Introducing Deborah Meier
Since I'm writing my introduction after Diane wrote (and shared) hers, I have a chance to make mine a "reply"—to set the stage for our future blogs.
First of all, Diane and I have been arguing for a lot longer than she mentions. Diane called me maybe 15 years ago to suggest that since I had been a critic of some of her works, why didn't she come and actually see some of mine—the school I was working in. So we met, for the first time, at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. And we bonded thereafter, even as we continued to criticize each other's ideas—especially when it came to matters of education policy. This is easier to do now—many years later—when we are both at New York University.
Second, our histories are interestingly different. I grew up in New York—for 8 years in what was once the rural suburbs, and later in Manhattan. My family were always engaged in politics—liberal, labor-oriented, (my mother once ran for City Council), as well as in the world of Jewish intellectual and social causes. I went to privileged independent progressive schools, then to Antioch and finally the University of Chicago for a Master's Degree in History. So Diane and I are both historians by training, if not in professional focus. I almost went on for a doctorate but instead had three kids and got involved on a semi-fulltime basis in the socialist, civil rights and peace movements of the 50s-60s in Chicago—mostly using my house as the base of operations. I was a founding member with Michael Harrington of a group called Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. (I've always had a penchant for small "schools" of thought.)
Third, when my kids were about school age, I tried to earn a little money the easiest way I could: as a substitute teacher on Chicago's southside. It turned out to be the hardest thing I had ever done, and I had no natural talent for it. But it was an extraordinary experience. These schools, it struck me, were hardly designed in ways that would help produce a feisty, smart, compassionate citizenry. Fortunately our democracy has survived as well as it has despite schooling that was more oriented toward compliance than democracy. What could it be if... I wondered.
One thing led to another and I'm still wondering.
For the next 40-something years I've been wondering from inside schools: as a parent of publicly educated urban kids, as a kindergarten (and Head Start) teacher, a founding member and sort-of-head of a number of new small democratically-governed public elementary and secondary schools in NYC and Boston. Always looking for the cracks that could expand the democratic nature of classrooms and schools. Along the way I got the necessary credentials and began to write about my work-mostly for the families of the kids in the schools in which I worked, for Dissent and The Nation, among others, and finally wrote a few books, starting with "The Power of Their Ideas" in 1995. My political “organizing” largely focused on trying to get networks of teachers and parents together—being a rep to NYC’s AFT local, forming the North Dakota Study Group, The Center for Collaborative Education, the Coalition of Essential Schools, The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and lately the Progressive Ed Network of New England and a Campaign for Children to demand that we support playfulness at least for our youngest children! It helped to receive support from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, in the form of a hefty award in the late ‘80s.
If only our voices, those closest to the children, would be heard in the halls of policy makers how much easier it would be to do good work on the ground, we thought. Even when we weren’t being heard, being in the midst of vibrant, living and complicated schools sustained my hopes. I'm missing that now.
All this leads to my current worry: the threatened future of public education itself. I worry also about the ties that bind my colleagues together through their unions. These two powerful common concerns connect Diane's work and my own. That we still disagree on so many other matters fascinates me; hopefully it will interest others as well.