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American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community

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ISBN-13: 978-1607092537
ISBN-10: 1607092530
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Editorial Reviews


Our country's ongoing commitment to democratic principles can only be actualized if democracy lives in our public schools. This book reveals how schools can help students and teachers see and hear one another, create a strong community, and develop the sensibilities and skills for democratic life. It provides a framework for democratic leadership that is accessible, actionable, and grounded in good pedagogy. (Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, Stanford University)

A powerful concept provides the organizing theme of this refreshing book: our nation's school leaders must strike the right balance between freedom and structure in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. But there is a pervasive, more subtle one that slips along with the turning of the pages: the curriculum provides knowledge and skills relevant to daily functioning, but the persona of the teacher powerfully shapes the becoming of each unique being. (John Goodlad, president, Institute for Educational Inquiry, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Washington)

Sam Chaltain expects schools to do more than merely give their students knowledge of the world. By helping them to make themselves known to the world, he believes that they will be able to meet the democratic goal of taking responsibility for it. This book offers ideas and practical examples. (Ted Sizer, founder, Coalition of Essential Schools and former Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Sam Chaltain has written a provocative, daring book, one that tangles with how best to create community and tolerance within the walls of a school. Chaltain is on to something - that an understanding of freedom is essential to creating active, engaged citizens, and that supporting individual freedoms need not negate an orderly, structured environment. I urge you to read American Schools. (Alex Kotlowitz, author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here)

Chaltain (national director, Forum for Education and Democracy) aims to synthesize popular ideas from the fields of business management, psychology, and education into an easy-to-follow framework for educators interested in transforming schools into democratic learning communities. The first part of the book presents pithy summaries of "foundational skills of leadership" (e.g., self-awareness, systems thinking, shared decision making, etc.). Each of these chapters concludes with a description of "five things you can do" in an effort to develop particular skill sets. The second part of the book presents the stories of three school communities engaged in developing democratic learning communities. The book is written in an engaging first-person style that makes complex theoretical ideas clear and comprehensible. The author's stated aim is to provide a structured framework that empowers people, while also allowing enough freedom so that each person's inherent creativity can be unleashed. (CHOICE, September 2010)

I want to thank Sam Chaltain for writing this book. I wish I had the guidance of his ideas when my colleagues and I created our own network of public schools. Sam explains through personal stories and case studies how the visible can become visible, how the disengaged can become engaged, and how structure and freedom can complete a well-rounded education. Sam shows education leaders how student achievements can be enhanced, how teachers can be supported to use their talents and interests to learn from one another, and how the larger community of parents and citizens can be mobilized to become part of the ongoing creation of powerful schools. What separates this book from others on school leadership is its clear set of doable practice focused relentlessly on the public purpose of schools. Sam is a much talented writer; lyrical in his descriptions, humorous in his candor, and greatly respectful of educators who try each day to be true to their larger calling. (Carl Glickman, professor at the University of Georgia)

About the Author

Sam Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project. He also provides professional development for public school districts, and consults with schools on issues ranging from First Amendment law to whole-school change. Mr. Chaltain currently lives with his wife (Sarah), son (Leo), and bulldog (Rufus) in Washington, DC. He can be reached at


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 184 pages
  • Publisher: R&L Education (November 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1607092530
  • ISBN-13: 978-1607092537
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.6 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sam Chaltain ( is a DC-based writer and education advocate.

Previously, Sam was the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, an education advocacy organization. He was also the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 principals create more democratic learning communities.

Sam spent five years at the First Amendment Center as the co-director of the First Amendment Schools program. He came to the Center from the public school system of New York City, where he taught high school English and History. Sam also spent four years teaching the same subjects at a private school in Brooklyn.

Sam's first teaching experience was in Beijing, China, where he joined the faculty of the Foreign Languages department at Beijing Normal University as a visiting lecturer. He taught two American History & Literature courses to third-year undergraduates.

Sam's writings about his work have appeared in both magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, Education Week and USA Today. A contributor to CNN, Sam is also the author or co-author of six books: "The First Amendment in Schools" (ASCD, 2003), "First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights" (Oxford University Press, 2006), "American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), "We Must Not Be Afraid to be Free: Stories Of Free Expression in America" (Oxford, 2010), "Faces of Learning" (Wiley, 2010), and "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice" (Teachers College Press, 2013).

Sam has a Master's degree in American Studies from the College of William & Mary, and an M.B.A. from George Washington University, where he specialized in non-profit management and organizational theory. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he graduated with a double major in Afro-American Studies and History.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Child Advocate on November 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was struck with Sam Chaltain's friendly, comfortable, warm, and intelligent synthesis of so many different ideas and approaches to leadership and learning, and especially glad that he cares deeply about young people becoming "visible" in the world. My own experience is with early childhood education. I applaud the author for his human regard and tenderness for all of the participants in education, and all of our efforts, highly successful and less successful, to be champions for children and create more democratic communities. We are in critical need of what used to be called civic education, and this book is a great resource for ideas about how to approach that.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy B. Zucker on January 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Chaltain's "American Schools" is often fascinating and insightful, consistently entertaining and well-written, and at all times important reading for both professional educators and anyone with an interest in improving our schools. In the first section, Chaltain summarizes and interweaves analyses from a variety of disciplines. The reader need not be expert in, or even familiar with, any of them to grasp Chaltain's arguments and appreciate the time he takes to build his case. At the same time, Chaltain brings the conversation from theory to practice, as he ends each chapter with specific recommendations (e.g., books to read, websites to visit, exercises to consider). In the second section, Chaltain reinforces his lessons by telling compelling stories of real schools where these issues have been addressed, of principals, teachers and students striving to create and participate in communities that empower each, and thus all. This book is useful and inspiring (as are Chaltain's other books); I recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Anita Barrett on January 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In a highly-readable style, Sam Chaltain skillfully weaves together theory and practice for creating democratic learning communities where young people are both seen - and heard. I most appreciate the practical recommendations and additional resources found at the culmination of each of the five chapters on theory. They include useful, tangible ideas - for many sorts of professionals...not just educators - that can be explored or implemented easily and immediately. Readers get the chance to apply our learning in the second section, as Chaltain shares inspiring portraits of schools striving to create model communities - to varying degrees of success. This book is thoughtful, compelling and useful. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kim Carter on January 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you've ever thought about how schools - designed to prepare youth for adult life - can do more to help our young people develop the knowledge and skills to be fully engaged citizens, then this book is for you. Chaltain combines his extensive experience with democratic schooling practices across the United States with his likewise extensive research into learning theory, organizational development, and systems change theory to present a clear, cogent framework for developing school communities that take democratic practice to heart. The practical and the theoretical are woven together in a delightfully readable book that would serve well as a basis for whole school discussion. Highly recommended.
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