In the mid-1980s, before Pilot schools and Charter schools were mainstream, I opened a middle school for the arts that had more autonomy than traditional district schools. Although we had no special governance status, the fact that we were a bilingual school for the arts set us apart from many other schools. Designing the school alongside students and parents, we learned a great deal about the importance of youth voice and agency in curriculum. I joined Fenway High School in its second year (1985)–a school that became known for focusing on what students needed most: a curriculum connected to the “real” world. Fenway was an early school-to-career adopter and became Boston’s first Middle College High School in the mid-1990s. Fenway was also the first BPS school to hold a charter and then return it in favor of pilot status. In 1998, after 14 years at Fenway, I became the founding Headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, also a pilot school, alongside my colleague, creative partner, and friend, Carmen Torres. Applying best practices that we had developed throughout our careers, we continued to emphasize student voice and choice and teacher autonomy in curriculum development and pedagogy–not only in customary academic core classes, but also in the artistic disciplines not known for democratic structures (think orchestras or ballet companies).
While running schools, I also taught a course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education called “Building Democratic Schools.” Over the past twenty years many of my alumni and colleagues have gone on to open and lead their own schools. I have always wanted to share their stories and the ways in which their schools center students, empower teachers, and experiment with curriculum. I am now co-editing a book alongside two of my former graduate students, Jonathan Mendoza and Gustavo Rojas: Building Democratic Learning Environments: A Global Perspective. When we began this project, just over a year ago, seventy writers expressed interest. Thirty authors found the time and the stamina to actually produce a chapter, some alongside their students. The authors all responded to our newly developed framework for democratic learning environments. The pillars are: 1) A commitment to equitable education and a concern for the common good; 2) An open flow of ideas; and 3) A desire to solve some of the most urgent problems facing their communities. The stories our authors share shed light on the important relationship between autonomy and democratic practices in schools. They will get all of us to think more deeply about how to continue to build schools that work for all children. We are looking forward to Palgrave Macmillan publishing this book in the fall. Over the next few months, I will be profiling some of our authors.
One of our authors is Maw Maw Khaing from Myanmar. She developed the ideas for her school while in my class. This was at the same time as her country experienced a violent military coup and most schools were shuttered. Her chapter tells the story about how, even under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, she founded an online school that taught democratic values, civic education, and social justice. To Maw Maw, a lifelong educator, it was unacceptable that young people had no place to learn. Here she is given a TEDx talk discussing how school can be cool and the importance of democratic education for young people.