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Why a Truly Liberating Education Is Imperative

//Why a Truly Liberating Education Is Imperative

This entire journal is dedicated to the theme of democracy. Exhibited are many teachers’ and students’ answers to “what is democracy”? I ask further questions: Why has democracy disappeared in our country? And can democracy exist in our schools? This nation is ours to shape, to create, to criticize, and to democratically raise our voices. As I stand in front of my class, the definition of democracy that was taught to me in my youth rings through my ears: a nation of, by, and for the people. This was a main principle upon which this nation was built. Unfortunately, those same forefathers were slave owning, misogynist, white men. Their idea of democracy was never to include all of the people. But they were onto something remarkable. I think the true potential of democracy, one where the people have an informed, legitimate, and constant say in the shaping of this nation, is something we should strive for. To that end, I have chosen to struggle to make my school more democratic. Indeed, my struggle begins within my very own classroom where I try to make my curriculum and my class environment democratic. I can’t say this is an easy task. Our schools are over-crowded and under-funded. Add to that, a conservative need for artificial and superficial “accountability” causing congress people, district big wigs, and administrators to scramble for higher test scores, and my workplace often seems the antithesis of democratic. Nevertheless, when I close my classroom door, what goes on is up to my students and me. As a teacher committed to enacting a socially just curriculum, I believe that having a democratic classroom, or one that strives to be democratic, is imperative. Returning to my sophomoric definition (of, by, and for the people), there are many ways I can see enacting democracy in the classroom: through environment and control issues and through curriculum and methodology. My classroom’s desks are never consistently arranged. Their patterns differ depending upon the activities. For instance, a circle is used for whole class readings and community circles, pods are used for group work, and semi-circles are used for performances and presentations. But never are the dreaded straight rows seen. This inconsistency in desk arrangements should not imply that I am an inconsistent teacher. Rather, I view myself as a facilitator who consistently helps to focus a democratic education on the students themselves. We as a class must become a community that shares, learns, and grows together. Staring at the back of a community member does not allow for an interchange of knowledge. In a democracy, every member counts. In order to begin to understand how to listen and value every member in the big world, we practice listening to and valuing one another in our classroom.

What do I mean that a class must become a community? Community, among other things, means a place where students feel welcome, comfortable, and a sense of belonging. These feelings enable them to be willing and able to share and take risks with one another. If you think back to your own high school angst, you will know how difficult this concept is. Nevertheless, I struggle daily to create community in the class. First and most important, every Friday we have community circle. This is a place where for a half an hour or more we discuss what is going right and wrong in the class and we get to know each other better. These community circles have brought forth tears, laughter, anger, and countless other emotions. As students learn to trust each other more, they are more willing to share and to learn with each other. Also, as they learn to trust each other, they keep each other “in check,” which effectively eliminates any discipline problem I might have. Creating community in the classroom is not the end in itself. Rather, it is the means to creating a space where the study and practice of democracy and democratic principles can take place. I believe that corporations and the myth of the individual (i.e. “Pull yourself up by your boot straps,” “America, the land of opportunity,” the myth of the poor immigrant who becomes a millionaire) have overtaken democracy. This acquisition has been systematic and its origins can be traced through the history of racism, sexism, and classism. And that is precisely what we study in my class. Now, I am by no means an expert in any of these subjects. But my lack of expertise is precisely what allows me to be open enough to learn from my students who experience racism, sexism, and classism every day. What do racism, sexism, and classism have to do with democracy? Well, their existence and institutionalization have contributed to denying us our democratic rights both historically and presently. In order to regain these rights, we must understand that they have been taken from us, and then understand how, when, where, and why they were taken. To that end, I design lessons where we investigate these “-isms” in our world today. We investigate these modern day realities while at the same time tracing their history. A lot of the history I teach debunks myths and half-truths. Investigating textbooks is one of the methods that I use. Textbooks play a part in perpetuating our misperceptions by presenting an unrealistic, almost mythical version of history and the American dream. Textbook investigation leads to a more critical understanding of target audiences and the “purpose” of writing any particular material. This is one of the most effective ways to raise consciousness of my students. Consciousness raising is an important step in the struggle to return democracy to our lives. Once we know what is really going on, it is easier to resist and to struggle for change.

The focus of education must be the possibilities of tomorrow. Students must be given the ability to read the world while simultaneously learning to empathize with the individuals in the world. Role-plays, debates, skits, and many alternative methods along this vein are the best way to elicit empathy. I believe in my students. I believe that with the proper foundations, they will create a better world. I do not teach these historic injustices to be cynical and bitter. Rather, I feel it is vital that students know the truth. In addition to our historic and modern investigations, we also learn about different forms of resistance. By the end of the year, I hope that my students have a beginning understanding of the power and necessity of groups for positive change. Once armed with the truth and the knowledge of the power of resistance, students will be more capable of combating and resisting our oppressive society. Yet knowledge is only one part of the equation. Another part is action. Keeping true to the maxim that we learn best when actually doing something, I strive to incorporate action into my curriculum. That is to say, in our class community, we actually practice acts of resistance. These acts can be anything from listening to historic and contemporary songs of resistance, to teaching other students the “true” history of the United States, to actually organizing against injustices both in and out of school. One of the most successful projects that we completed this year was making class presentations to other classes and other schools about the subjects we were studying in our class. The actual organizing process is a bit risky due to legal issues, but suffice it to say that the opportunity for students to join in a youth organization on their own time to combat school injustices is presented. After just one semester in our class, my students have gained a much greater understanding of what resistance is and how it feels to be a part of it. This curriculum is designed to raise my students’ consciousness, to give them the tools necessary to read the world, and to show them models of change. At the same time, I am trying to develop my students’ belief in themselves and in each other. I often times expect my students to take large risks, be it in their presentations, in community circle, or in asking them to look at the world in a different way. I believe that in a democratic classroom or in a democratic world, it is vital that members be equipped with the power to think for themselves, the ability to critically analyze a situation, and the understanding that they have an important responsibility to a larger group. These are the things that I practice in my classroom and that I hope my students practice in their lives. As any good teacher, my methods, curriculum, and thoughts on the above matters are constantly evolving. I do not present this as any sort of final thoughts on the subject. Yet, as my experience and understanding of the injustices that we face increases, I become more and more convinced that a truly liberating education is imperative. No matter what great things we achieve in our classroom community, we must reopen our classroom door at the end of the day. There we face the labyrinth that is our school and all the problems and possibilities that exist there. Unfortunately, my struggle to bring democracy to the larger school environment is not one I can detail here. But rest assured there is a struggle, one that I fight with the help of my students and my colleagues. We are at a very exciting time in this nation’s history. As demographics change so rapidly, and our African American students actually become a majority in this nation, tomorrow’s possibilities are endless. I expect my students to want to be a part of it. The possibilities are there, the time is ripe, we must work together with our students to bring democracy to our everyday existence. This is what democracy looks like!