, lose weight, feel capable enough to go out of the house, and so on.

When I wrote the life statement I had retreated into the house, began to overeat, started to gain back weight lost in the last round. However, writing the summary brought to the fore hazy thoughts on the matter I had been having. Indeed, writing it down clarified the dilemma under which I had been working all my adult life: a deep desire to live a principled life yet measuring life success and self-worth with grossly inappropriate criteria, ultimately misjudging my life entirely. Having gained the insight, I began to work through the bad feelings, ate less, went out of the house, engaged the community and gained teaching opportunities, which, I'm afraid ended the same as others. Unfortunately, I had yet to translate insight into a re-framed emotional predisposition, an altered psycho-dynamic, putting myself back into depressions with all its attending pathologies.

Intellectually I have placed my life in the proper perspective as a principled person. But, l continue to struggle greatly to re-set the emotional predispositions, my psycho-dynamic, to feel the power of a life so lived, to be not disturbed by irrelevant criteria of success, to fear no longer any judgment of others, or myself, of a failed life based on monetary/employment criteria. It has become quite obvious to me that this struggle will continue the rest of my life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Here we go having come out of the dark tunnel again

Well, here we go again after nearly a year's absence.  I had a schedule of publishing twice a week thinking that would offer me a sufficient frequency to sustain a diet of blogging while allowing suitable reflective time for me to figure out what to say and how to say it.  Yes, twice a week did allow suitable reflective time, but the depression under which way too many things become impossible weighed too heavily on me for me to develop even the occasional diarist's habit.

And while I would like to thing that the unfortunate experience of my semester teaching at Fordham University was no big deal, I must acknowledge it plunged me into a psychological paralysis.  The fact that I was able to continue to listen to my favorite music radio station,  Fordham's public  radio WFUV-FM, largely ree from anger and self-loathing says a little something about the paralysis being not rock-bottom deep.  Still...It has seemed to me that other college professors get to have sufficient leeway in how they conduct their courses, but not me. 

I posted an open letter to my colleagues in the Media Ecology Association on the association's listserve on December 19, 2013 , being it was through connections there I landed the course at Fordham and to whom I thought to complain.  I enter it here to let others know.

"It happened yet again:  As usual, the instructional order, learning objectives, pedagogy and assessment of the course I was given to teach this concluding semester were premised on judgment developed from nearly forty years cultivating the deepest understanding of Human and Hard Tech Communication processes and affects on individuals, cultures and societies through time from both a “George Gerbner-U of Penn Annenberg-ICA” and a “Nystrom-Postman-Moran-NYU Media Ecology-MEA” perspective and of learning theory, pedagogy, practice and experience in Experiential Learning, Cooperative Learning, Socratic Method and Developmental Lesson Planning across levels of schooling from junior high to college, especially the collegiate. Well, as happens, the exercise of professional judgment upset a small number of young adults who had difficulty adjusting to my course construction and who complained up the chain of command to the effect that I was called on the carpet for exercising this acumen and required to implement a “course correction” in the methods and the substance of the course I was given to instruct.  

(This is a farewell message. For those who think it improper to be posted on the list, then, please, stop reading, now. All others I encourage to continue.)

David Linton, when working for him at Marymount Manhattan, said I possessed an articulate rebelliousness. While that, indeed, flattered my profound desire to see and to project myself aligned with the great Irish rebels and the equally great European and American tradition of free thinkers and non-conformists, the reality is that all I am about is putting in the service of good learning the pedagogical practices of Experiential Learning, Cooperative Learning, Socratic Method and Developmental Lesson Planning. More, I import the personal responsibility component from Democratic Education starting the movement in students away from the learned helplessness of the elementary-high school years to a self-actualization of the collegiate, from the infantilization of conventional primary and secondary teaching/learning toward the empowered adult of whole cognitive developed higher education. So, yes, David, I have ends in mind other than the specific content mastery of the course.
If there is anything authentically different from conventional exercise in these education strategies is that I employ them within the same course and, frequently, within the same class period giving students an array of means by which to acquire the content of the course and providing students an authentic responsibility to accept or reject the conditions of inclusion in each class and in the course along with the consequences of their decisions. I take as given that this is the first exposure to these methods and to these conditions for students and I fully recognize the adjustment difficulty visited upon them, especially on those holding expectations that they will be doing the same thing they have been doing from almost all of their schooling lives; thus, I incorporate personal support into each course prominently among which is individual one on one instructional/counseling sessions during and outside office hours.
David, this time around, I did not get the chance to be articulate. In fact, what was student complaint was given validation by all supervision without even a cursory chat with me to ascertain its authenticity. It is clear that there may be academic freedom for others but not for me. So, that’s it: stick a fork in me and pop me out of the oven, I’m done. I have always done the best for each young adult I was given the privilege of teaching, even those who complain. But, the conditions of employment whereby I am forbidden to use my professional judgment, and where I am being forced to employ pedagogical methods which even the schools in which I’ve taught hold workshops and seminars to get faculty to greatly move away from, have become intolerable. If being rebellious means I will not accept having to implement the least effective pedagogy just to stay employed as an adjunct, just to not upset, not to differently cognitively challenge, any student then, I am a rebel. Unfortunately, the consequence of being a rebel is to be marginalized and equally to marginalize oneself. So, on the margins of education I am to return. However, I can no longer afford to be there.
I am stepping away from the field of education completely as there truly is nowhere for me to be. I am also leaving the MEA, although I take with me the deepest knowing of how the world works. I want to thank all in the MEA who continue to believe I have an insightful thing or two to say and who in one way or another have acknowledged that over the years, especially those convention conveners who accepted my panels and those who graciously accepted inclusion. I wish everyone all the best. From now on if anyone wishes to reply to this or to keep in touch, please use

As “an old friend use to say”, Good Night and Good Luck."

I'm still not done with education as the many successive blog posts here will attest.  But, unless something of a miracle happens I doubt very much that I will see the inside of a college teaching opportunity again.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Doing the Politics

The University of Texas football team hosted the Texas A & M squad the same weekend in the mid-1990's the Association for Experiential Education was in Austin making my first visit to the State capital a real blast. Yep, Austin is a college town, and holy longhorn, I felt at home with all the young adults parading along Congress, ambling up Guadalupe and careening 6th Street side to side. (A & M won, by the way.) There was a lot to experience that weekend: the history of Texas, the night-life of our host city, challenge courses in schools and experiential pedagogy in academic classes. But, the single most salient happening resonating the deepest in me then was the consistent chorus from the alternative school folks there: Do the Politics.

Collectively it was said: new private schools always need friends in public places; however, the need of friends in public places is far greater for new alternative private schools than for conventional schools; further, new alternative private schools serving special needs children require an even greater representation.

First off, as I recall the alternative school folks saying, friends are truly needed in Municipal, and even County and State, government to reduce opposition to the project by convincing other public officials that the need for the education service outweighs any prior tax revenue from the property on which the school is to occupy and from the sales the school undertakes-remember, schools are non-profit, tax exempt organizations and, especially, a school purchased property will remove it from the tax rolls. Additionally, friends could assure an intended school siting meets local land-use and zoning requirements, especially if variances are necessary.

Friends could intercede with the various commercial and residential community interests to ease any potential friction siting may create. Further, as most folks tend to be afraid of anything “alternative” and anyone labeled “special needs”, friends accepting the unconventional education philosophy and practice and the efficacy of the alternative in helping special needs children could do a great deal to demystify the school, its students and the education processes the school uses significantly lowering barriers to community acceptance. And, of course, if there is a spot of bother, friends can mediate, restoring good feelings between the community and the school. Implied in the advice of making friends in public places-at least I was hearing it-was the strong suggestion that friends would connect the school to the money folks who donate to various local charities and, of course, to the political friends. 

So, with the onset of summer 2004, in anticipation of initial community outreach in the very near future, I journeyed through the representative politics of my communities to find some friends for the concept, such as it was then, and me. I ended up with Lew M. Simon, Queens County Democratic
Party Leader for Part B of the 23rd Assembly District which encompassed my Breezy Point. In Queens, District Leaders have several important duties, such as selecting County candidates for local elected offices and endorsing candidates for City & State-Wide and National offices. But, in actuality, these vote outcomes are preordained in that the County Executive Committee selects and the County Leaders do what is expected of them. The real work of District Leaders is to assure the required signatures on election petitions placing the County selected candidates on the election day ballot and fully help support County operations by attending all County fund-raisers. Lew Simon does his Leadership duties and has consistently collected the highest number of petition signatures in the County. However, he looks to be the old ward healer, interceding with City powers to help resolve individual constituent problems in exchange for their votes and other favors. 

The good here is that over the years he has actually helped many, including us, to resolve as much as possible City government connected problems, but the bad is that the situations on which he cares to work are calculated to garner the obligations of those he helps. He puts the favors in his pocket redeeming them at his leisure for free goods and services and for votes when he runs to maintain his Leadership and when he has sought election to the City Council. But, if he sees a situation holding no prospect of obligation, he will ignore the constituent's plea for help. If this cynicism wasn't enough, he has what I call a learned ignorance being bothered never to know anything about municipal operations other than who to call with what City government problem, which is to my mind okay as far as it goes but it rarely goes far enough, especially when dealing with community-wide problems, such as local school district issues, mass transportation, road repair, land use issues and the like. 

Indeed, he never engages in finding solutions to community-wide issues because he has no personal interest in any; rather, he favors stoking constituent grievance as much because it relieves him of any responsibility to know anything substantive as much because he believes it brings him votes when he runs for elected office. There are many other really not-too-good aspects of Mr. Simon's personality, including verbally abusing-and I mean really debasing-those working with him, those he feels are against him-which are legion in number-and everyone in City agency leadership positions. He is foul-mouthed, selfish to the extreme and immensely self-absorbed. 

I was willing to put up with all of this-until November, 2013-for the access to folks in City government and in local party politics he provided who might befriend my school project and me. From the very beginning he said for me to forget about the school; and over the years he did not lift a finger to be a friend of the school project keeping to his uncaring sentiment to forget the project entirely. However, working with him allowed me enormous access to the Queens Borough President's office and the City's Department of Education, especially when I was looking to go the State Charter School route with Rockaway College. 

However, the most beneficial introduction was to our then City Councilman, Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. The more Mr. Simon took me around to the many community meetings, the more the City Councilman and I talked with each other; over time the many conversations became a base for a friendship good enough for me to begin a quiet approach to Twice-Exceptionality and the total lack of education service for these children. The piecemeal approach of mini-conversations at meetings became insufficient for him, so very early in 2008 the City Councilman asked me to write a paper outlining the issues and recommending solutions. This I delivered to him May 8th. While I mentioned that neither Federal or New York State Education Law excluded direct education service to twice-exceptional children if a school district wishes to identify these youngsters and provide appropriate service to them, the complete absence of it throughout the State, including New York City, and the absence of any indication of a single thought to even say these children exist strongly made the point that only changes in State law could remedy the situation. I called for State legislation recognizing the existence of Twice-Exceptional pupils and for ordering the State Department of Education to insist each local district devise identification schemes and appropriate programs. He accepted the paper, understood the issues and agreed with the recommendations. But as City Councilman he said he could do little more than pass it on to our local State representatives. He did.

And then he ran to unseat the incumbent State Senator later that year. He won and in early 2009, he said for me to write the legislation working with his Legislative Director to polish the language. The new State Senator did not have a definite time-line; so I took my time. Indeed, I wanted to get it right. I put together a kind of advisory writing committee which would steer me in getting it right. The folks responding to my requests could not have been more expert and more generous in sharing their expertise, time and advice. On the ad hoc group were Melissa Sornik, Lois Baldwin, Kris Berman, Wendy Eisner, Susan Baum, Christy Folsom and Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski.

Working with Frank Scaduto, Senator Addabbo's Legislative Director, the bill was finished. It does what we wanted to do: recognizes Twice-Exceptional children as a distinct category of pupil requiring teaching/learning different from the mainstream and according to Twice-Exceptional characteristics, instructs the State Department of Education to insist local school districts and to help local school districts to establish identification procedures and appropriate education programs, and establishes a State-Wide advisory council supervising it all.

The Senate bill and its Assembly companion were originally introduced into the State Legislature in 2010, re-introduced in 2011, and reintroduced in 2013 as S1875 and A1522. Unfortunately, the economic state of New York placed barriers in the way of the accomplishing State mandates in mainstream education no less than those of special education. As Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has said to me on more than one occasion: there isn't enough money to fund regular education...And you want me to create a mandate and funding for yet another special group?! Late last year, 2013, State Senator Addabbo modified the language of these bills to include funding for regular education. Frankly, I went a little crazy as I saw the changes as yet another way to screw the Twice-Exceptional while seeming to be doing right by them. But, Sen. Addabbo calmed me down by saying the inclusion of regular education funding in the bills was an inducement for Assemblywoman Nolan to look favorably on the bill. Having been told by the Education Committee Chair that she was very disinclined to agree with the sentiments in the bill, I have to wonder if even these inducements will work. But, our good State Senator and his legislative colleagues co-sponsoring the bills continue to work to get them considered and passed into Law.

In the end, Doing the Politics accomplished little on the ground. Yes, there is the legislation, but it remains stuck...going no where fast. And, yes, the access to the powers that be in the Queens Borough President's office and, more especially, in the City's Department of Education ultimately enabled me to intimately understand the processes, procedures and personalities in the City's drive to re-structure its schooling. And the access to local civic leaders and elected officials provided me insights into the issues, politics and governance of municipalities, and, particularly, of our local area. But, the expected connections, especially, with the money folks, to facilitate organizing and fund-raising my Rockaway College just did not happen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Square Pegs, Solutions, Part 5

Hi, I’m Leo Fahey and I’m looking to start a school serving our square pegs. I've named it Sands College. Its Mission is to cultivate the intellectual gifts of the bright Learning Disabled youth from Breezy Point to Belle Harbor by providing them education environments dedicated to re-setting emotional and academic readiness to take responsibility for their own learning and to the exercise of that responsibility. These environments are to provide all youngsters individual and collective empowerment, mutual assistance and respect for individual interests, abilities and rates of social, cognitive and emotional growth. As I have pointed out, a sizable number of our bright children struggle daily. They possess ways of knowing at great odds with whom their present schools say they ought to be; their instinct to take responsibility for their studies, to learn in their own way, in their own time, is constantly surpressed. The cost of going against their instincts and trying to academically succeed using ways of knowing alien to who they are produce plummeting self-esteem, depression and learned helplessness leading to academic failure. Sands College would return to these bright youngsters the trust in their unique ways of knowing and the impulse to take responsibility for their course of study creating the conditions for academic success within each youngster.

Sands College would empower responsibility and academic success in four integrated levels representing a sequential growth from elementary education through junior college study. The levels are: The Primary School, The Venture Challenge, The Lower School and The Upper School. The Primary School uses an Open Classroom setting to establish a prepared environment. Children take responsibility for their learning as they engage the prepared environment through their unique interests, abilities and learning styles and collaborate with teachers in setting readiness and academic goals. The Venture Challenge, an intake personal growth program for the secondary education of The Lower School, creates community led outdoor adventure teams where youngsters take responsibility for trek organization and for the many outdoor chores necessary such as cooking and clean-up as well as land navigation and first-aid. The Lower School requires a high degree of personal responsibility as youngsters engage an intergrated curriculum through self-selected inquiry projects exploring Science, History, Arts, Letters, Performance and Foreign Language Arts and as each help others achieve individual learning goals. The Upper School enlists collective responsibility to create, maintain and facilitate Great Question explorations into the received knowledge coming from written tradition, Western and Eastern. Taking responsibility remains incomplete unless youngsters are empowered to manage their learning spaces. Sands College would employ a community governance model where youngsters and staff together make policy decisions at each developmental level and at the school-wide level. This is quite an abitious project, but all our children deserve all our best.

Feedback: 1) I want to thank Chris Stokes, President, Point Breeze Association, Donna Trotter, President, Roxbury Association, and Terry Cassidy, President, Rockaway Point Association, for allowing me to talk with their members at recent meetings. 2) I’m in the process of getting a meeting place for the first of a series of information/organization meetings to put Sands College together. The meeting will be in the evening on either September 20 or 27. Look for the announcement within the next week.

Square Pegs, Solutions, Part 4

“…it is the integrity and ‘gathering power’ of the pine tree that draws together language, science, mathematics, social studies, art, history, mythology, and on and on…This pine tree possesses…question[s]…It draws our attention…It evokes…It stands before us as a sign…From the pine tree, learn of the pine tree. But, also from the pine tree, learn of ourselves...this pine tree comes forward as the nesting point of a vast interconnecting network of relationships and it is the integrity of such a network which bestows integrity on the integrated curriculum.” (David W. Jardine, “On the Integrity of Things: Ecopedagogical Reflections on the Integrated Curriculum”, in “Current Concepts of Core Curriculum” from the National Association for Core Curriculum, p. 34) As the pine tree stands as a nesting point so also do things like tidal pools, cities, or spider webs and concepts like luminescence, alienation, or metaphor. These “themes” framing the curriculum stand as the immediate causes for secondary education inquiry: students would select from a community generated list one theme at any one time from which to develop a research question to concentrate inquiry. Early college students would also use a thematic curriculum but unlike the individuality of secondary education project study, early college study would be collective in seminars within a course structure equivalent to the rest of higher education and meant to satisfy common core university requirements.

The themes subject to seminar study are to be called “Great Questions”. An example of a Great Question might be, “What is the Eleventh Dimension?” This Great Question would examine the concepts of space from Euclidean to the mutliverse of String Theory. A second could be, “What is Nature?” This traces the changes in understanding from Aristotle to Einstein to present Gaian ecology. Taken together, Great Questions, emerging as a direct expression of the propriety, interest and necessity of the early college community itself, would launch explorations into the history, science, literature, sociology, political economies and philosophies of periods from Classical to Modern. Not to worry! Our older adolescent Square Pegs can do well with such heavy intellectual lifting. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, argues in Jefferson’s Children that youngsters between the ages of sixteen and eighteen have reached a maturity where they need this kind of stimulation and challenge. Indeed, one witnesses such successful adolescent academic engagement in Simons Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and in Bard High School Early College here in New York.

Feedback: 1) I’ve said to some that Fort Tilden could host these programs. I’ve since learned Gateway will only agree to a public school open to all NYC children. It becomes clear a venture meant to be a private not-for-profit, non-BPC affiliated endeavor, serving the children of the three communities of the Breezy Point Cooperative with the possibility of enrolling additional children from Neponsit and Belle Harbor cannot be at Fort Tilden. 2) There is a powerful resistance in the Coop to having any school here, I’ve learned. To those folks I plead: the youngsters in need in our three communities ought not to be denied their lives because there are no alternatives for them. And the plain, simple fact is that there are no suitable, alternative schools on the Peninsula, or in the rest of NYC for that matter! We pride ourselves as a community caring for its children, as most families are here to raise their children within the safety provided here. Then I say, let us demonstrate that commitment to their safety by dissolving the resistance in favor of the proactive support our children need.

Square Pegs, Solutions, Part 3

“The recovery time is proportionate to the hatred their last school gave them.”, A.S. Neil said on page 5 in his 1960 seminal book, Summerhill. This is true enough for our youngest square pegs, but it hits the center of the bull’s eye for our adolescents. Indeed, angry teenagers forced to accept academic work behave through their madness, as we have seen. Even placed in a special education class or transferred into another school, they continue to sabotage their own success. Thus, placing these angry youngsters directly into the academics of the scholastic program to be highlighted in this and the next article, which means to take bright, troubled adolescents through a combined high school and junior college experience with a diploma and an Associate‘s degree earned at the same time, without providing a time for healing, of taking off the pressure, would set these youngsters and the scholastic program itself for sure failure. These older children, like their younger brothers and sisters, need a time to reset their emotional and academic readiness. A mixed age, responsibility based outdoor education cooperative community program for age’s 12 and up would through team, trust and community building in outdoor activities such as camping, hiking and backpacking, greatly resolve feelings of failure and self-loathing, replacing them with growing feelings of success and self-worth, and would replace the internalized, oppressive norms of the uniform school with those of an empowering, responsibility based cooperative community culture preparing them for successful secondary academic study. More, working closely with each youngster would offer staff opportunities to understand the unique emotional and learning characteristics of each student and would enable them to assist in any remedial work necessary.

Youngsters when feeling confident and empowered would, then, move themselves into an ungraded, responsibility based, cooperative community secondary education academic program. This program would integrate the received knowledge coming from written tradition, Western and Eastern, into six general studies areas, Science, History, Letters, Arts, Performance and Foreign Language Arts, and place each branch of knowledge into a cooperative learning lab setting for concentrated study in the desired area. Intellectual curiosity and the natural differences in abilities, interests and communication style would drive student engagement with the learned world and participation in the learning labs rather than that of uniform, mandated curriculum and subject class assignments. Inquiry Project Based Learning and Performance Assessment would be used exclusively by students to acquire interdisciplinary skills and content knowledge. Projects would be developed, implemented and evaluated in the learning labs where group members act together to achieve individual project objectives. All students would have instructional staff mentors thoroughly versed in the cooperative, responsibility based academics of the secondary education program and in the unique cognitive styles of the school’s population to assist in setting and achieving personal and academic goals. And like their younger colleagues these youngsters would in community with staff take governance responsibility deciding such policy as project performance standards, or requirements for graduating secondary education students into the early college, or community norms and methods dealing with their violation. Indeed, this healing and empowering secondary education academic community is desperately needed for our bright teenage square pegs.   Look for an Information/Organization Meeting date coming soon to establish here the primary program and the secondary education early college as real brick and mortar.