Occupy Third Grade?

On a crisp fall morning in the nation’s capital, 3rd grade teacher Rebecca Lebowitz gathered her 29 public school students on their familiar giant multicolored carpet, and reminded them how to make sense of the characters whose worlds they would soon enter during independent reading time.

“What are the four things we want to look for when we meet a new character?” Ms. Lebowitz asked from her chair at the foot of the rug. Several hands shot up before nine-year-old Monica spoke confidently over the steady hum of the classroom’s antiquated radiator. “We want to pay attention to what they do, what they say, how they feel, and what their body language tells us.” “That’s right,” her teacher said cheerily. “When we look for those four things, we have a much better sense of who a person really is.”

As the calendar shifts to the eleventh month of 2011 – a year of near-constant revolution and upheaval, from the Arab Spring to the Wisconsin statehouse to the global effort to Occupy Wall Street – what might the rest of us learn from students like Monica? If, in short, we were as smart as a third-grader, what would we observe about the character of this year’s global protests, and what might we decide to do next?

1. It is not about “democracy” – As much as we glorify and value the principles and practices of our democratic system of government, it’s not democracy per se that is at the root of this unleashed global yearning. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently pointed out, what motivated the protesters in Tahrir Square – and what most animates those who continue to brave the wintry weather in public squares around the world – is a deeper quest for what lies at the root of a genuinely democratic society: justice.

The people protesting around the world are not just looking to be seen; they’re demanding to be heard. And what they’re saying is that from Egypt to the United States, essential social contracts have been broken – contracts that require at least a modicum of fairness and balance. If anything, therefore, these movements are about highlighting an uncomfortable truth: merely having a democracy does not guarantee a just society, and the tendencies of democracy and capitalism, left untended, tend to flow in different directions.

2. It is about unsustainable social orders – Across the Middle East, citizens have been risking their lives for months to protest the injustice of their daily lives. And yet the absence of social justice is a cancer that has already spread well beyond the borders of the Arab world. According to a recent analysis of the 31 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 11% of all people in OECD countries live in poverty. Worse still, 22% of American children are affected by poverty, yet the United States spends only 0.33% of its GDP on pre-primary education.

When these data are combined with other indicators like income inequality, access to health care, and the percentage of elderly citizens living in poverty, the United States gets a social justice rating that trails all but four of the OECD’s 31 countries. Add to that the now-well-known fact that the top 1% of Americans now control 40% of the total wealth, and you have an unsustainable social system, plain and simple. Clearly, people are angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

3. It does require a reboot of public education – History has shown us that to sustain a movement for transformational social change, anger is both necessary and insufficient. To sustain our energy, we are best fueled by an empathetic regard for the needs of others, not just our own. As Gandhi put it, “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

If what we seek, then, is a more sustainable and just social order, how should we recalibrate our public schools – the institutions most responsible for equipping children with the skills and self-confidence they need to become effective and justice-oriented change agents as adults?

We might start by evaluating each other the same way Ms. Lebowitz’s students evaluate new characters in a book. To fulfill the egalitarian vision of 2011, children must grow up in learning environments that are sensitive not just to what they do and say, but also to how they feel and what their body language tells us about the larger world they inhabit. This, too, is a central insight of those who study systemic change. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says M.I.T management professor Otto Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Recent events have underscored just how essential it is to acknowledge our global interdependence; after all, it was the financial subterfuge of the few that affected the personal wellbeing of the many. That’s why a healthy democracy is more than just policies and practices – and a healthy school is more than just test scores and teacher policies. That’s why the American activists of tomorrow need more than just the occasional lesson about Gandhi or King; they need consistent opportunities to actively apply their own developing compassion for others in the service of creating a better world. And that’s why students like Monica need to grow up in a society willing to heed the rising voices of the protesters and recommit to our nation’s founding promise:  “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice.”

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Categories: Assessment, Democracy, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    This is a powerful piece and I think you for sharing it. The educators and activist at Cooperative Catalyst started a blog campaign a few weeks ago, called Occupy Education, as a space for teachers, parents and students to share the type of schools they want and how they are helping to get there. Beyond just education reform we need education transformation with social justice and holistic understanding of humanity at the core. I am moved by your understanding of this movement and share a hope that this movement leads to a more interdependent justice and sustainable society, for the present and the future.

    please join us at Occupy Education,


    thank you for this story!

    David Loitz

  2. Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David! I’ll keep checking back to see what new faces and messages pop up on Occupy Education. Meanwhile, I urge all of us who wish to see a different model of schooling think as proactively as possible about what evaluation system should replace the one we have — clearly we need more than test scores; but if each of us had final say, what combination of metrics would we use to gauge how well or poorly children are learning — in the fullest sense of that word?

  3. Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Sam, I am with you, but I would not separate democracy and justice – justice, voice, the distribution of wealth, and the types of power exercised by the all of the protestors and regimes seem interconnected here.

    Can you have social justice without democracy?


  4. Posted November 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Hey Chad,

    I’m half with you. I agree that democracy and justice are inextricably linked. The distinction I tried to make is that while you can’t have social justice without a democracy, you CAN have a democracy without social justice. Just look at us, or a number of other places around the world. Which is why I think Friedman’s point about the protesters in Tahrir Square is significant, and why I wish we would get the order of things right in our own heads. For too long, too many of us have naively assumed that something like voting, in and of itself, signifies the existence of a democracy. In this regard, Plato was right — the key question is the extent to which societies allow justice and/or injustice to come into being; the rest (i.e., democratic structures and processes) will follow. But it seems that for much of our history, we’ve assumed the opposite. Yes? No?

  5. Jamal
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    My 6 year old was working on her big project for school, gluing pictures and carefully written facts about the life cycle of the chicken onto her display board and she faced a similar puzzle. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we a democracy because we have elections, laws and courts or do we have elections, laws and courts because we are a democracy? More importantly, what do we have if all of our elections, laws, and courts do not result in justice for all? My daughter, after much family debate with sisters and parents on both sides, decided that it did not matter. She balanced chicken and egg on either side of a circle with arrows going both ways. I take her lead in suggesting we do the same in balancing the existence of the trappings of democratic society and their functionality as the structure upon which democracy is built and justice for all is attained. It is the same old tension between structure and freedom, when done right they are codependent, necessary and fluid making for a hard thing to measure and or replicate. The good thing is that with Justice as our goal we know it when we see it and that just may be the best measure we have at this point.

    Can we recognize justice when we see it? Are we too easily fooled?

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