Friday, January 31, 2014

The Farm School: Summertown, TN

While in Tennessee, I visited The Farm School, a democratic K-12 established in 1971 by members of  The Farm, an intentional community famous in part for their role in the midwifery movement. Housed in an airy passive solar building, the school is comprised of a mix of children from The Farm and surrounding communities.

My day began with Morning Circle, where students and teachers broke into two rooms by gender identity and pulled chairs and couches into a comfortable ring. The content of these circles varies depending on the day, but always begins with an invitation to check-in: How you're feeling, what you're grateful for, requests of the group, and requests of the universe. On Mondays and Wednesdays there is also a "spiritual practice," that is, anything that helps you connect with yourself, each other, or the world. All of these rituals, like most practices in democratic schools, are invitation-based (read: opt-in).

In the morning, students have traditional classes such as English and Math, but with flexibility for what and how they'll learn, while in the afternoon the classes are requested and chosen by the students. Current offerings include: Psychology, Fiber Arts, Movement, Art, Songs, Social Science, and "Performance, Photography & Film." For this class, students expressed interest, and found a professional photographer who was willing to teach the course. Afternoon classes usually change on a quarterly basis, but like everything else, it's open to change as necessary.

For two weeks a year, school is entirely outdoors; there are no classes for anyone except for the high schoolers, who continue with morning core courses. Students spend all day in the woods, building fires, learning wilderness survival skills, and playing interactive games.

After Morning Circle, I visited the three math classes: children are separated into the "littles" (one of the littles coined the term), middle schoolers, and high schoolers. The littles were all over the school, playing a dice game in the hallway, counting objects in their classroom, each activity liberally interspersed with breaks to run around excitedly. One of the five year olds was wandering around her classroom with bare feet: "I like having bare feet, every day!" she explained when I looked at her incredulously (this was in the middle of the so-called polar vortex).

The middle schoolers' math class started with a mini-lesson about multiplying fractions, and then children began independent work, either on the computer or with a work book. Students looked comfortable-- two were curled up on the couch, a few others were gathered around the table. Ditto for the high schoolers-- at the appointed time, they sat down with their workbooks, before their teacher walked in the door.

As one of the high schoolers explained: "We don't 'have' to anything, but it's natural consequences: if you don't do the work, you don't get the credit and you don't graduate. So it's not a threat from the teacher, it just... is."

In Communication Arts, students decide which book they want to read and the assignments they'll complete. During my visit, high schoolers were working on Kafka's The Metamorphosis, and engaged in a sophisticated discussion about mental illness, dysfunctional families, and the difficulties of growing up.

On Fridays, the whole school cooks and eats together, then studies permaculture in the afternoon. The large kitchen is a bustling community space: during the lunch hour, four students crowded around the stove, each claiming a burner to warm their food or make tea. The long table was full of students of all ages, sharing their meals and chatting together. 

Peter, the director, has worked at The Farm School for the past 10 years. He began his teaching journey in NYC's public school system, leaving after he "got tired of watching the system hurt children," through the pressures from what he calls "All Children Left Behind."

When he arrived at The Farm, the school was quite conservative in terms of structure; children were grade-segregated with typical classes. For the past 10 years, he has worked toward democratizing the school. One of his first big changes was eliminating number grades, and he described pushback from the high school students at the time. However, at this point, children all agree that they prefer to not receive grades. The whole school is in process of developing a culture of taking charge of their learning; "Making choices is exhausting!" Peter said with a laugh. He encourages the students to plan field trips, schedule independent projects, and contribute to the structure of the core classes.

Stained glass dome in front of the school

I saw an inspiring level of mutual respect and appreciation between the adults and the young people at The Farm School. As in other democratic schools, when students are genuine equal partners in the learning community, it's reflected in the level of engagement in and enjoyment of their time in school.

Watching the high school students in the math class working on their worksheets, I realized that I really want to see more math that's based on authentic real-world problems. E.g. I think if students were grappling with a real-life math-intensive task, such as planning a garden, the fact that children are on different levels could work out. I have yet to see this type of math on a large scale at a school: I think it could be a needed antidote to the common view of math as difficult and irrelevant. Do you know of a school where math learning is regularly infused in authentic tasks?

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