The English Journal – Democracy in Schools: Truly a Matter of Voice

Lois Brown Easton describes an alternative high school where democracy is truly enacted. The students_ personal voices are valued, which helps them develop power, responsibility, and authority over their education.

Dear Policymakers:

We are students from a unique school in Colorado. At one point in our lives, we did not expect to graduate from high school. We had dropped out, been expelled, or had never gone to high school in the first place. Some of us came from some pretty bad backgrounds; we were abused, abandoned, or neglected, for example. Some of us did and dealt drugs. Some of us became alcoholics, joined gangs, ran away, or did petty crime. We did not fit or feel welcome in today_s schools. We_re like the students you_d find in any high school in America.

We are young people who cannot be _thrown away_ or _lost to the system._ We_re not _at risk_ or _the drop-out problem._ We are real people with talents and skills, intellectual ability and curiosity, people the country needs now and in the future.

In these two paragraphs, high school students from Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center introduced the topics they wanted policymakers to consider from their point of view: standards, assessment, testing, accountability, dropping out, graduating with a diploma that means something. In Eagle Rock_s democratic setting, where voice is valued_and not just in English classes_these students exercised both a right and a responsibility by writing to policymakers.

Eagle Rock was designed to _enact democracy,_ as Linda Darling-Hammond put it (47). Eagle Rock is both an independent, full-scholarship, year-round, residential school for high school_age students and a learning center for adults. It is fully funded by the American Honda Education Corporation. The school is dedicated to developing innovative ways to educate students who have not found success in traditional settings. Among the eight themes, five expectations, and ten commitments (known as _8 + 5 = 10_) that drive the school are the following:

> Democratic governance (a theme)

> Service to others (a theme)

> Participating as a global citizen (an expectation)

> Leadership for justice (an expectation)

> Live in respectful harmony with others (a commitment)

> Become a steward of the planet (a commitment)

> Practice citizenship and democratic living (a commitment)

> Devise an enduring moral and ethical code (a commitment)

Taken together, the principles expressed as 8 + 5 = 10 shape a democratic school culture and validate not only voice but also action to enhance democratic living. These values do not reside merely on a plaque but are known and used by students and staff from the time they enter Eagle Rock. New students know them by heart on arrival and take a class (ER 101) with the head of the school to understand them well enough to live them. Staff members design curriculum with 8 + 5 = 10 in mind. Student infractions occur when students forget the ten commitments they made when they entered Eagle Rock and are dealt with according to the student_s history at Eagle Rock and how the student has handled the transgression. Students and staff use the language of 8 + 5 = 10 to create the hospitable learning community that is Eagle Rock. They sometimes express the values of 8 + 5 = 10 through pithy sayings such as _You have no right to have no opinion,_ and _Leave this place better than you found it,_ or _Find a need and fill it._ (For more information about Eagle Rock, visit

League of Small Democratic Schools

It was natural, then, that Eagle Rock align itself with the principles of John I. Goodlad. Eagle Rock is one of the founding schools in the League of Small Democratic Schools started in 2003. Goodlad describes his _Agenda for Education in a Democracy_ as including a mission, a set of conditions, and a strategy. The mission of the Agenda consists of four components:

1. _[E]nculturating the young into a social and political democracy_;

2. Introducing the young to the human conversation (_[p]roviding access to knowledge for all children and youths_);

3. _[P]racticing pedagogical nurturing_; and

4. _[E]nsuring responsible stewardship_ of our educational institutions. (Goodlad, Mantle- Bromley, and Goodlad 28_32)

Goodlad envisioned the actualization of these components simultaneously in schools and schools of education through partnerships between higher education and K_12 education. To help both K_12 and college and university educators make his vision a reality, he formed the Institute for Educational Inquiry and the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington; the National Network for Educational Renewal, which has member partnerships in twenty states; and the League. The League assists schools that are _preparing their students for the complex role of citizenry required of a democratic society_ (Clark). League schools help each other make the reality of their environments match the vision of a democratic school. Richard W. Clark, officially known as a _chief worrier and consultant_ at the Institute for Educational Inquiry, works with Goodlad on secondary school renewal.1 Clark devised a set of school-based indicators for the four components of the Agenda to help schools evaluate their application of the mission. Here, for example, are ten of the twenty-five indicators for the first component, _Enculturating the young into a social and political democracy_:

1. The school develops students_ commitment to the values of liberty, government by consent of the governed, representational government, and one_s responsibility for the welfare of all.

2. Students learn to act in a manner that reveals an understanding of the interrelationships among complex organizations and agencies in a modern society.

3. The curriculum includes a strong emphasis on developing students_ analytical and reasoning skills.

4. The curriculum emphasizes students_ developing their communications skills.

5. The curriculum includes developing students_ ability to function effectively in various size decision-making groups.

6. The curriculum develops students_ ability to engage in theory-based practice in conflict resolution.

7. The curriculum includes development of students_ understanding of the importance of free and open inquiry.

8. Educators skillfully practice collaborative decision making.

9. The school serves as a model that guides students in practicing democratic ideals in the school.

10. Students are encouraged to exercise the democratic

right to dissent in accordance with personal conscience. (Clark)

How Eagle Rock Is Democratic

As a League member, Eagle Rock demonstrates its commitment to the Agenda in a variety of ways, with particular emphasis on the development of voice in writing and speaking_something we English teachers know is important. We exult when we encounter a student_s unique and powerful voice in an essay. I remember Khalid_s essay of explanation,_Cars in the _Hood._ Although needing much more work in sentence structure and mechanics, his paper was written as only Khalid could have written it:

There may be many nice rides in the _hood but there are some cars that have problems, big problems. Like so, whoa, what a hoopty [junker]! Get in the backseat to get into the front. Open only one door. Oh, definitely, don_t play the radio and drive at the same time; your car might overheat from using too many things at once. Literally don_t turn on the heater or the air conditioner because it might either burn or freeze the engine to death. Rain? Get a long stick with a squeegee on it, cause you_ll be driving and squeegeeing at the same time. Want to stop? Pull the emergency brake and, oh, yeah, put it in park or you might go downhill. Voice is so important at Eagle Rock that students who helped to create a rubric for essays insisted on this descriptor: _The writer does not come across as anonymous._ Khalid_s writing is hardly anonymous.

(See below for the other characteristics of good writing that students incorporated into a rubric for an essay of explanation.)


Students at Eagle Rock know what to do to graduate_ that is, demonstrate mastery of Eagle Rock_s requirements, based on the Colorado State Model Content Standards. They also know what mastery looks like because students and staff develop rubrics for each of the performances or documentations. Khalid and fellow students in a writing workshop developed these criteria for a four-point rubric for nonfiction, based on reading a set of published essays. They used the rubric to revise, edit, and proofread their essays. They and their instructors used the rubric to determine if the essays met criteria for mastery.

1. The essay has a point or purpose; the author has something important to say, something honest and authentic, reality as the author knows it.

2. The essay has an internal logic or order that makes it easy for the reader to follow (chronology, sequence, flow).

3. The essay builds bridges from the author_s mind to the reader_s mind; the author does not assume the reader knows everything he or she is writing about.

4. The essay has strong detail, support, facts, elaboration (fresh, not repetitive). Explanations are clear, direct, straightforward.

5. The essay draws the reader in and invites the reader to think; it is thought-provoking, provides insight; it is unique.

6. The essay has a strong introduction (a gripping first sentence) and a powerful conclusion summarizing the points and clinching the meaning. The title is also strong.

7. The author_s voice is strong and personable; the essay does not seem to be written by _anonymous._

8. The essay is organized into paragraphs, with transitions from paragraph to paragraph.

9. There are few or no errors in spelling, usage, punctuation, capitalization. These errors do not impede understanding.

Voice is essential to a democracy. At Eagle Rock, voice represents much more than an antidote to anonymity. It represents power to students whohave felt powerless in other educational settings. It represents responsibility to students who have not felt responsible for their education (or the education of others). It represents authority for what has previously felt out of students_ control: their education.


By design, Eagle Rock provides several ways that students and staff members can have voice.


Through choice-making.As is the case with some of the schools in the new League, students choose to come to Eagle Rock and choose to stay. They choose when to graduate (Eagle Rock_s system is not timebased). Students choose courses that help them graduate (much as they would if in college). They choose how to learn and how to document their learning in these classes.


Through mechanisms that create a democratic culture.Again, like other schools in the League, Eagle Rock operates on a proposal system. Anyone may write and present a proposal. The whole community (students and staff) debates and works on making proposals acceptable to all. Regular all-community meetings (morning Gatherings, for example) bring everyone together daily. Staff create agendas for staff meetings. There are no grade levels, such as sophomore or senior, that create a hierarchy among students.


Through leadership expectations.Students meet in Peer Council to determine consequences of many minor infractions, have a say in consequences related to major infractions, and run a Peace Mediation process. Similar processes can be found in elementary and secondary schools elsewhere in the League. Eagle Rock students also attend staff meetings, where they have a voice in how the school is run. They run most of the activities on campus by serving as House (Dormitory) Leaders or KP Leaders or by participating on an Intramural or Morning Exercise Committee, for example. They participate in the hiring process for staff members. They engage with prospective students as mentors and make recommendations about prospective students_ readiness to come to Eagle Rock. They also help with decisions related to Second Chance, whereby a student who has left Eagle Rock petitions to return.


Students are expected to participate in the activities of the Professional Development Center. They teach the adults who come to the Center by having the adults shadow them to classes and activities, convening with them in panel discussions and seminars, and by speaking informally to them about what works (and doesn_t) at Eagle Rock and in previous settings. They regularly help to make presentations at conferences.

Through program (curriculum, instruction, and assessment). Everyone at Eagle Rock is a learner (which is why Eagle Rock is both a school and a professional development center for adults; Easton, Powerful). Everyone is also a teacher (which is why students suggest classes and co-teach with instructors). Eagle Rock is a purposefully diverse community, enriched by the wide variety of experiences, skills, and intellect that students and staff bring to the mountains of Colorado. Students are encouraged to discover and build on their learning styles. They document their learning through creative, individually designed exhibitions and demonstrations; three times per year and when they graduate, they create public presentations of learning that attest to their academic and personal growth (Easton, Other).

Students know how to graduate from Eagle Rock. They know the curriculum requirements (standards or competencies) and how to demonstrate them through engaging classes that are, in fact, just vehicles for learning, not Eagle Rock_s unit of credit. They know what _mastery_ looks like (through rubrics) and have some say in creating rubrics. They know that they are expected to find their own meaning in curriculum. They also know that there is no failure (they simply are not ready_yet_to demonstrate mastery), no _markers_ such as GPA or class rank that stay with them forever, because there are no grades. They understand that they are in charge of their learning but also know they have great support and wonderful flexibility in deciding how to learn and demonstrate learning.

Letter to Policymakers (cont.)

You can ignore us and keep your policies as they are in terms of standards, assessment and accountability, graduation requirements, size, time, curriculum, sorting students according to numbers, etc. Or you can recognize that we are like many high school students. Some drop-out or act-out and get expelled. Many stay in school, however, sitting in the back of the classroom, doing just enough to get by. We wonder what they_ll be like as they get older. Will they contribute to making this country great?

What_s worse is that many students graduate from high school without really engaging themselves as learners. They figure out the system and look good on paper, but they have not really learned how to think, analyze, interpret,use logic and problem-solve. They have not learned how to learn. They are not curious, just canny, and may not become lifetime learners. Will they contribute to making this country great?


Eagle Rock Students


1. Readers may contact Richard W. Clark at

Works Cited

Clark, Richard. _Goodlad_s Agenda for Education in a Democracy: A Framework for Secondary School Renewal._ Unpublished essay, 2004.

Darling-Hammond, Linda. _Education, Equity, and the Right to Learn._ The Public Purpose of Education and Schooling. Ed. John I. Goodlad and Timothy J. Mc- Mannon. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997. 41_54.

Easton, Lois Brown. The Other Side of Curriculum: Lessons from Learners. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002.

___, ed. Powerful Designs for Professional Learning. Oxford:National Staff Development Council, 2004.

Goodlad, John I. Educational Renewal: Better Teachers, Better Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

___. In Praise of Education. New York: Teachers College, 1997.

___. A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future. 1984. New York: McGraw, 2004.

___. Romances with Schools: A Life of Education. New York: McGraw, 2004.

___. Teachers for Our Nation_s Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Goodlad, John I., Corinne Mantle-Bromley, and Stephen John Goodlad. Education for Everyone: Agenda for Education in a Democracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Goodlad, John I., Roger Soder, and Kenneth A. Sirotnik, eds. The Moral Dimensions of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Copyright © 2005 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

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