This conversation is the second in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely PlacesInnovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future. 

Donnan Stoicovy is the principal—or, in her words, the “lead learner”—of Park Forest Elementary School, a public K-5 school in Pennsylvania. We talked recently about how her school incorporated democratic practices and developed a participatory culture even in the younger grades. The following vignette recounts one instance in which students at the school, under the guidance of teachers, identified a problem and solved it democratically.

Democracy at Lunch: The Salad Girls

Three fifth-grade girls at Park Forest Elementary School wanted salad for lunch but the pre-made salads in the cafeteria came with meat and cheese, and were therefore off-limits for lactose intolerant Anika, Muslim and vegetarian Sana, and Orthodox Christian Olivia, who could not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. Because of US Department of Agriculture requirements, the cafeteria workers were unable to serve the salad in any other form, so the girls, under the guidance of their teacher and principal, sought out ways of solving the problem. The girls delivered a presentation, at the weekly all-school meeting. Following the presentation, the girls conducted simple agree or disagree opinion polls in each classroom on whether the salad options should be changed at lunch. They found that 90 percent of the 450 students agreed with them on the need for a broader choice of salads.

Data in hand, the Salad Girls approached the head of the cafeteria, Mrs. M., to brainstorm a solution. Mrs. M. explained that she was bound by USDA protein and calcium requirements in her lunch offerings, so she could not offer the kind of flexibility the girls desired. Lunch also had to be efficient, and something like a salad bar would slow down the pace of students moving through the line. Unbowed by this bureaucratic but not unreasonable response, the Salad Girls researched alternatives and presented this second round of research to district-level cafeteria manager, Ms. Y. Like Mrs. M., Ms. Y. was clear about the USDA requirements, but she was willing to look for alternatives with the girls. Finally, they agreed that Park Forest would become a “trial school” for having three salad options at lunch: the usual, with meat and cheese, one with only meat, and one with only cheese.

At the next all-school meeting the Salad Girls proudly announced that the cafeteria had changed its menu. Nevertheless, they continued to research the issue, collecting data on how many students chose the new salad options.

Albert Dzur: So, to begin, why is it important for schools to be more democratic than they are currently?

Donnan Stoicovy: If we want to continue a democracy in our country, it is really important for children to know how to learn and live what democracy is—how they can use their voices, how they can be part of it. This involves learning about history and the workings of democracy but also how you can be involved and make a difference. That’s really important for kids to learn. If you just go through school learning the academics, that’s all you’re going to learn. There’s the social and emotional, but the democratic piece is the really important piece if we want to maintain a democracy in our country.

AD: In your school you have regular meetings. You have small-group meetings in the classrooms and then weekly all-school meetings. Can you talk a little bit about how these work?

DS: The fifth graders are the hosts of the large meetings. We call them All School Gatherings (ASGs). It is an opportunity for them to use speaking skills, to learn how to organize and put together something, and how to speak in front of people. A lot of times there are not many opportunities for children to speak in front of somebody other than in a classroom. They’re speaking in front of 600 people—adults and other children. So it is a great opportunity for them to do it. It is a big confidence booster. I see kids who normally wouldn’t get up, who used to hide under their desks, get up in front of the whole school. They blow me away when they stand up there! For example, I had a student with autism who took a long time to warm up to school and even his classroom. When he finally stood up in front of the school and talked it was great.

The fifth graders also help determine the agenda for the meetings. For the most part it consists of talking about what our citizenship skill is for the week. We use a book called Tools for Citizenship and Life with nineteen life skills and five lifelong guidelines, which are our five school rules. Other guidelines are established for “common areas” that we all share such as  hallways, restrooms, lunchroom, buses, playground, etc., but they fit under the five lifelong guidelines. So for part of the All School Gathering the students teach a citizenship skill and they also recognize students who in the previous week demonstrated that skill in some way. Additionally, there might be presentations about what we are learning in our learning spaces, about common guidelines for using our outdoor area, using the restroom, or walking to school, or about other things of interest to the entire school. If we have a school issue, it is brought up there as an inquiry and then we talk about how we are going to approach that topic. And it might be something where representatives come from their class, but it is introduced to everybody together. It might be me interviewing a teacher, saying, “So, you’ve mentioned to me you’ve noticed a problem.”

A little while ago we had an issue with our lunchroom. Using the inquiry question, “How can we make our lunchroom a pleasant place for everyone?” the topic was brought before the entire school. We interviewed people to uncover the issue. We used a protocol called “Back to the Future” to envision what our lunchroom could be like—speaking as if we had already made changes and then mapping out the steps that we used to get there. This gave us a great plan for getting to a pleasant lunchroom. We created guidelines for lunchroom behavior: act appropriately; use good manners at all times; keep feet under your table; hands to yourself; walk in our lunchroom; respect everyone and everything in the lunchroom (be helpful, cooperate and don’t be gross); clean up your own mess, then compost and recycle. Then we deployed everybody to start working on the issue to make our cafeteria a more pleasant place.

When you open with a question and you aren’t telling students the answers, when you’re letting them really think about it, that really becomes very democratic.

AD: You’ve mentioned seeing students who haven’t been participating come forward. What do you think motivates them to come forward?

DS: I think they’ve spent their years prior to becoming a fifth grader realizing, “I have to step up and do this.” Additionally, with the shared agenda items that we have, there is the opportunity for everyone to get up in front of the school with their classroom at least two or three times during the school year (sometimes even more often). I also believe that students appreciate the one-on-one time that they spend with me developing the agenda, writing the script, and practicing. We have a lot of fun during those planning meetings. After all, it is all about relationships! Spending that time with them connects them with me and places them in touch with our school’s goals.

AD: There is a longstanding assumption some people have that most citizens don’t really want to participate—that as long as the trains are running on time, the roads are paved, and there’s not too much crime in the neighborhood, there’s no point to being involved. So I’m wondering if what you are seeing in your school challenges this assumption. At Park Forest there seems to be a flourishing of participation.

DS: Yes, I think we do see this flourishing. That is part of the democratic nature of the school. The children see they can make a difference in the school. If there is an issue they can come to me and talk about it, then we strategize how we can approach it. Similar to the Salad Girls story.

AD: The salads weren’t on anybody’s agenda until the girls brought it forward.

DS: Exactly. And so the kids brought it forward and then they presented it at All School Gathering. And I told them we should gather data: how do you know that it matters to anybody but you? So they figured they had to come up with some survey questions. They shared their survey questions so the kids could think about it and then they went back to each classroom and asked that question. So it became a forum for them to prepare what they were doing.

Here’s a good example right now. We’re trying to reduce the amount of waste in our school. So the inquiry question is: how can we reduce the amount of waste—moving toward zero waste— coming from our building? Each time we meet, the kids want to increase to a new level; they present on what the next step is. This week we initiated a two-sided line, where instead of starting with the trashcans and then the compost bin, we put the compost bin first. Then we put a sign “dump your milk here” on a bucket because milk would just get tossed into the trash and the trash would be smelly and attract animals to our dumpster. Now we’re dumping the milk into the bucket and eventually down the kitchen drain. We’re taking the milk out of the waste stream. And we’re recycling some plastic containers; we have a container where bottles go. And then we have a container for juice pouches and we “terracycle” those and we receive two cents for those items—then our students select charities they want to give the money to; the money doesn’t benefit the school. Then the last bin the kids come to is the trash bin. So by the time they get there there’s very little that gets in the trash. We went from having four bags of trash every day to a bag and a half this week, because we’re capturing all those other things along the way. The end result is that our school’s trash is now picked up only twice a week rather than five times a week, which results in financial savings as well as reduced waste in a landfill located 105 miles away from us.

AD: This was the result of discussions that you had with the students?

DS: Yes. After each step I’d ask: so what would be our next way to continue to move toward zero waste?

AD: So what do you think the students are getting out of a process like this? In a less democratic school, an ecologically sensitive principal could come up with some smart rules and then post the rules all around the school. You could cut out this messy, time-consuming democratic process, and still be environmentally conscious.

DS: Here’s the classic statement. One of the boys, Bernie, said at our meeting two weeks ago when we were starting: “We sure start a lot of things and we don’t have anything that is all the way to completion.” And one of the teachers said, “That’s because we have to keep working at it. We’re never going to find the one right way to do something. Everything has to be flexible. And if we try that one for a while and it doesn’t work then we have to find another way to do it. But there are always other ways to do things.” And he said, “Oh, okay.”

AD: I am trying to unravel what it is that makes this beneficial for the students involved in it.

DS: Well it involves critical thinking. It involves what they say are twenty-first century learning skills, which I say have been around forever but dropped off the radar while education went into the mindless “No Child Left Behind” stage: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. Students are learning all these important skills. It is not me saying: “You must do these things.” Their ownership and their voice in this make it successful. I could have all the solutions I want, but. . . And it does take longer, and it is messy, and kids have to try things and work their way through things—and that’s okay. That’s how they can see that a process can get changed—at least that’s how I look at it.

AD: So I have a sense of what the students get out of a democratic school. What do you think that the teachers and the rest of the staff get out of it?

DS: I think for some teachers who are skeptical about how that can happen, this shows them that students do have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to contribute to a school. When they are given the opportunity they step up and contribute, they always do.

AD: Is there a democratic way of teaching?

DS: Oh yes. I believe that inquiry spawns democracy. When you open with a question and you aren’t telling them the answers, when you’re letting them really think about it, that really becomes very democratic. It puts the teacher on an equal footing with the kids. They—students and teacher—are working together to answer their question and learn from the resulting discovery.

AD: Now that seems pretty obvious, but that’s not standard Teaching 101 is it?

DS: No, and it is a little harder in an elementary school because there are some instructional obligations we have to support—teaching people to read, for example. And that’s okay because reading unlocks that world. We must do that. There are basic skills we have to do. But then how you employ those skills, how you use those skills with kids is what opens their world to possibilities.

AD: Can you say more about that—how is inquiry a foundation for democratic teaching, and what mindset goes along with that for democratic teachers?

DS: Well, first and foremost in inquiry is a willingness to ponder a question and look for things to support that question. It also demonstrates a growth mindset that presents an openness to new ideas and change. Aside from reflection and all of that, the most important piece is when it becomes public. So if I make an inquiry as a principal, I have to share my inquiry with people so it becomes public to them. “Here’s the experience I went through. It may not work this way for you but this is what I did.” And that is the democratic piece about this. If I hold it in and don’t share with anybody, then it doesn’t help anybody.

So what I see as essential are the reflections that I have around the inquiry, the evidence I’ve collected, my assumptions about it, and my theory behind it. So I do it. My teachers do inquiry all the time. We have Penn State University interns in our building; tomorrow is our inquiry conference and they’ll be presenting their inquiries. My step now is to have kids do more of this. Kids wonder all the time—it’s just they sometimes don’t go anywhere with it. I want to try and give them the forum to be able to do that. This is one of the things we can contribute. Letting them take that wonder, explore it, figure something out and then share it with others.

We shouldn’t be competing; we should be learning. I’ve never told our teachers they are to do test preparation.

AD: Do you think teachers do things slightly differently at your school than at other schools?

DS: In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I have modeled inquiry, eliciting student voices and promoting democratic practices so much that I see teachers doing a lot more to have student voice and choice come out in their own classrooms. Starting with questions. Everything I do I model with a question. We’re doing some work with trying to have inclusion be successful in our building, so how can we create a community where everyone feels included. And that’s the question we talk about at each faculty meeting. “Would somebody like to share something they’ve done this week that continues to move this forward?” “Any examples that you’ve seen?” “How do you feel we’re doing in getting toward that?”

AD: I want to ask about the tensions and difficulties involved in being in a school where student voice is encouraged. Can you speak to this? It can’t be easy all the time.

DS: No it is not easy, because it does take time. That’s the biggest thing. One of my teachers said at one point to another colleague: “Why doesn’t she just tell us what to do about the lunchroom?” That teacher responded: “Because if you tell kids and teachers the way you want it to be that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be the way it is. But if we have ownership over making the decisions ours, then that’s how it will work for the common good.”

AD: So in other words, even if it’s more time consuming to include kids in the decision-making you get a more solid decision at the end? A decision that people will buy into?

DS: Right.

AD: So, for example in the Salad Girls case, they wound up with a solution that they were not actually lobbying for in the beginning. What they wanted was a salad bar and what they ended up with were three options: the regular salad with meat and cheese, a salad with meat, and a salad with cheese. So by being involved in that process, they came to realize that the USDA had requirements your school had to meet and the cafeteria manager was under these sorts of constraints. Therefore would you say that the Salad Girls accepted the outcome more than if you had just laid down the law at the beginning?

DS: Yes. They got a whole lot more out of it by learning how to do this. It was deliberation— deliberation at its best because they knew what they wanted, then they realized what could be done, and then they had to figure out in between what really could be changed. They learn to communicate with each other so they don’t walk away mad: “That’s not what I really wanted.”

AD: You mentioned time as a difficulty. Are there other difficulties in having a democratic school?

DS: The tension I have in our district is that there are some fixed curricular obligations. I would love to have our school be able to figure out a theme for a year and then we learn the way the kids want us to learn about what interests them. We go with the kids on the adventure that they want to learn. It doesn’t always work out. There are some curriculum requirements from the district and the state standards and we do those, but then sometimes there are opportunities within those to take a side adventure and really go where the kids want to go.

Some of these are standards that have been established by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. We shouldn’t be competing; we should be learning. What I’ve always maintained with our teachers in our building—and they’ll say this about me—is that I’ve never told them they are to do test preparation. If our curriculum is rich enough and wide enough, if we have provided great learning opportunities and if they’ve been good teachers and learners, then everything should be just fine when kids sit down to take “the test.”

AD: I wonder if you have thought about where the counter-democratic nature of so much mainstream education comes from? It isn’t just educational institutions, of course; it is everywhere, but voice and participation are surely discouraged by the very way most schools operate, by adult-child hierarchies, and by rigid teacher-student roles. Why do principals, and teachers, and staff all across the country want to shut down student voice?

DS: I’d back up before I even get to student voice. I think that somewhere we started teaching subjects and not children. And we wanted to make sure we covered material, the subjects, instead of letting learning go where it could go. Right now, I see a lot in science and social studies education moving back to inquiry, which I’m thrilled with, because it does open that democratic way.

In my own case, it has been an evolution toward democratic practices: reading the writing of people such as John Dewey, John Goodlad, Roger Soder; trusting my gut when working with people; understanding that relationships with everyone is really important, students included; and believing that we all want our students to be really good people when they leave us at the elementary school level. We want them to know that they can change things in an inclusive manner; to think about the feelings and needs of others; to care to change a wrong; to want to understand each other even if they disagree. We want them to know that mistakes are okay to make and are what we do sometimes so that we learn, and that we need to work toward the better good for all. Democracy may take longer, but the end result is a process and product that we can all be proud of accomplishing.

AD: So “teaching subjects” means you have a certain kind of knowledge or quantity of established knowledge that you transmit to students, and therefore, if that is what you’re doing in school—you’re transmitting knowledge of chemistry or math or whatever—then you want kids to be quiet until they’re asked questions. Is that what you’re saying?

DS: Then we’re trying to fill their heads. “Oh my goodness, I have to give you all this information. You can’t leave fourth grade without you knowing all this information.” But it shouldn’t be what we think they should know. It should be what the kids want to know. Besides that, teachers do not have all of the answers or knowledge. Together, as teachers and students, we accomplish so much more together. Having that openness to learning from each other and engaging in deliberation to solve problems is so important for the survival of a democracy. It is the gift we can give to our students and our future.

Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Images provided by Albert Dzur and Donnan Stoicovy. More from this interview can be found at the Good Society Journal.