The Classroom is Yours: Practices for self-governance

This is the second part in a series of blog posts highlighting lessons emerging from Detroit Future Schools. Detroit Future Schools is an AMP Sponsored Project.

Detroit Future Schools' goal is to make our work to humanize schooling in Detroit "open-source" and accessible to other educators. Below, Nate Mullen, DFS Lead Artist, reflects on student-facilitated debates as a practice of self-governance.

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"You can't change the world if you can't change yourself"

– 9th grade Davis Aerospace Technical High School student during a classroom debate

In DFS classrooms, students and teachers work together to connect knowledge to power and take constructive action. This is a sharp deviation from the traditional classroom structure, described by Paulo Freire as a "banking" model. In a banking model of education, teachers deposit packaged commodities of information into students and students, in turn, spit this information back out. Within this transaction the most important skill-set for both the student and the teacher is obedience: the student must obey the teacher and the teacher must obey the curriculum.

Through the past three years of DFS we've learned that the challenge of breaking away from the banking model of education is enormous; one of the primary reasons for this is the fact that we, as teachers and other adults working in schools, are products of the same system we are trying to subvert. If we want our students to be critically thinking, self-governing individuals, we have to grow those capacities within ourselves. Our classrooms must foster mutual transformation between students and teachers.

DFS developed the "root practice" of student self-facilitated debates to do just that. We call it a root practice because we have seen it thrive in multiple contexts – from third grade classrooms to college classrooms and within any academic subject.

How the Debate Works

The instructor writes a statement at the front of the class. Four signs are posted on the walls around the room that say: Agree, Disagree, Strongly Agree, and Strongly Disagree. Students are given a time limit by which to choose their position and explain their choice. Throughout the course of the debate, students are free to change their position at anytime, if they are swayed by their peers' arguments. The purpose of the debate is to seek the truth rather than to be "right." The instructor remains silent throughout the debate. Their role is to keep time and document the debate. "This is practice for self-governance," I always tell my students before we start. My last words before handing over the classroom to the students are always, "the classroom is yours."

The purpose of debates in DFS is to make learning transformational as opposed to transactional. In order to be effective they must be repeated over and over again, even to the great discomfort of all involved-- including, and especially, the instructor. At first, they can produce total chaos. Over time, they reveal the tremendous capacity for self-governance that is latent within all of us, but which we systematically undermine through traditional schooling practices.

Debate the Statement: "We are the greatest 7th graders ever."

This is a snapshot of what the process of transformative education looked like during the first three months of the school year in one of my 7th grade science classes:

During my first visit to the classroom in September I introduce myself and tell the students we are going to have a DFS debate. The students have 30 seconds to debate the statement, "we are the greatest 7th graders ever." At first, the students timidly test boundaries saying, "is he really going to let us say anything we want?" then they spend the whole debate yelling things like, "I'm in this class! so its the best class!"

That's why the first debate is 30 seconds. We debrief the debate and strategize ways to improve it, including the creation of ground rules, to which we will all adhere during the debate. We try it again, a couple more times that day.

"I am more powerful when I am more independent"

Fast forward several months: we haven't done a debate since my first day of class, but I've written at the front of the room under the "Do Now" instructions, "3 minute debate of the statement: 'I am more powerful when I am more independent' NOTE: Once you finish writing these instructions, please take your debate positions."

Two minutes go by and most of the students have written the instructions in their notebooks. I stand at the front of class, beside the board, and wait. Two minutes later, the students notice me waiting. This creates tension because in a traditional classroom the teacher commands and the students obey, but here they are waiting for me and I am waiting for them.

This simple act, of purposefully waiting in front of a classroom of 7th graders, while they all look at me, waiting for my instructions, is strenuous. As I wait, I do not know if the students will take their debate positions. They may have forgotten how the debate works, they may not feel comfortable to leave their seats, but I must wait and be vulnerable. As a teacher, I ask my students to trust me and step out of their comfort zones all the time. Now the tables have turned and it's my turn to trust the students in this process.

After five minutes, the students are becoming impatient. One student pipes up and says, "what are we supposed to do? I did my 'Do Now'." In banking education, students are passive and depend on the teacher as the actor in the classroom. We as teachers play into this system by not allowing for this uncomfortable space to exist – we see this space as a sign of our failure, rather than an opening for students to access their power and agency within the classroom. In this case, my students have written the instructions, but are not applying that information to action, so I continue to wait.

After six minutes, I break my silence. I ask the students to read what they wrote. One face lights up, "Oh!" they stand up, take their debate position, then another and another. This is a moment educators dream about – an idea that literally moves a student across the room.

30 seconds later, all of the students are out of their seats and in their positions. I nod and finally address the class. "Now we are ready to start". I prepare to transcribe and keep time, I wait for the classroom to be silent and then I turn the classroom over saying, "the classroom is yours."

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