A Brilliant Story of Success
Democracy At Its Very Best
Here is a remarkable report on a successful experiment in democracy. We are grateful to the author and to USA Table Tennis magazine for their permission to share this article with Progress Report readers.
The Democratic Table Tennis Club
by Jerry MintzWe're now in the third year of our experiment with setting up a democratically run table tennis club within a local Boys' and Girls' club.
Coach of the Grenville Baker Boys and Girls Club Table Tennis Program
First I should make it clear that this was not originally done as an experiment or demonstration of anything. I was a volunteer table tennis teacher at the Club because I love the game and love to teach it. When I was overwhelmed by interest from younger players, I instinctively went to the democratic process as an organizational tool.
There are two elements which this process tests and demonstrates: The first deals with the question of whether a mixture of public school students aged 7-12 could learn to effectively use the democratic process in a very limited situation, although they continue to be public school students.
The second aspect deals with something I have often asserted about democratic, alternative schools -- that if students follow their interest and study anything passionately and in depth, it ultimately broadens out to connect to a spectrum of learning, because all information ultimately connects. So in this case the question was, how far could a ping-pong program at a Boys' and Girls' Club go educationally?
Another key question to answer is just how motivated were these students, and why? I think that part of the motivation was that each student received individual attention. Each was treated with respect and got to choose what aspect of the game they wanted to work on. This may have been something that did not happen elsewhere in their lives.
How motivated were they? One day when I came on a different day from my usual volunteer time, I walked down the sidewalk, past a baseball game, toward the Club. As I got out of view I heard someone yell my name. By the time I got inside the door to the Club, the baseball game had emptied out and the students were lined up to sign up for table tennis lessons. When I asked former USATT Executive Director Ben Nisbet where else this level of excitement and interest in table tennis might exist, he said, “China?”
Another key was the democratic process. When I first started the democratic meetings, the kids acted as if it was something like a public school class -- talking, not paying attention, and so on. Eventually, as they began to realize that every decision they made was implemented as the decision for the club, they got more and more serious about the meetings and wanted to make sure that they were in them and that their votes counted.
One event involved their questioning the work ethic of two of their elected supervisors. As a result of that they had a meeting in which they elected for one week temporary assistant supervisors who would take their places. The idea was this might be a permanent position and the others might be removed depending upon how it went when they came to the next meeting. The supervisor's job is to take responsibility for the Challenge Ladder and make the changes and updates that had to be done, resolve any disputes and referee any matches where people seemed to have some problem, and basically keep the program going smoothly. The kids felt that two of the more recently elected supervisors were doing a good job but two of the ones that had been in longer weren't doing as good a job. In fact, there was one issue about one of them that had come up in which the number one player was saying that he would accept a challenge if people would basically give him a bribe, that is, give him some food or money. That was brought up in a meeting and it was voted that this was not allowed; they didn't make it retroactive because it hadn't been a rule before.
At one of the meetings there was a discussion about the new rule we made that you had to accept two challenges a day, where previously it had been one. The question was whom you'd have to accept as challengers. Some were trying to put in a rule that you could choose whom to accept, because any of the people six places away from you could challenge you. That was voted on and passed. There were two dissenters: one student who was afraid that his challenges wouldn't be accepted, and myself. According to our system we asked the minority to say, if they want to, why they voted against it. I said I felt this would possibly create a situation in which certain kids could be effectively excluded from being able to make challenges because as soon as they challenge somebody, that person could try to get someone else to challenge them and then play that match. Then we had a re-vote and they unanimously changed the rule to one where you have to accept the challenges in the order that they're made.
An 8-year-old student who was elected as an Assistant Supervisor was recently given a warning by the meeting for abuse of power when he threatened to put someone at the bottom of the ladder if he didn't accept his challenge. I wish some of our elected officials had such an experience.
One day I got a call from one of the students who thought that I should be informed about an incident that happened that day. It really felt just like the kind of call that I would get from another staff member when I was running my school. He told me that one of the supervisors had made an error in judgment that day in which there was a conflicting challenge going on between an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old. The 9-year-old was calling the 8-year-old names and this supervisor, instead of just correcting him on that, took the side of the other boy and was rooting for him during the match. It eventually reduced the 9-year-old to tears and he wasn't even able to continue. The feeling was that that was the wrong approach. So this other more newly elected supervisor, a 12-year-old, was calling me to let me know what had happened.
When I came in we had a special staff meeting. We'd never had a meeting before of the supervisors, the four kids and the three temporary assistants. We discussed the best way to handle that kind of situation and everyone agreed that the supervisor should never take sides, that they should always be fair in handling these things.
For a long time I had to chair the meetings myself, and they were relatively infrequent, perhaps one or two a month. But the students began to put more items on the agenda, and even bring each other up. This was significant, because it is a turning point when students are not afraid to confront a peer in a meeting.
A short time into the third year, the students began to chair the meetings, and they did a more and more effective job. They learned how to keep order, stay on the subject, and not be overly aggressive about sending disruptive members out of the meeting for a few minutes after two warnings. But I wondered how much the meeting process still revolved around me, and whether they really believed in it.
Then one day that question was answered. Some of the students had started to send me instant messages. One 10-year-old boy reminded me that the students had organized a meeting that Saturday because everyone was yelling and arguing. He helped organize the meeting. A chairperson was selected. The issue was that a new student had improperly changed the challenge ladder. They wouldn't let the students meet without an adult in the room where we usually met, so they organized the chairs near the office. They voted to teach the new student all of the rules they had passed, and resolved the problem. This was the first time there had been a democratic meeting with no adult. There have been many since then. A rule was passed that all meetings must be recorded in a logbook.
Meanwhile, the students were winning many trophies at the tournaments in which we participated. The biggest day was when we went to the New York State Championships in New Rochelle. The Club provided a van and brought 11 students. We won the New York State Boys' and Girls' Club Championship, as well as the individual under 12 and under 10 championships. Since then our students have also won the under 13, under 14 and under 16 events at area sanctioned national tournaments.
We've been able to get some lessons for our students with a former Chinese men's champion, Coach Li Yuxiang, and the number one and four women in the USA, Wang Chen and Lily Yip.
To answer the second question – to what extent does this interest reach out educationally – the results are becoming clear. The students are becoming more and more articulate, with better vocabularies in the meetings. They voted to have a fundraising auction, and I taught them how to go into a store and ask for a donation for the auction. Shopkeepers have stopped me on the street to tell me how well spoken and polite the students were. Now they are concentrating on publicity and PR, taking responsibility for putting out signs, and press releases, etc. One just came up with an idea to put a notice in the bulletin of a nearby church. They have also been working with the Club art teacher to make posters and a big sign to hang outside the Club.
I had an interesting discussion on-line with two of the students. They started talking about problems in their schools. One goes to a public school and the other to a Catholic school. One student said, I think the teachers should hear what the kids have to say more often, instead of not listening. They suggested we discuss the problems in schools at a table tennis meeting, and they subsequently did organize that discussion. They also were trying to figure out a way that I could speak in their schools.
Ben Nisbet, the executive director of USA Table Tennis, was so impressed with the students in our program that he traveled to the Club and tested five of the students who successfully passed and became the youngest certified table tennis coaches in the country. It is clear to me that students who get even a glimpse of respect and empowerment can effectively extrapolate from that experience. It will be interesting to see what the next stages of development might bring.
Find out more about the The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). You can contact Coach Jerry Mintz at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone toll-free 800-769-4171. The USA Table Tennis website is here.
Copyright 2004 USA Table Tennis Magazine.
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