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.


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