Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Brooklyn Free School

The Brooklyn Free School began 10 years ago as the first democratic school in NYC in over three decades. Now, various expansions later, the school has taken over a 5-story brownstone in Clinton Hill. The approximately 60 students are divided into five groups. Each group has an advisor (adult support) with them: the 5-7 year olds, 8-9, 10-12, and high school (a younger and older group). While certain activities happen in these groups, such as morning check-ins, mostly students move freely around the building.

Our tour guide, a poised and articulate 13-year-old, told us that while "there are many things that are [her] favorite things," her very favorite is the democratic process. As the students outnumber the staff more than 2 to 1, students have a tremendous amount of power to shape the school. Students sit on the hiring committee, and student voice is central to every part of the functioning of the school. There is a whole-school democratic meeting weekly on Wednesdays; a circle with all 60 students and staff, chaired and planned by students. The high school has a separate meeting on Mondays, and the 10-12 year old group just decided to start meeting on Tuesdays. Students also call meetings spontaneously to solve problems, propose ideas, etc. 

As we walked in, we passed a high-school group's morning check-in: circled up, they were planning their day. Each group checks-in until 9:15, when scheduled classes begin. The classes run in seven week cycles; at the beginning of each, students are encouraged to participate in "shop intensives:" sample the classes, and make a commitment if their interest is piqued. Classes are open to the entire school, although some tend to draw students in a certain age range if they are highly specialized.  

Most of the day is broken into 45 minute blocks in which students have two to three class offerings to choose from. Classes offered this cycle with high schoolers in mind include: 2D Art, Shakespeare, Math Hour, Math Games, Self-Defense, Savory Cooking, Kendo, Video Gaming Workshop, Drawing, Film Analysis, WWII History and Literature, Role Playing, Essay Writing, and Scientific Inquiry. Although students are encouraged to take part in these scheduled options, they always have the freedom to choose whether or not to be in a class. Older students especially will make use of their time working on independent projects with adult guidance as needed.

On the second floor are the two youngest classes, and the first stretch of their day is free choice. The gym (a large open room) is also on that floor, so wriggly young students have lots of access to a place where they can move freely. Each class had access to both a room for more academic work, and a loungy area for meetings, socializing and games. Our host had told us to expect a "rumpus;" young children being young children, and it was. Children were everywhere-- dancing to an advisor's guitar in the gym, giggling through the hall, clustered around the new pet (after months of discussion, they decided on a bearded dragon). 

The 5th floor, contrastingly, is open to students only for scheduled classes or when accompanied by an adult, and held the quiet of intense group focus. The Shakespeare class had begun, and 11 students ranging in age from 10 or so through 18, sat around a large table with the advisor. They were reading Othello, and had stopped to discuss the line, "we then have done you bold and saucy wrongs." One student asked the class what they thought Shakespeare meant by the word "saucy," which prompted a rowdy debate. They settled on, "it's kinda like a really eloquent 'my bad.'" I noticed that their advisor's language was entirely question-based, eliciting students' thoughts as opposed to giving answers: Are there any questions about words? What do you think? Why is [that word] there? 

At the end of the morning, a senior joined us. She left a traditional school three years ago, in search of something different. For the first three months at BFS, she felt overwhelmed with not having hours of homework and compulsory classes, and mostly sat and read books. (Democratic and free school enthusiasts jokingly refer to a "detox period"). However, after a few months of sampling classes and experimenting with her freedom, she began to commit to classes and pursue independent studies with advisor support. Before coming, she told us, she had never had exposure to philosophy, and now she takes it every year, and plans to continue her study in college. The atmosphere of self-directed and enthusiastic learning is contagious. "You find yourself here," she concluded. 

More goodies: 
  • Every Friday is set aside for field trips and work outside the school building.
  • Students have access to homemade meals every day. With supervision, students are also able to use the school kitchen for projects.
  • What's possible with mixed-age and -ability learning: a high school students who is struggling with reading fluency has begun to regularly read aloud to the youngest students. Such a wonderful, mutually beneficial learning exchange! Apparently the kids look forward to her visit, she gets tremendous positive feedback, and practice reading in a low-pressure, positively-reinforcing environment.

One of the other educators on the tour asked our senior, "How do you and your parents know that you're learning, since you don't have tests?" It struck me, now that I've visited many schools that do not test or give grades, how absurd this question is (and yet last year, I imagine it would not have stood out). As adults, when we learn something new, we don't feel the need to test ourselves; we are aware of whether or not we've learned. When I lived abroad and learned Portuguese & Spanish, it was self-evident that I was learning. I think testing to determine knowledge should be the exception, not the rule (I see the point of testing, for example, in judging whether aspiring motorists have memorized important traffic safety laws). What do you think? I welcome a counter-argument! 


  1. From CJ: "I do feel like assessment in some form is helpful, and brainstorm and research demonstrations of mastery almost as much as I scheme up curricula."

    1. I would be interested in an example of one of the assessments you dreamed up. Applying your creativity I'm sure makes it more interesting to your students

  2. I loved the story of the senior, who after her "detox" period began exploring and finding her own motivation. It would be interesting to hear about how the teachers/advisors experience this school. Do they, too, feel they are free? Do they choose what & how to teach?
    Perhaps testing in some subjects is helpful to determine sufficient mastery to be able to proceed with the next level of a subject (I'm thinking of math in particular). But so often learning is not methodically accomplished in steps, but is more in leaps, that require spiraling back to pick up what you missed, or are now motivated to study more deeply.
    Regarding younger children, I don't think they naturally think about how much they have learned. When the readiness is there, they simply will begin reading, with never a thought to "mastery".

  3. What...I said...what...what...what an interesting school. Really cool and more than that. Dad