Democracy, Writing, and the Summer Institute

Posted on: July 21st, 2011 by CDWP

by Sean Costello

As the final days of our Summer Institute draw down, I’d like to reflect on the experience we’ve shared. As intensely personal as it has often been, I also think that a poignant sense of community has developed among our group and our facilitators. It’s this intersection between the personal and the communal that is – in part, at least – what has made the Summer Institute so powerful for so many. I am reminded of the story John shared with us earlier in the week. He talked about his first experience as a teacher in a school operated by Deborah Meier. He told us about how there were no administrators, about how dialogue was the engine that drove the school. John said that it was messy and it was slow, but everyone had a voice, a say in how things got done. He told us that everyone felt they had a stake in the school, the kind of stake that comes from direct involvement in its direction and goals. He called that Democracy.

Democracy is the essence of the CDWP, and the entire experience is rich in its principles. For four weeks we talk it, walk it, reflect on it, breathe it in. And above all, we write about it. In all our prompts, in all our musings, in all our demonstration lessons and inquiry group presentations, we give it voice and bring it home. In these days of democracy under siege, nothing could be more important than what we’ve accomplished together over this past month. We have, in the words of Paulo Freire, come to “knowledge of reality through common reflection and action.” We’ve explored Anyon’s treatise on social class in education, discussed the insightful, often distressing work of June Jordan, Lisa Delpit, Henry Giroux, and – not least of all – the first semester college freshman, John. Our conversations have unveiled things to us that most people never have the opportunity to reflect on, and that others would wish to conceal from us forever. The ugly realities of classism and racism are all implicated in our education system, and we have taken that reality head on. These are hard things, and we should be proud of what we did. We should also recognize that this is only the beginning. As we grow in knowledge, so do we acquire power – power to transform, to reinvent, to resist.

As much as we laughed over the course of the Institute (and we laughed a lot!) there were also many times when we were angry. The depth of our writing and of our dialogue often led us to uncomfortable moments of discovery and confrontation. As we wrestled with a reality we were co-constructing, we talked frequently about the value of resistance and subversion. To me it seemed as though we found a kind of liberation in these words, a sense that taking a stand was the right and natural thing to do. I have little doubt that we have all struggled to resist the social injustice of our system for a long time, but I also feel that doing so as part of a community was empowering and uplifting. Over and over we talked about how we felt at home with our cohort, that despite all our differences we were all together in this, many voices speaking as one.

As our time together in the Summer Institute comes to a close, I reflect on how much I’ve valued your wisdom, your experiences, your perspectives. Everything you’ve shared, from childhood anecdotes to lessons you’ve taught, has made a difference. And so much of it has been profound, from John’s story about democracy to Kerry’s seamless merging of art with writing to Brandon’s gift of time to sit outside and contemplate things growing and green. All of us have contributed to one another’s understanding of the power of writing; all of us have become writers again together.

Freire wrote that “education as the practice of freedom… denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from other people.” Those words have a new meaning for me as I think back upon this Summer Institute. I feel that more than just reflecting on them, I’ve now also had a chance to live them.

One Response

  1. Brandon says:

    Thank you for sharing Sean. After the Marine Corps I sought long and hard for direction and purpose. I found that purpose in teaching but still felt I was not doing enough for my country, my colleagues, my fellow Americans, my friends. The CDWP gave me hope that others still believe in America and want what is best for it and its citizens. I felt renewed unity and purpose in my new band of brothers and sisters. I am forever grateful for the friendships we have forged and for knowing I am not alone in my determination to see we have a democratic country and our children feel even more freedom and hope than we do today.

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