Hello and welcome to a special edition of Fancy Oatmeal! As many of you may know, I am currently enrolled in my Master’s of Education program through the University of Cincinnati (GO BEARCATS!) and am currently taking a course entitled, “Teachers in a Democratic Society.” Our major project for this course is an interview and presentation related to the main content of curriculum.
I chose to interview my colleague and friend, Michael Stacks.
Michael is the current Math, Exploring Education Careers, Driver’s Ed, and Health teacher on my school. When you live on an island of 450 people, and teach at a school of seventy-seven students, you learn quickly that wearing multiple hats is a must!
Michael and his family, wife Jamie and two daughters, moved to St. Paul Island, AK in December of 2001.
Up until then, Michael had lived his entire life in Arkansas, filling his days with owning/running convenience stores and working on cattle farms with his father and grandfather.
I chose to interview Michael for several reasons, but primarily because he sets the example for what a teacher should be. Let me clarify: when I was a student, I knew that type of teacher that I preferred and learned best with. When I was in college and taking my Education courses, I was told what type of teacher I should be. Now that I have had my own classroom for six years, I look to my colleagues who are in “the trenches” day in and day out for guidance; how they handle the same issues that I face in the classroom, and who must adhere to same federal and state regulations and standardized assessments. In my opinion, I could not have asked for a better “mentor teacher” than Michael Stacks. But please don’t tell him; it’ll go straight to his math-loving head. =)
Purpose: The purpose of the interview is to gain insight into Michael’s perspective, and my own to an extent, as to how Democracy and the Classroom interact; how do the principals of Democracy show up in the classroom?
Question: What do you think education is for?
Michael: A good education is the fundamental foundation necessary for a prosperous life in today’s world. The basics, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are still very important, but it is becoming increasingly essential for students to master a wide variety of other subjects and skills. In order for mastery to occur, learning must be relevant, interesting and challenging. I believe that education should be provided “in the culture” not “about the culture.” All students benefit from a culturally relevant education.
Question: What is the role and responsibility of the teacher in a classroom?
Michael: As a Math teacher, I have the responsibility of inspiring students to achieve, and facilitating learning experiences that are necessary and relevant to their life. Students become more motivated to learn when the lessons are based on something useful and suitable to the livelihood of them and their community, and are presented in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of all things. To do this, I must be able to fully and enthusiastically explain the concepts, create a classroom environment that is well managed, and conducive to learning that will motivate students to excel.
Question: What is the role and responsibility of the student in a classroom?
Michael: Students should take advantage of the opportunities for learning that are presented to them in the classroom. When students reach middle school age they must begin to take responsibility for their learning. They must ask questions, actively seek assistance from teachers and peers and utilize the available resources to get the most from their education. Students should also participate in after school and extra curricular activities.
Question: What does “democratic society” mean to you?
Michael: A democratic society is one in which its members enjoy freedoms of speech, religion and more under the constitution. Members of such a society also have the opportunity to vote for political representation and can live their life without fear of persecution.
Question: How would you define yourself as a student when in high school?
Michael: I was a perfect high school student….no foolishness, definite teachers pet. I took it very seriously and participated in every possible extra curricular activity.
Question: How would you define yourself as a student – college as a traditional age?
Michael: I was a very non-traditional college student. I worked full time and lived at home. I did not participate in any college/student activities outside of class and I was not nearly as conscientious as I was in high school.
Question: How would you define yourself as a student – college as an adult?
Michael: I am much more focused and conscientious as an adult college student. Although I still do not enjoy taking college courses, I work harder to be sure I am learning.
Question: Did you have a favorite teacher? What made them stand out to you?
Michael: Yes, I did have a favorite teacher. She was very caring and respectable. She always made me feel safe and important. It was also obvious that she knew the subject matter she was teaching.
Question: Please read this statement by James Beane:
Democracy is an idea about how people live together. At the core are two related principles: (1) that people have a fundamental right to human dignity and (2) that people have a responsibility to care about the common good and the dignity and welfare of others.
If this is the definition of democracy, how do you see this applied to democracy in the classroom?
Michael: One word comes to mind….Safety. Students must feel safe in the classroom for learning to take place. They must view the classroom as a place where they feel comfortable to honestly share their thoughts, feelings and questions.
How well do you think public schools, in general, are creating a democracy in the classroom?
Michael: I think it depends on the public school. Some are definitely are more successful than others. On average, I think most public schools fail in this attempt.
How well do you think St. Paul School creates a democracy in the classroom?
Michael: I think it does better than most because of the size and the fact that many of the students are related to each other and are like family. To me, in many ways, St. Paul is more like a private school than a public one.
Question: What is your opinion on curriculum and who should be in charge of developing it? Teacher/Administration/State or Federal agencies?
Michael: Teacher/Administration because they are the ones who are trained, not necessarily through their college courses, to be able to assess and decide what is best to meet the needs of their students.
Question: How do you express your teaching style/belief system in the classroom? What is a “Mr. Stacks” activity that you would have the students complete?
Michael: I suppose it would be an SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) lesson imbedded into a math lesson on fractions. “We are all a part”.
Question: If there were no standardized tests, no “No Child Left Behind” standards, SBAS/HSGQE, how differently would you run your class? Would you still follow the same curriculum and Accelerated Math program? If so, why would you continue with this format? If you would change, what would you change?
Michael: I would continue along the same path as it has proven successful. However, I would probably use the freedom to bring in more hands-on activities and project based work that I simply have not had the time to do in the past because of the constraints that NCLB placed on content (how much must be taught, etc). I am a beliver in testing and accountability for students and teachers but there has to be an appropriate mix.
My interview with Michael Stacks was a wonderful experience. Many times we interact with our professional colleagues, but do not afford ourselves the opportunity to actually discuss their philosophies and professional practices. We do a lot of “shop talk” and that usually includes some form of complaining; we are humans and that will never change. However, this discussion with Michael helped me to realize three things:
1. It does not matter what subject you teach; you are able to create an environment where children are valued, appreciated, and nurtured through the discipline and determination of the guiding teacher. A shared vision is important and vital to being able to establish a democratic classroom. The way to spread the message of democracy must be by sharing with other teachers, collaborating professionally, and opening yourself up.
2. Think outside of the box. Utilizing guidelines provided through a given curriculum can still be useful in creating a democratic classroom. You can still do math problems, drilling the facts until they are memorized AND have an atmosphere of caring and support. It is up to the individual teacher to take initiative, and through creative means, incorporate those democratic practices.
3. Know the bigger picture. There is no escaping standardized assessments or federally mandated standards for education. Do not let yourself become bogged down by what you HAVE to do, what you CANNOT do, or what someone else’s philosophy might be; in the end, it is still your classroom to run. As long as the teacher embraces the core ideals of a democratic classroom, they will plant the seeds and nurture them.