Tuesday, November 08, 2016

That Is All I Write About

I live and teach in one of the most politically progressive legislative districts in one of the most politically progressive cities in one of the most politically progressive states in America. Several years ago I was invited to speak in a place that has the opposite reputation. They wanted me to present a keynote about play-based education. At the time I was using the title "Democratic Education" over my standard talk on the subject. My host was happy with what I proposed except she requested that I change the title, explaining, "People around here are a little uncomfortable with the word "democracy."

I changed the title, but my mind was blown. What American could be against democracy? For me, it was a word like "liberty" or "justice," one that is a pure good, a concept toward which we, as a nation, strive together even as we might disagree on the path to take to get there.

I'd been asked to speak for an hour-and-a-half, then take a coffee break, before concluding with the rest. We were in a sanctuary, with me actually speaking from a pulpit (if you've never had the pleasure, it's a unique one). When it came time for the break, I walked up the center aisle on my way toward a cup of the life giving substance, when I noticed a tall man pointedly waiting for me at the door. He didn't look happy. As I approached him, I wondered if I was going to be punched, but instead he offered his hand, introduced himself, then said, "I can tell you're a liberal." My whole body went tense before he added, "But you're one of the smart liberals."

We spent the coffee break chatting about state politics. He was the owner of a small play-based preschool, a teacher, and a grassroots activist. As we talked we found some places where we disagreed, but most of the conversation was about matters upon which we saw more or less eye-to-eye. And indeed, that is what I've found in every conversation I've ever had with someone who society would tell me is my political "enemy": we agreed on most things. What separated us is perhaps important, but overall our differences are small, and we live most of our lives together on common ground, even if geographic or other barriers cause us to believe otherwise.

I certainly expected that my post yesterday in which I attempted to simply acknowledge and celebrate the historic nature of today's presidential election, one in which we will seat our first woman President, would make some people mad. This is the internet after all and there is no sanctuary, urn coffee, or face-to-face interaction to help guarantee good behavior, but I was still shocked at the anger, vitriol and, frankly, enmity that some people expressed in the comments on Facebook.

For the record, I do not indoctrinate the children I teach, but I do see our school, indeed every school, as a proper forum for discussing the subjects in which the children are interested. My older students in particular have taken an interest in this election, and especially during the debates (which many of our kids watched with their parents) they came into the classroom asking questions and voicing opinions. As the teacher, I simply moderated those discussions as I do all discussions, making sure everyone had a chance to speak, and occasionally echoing their words to let them know they were heard. If I express my own opinions in these discussions, it's when it has to do with civility or if I'm directly asked by one of the kids, then I answer simply and honestly without attempting to persuade. We talk about all manner of topics in this manner, be it bloody owies, Halloween costumes, volcanos, religion, sex, or poverty. It's their world, they have thoughts and questions: exploring those thoughts and questions is what play-based education is all about.

What shocked me most yesterday was the fact that some readers expressed the view that young children were too young to discuss politics, that it is somehow dirty and that they must be shielded from it. Indeed, some seemed to believe that by allowing the children to discuss politics I was violating my trust as a teacher. As I looked through the comments, I couldn't help but be reminded of my host who was nervous about the word "democracy." Maybe this is what she was talking about.

The promise of our nation has always been the goal of democratic self-governance. The reason we educate our children is to prepare them for their role in the process of self-governance, which is usually called politics. Our founders understood that an educated population is necessary if a democratic nation is going to thrive, which is why one of the first things they did after signing the Constitution was to start founding schools. I am not talking about indoctrination here (although I understand that some have approached education this way) but rather providing children the opportunity to practice self-governance. This is why the children at Woodland Park make our own rules, their own agreements about how to live together; it's why the children at Woodland Park develop their own curriculum through their play; and it's why no topic is off the table when it comes to public discussions.

That is the way our democracy is designed to work. It's more than mere voting, which I consider the bare minimum of citizenship. It is about friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues engaging, daily, in political discussions, sharing thoughts, opinions and questions. It's about looking for common ground and standing on it together as we civilly hash out our differences. This is what we spend our days doing at Woodland Park as we create our small democratic society.

Honestly, kids are better at this kind of deep democracy than adults. They have their disagreements, often angrily, then, sometimes within minutes, are back to playing together in the sandpit, enjoying their common ground. This is the hallmark of good citizenship.

I'm happy that the families of the children I teach seem to understand this. And to my readers, I cannot ask you not to get angry, but please don't be shocked and appalled when I write about politics: indeed, that is all I write about.

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