Schools Where Student Voices Matter, Part 1

5001904133_b0545c99e4Building the Chicago Free School

As we work to build the Chicago Free School, a democratic school where the curriculum is driven by students’ choices and interests, we speak frequently to parents who are frustrated that their children are unhappy in school.  From a child in a gifted kindergarten who felt anxious because he was “behind” his peers in reading, to a girl whose creative pursuits in the humanities were finding less space as her middle-school curriculum became increasingly rigid, to an energetic boy bursting with questions who didn’t seem to quite fit the mold of traditional school, these bright, curious kids need a voice in school – they need a school experience suited to their unique strengths and passions, a place where their intrinsic motivation is celebrated rather than being seen as a disruption to the schedule.

The increasing focus on standardized testing has narrowed the curriculum and taken away many opportunities for students to express themselves in art, creative writing, music, and self-directed projects.  School has become a stressful place for students and teachers, where it can often seem that there is no time to build personal relationships or care for students’ social and emotional needs because every moment must be dedicated to an urgent pursuit of higher scores.  How can such a school system value what is individual in each child?

Many public school teachers struggle valiantly within this system to create opportunities for students’ voices to be heard.  I have colleagues who battle their administrators to advocate for time to play in school, who rework the prescribed curriculum to try to meet their kids’ needs and respond to their interests, who bring democracy into their classrooms and let students’ voices guide discipline and community-building, and who try to keep testing madness at bay.

In my time as a middle-school math teacher in low-income South Side neighborhoods, I tried my best to be one of those teachers who could meet the needs of students in a dysfunctional system, and I’d like to think I did some good.  But after six years I felt more frustrated than hopeful.  Every small victory was a tremendous struggle, and I was losing my energy to keep fighting.  I needed to make a change to keep my sanity.

– submitted by Lauren Beitler

The Chicago Free School is opening in Hyde Park in the fall of 2014. Visit to learn more.

Writing Children is part of the Despres Family Memorial Lecture Series. It takes place January 22, 2014 at Blackstone Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave. at 6pm.

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