Interview with Jim Rietmulder, author of When Kids Rule the School

by: Sara on 07/05/2019

In today's blog post we speak to Jim Rietmulder, author of When Kids Rule the School: The Power and Promise of Democratic Education. Jim is a founding staff member at The Circle School in Harrisburg, PA, a pioneering democratic school. Look for our winning giveaway question at the end of the post!

What first drew you to democratic schooling?

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Jim Rietmulder: After 11 happy years as an A student in the standard public schools, I said yes to an out-of-the-blue opportunity to attend a democratic school for my last two years of high school. It opened up new worlds and adventures for me personally, and also showed me just how out-of-date and out-of-sync our standard schools were (are). Studying alternatives became a hobby for me, until my first child was born -- at which point it became very, very personal.

What is the fundamental difference between what most of us have come to accept as the standard school system and democratic schooling?

Jim Rietmulder: In our standard schools we tell kids to sit down, be quiet, wait for authorities to tell you what to do, and then do it. After 12 years of training to be passive and dependent, we set them loose

Author Photo (800x761)

Author Jim Rietmulder

ina very different world. Instead, democratic schooling tells kids to be self-aware, self-responsible, and self-directing, all in the context of diverse community complete with real-world opportunities and demands. The fundamental difference is that standard schooling conditions students for a world that no longer exists (if ever it did). Democratic schooling immerses students in a world like the one they will inherit.

Are there easy ways that teachers working within the standard school system can implement the strategies in the book into their individual classrooms and still be effective?

Jim Rietmulder: No, there are no “easy ways” to implement authentic democracy in a dictatorship. In its basic structure, the standard school system denies children fundamental rights and ideals, such as basic personal freedom and pursuit of happiness. It’s not the teachers. It’s the system. I think the best that teachers can do -- and many do! -- is to hold onto ideals of trust and respect. Do what you can to maximize your students’ self-determination, minimize the focus on competition and ranking,  and maximize the sense of community and shared responsibility. Advocate for students’ personal and collective self-determination within your school.

And our winning giveaway question

Q: What is one of the most fundamental ways that parents can get involved in the practice of democratic schooling?

Jim Rietmulder: Enroll your kids in a democratic school! There are dozens around the U.S., a few in Canada, and dozens more around the world. Or, if there isn't one near you and you don't want to relocate, start one in your town!

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