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Justice in the classroom

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

"Justice in the Classroom" is the title of a workshop Teacher Action Group is sponsoring next Saturday, the 13th. The plan is for teachers to share their experiences and get some training in conflict resolution methods from Nate Terrell, an experienced trainer on the faculty at Temple.

In the era of Leaving No Child Behind while we are Racing To The Top, it’s easy to forget that the mission of public education is not reducible to generating ever-higher standardized test scores.

Education, John Dewey reminds us, is a social process. It’s where we learn the skills to work with other people and participate responsibly in a community. These skills are not acquired abstractly, but rather through our concrete experience in the classroom.

Furthermore without some acquisition of social skills, the learning process can’t go forward. Put simply, classrooms in chaos or those that impose order by reliance on authoritarian methods don’t have the best outcomes.

Schools have long proclaimed that preparing our youth for participation in a democratic society is one element of their mission. But to effectively do this schools, or more specifically classrooms, must embody democratic values. Again old John Dewey was on point when he said, “education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Obviously a classroom is not a democracy in that the teacher is in charge. At best a classroom is a constitutional monarchy. That being said, students need to feel they are treated fairly, their needs are taken seriously, and they have a voice in the life of the classroom. A sense of community between teachers and students becomes the foundation on which a viable climate for learning and dealing with conflict can be built.

Easier said than done, I realize, but most of us who have tried over the years to create justice in the classroom have learned some things that worked, as well as rejected other things that didn’t.

That’s why this workshop is important. We can share those experiences and learn from each other. Hope to see you there.

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