Teaching for a Living Democracy (Joshua Block)

One of the many things I love about this excellent book is the cover. I love the expressions on the students’ faces and I think it’s very telling (and almost certainly deliberate) that there is no picture of the teacher / author, Joshua Block. It becomes very clear very quickly that Mr. Block is not at the center of his classroom, so it makes sense that his face is not on the cover. Even here, he puts students first.

“Teaching for a living democracy,” Block writes, “means utilizing classroom practices and curriculum that result in students developing a stance of self-awareness, critical thought, participation, and social agency. In this model of learning, students develop larger understandings of voice and their own abilities” (4). In the pages that follow, Block presents my favorite kind of book on education, a hybrid of both theory and practice that, that made me jot notes in the margins at a furious pace.

Just as the absence of his picture on the cover is unsurprising, so is Block’s humble willingness to show the challenges he faces, both in himself and in the systems around him. And I am grateful that Block knows his audience – teachers like me – so he kindly provides us with lists of resources, links to examples of student projects and other starter’s kit materials. He is aware that his subtitle, “Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom” may be misunderstood. Project-Based Learning (PBL) has, like many good ideas, been turned into superficial jargon by superficial attention to its true elements. Block’s book is a masterclass in what it is supposed to be.

I was grateful for the reminder that learning is rarely neat or linear. Because of this, it can get messy and frustrating. But is also leads to the delight, humor, insights, and confidence that are found in the samples of student work and on the faces of the students on the cover.

I only have one complaint. I stole it from a former colleague of mine who went to hear a great talk and was disappointed when it ended. “I wasn’t finished listening,” she told me. My response to the end of this book was similar: “I wasn’t finished reading.” I look forward to his next one.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.