Monday, July 14, 2014

Podcast on REDAQ: The Network of Democratic Schools in Quebec

Hi everyone,
Wanted to share an interview I gave my friend Marc-Alexandre, who I met while traveling through Canada. He founded REDAQ to work on opening up new avenues for democratic schools in Quebec. I really enjoyed speaking about my year of exploration, and answering his thought-provoking questions. Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

School Year 2014-2015: Hopes & Dreams & Questions

As this school year draws to a close and I reflect on the incredible diversity of schools that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting in the past year, I’m realizing that what I want next is a deeper exploration of a few schools that have really stoked the fire of my curiosity.  This year has been a very broad but shallow overview, and has really helped me to refine some of my questions. Next year I will be working in at least two schools with radically different philosophies and environments, trying to clarify some of my understandings. 

I’ve been thinking about the following polarities between two of the schools I hope to study more intensively: 

Liberty-Based Democratic School ----- Waldorf-inspired Nature-Based School

Liberty, Agency -------- Routines, Rituals 
Bottom-up: Student initiated ------------ Top-down: Teacher/Pedagogy 
Freedom to focus solely on interests ------ Broad curriculum, many skills taught
Child & adult are equal  -------------- Teacher is trusted authority
Freedom to stay inside, unlimited screen time ------- Outdoor learning daily, no screens

Of course, these polarities vastly oversimplify these learning environments. However, I do think that it helps me to frame my questions as along a continuum. 

Any thoughts, friends? The more you know, the more you don't know.... It's so true. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The New School: Newark, DE

The sunny, airy art room
The New School in Newark, DE, occupies a large, rambling farmhouse in the heart of Newark, DE. A "liberty-based" school, it builds on the successful foundations of the Summerhill & Sudbury Valley schools. Summerhill, universally hailed as the grandparent of the free/democratic school movement, still maintains a similar model that was created in the 1920s as an intentional departure from the punitive schools of the time, with the intention and reality of childhood emotional & social health as the primary goal. Sudbury Valley, a successful democratic school in Massachusetts, was founded in the late ‘60s on the Summerhill model, with an additional intention of instilling consensus-based and democratic living techniques.

The New School builds on these celebrated, time-tested institutions by adding a third piece, that of deep intellectual stewardship. Melanie, the founder of the school, attended St. John’s College, along with two other charter teachers, and brought with her the college’s commitment to intellectual rigor. “In order to be free, you have to think well,” she says. Rather than the pursuit of happiness, the students & staff strive foremost for the pursuit of truth; as Melanie reminded me, “doing good doesn’t always mean doing what makes you happy.” The teachers have also grounded the school in a St. John’s-style rigorous intentionality around wording. They call themselves a “liberty-based” school instead of a "democratic" school, for clarity. (This was after a many-months long study of the etymology & history of the words “liberty” and “freedom”).

Classes, or meetings as they’re called here, are offered every day, approximately three times per day, and students attend if it holds interest for them. All meetings arise organically from teacher & student collaboration and shared interest, for instance, Euclidean Geometry, Theology, Film, Human Relations, & Writing. However, students may spend their time however they see fit: when I visited, many students were working independently, and two young girls were activity working on building a cozy new home for the school’s guinea pigs.

The true liberty that permeates this school nurtures truly incredible young people. One young man, Mike, I met at the beginning of my tour as he politely interrupted to ask a few questions about his day’s work—completing the refinishing and sanding of the main stairwell. Because of his poise, and the confidence with which he was completing a sophisticated task, I immediately pegged him as a teacher. As I came to discover, he is an 18-year-old young man who plans to defend his thesis next year, and like the other “students” and “teachers” in the school, defies that classification system. He teaches, and works, and learns, like everyone else.

Mike joined the school in after increasing frustration and behavior issues through elementary school—his favorite class was recess. Once at The New School, he threw himself into hands-on learning and play: farm work, carpentry and blacksmithing (he’s since built himself a homemade forge, using a vacuum motor that’s been reversed to blow air). As he found himself needing increasingly sophisticated math to complete these self-directed projects, he developed an interest in Euclidean Geometry, and Euclid himself. As he told me, “when I wasn’t being forced to do it, I found needs for it. Like in carpentry. You need some trigonometry to figure out angles….” Later, while hearing some of the older students engaged in philosophical discussions with the teachers and eager to participate, Mike began pushing himself to read sophisticated texts. He’s now studying Ancient Greek & Latin, attending most of the meetings, and intends to defend his thesis next year.

Instead of following prescribed coursework, the diploma process requires the student to defend the following statement:

I am ready to take full responsibility for myself & the community at large

Their “diplomates,” as the graduates are called, are encouraged to return to the school, and many do regularly.

The back porch was designed & constructed by a diplomate as part of his thesis
The teachers at this school all agree to receive no funding in direct exchange for teaching, a decision made in part to protect the liberty with which they choose to come to work. I greatly respect this decision, as I’ve found that receiving money for teaching can confuse and blur the point for me— that of an authentic and deeply gratifying mutual knowledge exchange. This agreement spurs great creativity on the part of the school; the art teacher, for example, is a professional dress-maker & fabric designer who does her work out of the art room. The students benefit from being around an adult engaged in authentic, fulfilling work, while she benefits from potential apprenticeships (if the students feel so called), and space to do her work.
Stairway Mural-- it's huge and full of mermaids!

Thank you for your inspiration, New School!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Still curious? So am I! Next week I will be proposing a two month residency at The New School for the coming fall. My understanding is that I will present & defend my proposal at the community meeting, and try to convince the students & teachers to vote me in. Fingers crossed!

See below for information on what the some of the diplomates are up to:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Manhattan Country School

Entrance and inspiration
The Manhattan Country School is a pillar of the small, progressive school movement. Inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was founded in the 1960s with the mission that "equality, social justice, and a diverse community" would root the community and provide the foundation for authentic, multicultural education.

Almost 50 years later, their widely replicated sliding-scale tuition policy allows for a truly diverse student body, with no racial majority and broad economic diversity. Their 180 acre working farm campus upstate affords their intensely urban student body significant time in the natural world, instilling deep environmental literacy and stewardship. Their environmental justice commitment extends to the city campus as well, where students work on recycling, composting, and tending to the rooftop garden in addition to their classroom work.

During my visit, I was able to see each of the classrooms, housed in a beautiful and historic building a block from Central Park on 96th Street. Student aged four through nine are grouped into overlapping mixed-aged classes, where teachers move students along as they are ready (classes are 4-5  year olds, 5-6, 6-7, etc).  In grades five through eight, more sequential topics such as Spanish and mathematics are taught in grades, but students still have mixed grade classes that are less sequential, such as social studies.

School-to-prison-pipeline work
The social studies curriculum is a highlight and an area in which the school really shines; each class takes on a year long research question and deeply and authentically explores the topic. The seventh and eighth-graders are studying for the entire year access to education and the school to prison pipeline. The fifth-grade is studying ancient Egypt, and has a Skype-facilitated relationship with a school in India. The nine and 10-year-olds study immigration; they began the year collecting oral histories, then began to visit places in the city with a large influx of different immigrant populations. The Spanish language program dovetails well with this exploration, as is as much about being bicultural as it is about being bilingual, according to my guide.

The working farm upstate offers a unifying experience for the students. Beginning in the second grade, students visit the farm, working up to spending three non-sequential weeks a year there. Seven staff members live and work on the farm. Students build connection with the local community during their visits; they have pen pals with the local public schoolers, and they visit their school as well as host those students in New York City.

This deep bond that begins in the youngest grades as students learn about each other, continues beyond the 8th grade into a committed community of alumni. Many graduates come back to the school to educate students on the kinds of social justice work they're doing in the world. One graduate is a civil rights lawyer who came recently to talk with the students about his work, as well as how he uses statistics to support his arguments. This math lesson was then rolled back into their activism project as well as the math curriculum itself.

Post office supplies
The founder of MCS was a student at the City & Country School in the West Village, and borrowed their tradition of class jobs for the Manhattan Country School. The sixes and sevens have a city study and then they take what they learned to create a post office that works with both students and parents and teachers. I also saw that the classrooms with young children had a generous supply of wooden unit blocks, another inspiration from City & Country. (I blogged about C&C back in December!)

Thank you for the inspiration, Manhattan Country!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mountain Road School: New Lebanon, NY

Mountain Road School is a small, Pre-K to 8th grade currently occupying a two-story, airy farmhouse. Originally housed in a nearby Sufi community, the school has inherited some of the ethos without identifying itself as a Sufi school, and lives true to its mission of providing "heartfelt" education.

Teacher/student relationships are the foundation of the classroom work, and the whole school strives toward continuous community building: the middle school is involved in a year-long "Compassion Project," there are weekly whole-school circles and "buddy days," where older children play & learn with younger for a morning, and an all-school recess. In addition to these codified community-building structures, there is an expectation that everyone will treat each other with love and respect, explained Anne, a co-director and parent.

View from the play yard
Students have daily access to the outdoors, as the school's land includes both a play yard and open fields as well as a wooded area. In addition, they partner with Flying Deer Nature Center to expand their Nature Curriculum; for six weeks in both the fall and the spring, students spend one full day per week outside. Throughout the year there is a daily 45 minute outdoor recess except in the case of the most extreme weather. Hand-crafted tools & toys abounded in the space.

Homey Hallway
Even more than the one-room-schoolhouse feel presented by the farmhouse, the clear delight present in the students and teachers in the classrooms was indicative of the loving family atmosphere of the school. Teachers have small classes-- 8 to 12 students-- so that they become intimately acquainted with each child's learning style, and individualize curricula and lessons. Teachers are encouraged to teach to their passions as well as those of the children, within the guidelines of the flexible curriculum maps.

During my visit I saw deeply personal and authentic work happening, I think in part because of this flexibility. The 7th-8th graders were involved with a theater project: writing their own play and planning all aspects of the production, with the support and guidance of their teacher, a trained theater professional. The 4th-6th grade teacher's passion led him to pursue and receive funding for creating curriculum around Compassion. He and his students have spent this year exploring compassion, through history, culture, and personal growth work.

4th-6th grade classroom: Compassionate Communication
I sat in first on the 4th-6th grade, who were beginning their Social Studies/Compassion class. The nine students sat companionably around a central table. I learned that the class had been exploring the Haudenosaunnee culture; in particular, their values, ethics, mores, and council structure. The class began with recalling their learning journey so far, and then their teacher Jon prompted, "OK, what is strong self-worth?" No one responded at first; I think some of the students may have been affected by my presence. To break the silence, Jon joked, "I mean, you know what strong means, right? Look how strong I am!" and quickly bent down to lift up a chair with a little girl in it a few inches off the floor. She squealed in delight, the other children relaxed and started up a lively conversation. One little boy across the table volunteered, "People are literally priceless!"

Art Room/Library: No chairs!
After the review, students broke into groups of 2-3 to discuss and reteach their understanding of the previous day's content. Two little boys immediately squirreled themselves under a table in the corner, a few clustered at the main table, and others darted down the hallway to the library/art room. Their teacher circulated between groups, encouraging, questioning and pushing the students' thinking.

In an adjacent room is the 7th-8th grade classroom, separated by a door which allows for occasional student flow between classrooms & regular sharing of teachers. The students were sitting around the central table, working in Google Docs to collaboratively edit their near-complete script. The teens wrote the play collaboratively as well, based off their study of mythology through the lens of compassion. The document was full of notes from their teacher, prompting deeper thinking of certain lines, questioning word choices, clarifying, prompting. She sat with the students, laughing, answering questions, challenging them, ("That's telling, not showing... "). The atmosphere was almost giddy with excitement; it was clear that the students were very involved with the work they were doing, and had created a hilarious and wonderful play from the pieces I was able to read: witty and thought-provoking writing, clever word-play, interesting characters. I was impressed.

I snagged a few of the children from the 4th-6th grade class at the end of the day to ask them about their experience. The consensus? The children don't want to go home at the end of the day. They LOVE their school. And from my quick snapshot, it was clear why-- the school community is like a big, supportive and loving family.

Downstairs meeting room

Thank you, Mountain Road!

Friday, March 28, 2014

ALPHA II Alternative Public Secondary School: Toronto, Canada

ALPHA II is a public school for 7th-12th graders, founded by parents of ALPHA graduates. Based on the freeschool/unschool model, students define the terms of their own learning by consulting with mentors and other adults, and building portfolios of meaningful work. As at ALPHA, there are no “top-down” requirements that mentors (teachers) must adhere to, so all learning is “bottom-up;” students work alone or in groups, however, whenever and wherever they choose. Anyone can elect to teach a course, but there will be no tests or grades assigned.

A comfy, open classroom
On the day I visited, most students were gathered in the largest room, a sprawling space in the basement of a larger school building. There was a stand full of guitars and ukuleles, a large ping-pong table, a number of couches and loungy chairs, a wall full of computers. Students were all around the space, playing video games, chatting, sketching, playing guitar, on their phones, playing cards and board games. Throughout the afternoon various classes were offered by mentors and volunteers (a film screening & discussion on mental illness, a class on camera angles in TV production, an art class), which were open to anyone. However, students had the option to work wherever they chose; no classes are compulsory. In addition to a few large multi-purpose rooms, there is a large art studio that students can access with supervision.

Art Studio
ALPHA II’S version of democratic school is based on freeschool/unschool pedagogy: students are actively encouraged to use the school building as just one of many possible options for where their learning can occur. While some students come almost every day, others spend the majority of their days learning in the local community: there are internships at local businesses, dual credit courses at the local colleges (offering both high school and college credit), and the school was chosen for its location: right downtown, close to museums, a large park, and other cultural centers. Parents are invited to the monthly community meetings after school—students and teachers chair.

Student art
I spoke extensively with one student who homeschooled for most of her childhood. After most of her home school friends had “given up” and joined a school, she grew lonely and began to search for other options. She’s been at ALPHA II for four years now. “First year was difficult,” she said. “We have issues with kids who come in from public school and resent learning— they’re detrimental to the space.” But, she tells me that she’s helped to institute a number of policies and committees to improve the school. “You have to reexamine what you think is productive. You say ‘I did nothing’ but really you played guitar, watched a documentary. People have a rigid sense of what school is…  and think that artistic [and social] endeavors aren’t worth anything.”

She has a long list of things that she plans to learn this year: learn to drive, play guitar, take voice lessons, work on her futuristic novel, and record interviews for a project on human empathy. She’s also continuing to accrue high school & college credits to work towards a GED. “You can’t live without learning something,” she continued. “Everything is learning. Here, we’re not discriminating against different types of learning, of intelligence. ALPHA is a learning community—students and teachers alike learn from each other.”

Monica, one of the mentors, echoed the sense of community and of democratic exchange between adult mentors and adolescent students. She worked in healing through the arts before she decided to teach. After completing her degree she began working in alternative schools, but, as she laughed, “not alternative enough.” Like me, she always felt uncomfortable evaluating students, and after seeing how deep need wasn’t taken into account by “schooling:” how unhappiness, stress, and mental health were issues exacerbated by the school system, she planned to leave teaching. Instead, she found ALPHA II.

Inclusive and safe-space messaging adorned the walls
She brings her prior interests into the school environment by working around social and emotional learning: conflict resolution and restorative practices, between individuals and the larger ALPHA II community. She coordinates with the “aboriginal education centre,” a part of the Toronto School Board staffed by educators who identify as aboriginals. The center works to preserve and promote equitable education in Canada, which is the primary goal of ALPHA II: to sustain an equitable, democratic learning environment where children are “free to live & free to learn.”

Thank you, ALPHA II!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

ALPHA Alternative Public School: Toronto, Canada

ALPHA, Toronto’s oldest public alternative school and only public democratic free school, opened in September 1972. The school is housed on two floors of a building shared with an alternative high school. The “little kids,” in JK through 3rd grade, have one floor and the “big kids,” in 4th-6th grade, have another. Through its 40+ years of consensus-based democracy, the school has evolved so that parents and teachers strategize to run the school. Its principal, assigned by the school board, works mostly in another school building and has a negotiated, collaborative, ‘arms-length’ approach.

The “little kids” have three large rooms, full of toys and learning materials, through which they can move at will. Children learn to read and write when they’re ready—there are no benchmarks. Teachers provide an environment rich in opportunities to suit all learning styles. The school also uses literacy and numeracy workbooks, but students work through them at their own pace. According to one of the teachers, the concrete nature of these books gives the kids a sense of accomplishment.

While children have the freedom to decline, they were certainly encouraged to engage in certain activities—I saw a parent volunteer inviting children to sit at a table covered in abacuses and other math tools. Two cherubic 4-year-olds were already seated and drawing 0s and 1s. “A hundred million! 12 hundred million! Zero, zero, zero, zero….” I watched as they taped their pieces of paper together, giggling at the enormous number they had created.

Learning is always framed as a cooperative and nonjudgmental activity, and children work together and teach each other. As one teacher exclaimed, “If you were one parent with over 20 children, it would be ridiculous to expect that you could raise those children well without help. These are the conditions in a public school classroom, and yet people continue to blame teachers for students’ failure to thrive.” While ALPHA’s open classrooms usually have 1-2 volunteers per day in addition to the teaching staff, the kids helping each other is the easiest way to make up for a ratio that is over 1/20.

That said, it’s certainly not the quiet environment emphasized in traditional elementary schools —it’s full of the noisy sounds of children playing. One little girl who was sensitive to the noisy classroom had chunky headphones on. And, since children have the freedom to move between the classrooms on their designated floors, they can find themselves a quiet nook in the hallway or another classroom if need be.

Across the hall, a group of slightly older children were working with a teacher on polishing their poems, in preparation for a school poetry night. Eight other “little kids” advocated for an adult to supervise them while they traveled to the top floor and practiced playing the gamelan, a traveling ensemble of Indonesian percussion instruments currently being shared with the high school upstairs.

Downstairs on the “big kids’” floor, I was given a tour by two gregarious 6th graders. Their huge classroom is home to Dash, the bearded dragon, two geckos named Artemis and Athena, corn snakes, and lots of plants. Learning blocks are decided democratically: students submit themes that they’d like to study, then vote. Right now, they’re working on Ancient Greece. They chose a job, (“I’m the architect who built the acropolis-- I know, I’m amazing,”) they paint, sew period costumes, learn Greek, read and write myths, and study and then create an imaginary Greek god. One of my tour guides created the goddess of chocolate, superheroes, and rock & heavy metal. (“You know Gene Simmons? From Kiss? My goddess has an axe guitar like his, it’s super awesome.”)

Their study of Ancient Greece would culminate the following week, in a living village where all students dress in the costumes they’ve made, act in character, and show off their work while the parents and younger students visit and learn. Learning isn’t limited to the classrooms: on the day I visited, teachers were taking interested students ice-skating that afternoon, and visiting a museum the following day.

Instead of assigning numerical grades, teachers conference regularly with guardians, and the school’s doors are always open for families to visit and observe the learning process. In the 1990s, the school board forced through mandated report cards even though 100% of parents were against it. Now teachers are required to write report cards and keep them on file, even though parents choose to not look at them. Hearing this, I was reminded of the vast amounts of paper work I was required to fill out for the DOE in New York City that was often filed away without being read.

School policy decisions are decided in a consensus democracy of parents and teachers. Decisions, both large and small, are talked through in monthly meetings. It took 10 years to reach a place where there were no executives—everyone has a say—parents, students, teachers. And everyone is committed to consensus; in 30 years, there has never been a situation where they gave up and had a vote. “It’s kind of spooky how well it works,” joked Deb, the volunteer coordinator.

Thank you ALPHA!