If the Workshop School were open today…

Class would begin with Twitter. This would be new for me. I’ve never tweeted, I don’t have an account, and I generally think it’s a bad thing that all communication happens in Chicken McNugget-sized thoughts. But in several countries this morning, protests are being organized in real time using the social networking site.

We’d spend a lot of time on Facebook. I hate Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook page. I cringe every time I hear “friend” used as a verb. And from the perspective of a (somewhat cranky) outsider looking in, it seems primarily like a giant exercise in narcissism. (Does the world really need to know what kind of toothpaste you’re using this morning?¬†What delusion leads you to believe anyone cares?) But the protests in Egypt were largely organized via Facebook, with thousands of new groups created and accessed practically overnight.

We would be learning about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, working backwards from their op-ed in last week’s New York Times, back through their opposition to the Mubarak regime, and through the schism in the 1970s that produced the organization now known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. We’d be considering questions like what Egyptian democracy might look like, and how it might be different from ours. We’d be discussing the foreign policy implications for the U.S.

We’d be examining who’s leading these protests: from the looks of it (and who knows, history may show otherwise) the young and the dispossessed. We’d be studying their tactics, trying to understand who and what is influencing their thinking, and how. We’d be asking how such momentous change can spread across borders so rapidly, and whether anyone saw it coming. Whether anyone could have seen it coming. We’d be comparing what we see to what we know about social change movements in this country. We’d be wondering what comes next, and what we have to learn from Cairo.

We’d be reading, writing, and communicating; mapping social networks and political movements; looking at economic, polling, and internet traffic data; and doing historical research. We’d be trying to figure out, individually and collectively, what are the most important questions to ask. As teachers, we’d be pressing our students further into their questions, and asking them what they plan to do with the answers they find.

What we would not be doing: stopping this work because it’s 9:45AM and therefore time to move from English to science, or trying to cram it into a designated one-day symposium so we can keep up with a pacing calendar.

Sometimes events happen faster and less predictably than we can possibly account for in curriculum planning. As teachers, how do we communicate and model for students what good work looks like during these times? How do we even define what the work is? And how do we assess it?

For me, this is where the rubber meets the road in democratic education. We can push our students to explain why they think their questions are important, and we can get them to think concretely about how they can act on what they learn. But the questions themselves, the criteria for determining when they have been answered sufficiently, and most importantly the strategy for acting on what has been learned all need to come from the students themselves. We can’t tell them the right answer because we don’t know it. There is no right answer. What there are, in abundance, are questions of great import and choices of great consequence. Things that we should take the time to slow down and examine. Things that don’t fit into a “current events” exercise as a warm-up activity in social studies class, or worse yet into the dreaded advisory period. These things don’t belong on the periphery of school, they belong at its center. In the Workshop, our aim is to create a school where this is possible.