Testimonial on 10 years of Brooklyn Free School

tumblr_n0dyp7ucU21slfteoo3_1280Last evening my wife and I attended the 6th annual Brooklyn Free School year end gala. It was held at The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope. It is the school’s biggest fundraiser and an opportunity for the community of parents, advisors, supporters, graduates and students to come together at one grand and festive event. It is also a milestone: the school is celebrating its’ 10th year of existence.

As part of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the school, the gala also surreptitiously included honoring several parents and others who helped get the school started over a decade ago. Yours truly is among that group and one of the last with a child still in attendance.

Since there were too many of us to get up on the microphone and give a speech, one has been rolling around in my head this morning, and I felt maybe it needs to exit my head and go out into the ether.

I would like to say how proud I am to be a part of this experiment in democratic education. I call it an experiment because at the very core of its’ mission, there is a process of understanding children and how they learn. It must forever be reevaluated and adjusted. So it is here that I will interject my own story on how it began from my particular vantage point.

Back in 2002 Sheryll, Noah and I were on our yearly Memorial weekend retreat in Phoenicia, NY. One day, while visiting a yard sale, we got to talking with the home owner about education and such. In the course of our discussion it came up that a Sudbury school was in the planning stages of opening in Woodstock. This got our mental wheels rolling, and from that point on all we could think about was how to move our lives up to Hudson Valley.

You see, there was no way I was going to put my son through what I went through in public school. On top of that, I had already dealt with the public school system with my older daughters during their early years. I was not ready to fight those battles again.

Fast forward a few months, Sheryll shows me an article in the Park Slope Food Coop Linewaiters Gazette by Alan Berger. In the article, Alan outlined his interest in starting a school based on the principles of Summerhill. In that article, Alan posed a number of questions:

• Are you tired of federal, state, city, and “certified experts,” and bureaucrats telling you what your children should learn in school and when they should learn it?

• Have you had enough of high stakes, standardized testing and federal and state “standards” determining what our children should know and how they are measured and ranked?

• Are you unhappy with the fact that children, unlike the rest of society, are forced to learn particular subjects at particular times, and only with children their own ages?

• Do you think that it is wrong that children are punished (failed, left back, labeled, etc.) when they don’t “learn” something (at least as far as their teachers and school can determine) within a specific period of time?

• Are you turned off by the institutional nature of school; the bells, buzzers, announcements, overzealous security, large classes, overcrowded buildings, poor food, bars on the windows?

• Are you concerned that your children are not interested in much of what they are “learning” at school?

• Are you worried about the ever-increasing competitiveness and workload in school and the pressure and stress that children are experiencing because of it?

This set off bells for Sheryll and I. Everything we wanted for our sons’ future, was suggested by these questions.

We had a wish for our child to be unencumbered by the same nonsense that seemed to stand as a burden for us. My own schooling was not one that I would wished to impose on my young son. My 13 years in the public school system of NYC was not a road well travelled. It was a process of overcoming ignorant and oppressive attitudes. As a child, my main interest was to be able to work on my drawings as much as possible. This tendency was noticed by teachers as a distraction from what they were doing at the front of the room. They would often call on me while I was deeply immersed in some complex doodle in my notebook. Of course, my response was always bewilderment and disinterest. In the realm of ordinary schooling, this was not acceptable, and I paid dearly for it.

And today the situation is far worse with the conditions of standardized testing, massive amounts of homework, school security and burned out and disillusioned teachers. Schools have become like factory training floors gone nuts.

So you might understand why I was tickled pink to see Alan’s questions. My answer was yes on every point. And our response to this was to join others in the process of making something that had not previously existed for a long time in NYC, let alone Brooklyn—a democratic free school! We joined meetings that started with 15-20 people and sometimes would have as many as 50-60 in the room. There were many who felt as we did that in order for something like this to take place, we were going to have to be active in the formation of it.

One needs to realize that as adults we make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. I would go so far as to say that for the most part, most of my life’s’ decisions have not been good ones. It could be said that “I” did not even make these decisions, but that because of the path I have been propelled along, decisions got made as a kind of default way of life. Fortunately I have learned a few things along the way. And one of the truly rightful decisions (other than my current wife as a life partner), Brooklyn Free School stands as one of the great decisions in my life. It is a great thing because it is not only for me or my son. It is not only for the children of our school. I see it as a pebble thrown into a pond. You are called to observe the ripples the pebble has made. Those ripples potentially form a wave starting on the other side of planet.

BFS has shown me that when we take our own self righteousness out of the equation, miracles are possible. It is possible for a higher understanding to reach us through our children, because they have been set free from a very specific shackle—the assumption that “I know.” Their process invites me to partake. The path of self discovery is always unfolding. Their freedom is my freedom. And it would seem that the potential exists, that this innocence mixed with empathy and inquisitiveness, can be turned back on the world as a force of good. A positive action. An intention to be better.

The formation of the school back in a church basement in 2004, eventually encouraged others to try to start their own schools. Manhattan Free School, Longview School in Brewster, NY, Village Free School in Portland and others soon followed around the country.

That is why I am honored to be part of the ongoing experiment called Brooklyn Free School. As my wife said to me last night, we have helped to create a community that we truly love.

¨We do not mould children in any way, we do not try to convert them to anything. If there is such a thing as sin it is the propensity of adults to tell the young how to live, a preposterous propensity seeing that adults do not know themselves how to live¨ — A.S. Neill


Private vs. Public School. How Do You Feel About it?

4781354867_31e8687a41_zIn response to an article about private vs. public schools from the Gothamist, that was posted to Facebook yesterday, an interesting exchange ensued. The Free School Apparent is sharing it here with names abbreviated to protect the innocent. We like exchanges like this because of the variant points of views.

EM: that article is b.s. i went to a private school in manhattan and didn’t die of a drug overdose. granted some of my schoolmates did, but not my friends

EH: harsh.

CT: I dunno man I went to a public high school in Massachusetts that really supported and nourished creativity, art, music. language, etc. Of course 5 years after I graduated, when my sister was starting there, a lot of that got slashed from the budget, but when I was there it was fantastic. I think the issue is really the slashing. Some schools are always better than others based on a lot of factors including financial allocation and teaching talent.

AP: I also had an amazing and formative experience in the Berkeley public school system. Private schools are not necessarily outside the “traditional” education system, and some public schools have a non-traditional approach.What is certain, and what the article really speaks to, is that we as a society cannot afford to abandon public education. Even those of us who don’t have kids need to have some awareness and emotional investment in our neighborhood’s and city’s schools. They are the heart of our communities. Also, for what it’s worth, Laguardia Performing Arts High School IS a public school.

CM: I went to public, parochial and graduated from a city college. Any school is what the parents put into it.

KF: Well said, AP. The article doesn’t mention that in a city as large as NY, there are alternatives to the neighborhood school, even on the elementary level. Brooklyn New School, Brooklyn Children’s School–case in point. Not nearly enough of them & parents need to do research & be aggressive advocates. There are schools for all kinds of special kids. I think it is harder when a kid is “average” in intellect, talent to find a school that nurtures & gives them the advantages of the “special” but they exist. Slashing of the arts has been a major blow to all education and creativity but that is not reason that the system is poor, just the funders.

The Free School Apparent: I disagree with this article whole heartedly. Private schools cannot be painted with one broad brush. On the other hand, public schooling systematically disempowers children of their own learning, so how is that good?

AP: If private schools cannot be painted with one broad brush (positive OR negative), then why is it okay to do it to public schools?

The Free School Apparent: It is not the school but the system. If the idea of education is still “coercion” then it all feeds the same outcome. Public schools still adhere to a CORE curriculum which still maintains the system of standardized testing, which approaches students as “one size fits all.” Until we can allow children to be themselves, and give them the space to find out what it is “they” are interested in, instead of a preconceived set of accepted ideas, we will never move forward. It is the system that needs to be junked so that teachers can participate in this process of redefining what education actually is. And one thing I know that it isn’t is school. Children learn from each other and it is up to us elders to watch, rather then to espouse.

JC: Thanks for starting this conversation Anne! I have wanted to quit during my first year as a NYC public high school teacher because I feel like an oppressor, particularly under this intensive testing regime. I think schools in general have swung far to the right toward more rote, dull, uninspiring education. In the 70s when most of us were going to school, pedagogies/ideologies were much more liberatory. At the same time, I feel oppressed. 40% of my teacher evaluation under the new system will be based on the test scores of students at my school. And these are completely new common core-aligned tests that we haven’t seen and the students have never taken. Teachers’ and community discretion over the content of the curriculum has been completely stripped away. I probably don’t need to tell you that much of what is on the test we don’t agree with, don’t think our students need, etc. However, I am NOT quitting, because I love the kids and I love being a teacher (and, okay, I love having a job), and the people in the system bring the light. With most students in public school living in poverty, and most students of color, it is the system we have, and we cannot give up on it.

CT: Standardized testing is one of the worst things to happen to schools… my mom was a teacher in the MA public school system for 25 years (is now the academic dean for an innovative private school for dyslexic kids in upstate NY) and one of the things that absolutely killed her sense of self-worth as an educator who is passionately interested in innovation and pushing kids to expand their horizons was how much schools now force teachers to cater their curriculums ONLY to standardized testing. The schools are RATED on how many kids pass standardized tests, and what scores they receive. All that matters is that the teachers pump out the material that will help kids pass those tests, and it’s usually really mundane and does not give the teacher much opportunity to express himself or bring his (or her) personality, personal expertise and creativity into the classroom and makes it harder to engage kids. Unless the teacher is REALLY savvy it seems to become a rote passing of information, which is not the key to really good education (engagement is). My mom taught science and engineering and did a lot of great work and found it being stripped back over the years.

The Free School Apparent: Recently, an old friend asked me to talk with his 26 yr old son about his career. In conversing with him, I realized that he had no confidence in his abilities. That somehow, his education had failed him. He did not think in a resourceful manner. He had desire, but lacked passion. It is as if something had been squashed in him, and it was difficult to revive. I have seen this in a lot of young adults who have passed through our PS system. The thing is, I hear from teachers over and over again about what CT and JC speak about. Administrators have confessed in multitude about the woes and the disaster that the current Common Core, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind have created. Everyone seems to be convinced that the system is a disaster. But like a narcotic, the policy makers cannot ween themselves off of it. My only suggestion is that more people make a clean break. We need innovators and creative thinkers. We need people who can collaborate and troubleshoot. And they need to come from EVERY community irregardless of race and economic standing. It is how our nation can become relevant again in a positive way. It is how we can again be a leader in the world. But as long as people continue to desire what was yesterday, they will not see what is and the future will only be a downhill ride. The current structure needs to scrapped, and everyone needs to look at education as something we do no yet understand, because in truth we don’t.

JC: I appreciate the “just opt out” sentiment, but we have over one million kids in the NYC public schools. They and their parents don’t have that option. I’m leaning toward fomenting the revolution from within. For example, having kids read the “Black Students’ Manifesto” from South Africa in 1975, which paved the way for the protests against Apartheid education policies in Soweto in 1976. I give them this source along with others from the Soweto uprising. I think the students will change the system.

The Free School Apparent: I agree. I know I speak in extremes. but there is an organization Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) that is trying what I am speaking about within the PS system. You may want to check them out.


The Community of Trust

Microsoft Word - Document1It is fairly early in the morning. My coffee is here with me and I have already been up a while. I find myself here at the key board, after such a long layoff from blog writing, with my brain on fire. My thoughts this morning center specifically around our school. There has been a lot to digest from this year.

Yesterday, a few of us gathered for an Upper School parent breakfast meeting, to discuss issues that may have arisen over the course of this year and how best to address them for the year to come. It was interesting to listen to what others were going through, what their child’s experience of the past year was and  to express my own understanding about where Noah is in this whole process. After the fact, I began to ponder what his and our situation is, and felt a need to write the community as to what has crystalized in my understanding of Brooklyn Free School. Also, after Sunday’s very intense and emotional parent meeting, I felt it was important to state my growing sense of how this school has grown since the time we all sat down in a room 10 years ago, to conceive the idea of a democratic free school.

The one thing that stood out in my mind when thinking about my son, is that for the most part, he has always been in conditions where he is loved. As my third child, I was more relaxed with his arrival, and my wife and I have fortunately agreed most of the time as to how best to allow him to find his own way. This has always come with a huge amount of love. When Noah started at BFS 8 years ago, it was clear from the beginning that he was in a condition of love. He was in a place where he was appreciated for being who he was, and therefore, his growth has been guided by trust, patience and empathy.

This gave me to pondering my own upbringing. I know my parents loved me, but they did not have the facility or awareness to know the consequences of the conditions they put me in. Public school, right from the start was a place where I could not be myself. I was constantly told what to do and what NOT to do. “STOP RUNNING! SIT DOWN! SHUT UP!” As a human being, it is our instinctual need to seek love and friendship. As a child we begin immediately to look for friends who will like us and accept us. But in public school, you could not talk to your new friends in class because that would annoy a teacher or interfere with their preconceived agenda to jam facts down our throats. Many wrong facts I might add. It is amazing we developed friendships at all, but we did. But much of those were awkward scenarios of trying to fit in. A great deal of my life has been wasted trying to find people who loved me, for being me. Noah has never known this condition. If he was not accepted in one place, he just moved on and never looked back. We noticed this quality in him early on when he would interact in the playground. If a kid was mean or agressive, he just moved away from them and found someone else who wasn’t. And that has been his modus operandi ever since.

The parent meeting on Sunday left me with a lot to think about. There has been a pervasive feeling throughout this year, especially among the parents of the youngest children, that something was “not quite right.” I am not sure if this is true, but it is how people are perceiving a situation that is frustrating, and not changing rapidly enough to gain any consensus satisfaction. Well, here is my take: BFS has always been, and still is in a constant state of growth. It will likely always be in a state of growth. That is a good thing. Humans need to grow throughout life. It should not stop. As a man who is at the end of middle age and about to enter that “gray zone” before old age, I feel I am still in a state of growth. Maybe more so now than ever in my life. This school has been a part of that process for me. I have watched layers of distrust and impatience fall away from me like layers on an onion. As it is for me, so it is for the school, (As In Heaven, So on Earth.)

The school is a perfect example of what growth is. Most of us do not have the experience to understand properly what takes place in the school on a daily basis, unless you spend a little time there. We need to realize that our children are in a process of adaptation to the difficult idea of “freedom.”  While it is happening in them, it is also happening in us, in the teachers, staff help, interns and just about anybody else who has the inclination to get involved with the grand BFS experiment. There are occurences on the student level, decided by the children, that are incredibly baffling to us.

One example: this year there was an incident involving the drawing of penises on the school walls. An all school meeting was called, but the culprit never stepped forward. There were more incidents and then action was taken by the WHOLE school. It was decided, that for a time, the WHOLE school would be punished by limiting access to the upper floors. Many parents were aghast at this decision, but it was decided on by the WHOLE school. If you have never attended a democratic meeting at BFS, I urge you to do so. When children are given a situation to decide on, and action is required, they can be way more punitive than any adult. I have seen this many times.

At the core of this, at least for me, is love. This is truly a community in the making and one that has love as its’ core value. It is constantly reforming itself, but it is always guided by the fact that the people involved with BFS love this community. And before we go into reaction because something is bothering us, we need to stop and think how rare a thing this is. “A Community.” We live in a world where neighbors hardly talk to one another. Everyone in this country is so busy trying to pursue an outmoded consumerist model for existence, they have withdrawn themselves into their own private psychological cave. We live in a world ruled by fear, mistrust, and growing anxiety, all of our own making. The collective anxiety is so great, it creates a terror that accompanies most people as they awaken from their beds on a daily basis. What BFS represents for our children on most days, is that they arise from slumber with the intense urge to go to school. It is certainly not the case with the majority of America’s children. Is not entusiasm considered an important trait to venture out into the world with? Think of the case for the youngest son or daughter in just about every fairy  tale. Many conquer great obstacles with nothing more than entusiasm in their arsenal.

At BFS we have the opportunity to raise objection, but we should remember that this is not the case anywhere else. When we raise our objections, we should consider that it is against others who are merely trying their best to provide a condition of love, where our children can thrive while searching for who they are. There will be times where those involved will show a lack of understanding, or make a misstep, but in a community, that can be looked at in an open way that can be helpful to the individual or to the community as a whole.

We need to face our own impatience and mistrust of life so that they can fall away. This is our condition as parents. It is a difficult challenge, but one with many rewards if we choose to face our own lack which an experiment like BFS will undoubtedly reveal. Then one day we can hope to graduate, along with our children, with a better understanding on how to function in this crazy, uncertain world we live in.

This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. —Dwight D. Eisenhower

Jessika’s House

After a long layoff, I got to spend a day at school. Fortunately, I have been busy, and have not had the time to do this. Also, the school has found a kind of groove, and I did not feel as needed. But somehow I might be wrong.

So today, I planted myself down in the art room, and just let things unfold. I first had the opportunity to work with the youngest and newest BFS students. Truth is, I do not teach anything. I am just there, doing what I do. Drawing my drawing. Kids come over and have a look, and then dash off to find paper and pencils and begin working around me.

As I have learned in the past, a school like this has waves. So after about 40 minutes a different age group came wandering in. Mostly girls whom I was more familiar with. This whole cycle lasted about 2 and a half hours when it was finally time for lunch.

Throughout this whole process, Jessika, a very talented young artist, was meticulously working away at her house, which she has been working on for weeks. I had promised her that at some point, I would take pictures, as she was planning to sell it by Christmas. She helped to raise money last year for the school with another house. This one was even better. So I share with you the work of Brooklyn Free School student, who pends a great deal of her time, pursuing her passion.

Jessica working

Jessika working

View of the front

View of the front

Dining Room

Dining Room

Downstairs room

Downstairs room

Blue Room

Blue Room

Pink Room

The bathroom

Picture Frames

Picture Frames

View from back window

View from back window

Zombie Invasion

Today I wish to get back to education issues. We seem to be in the midst of a Zombie invasion. And just like in the movies, we have to cut off their heads to destroy them. But they just keep coming.

It’s just a lot easier to test, test, test children. Our curriculum has narrowed in Chicago. If you look at the average day for an elementary school kid, it’s reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, math, math, math, reading, reading, reading, reading, math. I mean, kids are bored to tears. They’re hating school at an early age. There’s no joy. There’s no passion. And the results show that. ”  —Karen Lewis, Pres. Chicago Teacher Union, Democracy Now, 9/3/10

It came to my attention recently that the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are championing the use of a new device in classrooms. They want to put biosensors on students to gauge whether they are attentive in class. The tool has been used to test monitor consumer response to advertising.

Hmmmm. Lesson Plans and advertising. Two things as interesting as moldy bread or farting hamsters…with advertising being the more interesting of the two.

Does it occur to anyone the absurdity of this? But because the “great” Bill Gates is behind it, it must be good. Right?

We should know that Bill never went to college. He barely finished high school. What is known about Mr. Gates is that from a young age, he was exposed to exclusive use of a computer lab, which was rare at the time. His interest was so intense, that he spent all his time working with the fledgling technology. By the time he turned 20, he had amassed thousands of hours working on computers and software. He became the Microsoft king because he had the opportunity to engage with his deepest interest. So why would someone with his experience think that it would be different for everyone else? Can we not see that children are bored with what is being thrown at them? But when left alone they form unique interests for which they are willing to give their time to. Whether it be skateboarding, computer games, reading or building stuff. These are the things that will bring about the future society.

IS AROUSAL A SIGN OF LEARNING? Skeptics aren’t so sure. They call the technology creepy and say good teachers already know when their students are engaged. Plus, they say it’s absurd to think spikes in teenagers’ emotional arousal necessarily correspond to learning.

I have said this before, but the more we seem to understand the problems that we face as a society, the deeper in the hole we seem to go. Rather than working on an effective bailout plan, we seem to be passing out pistols for a collective game of Russian Roulette.

I mentioned to my wife this morning, about a student at BFS who has been building cardboard houses all year. He is 14. He has already fixed his sights on Pratt Architectural School. “Leave them alone, and they will come home, wagging their tails behind them.”  In other words, left to his own devices, he has been able to nurture an interest, that would have been buried in a traditional classroom. Below is one of his creations.

Ken’s House

It may be that I advocate a certain form of schooling, mainly democratic, that not everyone feels comfortable with. But whatever educational philosophy you might subscribe to, what I support is a child focused model. This means paying attention to what is happening with the student body. Pay attention to what children are doing and stop trying to shovel a preconceived load of crap down their throats. They will just spit it back at you. And it will be done in a form that we will not appreciate at all. The results are all around us.

Does everything we do in a school have to show a result? I myself like to be left alone to think things through. It was not much different when I was a teenager. The problem was, there was no support for me. No one was looking out for me. My parents had no clue as to what I was doing and the teachers saw my disinterest in classroom activity as irritating. America was obsessed with being a world power. And in so doing, forgot what had made it the world leader that it became. Ingenuity. And we seem to have forgotten what creates this kind of creative originality.

In my childhood neighborhood, kids were always tooling around and being inventive. We built our first skateboards with the help of a neighbor who had a drill press. We built soap boxes or customized our bikes to make motorized sounds. We dug holes, climbed trees, ran through the streets, played tag, and slap ball. We read books, rode bikes, played games, formed gangs, had excursions (without our parents permission) and lived life in just about every way possible. When I became a teen, there were opportunities to be a paper boy, or work in a grocery store. Activities that built character. The America of today seems to have eliminated these explorative ventures. We seem to have missed the fact that the most effective learning tool is each other. Social interaction. Team work. Or having time to think about things.

Life is meant to be lived. My solution is to get kids away from those confining desks. Let them run loose in nature. If there is no nature, create it. There are many vacant lots in bad parts of town that are hungry to be converted to urban farms. Engage our children in rehabilitating our environment. Consumerism is dead. The writing is on the wall. If we want to salvage “education” we will have to discard what no longer works, and try to remember what did. America is in a massive hypnotic state of denial. It is time for a cold shower. It is time to kill the zombies.

There is a video that is going viral this morning of kids harassing a bus monitor, an older women who is there to help the bus driver. I would have posted it, but it makes me so angry to watch. It took place on a school bus in Greece, New York not far from Rochester. It is disturbing, because the lack of decency and respect for one’s elders, coupled with the fact that these children seem to be growing into utter morons, and will be in charge of the world sometime in the near future. I will not post it because watching it causes me to chew my lower lip off, and I do not want to evoke that in the reader. In addition, some of the comments on the YouTube page propose that the reason for this occurrence is a “lack of religious morality in the classroom.” I have not heard anything more retarded. Religious morality has been responsible for slavery, the destruction of indigenous cultures, repression of women, endorsement of capital punishment, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the repression of scientific discovery, mass murder, apartheid, Republicans and the list goes on and on. And this is the suggested solution? We think that we need religion to have human decency?

Zombies are coming!! Run for your lives!!

I have no more to say today. Maybe when the heat wave passes, I might be able to reflect a more positive vision. Today, I only see a zombie invasion. And I need to take cover.

“When you know better you do better.” ―Maya Angelou

Northeast Association Democratic Education Conference 2012 at Longview School

BROOKLYN FREE SCHOOL is pleased to announce it is co-sponsoring this years Northeast Democratic Education Conference at Longview School from May 4 – May 6!

The primary focus of the Northeast Democratic Education Conference is to celebrate democratic education and facilitate the sharing of tools and ideas to improve democratic, self-directed learning environments. The NADEC conference aims to build a stronger and more cohesive community of democratic schools and programs across the northeast United States. This is a conference for anyone looking to be intimately involved in democratic education; including teachers, mentors, students, parents, administrators and supporters. We hope for this conference to be practical, empowering, and inspiring to all forms of democratic education.
NADEC 2012

May 4th – May 6th
Longview School
83 Main Street, Brewster, NY 10509
Student-Run Conflict Resolution

A Panel Discussion with Q & A at Longview School

The positive function of homework, memorization, and projects in free learning

Conference Speakers Include:
Mark Jacobs, Director, Longview School
Steven Cash, Mizzentop Day School
Donna Mikkelsen, Founder/Director/TeacherThe Garden Road
Mary Ann Baiyor, Tri-County Homeschoolers
Melissa Merkling, Founder, Housatonic Valley Waldorf School
For more information and to register for the conference, please click here to visit the NADEC 2012 site http://nadecconference.org

Photo Diary-Another Day at Brooklyn Free School

So I spent a day at Brooklyn Free School. Essentially, I was asked to teach a class in the afternoon on Adobe InDesign, a program used for most of the designed layout you see in printed material everywhere. I used the opportunity to document some of the current happenings in the school. Key among them are the “intensives.” These consist of 4 specific classes that the students have agreed to attend daily for the past 3 weeks and which will terminate at the end of this week leading into winter recess.

Given that I had my camera with me, I used the occasion to document life at the school as it is. There has been a lot of development since the days BFS occupied 2 floors of an old church in Park Slope. We now reside in 4 floors of a sprawling brownstone in Clinton Hill. And it seems we are slowly out growing our space. There isn’t a place in the school without activity.

Oren and Noah start their day in the library communing on some game situation or other. There is a “no-screens” rule in effect during the morning hours. These two were circumventing the rule. Later in the morning, Noah taught a class in Animation to some of the boys from the lower school.

Jessica's house.

Ken's House

I got a peak in the art room at some of the current projects. Noah seemed impressed with them, so I had to have a look myself. Jessica. who is one of our newer students having come in from Brooklyn Friends, is a very shy and extremely intelligent young lady. She also shared with me her box of hand made earrings and pendants, all of which she made herself. I was impressed by the quality and commitment she shows to detail. Notice the scale accuracy of the furniture in her house.

Ken’s house shows a talent for architectural detail, and whimsical design.

The Intensives

These classes consist of four selections: Job Readiness, Casino Games, United Nations and Geography. The classes seem designed to allow the students to absorb a great deal of information in core subjects such as Math, History or Social Studies.

Alan Berger teaches “Job Readiness” The students had to come in dressed for an interview. The class was spent going through mock interviews.

Each student was at work either creating their own map of the United States, or going over the agricultural, economic and religions makeup of various regions.

 They spent the first weeks learning some of the rules that govern Casino games. Understanding the math involved in betting and then creating their own versions of the games. Noah created a hybrid of Craps and Roulette which inolves a complicated betting scheme. I need to copyright it ASAP.

In United Nations, each student represented one member country and would have to give a presentation about that country to the other panel members.

There were other activities during this whole process.

Nico practices for the upcoming talent show. The band was rocking out all day.

The Flash considers a wardrobe alternative.

Blu casts her spell.

Some dramatic play in the Gym with Sarah Mercogliano.

I felt it important to share this in order to give our community an idea as to how learning is going on in this school at an intensive and non-coercive level. The atmosphere has become much more focused. Students are being engaged at every level.

Waiting For Superman-Finally

Well it finally arrived. Released Tuesday, I was lucky enough to have Netflix give me first look. Finally I got to see what all the hub bub is about. And as I suspected, there were no surprises.

There is no disagreement among everyone that our school systems are in disarray. Broken is the word used in the film. But as I have commented before, we seem to have different ideas on how to cure this disease. Administrators and parents say it needs to be fixed. My stance is that this system needs to be obliterated.

The main thing that Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman (WFS) poses to us is that good teachers do good things, and bad teachers do worse than nothing. There are many voices in the film that speak to this point of view. They show us the rubber rooms (which have since been closed) where the bad teachers sit in exile waiting for hearings. But the main point made here is that because of tenure, bad teachers cannot be fired. One of the main issues expressed by administrators who want to “fix” the problem is to get rid of tenure.

Also shown are the better performing schools, which are mainly charter schools. To get into these schools, parents from poorer communities have to enter a lottery in order to win the few seats that are available for their children. As the film shows in heart breaking detail, many of the main characters  in WFS are not accepted. Their number did not come up so it is back to hopeless prospects they have for their children getting a good education.

My contention starts with asking why we are condemning teachers for this mess. No one interviewed the “bad” teachers to see what it was that happened to them to make them that way. It was pointed out by an earlier Guggenheim film, The First Year, that many teachers come into the system enthusiastic and ready to make an impact. So why is not anyone curious as to what happened along the way? What made them despondent and no longer enthusiastic? What would happen if we completely restructured what they call “drop out factories?”

The answer lies in looking at the system itself. The odds are already stacked against the teacher and the students from day one. It was illustrated early in the film that the passing of “No Child Left Behind” had a negative impact on our test rankings. It took a bad situation and made it a thousand times worse. By testing and measuring every child by a test or a grade, we are diminishing even more, the individual potential of every child. We are essentially saying that if you do not fit in this box, go to the garbage heap, or prison. You have no value.

Last week I sited an article by Marc Prensky about how Obama is leaving our schools back in the past (The Reformers are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century.) WFS even agrees that the system is no longer adequate for the present or the future. It is a product of the past, and it can even be argued that it did not work very well then. I had a chance to speak to Mr. Prensky on the phone earlier this week. His comment was that he would wish to strike the entire curriculum away and start again from zero. I often think in the same way about a lot of things. What would it be like if we start from a place where we had no idea how to do it. Would it not be better to have parents, teachers and students all in the same room discussing what education is? Are we afraid of hearing what kids want?

A democratic free school is exactly that. It is a giant pow wow. And as the years go by at our school, I feel more and more a part of a growing community. A truly intelligent community that empowers everyone to participate as an equal. And watching children engaged in this process has astounding results over a period of time. Math and science are not the focus of intelligence in this condition. But what you find is thoughtful consideration for the impact of one’s ideas.

This week I got to attend a BFS board meeting. And though I am bound by a non disclosure agreement to say what went on there, I will say that I have never been part of a more caring community in my life. And I have participated in many things that are artistic and spiritual and the one thing that often comes up are people’s personal agendas. But at this board meeting, the table was surrounded by adults who really care about this form of education. I could see how all of us have been affected over the years by this democratic process. What Waiting for Superman—as well as many of the other films that portray the critical situation schools find themselves in fail to address, is that there are alternatives out there that work from a completely different point of view. These solutions do not want to fix the system, they go ahead and create a new one. One which adapts to its participants. One that is not founded by administrators or politicians wishing to get a photo-op while signing a paper, but by people.

The last thing I want to address about the film is one of the short segments found on the extras section of the DVD. It shows the success of such schools as Kipp, Seed, Harlem Success to name a few. The thing that struck me was that each teacher interviewed spoke with enthusiasm as to what was needed, while their name is listed with their title of CEO. Now I may be getting picky here, but the title CEO applies to a corporation. Are they telling us that privatizing schools is the answer? Are teachers who motivate children to recite back to them rote facts considered good? I am confused. My view is that a good teacher will motivate a child to seek out what they feel an inclination towards. They will assist the student in using that interest to generate knowledge. And through the support of the community, they may discover understanding. This would develop a human being with a conscience. One who cares about their environment. In a world governed by specialists, which in my opinion only serves self interest, a caring individual who feels the need to give something back is what is needed. And I do not think Mr. Guggenheim would disagree. I just think we have completely different ideas on how to achieve that and what exactly we are shooting for. My wish is to get children away from the desks, get rid of the blackboard, evaporate the notion that a teacher needs to stand in front of the group like a general and bark facts. Give the child some breathing space. Let them play. Make ALL people feel part of the process. Rich or poor. They all need to be invited to the table. We need to break down the walls that divide us. The conversation needs to go a lot further and much deeper in order to understand the real problem of what we are dealing with. If poorer neighborhoods show higher dropout rates, then what is it we are missing here?

I feel that Waiting for Superman has opened a conversation. I do not agree with its’ answers. But the fact that the film exists and has gotten a lot of attention is a good thing. We need to keep this process going. There is not one solution, but many. The amount of solutions is equal to the amount of people who are curious and wish to take action. In that there is hope.

The Opposite Of Tiger Mom

I was recently interviewed by Youth Radio for an article series they are doing on Democratic Free Schools. They are specifically looking to parents who support this option for their children. It seems that these days, we are being compared to the recent article and book by Amy Chua, who advocates a rigorous schedule of activity (cello lesson, extra tutoring, math clubs, etc.) So, in this article, which gives me another few seconds of fame, I stand on the opposite side of the fence. The article is fairly true to my voice, with some strange twists. I also like how they refer to me as “Zeines” as if we are in high school and one of my friends is calling over to me. Anyhow, here is the article in full. A special thanks to Robyn Gee for not screwing up my words too much.

the original article is here

Opposite Of Tiger Mom, Free School Emphasizes Choice
Posted by Robyn Gee for Youth Radio

In sharp contrast to Amy Chua’s no-play, follow-rules parenting style, Bruce Zeines and his wife are raising their son with a hands-off approach. Zeines is a founding parent of the Brooklyn Free School (BFS) in New York, that was featured on This American Life on NPR. Zeines believes in an extreme form of child-driven learning, and would never dare to force his son to play the violin.

BFS is an alternative style school, where the only requirement of the students is that they attend the democratic all-school meetings. Every student and faculty member has an equal say in the operation of the school. The school is located in a brownstone house, and students from the ages of 7 – 19 interact with each other on a daily basis. They can even be in the same classes.

Zeines was inspired to get involved with BFS because of his own experience in public education. “My last name starts with ‘Z’ so for the last three years of elementary school I was stuck in the back of the room. I spent a lot of time drawing and I wasn’t interested in what the teacher was doing,” he said. “I began a path of learning that was forged on my own. I learned more outside of school than inside.”

Zeines saw the need for a change. His ten year old son has been at BFS for six years. “As a parent, my perspective is pretty much just to leave them alone. Let them find their way. You could call us laid back parents,” he said.

His son learns by his own interests, and is not forced to do anything, according to Zeines. “In public school, kids read because you make them, but forcing kids to do anything makes them not like it. Public school is about obedience, respecting authority. Do we want obedient children? Or do we want free-thinkers, people who can help us out of messes?” said Zeines.

Most people don’t remember learning how to read, but do remember a few beginner books that they read over and over again. Zeines says that even though the kids are not forced to read, they still learn how. “My son learned how to read because he needed to. Before I knew it, he was just picking up stuff and reading it. He’s not that into reading books, just things like Scott Pilgrim.”

So what social effects has the school had on Zeines’ son? “He’s fearless. He has no issues talking to adults or being aware when an adult is being superficial. He has no qualms about telling me when I’m asking stupid questions,” said Zeines.

While explaining the concept of the democratic meeting in the context of BFS, Zeines mentioned that it empowers students to speak up. The philosophy of the school maintains that you can pursue anything as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else, and if you do interfere, then that person can call a meeting. “You have kids who are used to being bullied, and now they have the right to call a meeting. It changes them. Over time, you can see bonified change,” said Zeines.

Some kids do transfer out of BFS as they get older, and Zeines attributes this to wanting a larger social environment. But he believes students will take away the ability to be free-thinkers and creative problem-solvers. “Employers are looking for these traits, but it’s lacking in college grads today. They’re not curious,” said Zeines.

The students at BFS still take standardized tests as forms of measuring achievement. Zeines could not speak to the success of the students going on to higher education because his son is only ten, but look forward to more information on the free schooling method from Youth Radio.

Doogie Howser, MD-freeschool student

Last week, while talking to a friend and fellow parent from BFS, it was mentioned that one of our students, David J. aged 14, was interning with a pediatrician this summer.

Now it has been quiet lately and I have not found a handle on what to write about. The summer has been rather pleasant, so my level of ranting and reacting to ordinary public education was on holiday. But the mention of this idea, that one of our students was expressing an interest in medicine, totally on his own inclinations became a new point of interest.

The main point of this blog is to dialogue with others who share this philosophy or even for those who find it questionable. It is my constant inquiry as to how students develop in an atmosphere where they are allowed to pursue the things they are interested in, to play freely, to not to be burdened by homework and tests. Many who are outside of our system always question how our students learn in such an atmosphere. How will they get on after leaving the safe haven of our walls. Will they be able to go to college, or function in the “real world”.

And here it is. A 14 year old, voluntarily pursuing an interest in medicine, to the degree that he would accept a 1 month internship with a medical doctor in a hospital environment. David would arrive at Mount Sinai Hospital at 8:30 am to go on “rounds” with the other medical students. Asking questions of patients and then shadowing the doctor for the rest of the shift. David told me that this is something he always wanted to do, and by doing it, his interest is fed, and his interest remains.

I wish I had this opportunity when I was young. But the adults around me were not paying attention. They did not have a larger view of things, and therefore could not see the possibilities for a young artist and how to help me get a jump start on what was so clearly my main interest in life.

I am proud of David for taking the initiative. I am proud of our school for making that initiative possible. I would only hope that others could understand how valuable this type of educational environment is to our world. We truly need people who can find their place in the community in a natural way. Not one that is imposed through competitiveness, tracking, and stressing out students through testing, homework, and compulsive attendance which has no clear point in real learning. It is by encouraging the act of learning in itself, that our community, our society, our world, will be served.


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