Deepening the Inquiry (synopsis of spring workshop)

Here are notes on the April 2011 workshop of the Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry (which has since become the Teachers’ Inquiry Project — read about it here.)

Deepening the Inquiry  (synopsis)

April 2, 2011

“And something weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest.”

-Toni Cade Bambara, “The Lesson”

Where does learning take place in our lives?  Where is learning taking place within ourselves?  How do others spark our learning, and what are the processes by which learning grows?  These were some of the hundreds of questions that moved through the room in the second workshop of the Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry, held April 2, 2011 at Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago.

The TCDI workshops of 2010-2011 were designed to bring together teachers from a wide variety of school contexts to reflect on practice and imagine how teachers’ ongoing learning can contribute to education as a sustaining and sustainable life.  The first workshop centered around four processes; the first three were processes of reflection based in dialogue: Civic Reflection; Matrix Leadership; Descriptive Review.  The fourth element of the first workshop was envisioning the Center.  The TCDI conveners worked with the ideas, perspectives, and stories shared in the first workshop to develop a business plan and to plan for a second workshop, focused on delving more deeply into teachers’ questions about their own learning and about the relationship between teachers and students.

Inquiry builds alliances, networks, and power.

–        TCDI Spring workshop participant

The complexity of teachers’ work, holding together the individual and the collective, the personal and the political, the intellectual and the physical, has much in common with the field of social work, which took shape in Chicago under the leadership of Jane Addams and the Settlement movement.  Thus it was important for the conveners of the Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry that the Spring Workshop, “Education: Deepening the Inquiry,” was held in the original Settlement Dining Hall of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum.  Jane Addams’ work was a key inspiration for TCDI planners, who agreed with Addams that “ Teaching… has to be diffused in a social atmosphere, information must be held in solution, in a medium of fellowship and good will…. It is needless to say that a Settlement is a protest against a restricted view of education.”  The TCDI workshop was designed to set reflection within the “social atmosphere” that supports, challenges, and helps to clarify the work of teachers.

Change comes from inside.

–        TCDI Spring workshop participant

We began with a discussion facilitated by Adam and Kelli of the Project on Civic Reflection.  Civic Reflection on Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” provided a good space for exploring the contexts of learning.  We discussed experiential education and school structures and the relationship between educational objectives and unintended consequences.  We argued over the intersections of individual learning and political education and the impact of the race of the teachers and students in the classroom.  We noticed who is heard in the classroom and how they get heard, and tried to notice who doesn’t get heard.

Does all inquiry ultimately become self-inquiry?  To solve a given problem you have to turn back to yourself and your values.

–        TCDI Spring workshop participant

After a hearty lunch of soul food, generously furnished by the McCormick Foundation and De Paul University School of Education, we re-gathered in small groups to share stories of inquiry.  Joan designed this Descriptive Review process to enable us to listen to one another’s recollections and to watch the patterns that emerged within and between the stories.  We discovered anew the riskiness of inquiry, the personal investment that makes it both urgent and unwieldy.  While inquiry often seems fraught with danger, groping in fields of uncertainty and experimentation in challenging authoritative sources of knowledge, even more dangerous is the suppression of the inquiry.

Empowerment is the ability to pursue questions about your interests

–        TCDI Spring workshop participant

We ended the day with Joby and Shanti facilitating a closing discussion on the implications of reflection for learning.  We explored questions about applications of teacher inquiry to students’ learning, the limits of institutionalized schooling, the development of the character of the teacher and the development of the student’s character, and the responsibility of the teacher in relation to student needs and society’s needs.


Educating: A Life — workshop synopsis

 Here are notes on the December 2010 workshop of the Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry (which has since become the Teachers’ Inquiry Project — read about it here.)

 I came away with many strong feelings about the ways educators can talk to each other about their craft and their commitment.

It was good to reflect on if I learn about something or really learn it.

It is heartening to see the work of others within the education reform sector.

What came up for me was a real desire to have some kind of transformative professional community that wasn’t opposed to or cut off from my classroom practice. I reflected on whether there are ways that I can shift my perspective or engage differently with my colleagues to lessen the sense that interesting and meaningful professional conversations stop at the door of my classroom.

–Teachers’ responses to TCDI workshop

On December 2nd and 3rd, 2010, 30 teachers came together to build a vision for A Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry.  The inspiration participants brought to the vision included centers like Highlander Folk Center, Teacher Curriculum Work Center, and Hull House, and processes like Critical Friends and Descriptive Review.  Across differences of generation, grade level, and kind of school, all shared a commitment to reflection and conversation as mainstays of healthy educational life for teachers inside and outside the classroom.

Participants walked in ready to take a dip in the intellectual and spiritual waters of reflection, to nourish our craft and remember our delight in learning.  The workshop centered around three processes chosen to enable us to explore democratic inquiry:


All participants gathered in a circle to read Howard Nemerov’s poem “Learning the Trees” aloud, and attend to the poem in order to re-consider our own and our colleagues’ thoughts about teaching and learning.   Teachers mused on their own learning while the group explored the boundaries of language and knowledge and the powerful spaces where they intersect with learning.  This process launched the workshop to suggest by the experience that reflection (as distinct from planning) is important for our work and ourselves.


This session focused on looking closely at a piece of child’s work, describing it as a group.  One group described a kindergarten student’s drawing and the other group described a third grade child’s story.  The lingering, collective description led to greater understanding of the child’s way of thinking and working — and of the schooling and learning processes that she finds herself in.  This reflection invited teachers’ attention to the many levels of a child’s, and a teacher’s, work.


Matrix circles enabled participants to experience a growing awareness of a group as a dynamic living system.  The process of building a network one pair at a time enables groups and their members to have access to the collective intelligence of the whole and become more resilient, adaptive and responsive to each other and to the changing environment.  This experience enabled participants to weave the connections of curiosity, stories, and questions that sustain us as human beings. Each process enabled participants to share their stories about learning and teaching and to ask new questions about relationships with students, colleagues, and most of all, the inner self.  Questions that emerged from the workshop included: Is there a way to take back “democracy”?  What assumptions do we need to inquire about?  How do we make professional restoration more the norm than the exception?  To different degrees in different environments, we all shared a constriction from the demands of a results-oriented educational domain — airing questions reminded us of the spaciousness of inquiry.

Participants also worked together to generate ideas for the center, with attention to the body of the place (“hearth;” “bridge;”  “food!”), the mind (“library and resource center,” “teachers’ studio;” “lively debate,” “lesson study,” “teaching laboratory – a place to tinker with ideas”) and the soul (“Interest in working differences (among, within, across, etc.);” “Linking communities;””Ability to call forth everybody’s gifts & leadership”).

The gathering of people who have joined to help create the Teachers’ Center for Democratic Inquiry accomplished much already with a small outlay of resources.  With a gift from the McCormick Foundation, pro bono facilitation by Matrix Leadership trainers, the conveners’ own contributions, and the generous investment of many teachers’ time, we accomplished: workshops in three democratic inquiry processes; a harvest of ideas for the Center; the development of a network of supporters; and the creation of contemplative space for teachers to share stories, struggles, and growth.

In the spring, Educating: A Life Workshop Part 2 will continue the growth of TCDI by engaging democratic inquiry processes in greater depth.  It will take up the suggestion offered by workshop participants to provide space for reflection on practice.  The workshop is planned over a day and a half, with the half-day on participants’ own time with a reading and reflection leading into the full workshop day when teachers will gather: April 1, 2011.