A Note From Noah

As Martin Luther King, Jr, Day approaches, I’d like to share with you a bit more about our “Peer Learning Cycle” and how our teachers will be spending this Tuesday, with school closed for our annual Professional Development Day. In sync with our national attitude around MLK Day, our Tuesday will be spent exploring notions of protest, activism, and dissent – and how this applies to your young one.

As was highlighted in a November Note, this year our entire teaching staff is using our Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) to explore the intersection between democracy and pedagogy (2/13 6pm is our PLC evening at school, I hope this is already on your calendars!). We will be using our time on Tuesday to visit the “Activist New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, which “presents the passions and conflicts that underlie the city’s history of agitation.” Our goal for the day is to consider how democratic activism is embodied by our students in your classrooms – how we can consider our students’ collective “agitation” as their expression of democratic dissent.

A recent Washington Post article (thank you Rabbi Joy for sending to me!) explained how we can consider democracy and pedagogy co-existing:

"Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on civics education, observes that the term “good citizenship” is typically employed to mean nothing more than “listening to authority figures, dressing neatly, being nice to neighbors, and helping out at a soup kitchen.” What it should mean — what ought to define a democratic society’s approach to education — has more to do with asking difficult questions, organizing for collective action, insisting that people be able to participate in making decisions about matters that affect them, and confronting the systemic roots of problems. Westheimer proposes a thought experiment: You have been magically transported to a classroom somewhere in the world without knowing where you are. Can you tell from the teaching whether you are in a democratic or totalitarian nation? If not, schooling in that country doesn’t really prepare students for democracy."

Westheimer outlines how the experiences within classrooms need not be learning modules "about" democracy to be practiced by free citizens in the future, but instead ought to be authentic expressions of democracy.

This thread is picked up in the early childhood sphere by a small cohort of authors who seek to “reconceptualize” what early childhood education can be, as opposed to non-critically affirming that schools are about the passive accumulation of content knowledge. Recognizing the political power of children to resist those in control, these authors advocate for a re-envisioning of school as a place of democratic practices, through which children can actively express “a means of resisting power and its will to govern, and the forms of oppression and injustice that arise from the unrestrained exercise of power”. The “democratic participation” of children in this reconceptualized school setting necessarily re-frames children’s resistance away from being “problematic” and instead reconstructs children’s dissent as “an important criterion of citizenship”. In this view, autocratic control of early childhood classrooms – by teachers – stifles the capacity for young children to act in politically resistant ways.

Within this framework, children are always-and-already acting in politically subversive ways: "They [children] take action in situations where things are going wrong from their perspective; they choose between different practices going on in the nursery to avoid subordination and to gain power; they take sides between different groupings for ethical reasons; and they follow and challenge the nursery rules as it seems beneficial". These are political actions by political beings, though we often do not recognize our youngest citizen’s behavior as such – we too often only understand our young learners through a developmental, not a political, prism.

These notions and more will be considered by our teaching staff this Tuesday and through the remaining months of the year. Additionally, we will be using two local, JCC-resources to extend the conversation:

“What is Democracy?”, a film by Astra Taylor, was shown this month at the JCC along with a Q+A with the director. The film (90 second trailer) explores the historical roots, and modern contradictions within, democratic practices.

“Protest: 70 Years of American Resistance”: The current exhibit in the JCC’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery, in our building’s lobby, explores the idea that “America itself was born out of protest” while considering that “protest has defined and reshaped the landscape of American rights and justice.”

I invite you to join your child’s teachers in this exploration by visiting the Activist New York Exhibit (it doesn’t hurt that the museum also has a Corduroy exhibit right next to it!) as well as the video and gallery mentioned above.

If we consider our children’s dissent as an exercise of their democratic reaction to authority and control, how does that re-position us as teachers and parents? What responsibilities do we have, given our assumed control over a population who simultaneously both needs us and rebels against us? How can we reconcile our control over our students with their exercising of dissent, a requisite tool of a democratic society?

Shabbat shalom,