Schultz on Democratic Curriculum in a Chicago School

Room 405

Byrd Community Academy

Chicago Public Schools

363 W. Hill St.

Chicago, IL 60610

February 20, 2004

Dear State Senator of Illinois:

We are writing to tell you about exciting work our fifth-grade class is doing called Project Citizen. This project is sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago. It teaches us about how the government works and how we can affect public policy change even as fifth graders. Our class has looked at all the problems that affect our community and have unanimously decided to focus our attention on the policy of building new schools in the City of Chicago. We have created an action plan that includes researching, petitioning, surveying, writing, photography and also interviewing and writing letters to people we think can help us fix the policy. We think and hope you would be interested in hearing about all the problems that our school in Cabrini Green is faced with everyday.

Our school building, Richard E. Byrd Community Academy, has big problems. There are too many problems to mention in this letter, but we want to tell you about some of the most important ones. These main problems are what we think are important issues: the restrooms, temperature in our building, the windows and the lack of a lunchroom, a gym and a stage. We need a new school because of these problems. It is really important for our learning so we can be great when we grow up.

The restrooms are filthy and dirty. There are spitballs all over the place. They do not get cleaned up properly. It is also really smelly in the bathrooms. Also, we do not have soap or paper towels or garbage cans. We do not have doors on the stall and have no privacy. The sinks have bugs in them and water is everywhere. As an example of how bad they are, sinks move and water leaks on the floor. The hot water faucets have cold water. Kids don’t like using the bathrooms since they are so gross and falling apart.

In fact, at Byrd the temperatures in the classrooms are bro
ken. The heat is not turned on. It is really cold in the class
rooms. As another example we have to put on our coats during class because it is so cold. They cannot fix it because the pipes are broken. It is uncomfortable and hard to learn. Our hands 
are cold and we cannot write. This needs to be changed!

As another example the windows are cracked. It is cold in our class because the windows are cracked. The windows are
 not efficient enough. There are bullet holes in the windows and 
there is tape on them. We cannot see through the windows and 
it is dark in the classrooms. We can hardly see what we are
 doing because it is so dark. This is not a good place to learn.

Another reason we need a new building is that we don’t have a lunchroom. We eat in a hallway! The classes by the lunchroom are always getting distracted because of the lunchroom in the hall. That is why we need a new lunchroom so the classes will not be getting distracted. Another bad thing about our lunchroom is we don’t get to decide what we want in lunch. Also, we want vending machines so we can eat a little snack to give us energy so we can learn better. Our school really needs a new lunchroom because the lunchroom lady shouldn’t have to tell students to be quiet. The teachers by the lunchroom shouldn’t have to close their doors to teach.

Another example of the problem is the gym is not connected to our school. Whenever it’s bad weather outside we have to walk through the snow. In fact, it is not even our gym. We borrow a gym from Seward Park across the street. It is dangerous crossing the street and we shouldn’t have to cross the street during school. This takes up our gym period. When we have basketball practice we get locked out because Seward Park is not open. If we had our own gym in our school we wouldn’t get locked out or be faced with the weather. When we walk to the gym its ice on the ground. One day a little kid got hurt from falling on the ice.

Finally, we also do not have an auditorium or stage at Byrd. This is a problem because when we have assemblies, people heads are in the way because we have to have the assemblies in a hallway. There is no seating and it is difficult to see. There are never enough seats for everybody and people have to stand. As an example, we had the Harlem Globetrotters come to our school. We couldn’t see anything. If our school had a stage we would be happy because we would have a better chance to watch the show.

We would like to invite you to see our school for yourself. We do not think that you would let your kids come to a school that is falling apart. Since the windows, the gym, the temperature, the lunchroom, stage and restrooms are not right we should get a whole new school building. The problems are not fixable and would cost too much to fix. Byrd Academy needs a new school building and the current policy has promised us one but it has not been built.

There are many reasons why we need a new school and we think you would agree. A new school would be a better school and we believe we will get a better education. We have the support of our teacher and of the administration of the school for this project. We look forward to hearing from you and thank you in advance for you time and interest.

Respectfully yours,

The Fifth Graders in Room 405 of

Richard E. Byrd Community Academy

Prior to this provocative letter emerging from a student-driven action plan, the students of Room 405 were given the space and opportunity to co-create a curriculum that was meaningful and important to them. This approach to teaching and learning became an emergent curriculum, a curriculum that went beyond all of our wildest expectations as we worked together solving an authentic problem.

As a teacher, I was extremely frustrated by how I saw curriculum and the ways social class determined how students were taught. Questioning whether teachers should teach according to the socioeconomic status of their students, I sought a space in my classroom that would motivate and engage my students in their learning, while teaching them the necessary skills to matriculate to the next grade level and beyond. Since I was challenging what I saw as an increasingly common view that perpetually pushed prescriptive curricula, essentially teacher-proofing classrooms, I began to ask the students and myself the perennial questions of worth. What knowledge was most important and worthwhile? How was the knowledge acquired and created? Who got to determine what was learned and why? … .

As my students and I began to reflect on these questions, we wondered: What would happen if we, in one of the more infamous public housing projects in the United States, took on a project that allowed us to determine what was most important to study, based on our own priority concerns? What if students in this classroom were afforded the opportunity, like students in more affluent schools, to problem-pose, challenge, and deliberate instead of being expected to give the right answers and rule-follow as had become the expected norm? What would be the results of the experiment? Would the system embrace their questioning and demand for equity or would it crush, ignore, or continue to silence them? Could a curriculum of this type be successful? How could it be measured? Could we, teacher and students, together share authority in order to solve authentic curriculum problems? By adhering to the situational needs of the learners, could the curriculum be guided by student interest? Could we challenge the accepted norms to make the curriculum of, for, and by us? Or as one of the students, Dyneisha, pointedly asked, “Who’s gonna listen to a bunch of black kids from Cabrini Green?” Together we were determined to find out. …

Challenged with the conditions of living and learning in the projects, the question of what knowledge is of most worth is continually raised by the students. Students are rarely recognized in the school setting for achievements outside of the classroom. The street savvy and out-of-school curricula is devalued in lieu of scores on high-stakes testing and outside measures of accountability. As Crown appropriately remarked after being questioned about enduring life in the ghetto, he said, “bein’ street smart or learnin’ how to survive is real. . . there are a lot of people who are gonna test you and we has got to know how to make it.” This failure to recognize the students’ intelligences makes me question if education was gauged by my students’ successes in the world of their neighborhood, via their lived experiences, would they significantly out-perform their more affluent peers, not to mention their teachers? As I pondered this situation, I became driven to find out how I could best use their adaptability and pragmatic street smarts in the classroom. These thoughts, coupled with an immersion in curriculum studies literature, provided a context for me to wonder whether an authentic and emergent curriculum focusing on my students’ priority concerns could integrate the curriculum and prove successful in the “traditional” sense.

The fifth graders were shouting out all sorts of problems and I was having trouble keeping up with their growing list. Their zeal to name the issues relevant to their world was apparent as I quickly scribbled down their ideas on the board. Intensity grew as students called out problems that affected them: “helping the homeless,” “cleaning up the park,” even “stopping gangs.” While they were able to name these big issues, many of the problems they listed had to do with the school building: “no gym, no lunchroom, or auditorium,” “broken windows with bullet holes,” “no heat in the classroom,” and “leaky sinks, broken toilets, and no soap or paper towels in the bathrooms.” Within an hour’s time, eagerly responding to a challenge I had posed to them, the fifth graders of Room 405 had identified eighty-nine different problems that affected them and their community.

As I quickly marked up the front board in the classroom with their ideas, several students argued with one another that a problem they had mentioned had already been listed. Recognizing that the problems centered around one major theme, Dyneisha appropriately entered the ensuing debate, shouting, “Most of the problems on that list have to da with our school building bein’ messed up. Our school is a dump! That’s the problem.” Her candid analysis created agreement among the group. The students responded unanimously to her reasoning; the biggest problem they faced was the inadequacy of their dilapidated school building. Dyneisha and the rest of the class were correct and they exemplified the reality of the situation that frigid December morning as they sat in the classroom adorned with hats, mittens, and jackets. The heat had not yet made it to the fourth floor of Byrd school. Realizing they had a real problem they had known so well, the students rallied together, pledging to solve the injustices they faced everyday in their school.

In just under an hour, the fifth graders listed the major problems they felt needed to be fixed. When I had originally posed the question to them, I predicted the students might decide on simpler tasks like “getting fruit punch at lunch” or trying to get a mandated time for “recess everyday.” Instead, the students took on a more challenging moral issue, one that had been in the community for years: a new school had been promised but was never built. I wondered to myself if the students were really willing to take this problem head-on and not focus on an easier or more self-serving task. Quickly realizing I was mistaken for even questioning their motivation, they were already coming up with ways they might remedy some of the troubles with the school structure and constructing plans to get a new school built. Given the opportunity and challenge to prioritize problems in their community, the children were not only willing to merely itemize the issues, they were already strategizing ways to act and make change. And with their passion in place, the emergent curriculum began.

“How’s we ‘posed to get this new school?” was the question my students pointedly asked me. Without answering, I asked them the same question in return. But did I ask them the same question simply due to good teacher sense? Did I want them to have ownership in the project? Or was I just stalling? Truthfully, just like the students, I was also questioning how to get the job accomplished and I wanted to learn from their insights.

As the teacher, I often felt like the ultimate authority figure in the eyes of the students. When I first started teaching, I thought I certainly wanted it this way, I felt I needed to be in control, and believed that if my authority were compromised, I was failing in my duties. In addition to authority in terms of classroom management, I thought I should know all the answers to the questions I posed. Wasn’t it my role to solve everything from a disagreement in the classroom to a math equation? This earlier perception was that I was the one who knew all the answers and should be able to “make everything all right.”

These were real questions regarding the project, however, and I found myself in a much more complicated and difficult situation. In some ways, I felt like I was letting down the students as an educator since I was accepting questions that I could not answer. This was dangerous territory for me. For the first time as a teacher, I was on an equal level to my students: neither of us knew the potential outcome of our foray into the politics of the schools. None of us had ever faced this type of situation before, and, therefore, we had few experiences to guide us through the process. I wanted the new school as much as my students, but just like them, I did not know how to make this goal a reality.

The students were no longer trying to solve contrived textbook questions. Instead it was an authentic quest with real components, challenges, and obstacles. Triumph and tragedy would become part of our joint investigations. My expertise in getting a new school was limited, I did not know how to go about the task, but I realized that together, as a group, we would try our best to determine our direction. First, we had to confront the situation to establish our starting point. With much trepidation and humility, I told the students that I had never done anything like this before, but I was willing to give it my best shot with them. “We can only try and see what happens,” I told the fifth graders and emphasized, “that if we believe in what we are doing and we are fighting for what is right, all we can do is put our best foot forward.” After coming to terms about my past experiences, and letting the students understand my personal origins, I suggested that we formulate a game plan to successfully accomplish our task of such magnitude.

Together we decided to develop an action plan in order to solve the problem of getting a new school in the city of Chicago. “But where should we begin?” was muttered by several students. … The class needed a plan of attack, one that would allow the students to select areas that were of interest to them individually, while at the same time keeping them organized. I pondered, should I avoid teaching everyone in the class the same thing, or should we go through this systematically so that each member of the class can have the same, shared experiences? I did not know the answer. From my personal educational experience, I learned that it was customary to blanket the curriculum for all of the students in the classroom. “Don’t be too challenging or too easy. Teach to the middle group of learners” were words of wisdom I had heard repeatedly in my teacher preparation coursework. I abhorred this usual approach to teaching, and felt that it was grossly inadequate. As I began to brood over my questioning, I decided that I should allow my students to choose their own areas of interest and subsequently share their findings with the class as they progressed through it. Not having an educator that I could use as a model for my personal advice, I found myself reading about other teachers and curriculum theorizers that had explored this type of approach, developing curriculum that could be tailored and adapted to each student’s needs. …

Over the course of the school year’s integrated curriculum, standardized test scores of most students increased over the previous year without direct time spent on skill-and-drill test preparation that is so common in many urban schools. The students’ attendance was an unprecedented 98 percent and there were rarely discipline issues. In addition to their high achievement, some of their listed problems within the school were addressed. Issues that the school engineer had been asking to have fixed for years finally received the attention they deserved. Lights, sidewalks, and drinking fountains were replaced, doors were fixed, windows were ordered, and even soap dispensers were installed in the bathrooms! But, “Not satisfied with stupid band-aids,” as Chester put it, the students continued their fight and also continued being recognized. Emails and letters of support kept on coming, the U.S. Department of Education established an official “case” investigating the matter, the class traveled to Springfield to testify at Illinois State Board of Education, and they were flown to formally address the Center for Civic Education national convention for Project Citizen. They were awarded project and class of the year designations from Northwestern University and the Constitutional Rights Foundation in addition to many other honors. Touted as “young warriors” and compared to “civil rights activists of 1960s,” the students were empowered. According to their website, they were uplifted by the response of “people willing to help us that don’t even know us.”

Now awakened, the young peoples’ intelligence and inspiration, interest and imagination certainly drove their learning. Rather than of relying on me to create lessons that focused on contrived activities, the students became responsible to figure out what was most important and helpful in solving this problem. By allowing the curriculum to come from within them, the students discovered the most worthwhile knowledge. Instead of succumbing to memorization and rote learning, the students naturally met standards of excellence since it was a necessity to solve the authentic problem. Their action plan encouraged them to interact with one another and with outsiders and experts who could potentially help them with their identified problem. As each student self-selected roles in order to enact parts of the plan, their efforts came alive and the public’s reaction intensified. In order to make progress and get the attention they needed, the students’ rigor naturally met the standards and objectives expected by the city and state. In fact, their efforts went well beyond any standards or prescriptions because they wanted and needed to learn the skills necessary in order to actively participate in their project. …

[A] framework for a democratic curriculum evolved in Room 405. The space for students to embark on an experience in learning how the government works and ways they might become change agents to help themselves and their community developed as a result. As I now look back, I remember a conversation with several students in which one, Dyneisha, summarized our work with the project as a “way to learn how the government works and ways to work the government.” By embracing this meaningful problem, the curriculum became a catalyst for authentic, natural, and integrated learning to occur. Students were given the opportunity, space, and responsibility throughout the project to be active participants in the design, development, and implementation of their own learning.


Schultz, Brian D. 2007. ““Feelin’ What They Feelin’“: Democracy and Curriculum in Cabrini Green.” Pp. 62-82 in Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education, edited by M. W. Apple and J. A. Beane. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, pp.63-71, 78-79. || Amazon || WorldCat


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