democratic discourse

I’ve been in a funk lately, and I haven’t been able to get out of it. I know I’m not alone in this. I see it in students and colleagues, a certain malaise laced with anxiety and frosted with bitterness. We’ve been searching for something more promising.

Today I found it.

Today I watched true intellectual discourse, democratic ideals and empathy for fellow humans. There was a pursuit of truth and a clear path of intellectual curiosity.

Today, while we were all voting for the President of the United States, I witnessed democratic ideals in a 4th grade classroom during their science investigation.

Students evaluated evidence, how air in a cup kept a paper towel dry even as the inverted contraption was submerged in water. They prodded at nature and found other variations to try. They wondered and they wrote their questions down in a public space on their classroom wall so that they could keep record of the things they were unsure about but wanted to pursue later.

These kids would say, “I disagree because,” and “I think that … because,” and they would cite evidence behind their thinking. And then they listened to each other. “That was interesting. I didn’t see it the way that you did; thank you for sharing that.” This came from a 10-year-old girl who was figuring out her own understanding of how air could push on other matter — something that is abstract and fraught with confusion. She got help from the collective group of students around a desk, and she looked to a natural phenomenon and empirical test as arbiter.

There was pondering. There was writing. There was anticipation and that intellectual curiosity. There were kids with big, curly hair and kids with flat, short hair; kids with dark skin and kids with light skin; girls and boys; kids whose first language was English and kids who had some other lingual background. All had a chance to share and everyone listened. They took turns and they helped each other with patience. Their ideas were valued. “I hear you saying,” and, “Do you have something to add on?” was all the moderating that a teacher had to do, besides bringing the plastic containers and water, along with the problem at hand.

At one point, a group was teasing out the details of a disagreement, and then it came to this: “I’m saying stuff about air pressure but I think we’re talking about the same kinds of things.”

I imagine that, too often, the grownups are talking about a lot of the same kinds of things, but maybe just past one another. I’ve been feeling bad about this, sick even. I came into this classroom a little weary from work and from campaigns and lack of sleep. But, there’s this: These 10-year-olds are going to be voting in just a couple of presidential election cycles. In the meantime, we have something to learn from these scholars of the 4th grade, along with their teacher who helped put it all together. They gave me a gift on my weary Tuesday afternoon. They gave me hope.