A Mini Primer On Democratic Education

February 2nd, 2008

No Homework And Recess All Day

Jerry Mintz

Bravura Books

ISBN: 9780974525204

Year: 2003

Pages: 139

This slim book serves as a great introduction to the Democratic School Movement, and it is a movement. There are democratic schools of various kinds all over the world. There is no simple definition but all schools that claim to be democratic have meetings. Depending upon the school members may, or may not be required to attend. Likewise, what the meeting has power over varies from school to school. At Sudbury Valley the community has control over every aspect of school life. On the other hand, at Summerhill, the oldest democratic school in the world, the children have no control over the appointment of staff or whether a child should be kicked out. The school belongs to Zoe Neill Readhead, the daughter of the founder A. S. Neill. She controls the purse strings which is not democratic, but Zoe maintains that if the school had been run by a board of governors it would have caved in and collapsed when the British Government threatened it with closure in 1999.

From the histories of other schools described by Jerry, it does seem that to be successful schools need strong, charismatic leaders. But this is probably true of any kind of organisation that operates outside conventional norms. One essential point is that whatever kind of choices are given to children, they must be real. Children are not fools and won’t lend their energies to being conned. So, when setting something up it is important to be clear what power is available and then do nothing to undermine or circumvent it.

For Jerry, the heart of any democratic school is the school meeting. He is distrustful of meetings that rely on consensus and favours a method used by the Iroquois Confederacy. A whole chapter of the book is devoted to Iroquois Democracy. The Iroquois used a system of majority voting, but after a vote those in the minority would be invited to talk about why they had made their choice. Anyone would then be able to make another proposal and the process would continue until no-one had anything more to say. In this way a minority would not be sidelined or excluded by a vote going against them. The process is more communal and not adversarial. As Jerry says in the penultimate chapter :

The meeting process, and democracy itself, is not a science it’s an art.

Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2008

2008 is the Year Of The Rat . Notable Rats include Prince Charles and the Rapper Eminem. Princess Diana was a cow, or perhaps I should say an Ox, since I’m one as well. Curiously, rats and oxen are supposed to get on well. The Rat is the first sign in the Chinese Zodiac and the Ox is the second. There’s an old story about a race being organised to decide which animals would appear in the Zodiac. The rat got a lift on the Ox’s head and dashed across the finishing line to win first place. How an Ox came to be in the lead compared to other creatures like the tiger and the dragon is something I’ve not heard explained.

Anyway, here’s a did you know to finish my first entry of the year. Did you know that the British planned to use exploding rats in World War Two as weapons of mass destruction? Neither did I until to day, but it’s true!

Halloween Horror – Four Parties In One day

November 1st, 2007

Trick or Treat, trick or treat Halloween’s here, move those feet! Run Away!

When I was a child Halloween was little more than bobbing an apple or two in a bowl of water or dangling one from a piece of string. At that time in England Plot Night on November 5th was much bigger than All Hallow’s Eve. Now, I hear my nephew and niece go out Trick-Or-Treating and Halloween is all the rage. I guess with all its sights and smells there is something to be said for what could well be the oldest European festival though personally I still feel trick or treat is a form of extortion. But beyond that, it is just bloody, hard work! Preparing and running Halloween parties is tough! Here’s what we did at Wise Hat English this year. I write we, though Hideko, my wife, did the lion’s share of the work, as well as the witches’ and the elves’. I just got the bloody knees.

Read the rest of this entry »

Life is No Way To Treat An Animal

April 13th, 2007

Today is Friday the 13th. This morning I learnt that Kurt Vonnegut, who came up with the title above, is dead. There is an obituary of sorts in the New York Times. It mentions his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, but glosses over the fact the book is about killing – British and American killing – of human beings, men, women, children, babies. So it goes.

We are probably in for a lot more killing in the near future. It seems only a trickle away before the United States orchestrates an attack on Iran. Will you look from the side?. It seems almost impossible not to, which is, of course, the kind of impotence Blair and Bush and Co are happy with. Surely, if we believe in the notion of war crimes then we should all be making citizen’s arrests now!

Anyway, here is a quote to leave you with:

‘What are you?’ Trout asked the boy scornfully. ‘Some kind of gutless wonder?’This, too was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

From Dictators To Democracy

January 2nd, 2007

As the man who ran the man who organised the destruction of cities across Europe during World War II put it, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Considering that he also said that “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” one can do more than wonder what he really thought of it.

I’m sure though, that Churchill was under no illusions what would have happened to him if Britain had lost the war while he was prime-minister. There would have been a vapid hide trial and an execution.

A hide trial? Well let’s face it. A show trial has more to do with hiding the truth than establishing it. As with watching a master magician, what you don’t see is far more important than what you do.

Take the trial of Saddam Houssein. What a soulless piece of flimflam. And what contempt to finally have him hanged on a holy day associated with sacrifice. I think the Iraq Freedom Congress has a concise summary, though I think the opening sentence reads a little strangely.

I got the link to the Iraq Freedom Congress from a post to the IATEFL Global Issue’s Special Interest Group. I find the Congress interesting because of its organisational structure. This has what it calls People’s Houses “where local people gather, organise, decide and exercise their sovereignty”. This sounds good to me though I am less certain about the following:

IFC offices are all elected except for the initial start up period or where elections can not be held due to security considerations. In such circumstances, the upper tier offices will appoint relevant officers.

One can understand the caution about holding elections in areas where death squads are operating. But I wonder why upper tier offices are required at all. If an organisation has a clear philosophy and a clear manifesto what need for top tier decisions? Why have such a hierarchy?

Without hierarchy, there would be no dictators. How much hierarchy does democracy really need?

Do it the DJ way

January 11th, 2006

Last night I found myself on Hiroshima FM radio with my wife, Hideko. We had been invited to be on Vibe On Music. They have an interview slot which features local people. Initially the focus was to be on Hideko and what she did. Before the program they telephone interviewed her for around 50 minutes and from that created a very tight plan. I was just there as a piece of spare lead in a mechanical pencil.

The DJ, Michita Kimura, changed this. He departed from the prepared script. He actually listened to what was said. He threw some questions to me and even got me juggling. I’d taken three balls with me – I always like to juggle before doing a presentation as I find it calming. I’ve no idea what juggling sounds like on the radio but getting me to juggle was a great idea.

Better than playing Sting(!)

The program has a musical interlude in the middle and originally the idea was to play a Sting song. Hideko had said she liked Sting. When I was asked the answer that popped into my head was The Doors. However, we had brought a selection of Wise Hat Songs with us and after listening to them before the show the director decided to go with The Weather Song – better than playing Sting he commented.

While the song was the DJ chatted to us and found out that we made our own games and then got us talking about that in the second half. I mentioned Fugitive Games, a business I’d started with some friends long, long ago. Actually, Fugitive Games was one reason I first got to Japan, but that’s another story.

I think language teachers would do well to emulate DJ Kimura. It’s fine to have a plan but in many senses a plan is only as useful as you are able to depart from it. Teachers who manage to stick to their plan for the whole lesson probably aren’t being aware enough. The more teachers can be aware of what is actually happening and interact with awareness the more students will respond and become involved. Put down those plans and fly!

A Discussion on Competition

December 31st, 2005

Chris, You wrote:

“Personally, I don’t think competition is fun.”

I use a fair number of competitive games in my kids’ classes and have also incorporated some of the principles of cooperation and non- competition you have been talking about on this list and on your website. As others have mentioned, adding an element of competition can spice things up and generate a high level of anticipation and emotional involvement that may or may not improve actual learning. Recently, however, the behavior of several of my students has been prompting me to question the wisdom of using competitive games at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Games & More Games (Almost)

August 8th, 2005

A Workshop with Children, Kagoshima, July 23rd 2005

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Doing a demonstration workshop with children you never know what to expect. The number, ages and experience of the children are generally unknowable. Even the room can be an unknown. How big is it, how much furniture does it have, is there a whiteboard or blackboard, is the board magnetic?

The last point is crucial. Furniture and chairs can usually be moved, as part of a game if necessary, activities can be altered to take into account a slippery floor but if one is expecting a magnetic board and does get one – it can throw a wobbly difficult to recover from. It’s so easy to forget to check but so crucial to do so.

The space was fine, a large central area surrounded by a perimeter of tables. An audience could sit and rest and take notes. The blackboard was large and as magnetic as a skunk’s behind. A small magnetic whiteboard had been placed on an easel and was certainly usable in a crisis though not with the games that I had in mind. No room for football. No place for Super Snail to try his paces. Fortunately I had remembered to ask about the board and had blue-tack to hand (at least I did once I had recovered it from the bottom of the bag it somehow fell into). Read the rest of this entry »

Preschool Travels – January 2005

January 31st, 2005
Random ImageHalf a year and more since my last report. No wonder I call this a splog rather than a blog! These notes are based on my experiences in two kindergartens and two nursery schools. I go to these schools and do English with the youngsters. Typically, I spend 20 minutes with an entire year, so usually I have one class with 3 year olds, one class with 4 year olds and one with 5 year olds. Class sizes vary from 20 to 60 children. The children’s own teachers attend. I’ve no idea whether these notes will be useful for other teachers or not, but in case they are, here they are…

Thursday, 13th January 2005 – Midori

There’s no business like shoe business! I finally did Whose Shoe in a large class and it went down wonders.

I hadn’t planned to do so. It was one of those spontaneous events that just occur naturally and beautifully if one gives them the space to do so. Read the rest of this entry »

Phonics Bed

January 16th, 2005
phonics bedThere’s been a lot of discussion recently on the ETJ Activities list about the letters b and d. When written in lowercase these can be very confusing for Japanese youngsters.

Many young children go through a period of mirror writing. They write some letters backwards. A backwards c or s is instantly recognisable to an adult but a backwards b looks like a d and vice-versa. A child may have much more difficulty noticing. A child might have the sound and shape in their brain but somehow it doesn’t come out quite right.

I guess one reason for mirror writing is lack of muscle memory. Too much brain processing is going on while the hand is writing? If you want to experience this then try writing the alphabet out in mirror image. Not something I can do automatically though I can write with either hand. Read the rest of this entry »