Interviews With Teen Girls

Sheryll and I have been asked to work on a new ad campaign which will be aimed at recruiting girls into the school. As a field study, Sheryll went to the school to interview some of the girls on their feelings and struggles at being at Brooklyn Free School as well as some of the experiences they had when they were in public school (for those that were.)

In listening to the tape I am struck by some of the public school experiences that are being related. I know that I frequently rail against the public system. Most of it is based on my experience as a student, some 40 plus years ago. Or the experiences of my daughters brief attendance in the NY system. I have read things, and hear things, but these first hand accounts really cut me deep. When you listen to some of these stories, you really have to wonder what we are doing to our youth on a national level, if any of these tales represent even a fraction of what goes on, on a regular basis.

Ariel, in Tanzania this past spring, working on a mural

Ariel, 13 came to the school about 3 years ago. Prior to that she attended a PS in Brooklyn. “the teacher was having a discussion in the class. It was boring and uninteresting and even a bit stupid. So I took out a book and started reading. For this the teacher sent me out into the hall, to stand and do nothing.” In other words, she was punished for not being interested, and turning her attention to something she was interested in. In another instance, Ariel describes being part of a “homework club.” This was meant to help generate interest in doing homework, which to me sounds like an oxymoron, with emphasis on the word moron. She tells us that in one case, she had made an error on one of the words in her report. She inadvertently flipped two letters. Something I do quite often when typing these posts. When it was pointed out to her, she explained that she had made a mistake, and quickly made the correction. But for the instructor, this was not good enough, and Ariel was made to stay inside and miss recess (play time.)

When I came here, I felt comfortable, right away. —Ariel.

Some may think that I am being picky on our teachers who work hard on a daily basis with little thanks. I do not think so though. These actions actually serve to accomplish exactly the opposite of what the teacher’s intent is. She is not going to be more interested in what the teacher has going on in class, she will be less interested. Homework, will not become more appealing, because it is increasingly shown to be a form of punishment. IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) states on their website [see link] that we are rapidly turning our children away from an interest in learning. How will this affect our future. It sickens me to even imagine.

Another student, Erin, 14, who also joined BFS at age 11, tells us that she got to a point where she did not want to go to school anymore. She begged her parents not to send her there anymore. She told us of incidents, where if you did not understand something in class, you were brought up in front of everyone, and embarrassed publicly. It should be mentioned, that this shy girl, has slowly emerged from her shell to become one of the schools shining examples. She reads, like a book a week, and has been known to read as many as four books at a time. Why would any sane adult want to crush this young girl’s natural curiosity and hunger for learning? The answer is that it is systemic.

Dominique, 14, said her time at St. Sylvestri Catholic school, there was too much homework and she had to get a book bag with wheels. She did not like home school because it lacked socialization.

Dominique with Erin in the background

On the other hand, the school is not without criticism from within. Infinity, 13 expressed her consternation that she feels other students do no do anything. Her perception that her younger siblings in the school (ages 8 and 9) play all the time and therefore are “not learning anything.” She feels there is too much freedom, but when pressed on what she could do to make her own situation better, she just shrugged. I would say in her defense, that what I hear on tape is an an extremely articulate and well spoken young lady, as all the girls were. My feeling is, that the problem that emerged, was not what was happening, but the conflict of what society expects to happen, versus the reality of how a child learns. Infinity’s biggest complaint about her sister’s was that they did not read. But then another young girl said she saw her sister reading. Fini’ defended her position saying that she knew her sister could read, but she could not read very well.

Sheryll brought out the point that in Finland, reading does not start until about age 8 or 9, and I believe they lead the world in literacy. Most of the students at BFS become avid readers once they reach their early teens. My wife happened on one of the boys going home on the train who was up to page 511 of Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States.” The boy is 11.

It seems to me that what is brought out here is that we as human beings, learn very differently then our institutions would have us believe. The fact is that we created these institutions. They were created, not too long ago, to serve the rapid emergence of the industrial age. At a time when America, and most of the industrial world, needed workers. So obedience was a standard part of the curriculum. This has stayed in place for over a 150 years, and it has become even worse in modern day. What has taken over the system is the idea that intelligence and education can occur through testing. Schools are rewarded or punished based on test scores so the pressure for them to get their students to prepare to take tests has become the beginning and end of the teaching environment. Everything is about the test. And the test has nothing to do with learning anything other than to take a meaningless test. And through this process, students are sifted out and prejudged as to how they can benefit such a flawed system. Students, who are creatively inclined, or dreamers, or who need to express themselves through movement, or are going through difficult periods in their lives, are jettisoned from the program. They are punished, brow beaten, humiliated, restrained, drugged and essentially have every humane particle of themselves crushed or suppressed, for the meager benefit of getting the school test scores up. And because of this, we are deprived of future innovators who could be vital in solving enormous social and environmental problems. They are our very own culture which is being sent down a sewer pipe.

Education is a part of life. We need to help our children learn to live. We need to learn to live. And we are in an environment where everything is against that. Work, work work, but not for any constructive purpose. Work for the sake of filling the pockets of those greedy individuals who could care less whether our entire planet goes speeding headlong into the sun. Just as long as they make a profit.

But we must remember that every great change in our society, has come from the common man. We have, as people, enacted free speech. We have protested wars, and have sought to find people who share our questions about what it means to be alive, and ponder the world around us. And it is us that must choose the best environment for our sons and daughters. I choose freedom for my son, because I see in him, a humanity, and clarity, emerging, that is sorely lacking in most of the world. Hopefully we can continue some of these conversations with the students because they are teaching me.

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2 Comments on “Interviews With Teen Girls”

  1. Diane says:

    The sad thing is that the teachers are as stifled as the students! I was a student teacher in 1973 and I knew instantly that it was not the place for me. As a student teacher, I did have some creativity, however, I knew that once I got a full-time teaching job, I would have none. Anything new or exciting that I might want to do would be squelched by the powers-that-be. After the teachers and their plight, we have the parents and their uptightness. I work with people who have very specific ideas about what they expect from their children and their children’s learning experience. They will not accept anything other than what they believe their children SHOULD be learning and they freak out if their child isn’t “keeping up.” No matter what you say to these people, about creativity and free expression, they basically don’t want to hear it. They want to control their children in all aspects of their education, which is why the schools and the teachers have no freedom to do anything other than what the uptight parents want them to do.

    In the end, the school system creates conformists. And those conformists give birth to other conformists.

  2. […] There have been special gatherings for girls titled “Girl Talk” which has been documented on this blog. I thought, “why not a penis drawing workshop for boys only.” It would give them a […]


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