The essential building blocks for fully democratic schools include time, trust, democratic process, equality, and individual rights. I wrote about time and trust in past blogs and they can be found on our website. Today I am tackling the third in the Building Block Series – Democratic Process. Most people think of democratic process as part of our system of governance. The way we create rules and the structure we use to make things happen for the school are the obvious ways our democracy works. Less obvious and equally important are the daily interactions creating the school’s culture.
We quote John Dewey in our Constitution describing democratic process as “conjoint, communicated experience.” What do those words mean to us? “Conjoint” means together. We create our daily lives within a democratic environment that we build together. “Communicated” means expressing what we think and feel to each other. We have the opportunity for each school member to not only vote on what the GSM passes, but to be ourselves and communicate our ideas freely to each other. “Experience” means how each individual perceives the world, the interests he pursues, the choices he makes and the consequences he undergoes. Experience also includes the impact the culture has on each school member and the changes she makes in the culture through her participation in it.
Through democratic process, school culture is continually changing. Just as individual school members grow, life at school develops on a daily basis. This democratic life has to be protected and valued by the individuals who come to school. The staff is particularly responsible for being aware of the ways the school is functioning on a daily basis, but students also need to be aware of their role in keeping our democratic process vital and alive. The respect that school members show each other, the equality that members experience as they live their lives at school, contribute to the democratic process.
A social issue in many conventional schools is bullying. One student and her followers can make life miserable for a single student. The outcome for the bullied student can be extremely serious, from depression to suicide. In democratic schools, bullying is not only serious for the individual, it is a major threat to the social fabric and democratic process of the school. Because of democratic process, we rarely, if ever, see bullying at our schools. When we do, the entire school becomes involved in protecting both the individual and democratic process under attack. Under extreme circumstances, a person who is bullying may be expelled from the school as a danger to the school community.
The joys of living in an environment created through democratic process include individual freedom and equal social interaction. When a new student comes to school for the first time, he brings his past experiences with him. He may not be able to trust fellow school members to respect his rights or value his communications. As he experiences democratic process over time, the new student begins to understand that he can create his own school life. His choices matter – not just in his own activities, but in helping to create a school culture where individual rights are protected. Learning to understand the school’s democratic process can be challenging, especially for students whose out of school life is vastly different. When students learn that they have individual rights and must make an effort to maintain those rights for all the members of the community, they begin to see the importance of democratic process. Democratic process is essential to democratic schools. Communicating, building a place to express themselves, and interacting on an equal basis with all school members, gives individual students an opportunity to create meaningful experiences as they grow.