Alfie Kohn tells about a group of Russian teachers who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wanted to meet with American teachers to discuss education. More specifically, they wanted to know how American teachers promoted democracy in the classrooms. However, the American teachers at the conference could not answer this question (Kohn, 1993).
America is founded on choice and voice, so it would only seem logical that this should be a common practice in schools across the country that are preparing students to be heirs of the democratic system. I came to accept that this was not the case in my classroom. I was leading a dictatorship and not promoting democracy.
This hit me hard. I truly believe in democracy. It is the cornerstone of our nation and it is our greatest quality. However, I had to admit that there was not a lot of choice in my class and my students had very little say about the education that was supposed to be about them. Rather, I was making it about me. I developed the assignments. I chose the literature. I established the due dates. I was running the show. I was not democratic and I found the quality of work my students produced was average, and definitely not passionate.
After taking a good long look at my practices, I decided to make significant changes in my class to help promote student choice. I started announcing to my students that if I assigned something they did not like they were to come to me and tell me and I would allow them to do something else they were interested in, so long as it met the standard. A student was free to say, “Mr. Blackwelder, this book sucks,” and I would reply, “You’re right, what book would you like to read instead?” Who am I to tell students in what they should or should not be interested?
Recently, my freshman were doing The Odyssey. When we finished, I assigned them to write an essay that makes a claim about one of the characters or episodes in the book. I had a few students say they were not interested and wanted to do something else. Since the standard is to write an explanatory essay that uses text evidence to support a claim and not write an essay about The Odyssey I encouraged them to go for it.
Though most of my students did a fine job writing about The Odyssey, the students who ventured out on their own wrote essays that were better developed and far more interesting. I had a young lady write about why a certain video game was her favorite, a boy wrote about why he believes living in a small town is better than living in the big city, and another young lady wrote an essay claiming that despite the fact hypnagogic dreams may be disruptive, they can be beneficial. These were some amazing essays that were compelling, passionate, and worth reading.
The students who took their own path learned so much more than their counterparts. They did some exhaustive research and some honest reflection. The young lady who wrote the essay about her favorite video game went through multiple drafts, rewriting it from different angles until it was finally work that she could be proud of.
I can say that providing choice and freedom to my students helped me to better understand what it means to promote freedom and democracy. More than anything, true freedom provides for quality, ingenuity, and meaning. I hope that my students remember this lesson beyond their high school experience and become citizens who are active in defending and perpetuating the greatest idea that any nation is built upon.