The People vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom…

“I feel as though some people in this classroom get heard more than other people.”

Jordan makes this declaration after the class has collectively spent three weeks writing, revising, and justifying a syllabus for a “Leadership” course. Many of these students have been in class together since their freshmen year. They have moved through a “Community Development and Global Citizenship” course their sophomore year, so it seemed a logical progression for this junior year leadership course that everything, even the syllabus, be determined for the students, by the students.

When they submitted their drafts electronically, I color coded each group’s proposal so that as we wove it together, the tapestry that emerged refracted the multiplicity of their view points and voices.

Syllabus

After all of this, after the “collab-abus” was signed into law by (apparent) mutual agreement, I sat at the front of the room basking in the presumption of egalitarian victory, assumed it must be a communal emotion, and asked:

“How are you all feeling right now?”

Empowered?

Triumphant?

Grateful to your benevolent teacher?

Any of these responses would do.

Instead…

“…some people…”

In moments such as these, when our intent and our outcomes seem so disparate, it is easy to fall back on defense mechanisms. Righteous Indignation is one of my favorites. In my first five years of teaching, this would have undoubtedly been my response. I might have defended “some people,” insisting that this was the ultimate example of irony brought forth be teenage self-involvement.

Instead of asserting this accusation must be false, I considered that it might be true and asked…

“What do the rest of you think of that?”

What emerged was a conversation that rocked not just me, but all the students in the class to their core. One student in particular, Gabby, put herself in the middle of it all and asked…

“You mean… ‘some people’ like me?”

If it please the court, let us consider the case of The People vs Gabby.

Gabby is the quintessential “good student.” She is always eager to participate, loves group work, is prepared for any Socratic Seminar, and is happy to share her thoughts on everything. She’s… a lot like me. In fact, her freshmen year she transferred into my Honors English class because “Everyone is always talking about you and I feel like we have the same personality and I know I’m just going to love it in here.” Be still my heart.

VS.

Jordan, on the other hand, at the end of her sophomore year told me she WOULD NOT be signing up for the Leadership class because, “I feel like you have favorites.” Be still my righteous indignation. Jordan frequently finds herself in the role of hard truth telling, speaking what others are muttering under their breaths but do not have the courage or freedom to say. Jordan will raise her hand (I will brace myself) and she will say it for them.

You may have guessed…Gabby is white, Jordan is black. “The People” vs “Some People.”

If you’re asking yourself “Well why should that matter?”

Umm…because we’re in America, and it matters.

If you want further proof, let’s talk about the self-segregation of the leadership class itself.

I stopped creating seating charts for my Signature students about three years ago. What emerged, over and over, was a fascinating study in “why are all the ____ kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” Sometimes our lines of identity are not externally visible. Other times we wear them in our sportswear, head coverings, skin tones. Students (read humans) if left to choose, too easily settle and sort into this stratified cultural gravity.

At the onset of this conversation about whose voices are heard, one half of the room (predominantly white) sat gaping while the other half (predominantly African-American) sat nodding.

But…because we’re in America (and because we’re talking about Millennials), race is also not the ONLY thing that matters in this scenario. This was also about the tyranny of the extrovert. The hand-waver. The stream of consciousness live-Tweeter. Ours is not a culture of good listening. The introverts too, regardless of skin tone, were ALSO feeling marginalized.

So when Jordan called us on our “some people”-ness, it could have been interpreted as a the ultimate #fail.

That is, if you don’t have a context for transitional democracy.

One of my favorite people and teachers often jokes that the classroom even at its best is a study in “Benign Dictatorship.” That is, no matter how inclusive and responsive the teacher is to the needs of the students, the teacher is still the central force driving the politics and governance of the class. A one party system.

I remember when I took the course “Conflict Analysis and Resolution” for my Masters, it was a shocking realization that democracy, at least initially, can be more chaotic, conflictual, and even violent than dictatorship.  All those voices, opinions, and directions from all those citizens makes for a noisy society. Despotism is much more ordered. Neat. None of the untidiness of dissent to clutter up the place.

Rule of law, it turns out, creates the conditions for dissonance…but also the conditions for eventual (if only occasional) harmony.

But before the harmony, comes the tears.

After class, as I counseled Gabby, as we considered how we could have so unintentionally silenced so many, the solution was elegant:

Listen.

So we did.

To Jordan. (Who I thanked for speaking up and asked to tell me more).

To the introverts. (Who consequently started an initiative called “Hear my Voice.”)

To the people.

It is a great squandering of opportunity that we do not understand public American classrooms as the ultimate space to witness democracy transforming itself…again and again.

If we stop listening during the tune-up, confuse the dissonance with disaster, we slip out before the reflective pause, and miss the orchestral triumph to follow.

Tomorrow…the people’s opus.

(NOTE: To read Gabby’s Reflection on this moment, click HERE. It became her college essay)

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Declaration of SIG-dependence

Students are gathered in an outdoor pavilion at Arlington Echo hunched over a piece of poster paper. They are laughing, talking, calling out ideas and corrections while one student tries to get it all down.

“This is like the Declaration of independence,” declares one.

“Yeah, because Signature emancipates us.”

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This is a two day overnight trip for Signature Program Seniors. I have taught many of them since they were freshmen. The final activity of this reflective retreat is drafting a definition of what “Signature” is. Despite the fact that almost every student has declared the impact of this program on their lives, our greatest struggle has been and remains DEFINING it.

Five years ago I stood with a different group of students. Before the Signature Program was developed, it began with a “global cohort” of students and a question of “What should education offer to the local, national, and global community?”

Now, five years later, a different group of students are under the same pavilion on the other side of the question. They have been a part of program that has taken them to local farms and to international exchange programs. They have started diversity clubs and political internships. They have created curriculum, videos, conferences, and all manner of other real world products and projects swirling around their signature experience.

I am their teacher…but they have made me obsolete. Finally.

As they begin to string together a statement of purpose, I watch them with pride but also with poignancy, because I know something they don’t:

I am leaving them.

One week from now, I’m going to sit them down in the Library and tell them that I am taking a new job at a new school where I can bring and build Signature with a new group of students. I know they’re going to be shocked…but I have set them up to see they’ve outgrown me anyway.

Earlier in the week, under the same pavillion, I asked them to draft an annual plan for signature. What would they do personally and collectively by the end of the year? What were their goals and how would they get there. 10 minutes into the activity, I gave them a hypothetical crisis.

“The new Superintendent has declared he does not believe in Signature Programs and thinks they are a wasted investment. How does this change your plan?”*

10 minutes later I gave them a second crisis…this one less hypothetical.

“Your Signature teacher has been poached by the department of education to work on global citizenship education nationally. How does THIS change your plan?”

Arlington crisis

In both instances, the students responded that their plans were not dependent on even these seemingly cataclysmic scenarios. In the words of one of the students: “Sig is an institution. Not a single teacher/administrator will prove the downfall of the entire program.”

The following week when I announced that I was leaving, I hung up their plans and their words declaring the longevity of the Signature way.

Many of them wrote me emails and letters in the weeks to come. My favorite came from a student who over the course of the 4 page hand written note went from grief and anger to acceptance and confidence…with just a touch of doubt:

“I feel like signature is still a baby. The first sig completer class hasn’t even graduated, yet your’re leaving…so soon…But maybe it’s the best time…Even though I’m broken and sad, I know Signature will not die. We can’t let it. You’re forcing us to be strong. We have been ready for this all along, we just didn’t know it. Very clever of you to put that scenario in our activity at Arlington echo, then tie it to your announcement. Now I get it. Ha. I’m ready for this. Sort of. I guess.”

There were still tears. Still disbelief. Still anger. Still feelings of betrayal…but then on the other side there was strength. There was conviction. There was confidence that I was not the center of signature. THEY were.

When students at Arlington Echo finished their Declaration of SIG-dependence, they signed it and hung it on the marquee….where they hoped the visiting superintendent would see it.

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Julia ended her letter with a pledge. She wrote it for herself, but it belongs to all of us who have been touched by this thing we call “Signature.”

“I pledge to myself to myself and the program that I will do everything I possibly can to continue what we have been working so hard on.”

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.