Introducing Clubhouse Democracy to Students: Podcast recap notes by Jason and Leonard plus more.
We think school starters will find the concept of the Clubhouse of particular interest.
Why did Leonard feel the need to introduce Clubhouse Democracy?
I took employment in an big old inner city state school. Ironically, it was built in 1921, the same year Summerhill was founded. There were two floors and a functioning basement area and about 230 kids from kindergarten to grade 8. ( 5 to 13+) There were 6 classroom areas on the upper floor.
I had been teaching special education there because I liked the small numbers … 14 I think. Then I was asked to take over a program with the Niagara Centre for Youth Care which was for kids excluded from regular schools and involved family therapy. Those classes had 9 students. After that I was asked if I’d like to go back to the original school and deal with a very difficult class of regular 12 year olds. The school was newly renovated and I said sure, sounds interesting. So I returned.
So for the first time I was standing in front of thirty students thinking that this is like the Hound of the Baskervilles. They could take over. Do me in. Children don’t generally know that, just like your pet Dobermann doesn’t. In this school, however, the students often did defeat the teachers and many teachers were frightened of them. The attitude cold start quite young.One day I was helping little ones line up and come in and one 6 year old was swearing. I just called him over to have a soft word; he looked up at me, gave me the finger and said, “Fuck you.” I bent down and went shhh, relax. Listen everything is okay I just wanted to chat … you see nobody can say those words in here, not even me. He said, “Okay.” And so on.
It was like working in an emergency ward. At the end of the week the staff would go down into the basement and then down even deeper into the boiler room. The head had a fridge down there full of beer. We would have a bottle each, unwind and tell stories about the week. Like the one from the grade one teacher. A little girl had been drawing a picture of what was obviously plants under a grow light. She asked, “What’s that?” The girl said, “That’s what my dad grows in the basement. Then he sells it. People come to the door.” Or about the elderly substitute teacher who came for a day and was in the room next to me. I walked by the class mid morning and saw a book fly through the air. In the afternoon one of the kids came to my door and said,” Mr. Martin is gone.” I said, “What do you mean?” The boy said, “Mr. Martin just walked out of the room and we saw him get into his car and drive away.” And so on.
Personally, I found the students at that school full of fantastic out-front energy. They were endearing children. I pretty much enjoyed my classes all morning and then they went on rotary in the afternoon and often caused a whole lot of trouble. As one former student said to me on Facebook recently, “We were bad.”
After a year or so teaching the regular classes I stayed on after school one day and thought about what I could possibly transfer to my situation from my previous democratic day school.
Leonard made two lists:
1. What had to be done by Leonard. “ I don’t need to do those things so great, get the kids to do them; plus what other things might they be able to do of their own free choice ?”
2. Need space and time. “Cut what I am teaching down to the bone. Give students as much self-control over their learning and classroom spaces as I can.”
Linda, his friend and the Head, agreed to let him try his ideas … Leonard presented them under cover of modern business management/ work teams. Linda cared deeply about the kids and the community but the school board really didn’t. ( Too many bad teachers, a string of poor principals before Linda, parents not of a social class that would worry the school board. In earlier years Leonard worked behind the scenes with parents to help get his first principal removed.).
So innovation was easily accepted. Nobody had to ask higher ups.
- There was a level of behaviour in the school that was not good for anyone, though Leonard himself was adept at dealing with difficult children.
- Personal desire to promote this way of working for the sake of the students … their sense of independence, self-esteem, exploration of freedom, democratic meetings, decision making and, fundamentally, to give some control over their own lives.
In the neighbourhood there were difficulties. It was probably more important for those kids to have control over their own lives than for middle class kids, for example.
You got to have a living space. Space to do other things. There were big new desks that filled the room and Leonard brought up old small desks from the basement. This delivered a lot of floor area.
Eventually ended up with an open L shape around the desk area.
Across the hall was a computer room with a coat area so the kids could put their coats over there as well.
Over the next few years the new habitat and Clubhouse concept was duplicated in four other classrooms. Other teachers came into the room and watched how things worked and followed the same procedures.
The kids would come in by themselves, set up the room, go over the lessons of the day and then get Leonard from the staff room when the day was ready to start. There was a guitar amp plugged into a mic and a blue stool to sit on so an elected student of the week could give instructions from the front.
They had the feeling that they were under their own control.
Psychological aspect: freedom and responsibility to do things for themselves.
How do you present Clubhouse to kids the very first time?
Very first time different to subsequent.
I said to them, “I’ve been thinking about this. Look, I don’t know whether you know it or not, but you do not have to go to school. You could etc… I’m not sure what would happen but you all choose to come here, but this is not a great place to be. And most of us don’t want to be here. It’s not a good situation but we’re all in it together. Could we make it better?”
“First I have to ask a question. I am the teacher. I have the authority. I can’t give you my authority cos I’d lose my job, but I can share it with you. And I will share it more and more and more. So I want to take a vote. Do you want me to continue with all the authority or do you want me to start sharing it with you?”
They voted for authority sharing.
This was before I moved the desks. Once we did that we had to discuuss and vote …we can put a library there, sofa, carpet, arts and crafts, small workshop, crafts area, etc.
The reason you have a living space is that you have to have something to talk about. If nothing happens there is nothing you have to decide. You need to open it up to give the population of children reasons for a democracy. Otherwise it’s the bureaucrat at the front hired by the bureaucrats invisible and higher up just telling children what to do and how to do it.
That is no way to have children grow up as adults if you want them to understand democracy, freedom, their rights and what authority should be shared in their lives and in their work places.
So one has to assume that western democracies at the moment don’t really want their populations to understand and claim these rights.
As it went on it became more complex. I invented the story of the monster in the cave. They knew that I was always the one who was ultimately responsible. If the Clubhouse Democracy had a wonky few days I might have to take the authority back for a bit. Grrr. But that’s often a reality. If democracy goes wrong … well you can get a dictator (Choose one). If democracy fails you can get the ‘monster’ back, that’s an interesting lesson to learn about freedom and democracy.
As the students became very much in charge of their own Clubhouse we even got into the guts of teaching and content and choices. If you finish your work early or you have done enough exercises etc you can go … where? To do what ? Does everyone have to do all of the exercises? If you know something do you have to do it anyway? If you obviously are a good speller why do spelling at all? If you really want to do something different for a period or even a whole morning can you ask the class to vote you permission ? Do you need permission if you don’t bother anyone? K is an artist, she does art all the time. Can she just go and do art when she really wants to? If something’s really boring and seems pointless can we vote to drop it altogether? Find a replacement that would be acceptable to the school. Can we choose which math chapter is next? Can we skip decimals we all hate decimals?
Reaction of the kids
Well they loved it. I proceeded in small bites to start with.The sophisticated turns came about slowly but quite inevitably … as they could handle it and as they explored asking for more. We were always aware of where we were and what was possible and what obviously was not. That’s part of the Clubhouse concept. They trusted me when I said certain things were not really doable given our common circumstances. Of course, I told them why. But they also knew we were bending things to the intelligent limit, almost pretzel like. It was fun, creative and challenging to us all. You don’t just dive into the complex changes though. It comes gradually within a solid scaffolding. But we were exploring what it meant to be in a state school cube, to learn and live in a state school cube, as a democratic authority sharing community.
After the first year the habitat was, of course, already set up when my new class came in ( Though they could make changes and we made many … even had a theatre stage at one point. And a rabbit that lived under it. ) I would present the basics over a couple of weeks to a new class. I still have the notes I used. It’s not rocket science but there’s a meta-understanding that has to be absorbed living a state school classroom, even if it is set up in an interesting way. This is mostly never revealed to children. It’s quite Kafka from the outset.
Parents didn’t officially know about it but it was made clear as it was adopted by more classrooms that the teachers would ensure that nothing unfair would happen; that it was a positive experience. The parents, of course, heard that it was positive from their children. Later on, when it got more sophisticated and the kids could send someone home from my class the Head was always involved. I would alert her about the details and that it was absolutely justified. The students would vote and then come to the Head and explain the circumstances and the vote. The Head backed the class vote the few times that the students felt they needed to send a person home. The students took that very seriously. There was no pleasure involved. It was just a statement of community self control. It was very empowering in a neighbourhood where sometimes kids didn’t have a lot of control.
One year an outrageously difficult class made its way to me. I used all the techniques I had learnt over the years to keep the class together. I was beginning to doubt Clubhouse Democracy in this case. Had it finally met its match? But in the third week it just worked. At the end of the day I went down to the office area rather incredulous, because the class had suddenly clicked into it all. “I don’t know what’s going on. It works!” I said. It astounded even me.
It’s definitely something you can learn to do. You need to have the basic skills mastered as a teacher, to prove yourself. You don’t go marching in as a newcomer or some kind of revolutionary implying you are better than everyone else. Not giving credit to the hard work that almost all teachers do is wrong. You must do the regular job properly if you want to have eventual influence; build staff relationships, build a trusting relationship with the Head. Then you can slowly start. And you must have the students for a half day. Otherwise forget it.
The Class 2 at Summerhill. The so called gangster age. I don’t agree with that definition. That age is the age of the Veteran Child, the Professional Child. One year the class two kids ran the classroom for a week when I had to visit my ailing father. I asked if they would and if they could. They voted yes.With just a houseparent dropping in two or three time a day see all was well. It was wonderful to see that.
Finally, I want to remind everyone that Clubhouse Democracy is not designed for troubled children or broken schools, but for everyone. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, new ideas are sometimes created because the adults on the ground are ignored and so able to create something for the benefit of children and a school without suffocating oversight by far away superintendents and administrators.Only the Heads were there, who could see directly what was happening. And that The Clubhouse was nothing but positive.