By Mari Livie
With only 15 students in my music class (the average count for all Network Charter School classes) and a physical space that best accommodates a circle of chairs, I find that our comfortable class format is much like a round table discussion or a Socratic seminar. My role is to plant seeds for conversation and debate and then to participate and listen. Discussions invariably veer off topic. Sometimes I gently nudge things back in a direction and other times I follow the flow of conversation into the surprising places it can go. I try to make space for every voice in the classroom. I want each student to see themselves as someone with a valid opinion who has the tools to communicate their ideas effectively and concisely. I strive for a learning environment where students recognize their opinions and positions as fluid, flexible things.
It is a human tendency — one that is being vividly illustrated in our current political climate — to hold our opinions so close that they grow entangled with our sense of self. In truth, opinions are all imperfect things. They are an ever-shifting mixture of personal history, social connections, incomplete facts, ego, empathy, and more.
If we can share our own opinions, genuinely listen to the opinions of others, and confidently shift our opinions when new facts come into play we are ready to be participating community members.
Our nation’s democratic process is built on an expectation that its citizens are participating community members. Our courts, our elections, our Senate and House of Representatives are all built around this process of sharing opinions through open debate. As a society, we make progress when we can let go of fiercely held positions, and begin the process of listening and compromise that eventually leads to innovation. The process can be arduous, time consuming, and feel threatening to our sense of self.
As a teacher I used to emphasize developing skill sets as a path toward healthy sense of self.
I still make skill-building an aspect of our classroom paradigm — I want students to see themselves as competent singers or ukulele players — but through my ArtCore teaching experience, my classroom goals have shifted.
The process can be messy and unclear. I sit through discussions about whether Disneyland is creepy or incredible. I facilitate debates over our class “band name”.
Things get heated and absurd, but the rich experience of participating in decision making as a community — the vulnerable but exciting potential of having your opinion prodded and shifted through open dialogue while your Self remains intact — that is the heart of our classroom culture.