The Empowerment Network: Social Studies without Desks!

Recently I received a notification that a Meetup group had been organized for social science secondary teachers across sub-disciplines.  As stated in its description, “This group is an opportunity for professional exchange that is flexible, fun and not limited by specific school or district interests or guidelines.”  The idea that social studies can happen beyond the school or the school district (i.e. beyond the classroom) resonates with me as it is a critical pillar in my current work with the Empowerment Network.

You see, I am a (former) social studies teacher, currently holding several state-level licenses to teach psychology, sociology, history, and government.  Going way back to when I was simply a field student doing clinical work in education, I always wanted to take social studies beyond the classroom!  I would often daydream about a day when I would be able to teach social studies where students would not have to sit at desks.

Once I graduated and became a practicing teacher, I had access to some amazing leaders who allowed me to explore my imagination and tap into my creativity.  Principals like Mr. Szopinski (at Grand Avenue High School in Milwaukee) supported my innovation and allowed me to further explore my no-desk vision for social studies.  One year, I got really close and created a course (within a block period format) where students learned basic content at the classroom level and then, by investigating those concepts in a field-type setting, they were able to engage in authentic, intellectual and public reasoning. Critical thinking wasn’t something scripted by adults (as discussed by Dr. Paul Thomas).  It was something that students explored.

But, as supportive as my principals were in my instructional leadership, I reached a point where the 2 hour period was not enough.  Likewise, there were people starting to pressure me to do more.  Because of the way I am able to engage high needs and often perceived to be “difficult” students in high levels of scholarship and leadership, they thought I should start my own school and take seriously the vision for no-desks instruction for social studies.

There is a very long story in how I resisted such a campaign but what is most important is that the burden of not doing it became greater than the burden of doing what I conceived as an impossible undertaking.  And eventually I conceded.  So in 2009, Preparatory School for Global Leadership (PSGL) was born.

During our five years of operation, I achieved the vision of seatless-based instruction— but only in part.  Although we engaged students in a sophisticated project based learning and service learning program and although we produced competitive results in terms of both traditional and nontraditional achievement, I felt that there was more that urban students could do in terms of global leadership!  With political forces looming to become more like the rote and drill paradigm that I was desperately trying to disrupt, I ultimately decided to step away, save the integrity of the vision, and truly reimagine how to do social studies without desks.

After collaborating with a design team, led by the faithful and gifted Mr. Rogers (a former PSGL teacher), The Empowerment Network was eventually conceptualized to take the mission for global leadership beyond the walls of traditional and formal schooling.  Embracing PSGL’s successes with student empowerment yet holding steady in the pursuit for a seatless social studies experience, we have embedded four distinct features that safeguard us from returning to the political traps of becoming an agency of social reproduction.   Just as is the aim of the Meetup group discussed in the lead of this reflection, The Empowerment Network joins them in their goal to “bring together teachers (as well as students, alumni, and community members) who are interested in critically impacting the quality of our democracy and public reasoning process.”

Since entering into launch mode, I have encountered many other educators who understand that a sealtless learning environment is the purest learning environment there is.  There are others who want to talk about rigor yet confine it to seat work but there is a community of educators, other people like myself, Mr. Rogers, and our design team, who understands that real rigor is not located in a book, on a chalkboard, on a test and not even on a computer.  Rigor requires the praxis of thought and action in order to understand and solve real life problems.

I hope I get a chance to visit the Meetup group for inter-district social studies collaboration.  It will be nice to sit down as a fellow social studies teacher and talk about living out loud that in which we teach our students.  I want to share the vision for social studies with no desks—a vision where students get to live and lead in an improved democracy, to engage in public processing, and to have the quality of life in which the founding fathers of our country aspired.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness isn’t a text book experience.  It isn’t located inside of a bubble sheet.  And it isn’t a sit-on-your-butt kind of learning.  It’s having a vision, going after it, and having impact.  For us at the Empowerment Network, our aim is global. To get there, we want to create and support opportunities that put urban learners on the path for world change.

[Note: If this idea of student engagement and learning in action speaks to you, please consider helping us in our work.  Whether as a leader, a partner, or a supporter, the Empowerment knows that global leadership cannot happen in a silo. It can only happen within a community of like-minded, mission oriented folks who care! Whether big or small, please contact us to offer your support.]

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