The Democratic Experience in Schools

I have become fascinated by the power of storytelling as a form of personal and professional development; and as a form of interpersonal development.  Why tell stories? Why listen to stories?  What stories are worth telling?  Who determines how worthy a story is?  People tell stories about events that have left an impression on their lives. Listening to the same stories again and again, we gain insights into what colleagues and friends value and who they are.  Stories are important to strengthen relationships.  By listening, one places value on the experience of another.

Craft knowledge is the collection of wisdom and insights one accumulates by showing up on the job.  If ways can be found to unlock, celebrate, and exchange craft knowledge, how much better each of us can perform our work.  Storytelling is one way…

By honoring storytelling in the workplace, we can facilitate the revelation and exchange of craft knowledge.  By telling their stories to colleagues, workers analyze them, clarify them, and elevate their experiences to the realm of helpful respectability.  There is important learning in every story.  We are truly one another’s best teachers – novices and veterans alike.  Indeed, I am convinced that if all of us were to regularly disclose our stories to our colleagues – even a small fraction of what we have learned during our careers – our organizations would be transformed overnight.

-Lessons Learned by Roland Barth

Storytelling is a powerful way to share our experiences, ideas and values.  In his passage above, Barth captures the importance of storytelling in the workplace.  During the November Progressive Leaders Group meeting, we used storytelling for several purposes: to strengthen our relationships, to share some of our experiences, and to build shared learning. 

We are continuing our inquiry into our understanding of progressive education, practices that reflect these beliefs, and the implications for progressive leadership.  To focus us in our shared learning, we are using the following inquiry questions:

  • What are examples of progressive practices from which we can learn?
  • What are the practices that invite teachers and leaders to work together?
  • How do we value all voices?
  • How do we maintain integrity as school leaders?

As we gathered together, members of the group shared a story that they regularly tell about their school or work and why the story is important.  We then moved to another round of storytelling, this time telling different stories as part of a recollection activity from the Prospect Center.  

In Recollecting: Purposes and Process, Patricia F. Carini states, “I rely on the animating power of story to connect your story with mine, and both of ours to larger public stories, stories of the era, stories of the race, stories of loss and sorrow, stories of hope and fulfillment, stories of human degradation and destructiveness, stories of human strength in the overcoming of stunning blows of fate; in sum, stories of how humanness happens in the making, unmaking, and remaking of it.”

Participants were asked to tell a story about a time they participated in a democratic experience.  As they prepared to tell their story, we asked that they include the context for the story, what happened, their feelings and their learning.  Participants shared their stories in small groups.

A number of themes emerged from the stories; including:

  • The importance of creating a context in which people can share their ideas openly and honestly – to build a healthy, trusting, community;
  • The need to make oneself vulnerable;
  • The importance of valuing voice – hearing each other;
  • To engage in inquiry that is important and relevant to the individual or group;
  • The use of reflection as a way to build shared learning and solutions;
  • Supporting others to own their work;
  • Shared leadership – not everything needs to come from the top – involves role differentiation and differentiation based on knowledge and experience;
  • A significant part of a leader’s work is capacity building;
  • A democratic person always asks themselves questions;
  • We need to be open to hearing complaints or divergent ideas.  They can be opportunities to strengthen our ability to listen and to learn.

In addition to taking notes on the conversations, we taped the participants as they told their stories.  The following audio clips from our meeting highlight select stories based on democratic experiences in the classroom from a student and teacher point of view. Visit Bank Street’s Snapshots of Practice, Progressive Leaders Group: Democracy in Schools and Classrooms page to listen to the discussions.