A Noah From Noah

Citizens are expected to speak up, to make their voice heard. This tenet runs deep in our school’s activist pedagogy (Note from two weeks ago). It has been beautiful watching the loud voices of our youngest citizens in class this week.

It all starts from knowing that your voice has power.

In Room 1, with our youngest citizens, the teachers noticed the children have been playing with various building materials quite intensely. To support this interest, the teachers added several rich provocations to the class environment. As they wrote in their Daily Reflection, the intent is to show that,

“In following the children’s interested in building, we communicate that we value their thoughts and ideas. It adds to the sense of power and agency that each child has in our community: their ideas and interests matter.”

In Room 6, the children told the teachers that they wanted to be able to save their block structures during the day – which they couldn’t because the block area doubled as the meeting area. The children clamored about this during meeting time, and the teachers listened. Shown in their Daily Reflection, the whole class re-arranged the room to be more conducive to saving block structures for longer periods of time.

This is not cute, sweet, or trivial. These are real citizens, speaking their truth, exercising their power as constituents. The lessons our students learn in Room 1 – when they see their play-schemes extended by their teachers – bleed into their activist stance as they grow and demand change around them in Room 6. Our youngest citizens learn it is a right, not a privilege, to have a say in how their community works. This is the right and responsibility of an active citizen – and our students are certainly active in their expression of this!

In Room 2, a child approached a teacher with a complaint – a classmate had knocked down his block structure. Rather than intervene as the authority figure, the teacher recommended the child speak directly with his classmate. The child-child dialogue is captured in the Daily Reflection:

“I didn’t like it when you knocked down the blocks…when we make it again, can you not knock it down again?”

“Yes. I got one [block] we needed.”

“I have an idea! We can build a castle.”

“I know! We can put it on top (they begin building together)”

Connecting citizens with each other to productively work out their conflicts is a core contribution that schools can make to a democratic society.

In a Reggio-inspired school, committed to building a robust democracy with an emboldened citizenry, social problems are not handled by teacher-as-magistrate. They are dealt with person-to-person, through established relationships of trust. The fact that you knocked down my block tower doesn’t push us apart; it pulls us closer, as we now have a problem we must solve together. I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me. Our teachers lay the groundwork for this type of interaction through the examples from Rooms 1 and 6 above, by showing children the power of their own ideas.

This was felt in Rooms 4, 5, and 6 this week, as two children from each class walked together to donate dozens of apples from their recent apple picking trip to Christ and St. Stephen’s Church brown bag program – the apples were used to help feed 80 people that day. And yet, the student-citizens were not content with this isolated contribution. They ruminated on poverty, hunger, and economic inequality after they returned, with the child-child dialogue captured in Room 4’s Daily Reflection:

“How come we have a lot of food and they don’t? They could’ve bought food.”

“I don’t think they have money to buy food.”

“I have a great idea. We could make a stand of food. We can just give them food for no money. They won’t need money for the food.”

“We could say, ‘No money! You can get your food right away!’”

They concluded the conversation by deciding that they wanted to make a food stand in front of the JCC to give food away to those in need.

This activist stance, and the related belief in the agency and power of an involved citizen, is not coincidental. It grows from those early days in Room 1 and Room 8, from those moments when our student-citizens learn what it means to be empowered, to have adults who listen, to be in an environment in which their ideas can flow forth freely and be met with respect and trust instead of humor or derision. It is because we take children seriously here that they say such serious things.

My greatest hope for all of our child-citizens is that they retain this capacity – to speak out and to speak up – throughout their lives and the many roles they will play as citizens.

With these thoughts in mind, I was thrilled to pick up a new book this week, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School, by Carla Shalaby (the author is speaking on November 8 at Bank St). She writes that school in a democracy must be about teaching freedom and not only discrete facts. Further, she finds deeply problematic the overt power dynamic felt in traditional schools between teachers and children: how can children learn what it means to be free if their teachers wield near-complete control over them?

Ruminating on the Daily Reflections above, I am proud to be part of a school in which teachers and children enjoy relationships of trust in which they each see the other as co-citizens.

Shalaby writes about students in a classroom setting:

“A free person retains her power, her right to self-determination, her opportunity to flourish, her ability to love and to be loved, and her capacity for hope. A free person recognizes when she or others are being treated as less than fully human. And a free person embraces both her right and her duty to struggle against such treatment and to organize with others to do the same as a solidary community.”

I trace a direct line from Room 1, with teachers expressing their respect of children’s play through their material choices, to Room 4, with the child-citizens expressing their determination to provide more food and money for those in need. Our work as a school is to ensure that our child-citizens exercise their voices, power, and agency as essential tools in the building of community.

Shabbat shalom,