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Re-imagining the Common School

Maxine Greene, the William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education at TC, likes to imagine things as if they could be otherwise. On a Saturday in December, she invited representatives of varied communities-including teachers, students, artists and academics-to discuss new ways of looking at the common school. The one-day conference was entitled Re-imagining the Common School: The Public and the Children. The Center for Social Imagination, the Arts and Education, which Greene founded and directs, and the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation sponsored the event.

"The public school should no longer be designed by people, even like us-by experts or academics," Greene told her audience at the conference. "It should be emergent from a public dialogue."

School, she went on to say, intends to provide shared common experiences to all children, rich and poor, to equalize the conditions of all people. The inherent diversity in a public school should render it impossible to impose uniformity from above. "We are charged with developing a school sensitive to all those voices, those diverse needs, and a school that will create something in common that is prized," said Greene.

After her introduction, the day's activities provided both dialogue and demonstrations of new possibilities for the public school, as created and presented by the artists, scholars and educators who participated in leading the conference workshops.

Andrea Masters, an actress, poet and short story writer from the Lincoln Center, led workshops of conference attendees that encouraged their sense of creativity and working together. Group members used their bodies to demonstrate the feelings incurred by the reading of a poem, and then acted out their "poetry in motion" for the other groups.

At the end of the exercise, participants were asked how it helped them understand the poetry. One woman responded that, "The more senses we engage, the more we can process what the poet is trying to say." And another said, "When you engage in a poem yourself, all sorts of images float through your mind. When you put it into a physical metaphor to involve everyone, the dynamic is much more subtle and complicated."

Panel discussions included "Philosophical Dimensions: The Common and the Public Dialogue," "The Right-Wing Challenge," and "Roadblocks and Possibilities."

In addition to Greene, the first panel included Professor René Arcilla, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education at TC, and faculty members from other universities. The discussion centered on the need for public discourse in determining what role school plays, and the belief that a better world is a reachable goal. Arcilla noted his concern for the tendency of paid representatives to be less concerned with the people they are representing and more concerned with their image.

To develop a society of participants in dialogue, Clive Beck, past president of the Philosophy of Education Society, said he encourages his students of education to develop a strong community in their own classrooms. "We need to get back to the point where people see schooling as essential for democracy," Beck said. "Education which not only prepares for participation in society, but gives them an opportunity in their own classrooms to participate in the direction of the society."

In "The Right-Wing Challenge," panelists discussed the harsh realities of public education today. Michelle Fine, a Professor of Social Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, described the testing policies and effects of accountability in Texas public schools. She said that students must pass state testing in reading, math and writing to graduate. "We are losing about half the Latino kids between eighth and tenth grades (who drop out) in fear of these tests," Fine said. Black students are not far behind in the number of drop-outs.

She also said that test preparation materials become the curriculum at some schools because the accountability system ties a principal's pay to the test scores. "They have signed away tenure," Fine said, "and they get a bonus if scores go up. If scores go down, they lose their principalship."

William Ayers, Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that, "To make a difference, you have to move beyond theorizing. We need to be political ourselves to create conditions where people could come together."

David Berliner, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Arizona and a Visiting Professor of Education at TC, led the discussion on "Roadblocks and Possibilities." "Everybody in the country is recognizing a crisis of public participation," he said. What is missing from people's lives that would enable them to participate is time.

"The public is very busy trying to earn a living," Berliner said. The biggest villain we have for the matter of public discourse, he said, is poverty.

Vito Perrone, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, added that it is important to know what conditions surround the schools and young people who attend them. "Put aside a lot of public talk that is negative, that stands far away from the kids who sit before us and actually ask, ‘Who are these kids?'" Perrone said.

He believes in bringing young people into the discussion. "We can build a public space, but not one that leaves the kids out," Perrone said. "If we bring kids in at night, bring their families in. If kids can speak and families can speak, we can create the kind of conversation we need."

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