Democracy Matters

Democracy matters, and it starts with children. It starts with how you and I raise our children, and with how teachers treat children.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Deborah Meier speak, who at 84 years old is somewhat of a matriarch of progressive education.  Deb spent her entire career creating schools built on the premise that trusting relationships between children, teachers, and parents are the cornerstone of any good educational community.  I was first turned on to Deb’s writing by Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, my predecessor as school director here and a mentor for my teaching and leadership practice.  I now find myself often consulting Deb’s writing, whether when searching for a theme for my Friday notes or needing a reminder about what school is really all about, at its core. 

So it was with a quiet reverence that I listened as she spoke to 100 NYC school leaders last week about democracy and schools, or more specifically, democracy in schools.  Deb reminded us that as school leaders, it is our most important mandate to provide a strong future for our country by raising strong citizens.  She spoke about how the classroom is where children learn the twin democratic ideals that your voice matters, and so does everyone else’s. She spoke about how we operate democracy at the national, state, and local level, and that this should continue down into our classroom.  She said with a sense of urgency that we send soldiers across oceans for democracy, yet forget to fight for it in our classrooms.

And so I kept Deb’s words in mind this week as I spent time in our classrooms and read our Daily Reflections.  And I was proud of what I saw.

As a Reggio-inspired school, our pedagogy and curriculum help foment exactly what Deb was describing – the Reggio approach sees each child as a citizen, whose voice and ideas matter. The teacher’s job is to give the young citizen a platform from which to embark, a stage from which to give their speech. Here is some of what I saw this week from our youngest citizens.

In classroom 6, some of the children realized that the orange, purple, and green paint jars at the easel were empty. They came up with a plan – they would mix the primary colors together and create new colors to paint with. Citizens recognized a problem and came together with a creative solution.

In classroom 8, one child decided to see what would happen when he mixed water with playdo. A fun mess ensued, and the teachers encouraged the children (who had all gathered around) to take the activity to the water table to continue their exploration. A single citizen’s creativity inspired a community event.

In classroom 7, the whole class voted for which book to read together, casting small wooden blocks as ballots.  Their reflection that day read, “the children were excited to take an active role in the decision making process.” Citizens experienced the joy and pain of the voting process.

In classroom 5, a conversation about a grocery store turned into a large project in which not only are the children building a grocery store in their classroom but went to Fairway to get ingredients to make their treat for Shabbat. Citizens gathered together to take action around a common interest.

Alfie Kohn has written that, “Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not following directions.” Likewise, children learn democracy by participating in democracy, not by waiting until they are older to see their voice matter.

If you’re wondering about how to enact these ideas at home, don’t worry, democracy doesn’t mean turning over the keys to the castle to your three year old.  There is still an executive branch! The most important elements are that a child feels recognized, respected, and listened to. Some examples of how seeing children as citizens might look at home:

Participation: Have your child participate in actions like taking out the recycling, moving the laundry from the washer to dryer, swipe your metro card, or holding the dustpan. Participation develops civic responsibility and leaves the child with a feeling of, “I have a meaningful place in this community. I’m not just along for the ride; my presence matters here.”

Projects: Show your child that their ideas are important.  Latch onto something they are interested in and help them create a project out of it.  If your child is always pointing out busses, have him put a small notebook in his backpack (or even in your purse or briefcase) and he can jot down a scribble or shape each time he sees one; at the end of the week, help him count how many he saw. If your child has a pretend-play theme they often refer back to (whether it’s princess, bad-guy, animals, hospital, etc), help them set up a corner of their room in concrete ways for this play (like the example above from classroom 5).  Democracy means the world is not static; my ideas can grow and shape the world around me.

Model: Children soak up your every move; you are their superhero.  Model democracy for them.  Discuss who’s changing the next diaper, or what time to leave for the train, or even what after-school program to sign up for, in front of them.  Show them that adults help each other make decisions and don’t always agree. 

When we respect each child-citizen’s right to exercise their voice in a democratic community, classroom, or home, we can rest assured that they are developing the tools needed to make the world a better place. And there is no higher calling in our Jewish tradition then that.

Shabbat Shalom,