Two years ago I fell in love with the idea of democratic schools. At the time I was struggling with how my son didn't seem to fit at any preschool. Two schools turned us away and a third accepted us only to change their mind after having him in class for two weeks. So the idea of honoring all persons and their ideas in a classroom was widely appealing. But I couldn't find any democratic schools in or near my 'hood.
After we moved to a new glorious mountain town I was tickled to find a democratic school in my zip code. Their website confirmed everything I had hoped. Their motto is "Freedom, Responsibility and Compassion." LOVED it. So I scheduled a tour and enrolled my daughter for the fall. The last thing to do was a participatory visit - spend a morning, mother and daughter, at the school so we could feel it our (and they could feel us out).
When Anna and I arrived for our participatory visit was feeling pretty sure of myself. Thanks to Janet Lansbury, I was not new to the idea of children as individuals deserving respect. I was familiar with using "I" statements to sportscast things that were going on. And all that knowledge (and the practice using it at home) served us well on that first day. We seemed to blend in to things. I read some books with Anna and other children. I helped serve snacks and clean up messes. Mostly though I stayed out of the way and watched while Anna made friends and negotiated her way around the school. It was lovely to watch. But of course I learned some things, too.
I noticed that when the teachers began their statement with "I feel" it usually ended with "scared," "frustrated," "worried," or some other negative feeling followed by a description of naughty behavior like "because you're throwing blocks." I don't remember hearing anyone say something like "I feel happy because I see Anna taking turns with Rocco." It reminded me about my unofficial goal of recognizing good behavior as well as worrisome behavior at home.
The MOST interesting thing I learned was from the "Group Meeting" and I plan to steal it to help me parent every day, especially through the summer.
After an hour or so of free-play the group cleaned up and came together to greet one another in a circle song. Then we all went to have a snack during Group Meeting. The teacher added a number to the calendar, with the help of a student, and then sat with a white board to take notes. First, she asked who had an idea to share. She made a short list of names and then began asking each child in turn what his or her idea was. It was a time of day for the children to share an important story or ask a question. More importantly, it was when they decided what they were going to do that day.
Suggestions came flying in and included: painting, cutting shapes, going to the indoor sensory room, field-tripping to the neighborhood playground, etc. The possibilities were endless, though. No one even mentioned feeding the animals on campus (cockroaches, dog, chickens, rabbit), going to the school library, or working in the garden. After each suggestion, the teacher asked who wanted to participate. Who wanted to paint? Who wanted to cut shapes? Who wanted to go to the sensory room? And she tallied the children's names. After everyone who wanted to suggest something had said their piece, the teacher observed that nearly everyone wanted to paint and nearly everyone wanted to play in the sensory room. So those would be the first things the group would do. And, of course, if someone didn't want to participate then there were other acceptable options, too.
The children helped clean up after snack time. Then they proceeded to help the teachers prepare the painting space with tools and materials.
It seemed like such a simple thing to do. To ask people what they want to do and then do it. Somehow it was a profound leap for me to make, though I do not know why. We already take turns picking music in the car. My kids help me pick food for their snacks. Why not have this simple structure in place to help us plan our days, too?
The breakfast table is the sensible place for our family meetings. We can voice opinions or raise questions to each other; we can each pick something (reasonable) we would like to do that day. I tried it out this past week. It was important to Anna that we go to a playground. It was important to me that I work in the garden. It was important to Mikey that we read a Ninja book. And over the course of the day all those things happened. I was amazed the power democracy had in helping me parent. When Mikey was frustrated about being at a playground I could say, "this is what is important to Anna. We already read your book, which was important to you." Asking for ideas and then following through to pursue those activities was really amazing for us. And I plan to use it all summer long.
Let's Lasso the Moon suggested a way to have a really relaxed summer by offering a teeny amount of structure to your summer week. Mondays library, Tuesdays art, etc. I loved that suggestion because it appeals to my compulsive nature. But I'm going to think outside my comfort zone a bit. Instead of having the activities be the teeny bit of structure, I'm going to have the process of planning and executing the day be the structure: making time to listen to people's ideas in the morning, helping them pursue their ideas in the afternoon, and reflecting on the day during bedtime, treasuring the experiences that brought us together by pursuing adventure, art, and engineering the way we can in only an undirected summer.
Maybe by the end of the summer we will have earned the right to use the school's motto as our own: "Freedom, Responsibility and Compassion." I can't imagine something more succinct and heartwarming than that.