From a Student Perspective

A recent article in the NY Times about the Manhattan Free School, received a lot of feedback from students. The article was mostly benign, but as always, the Times has its right leaning slant. There is always an aspersion of doubt cast on anything that is radical or outside the norm, especially where it covers education. While we who are involved in the “free school” movement are aware of the difficulty for the mainstream to understand and accept us, there is a tendency to write about this approach to learning without fully sitting down and trying to understand it either through a long process of observation or by speaking with the students themselves. The following was posted in the Times soliciting student feedback.

Students and teachers at the Manhattan Free School voted last month on what hour would be considered the end of the school day.

At first, some of the feedback was negative. But then many MFS and BFS students stepped up to the plate and made their point of view clearly. I am posting only a few of their comments. There are currently like 15 pages of comments if you wish to read them. Here is the article:

Manhattan Free School, students “do not receive grades, take tests or have to do anything, really, that they do not feel like doing.” Teachers there believe that students learn best when they direct their own education, so though there are classes, students can play video games all day if they like. Would you want to attend a school like this? If not, why not? If so, what do you think you would do with your time? Do you agree that you learn best when you direct your own education? Why or why not?

In the column  “Play-Doh? Calculus? At the Manhattan Free School, Anything Goes,” Susan Dominus writes:

At the Manhattan Free School, which opened in 2008 and follows a model that first gained fame at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England, educators believe that students learn best when they direct their own education. Classes are held, but if a student wants to play video games or model with Play-Doh all day, so be it — even if that student is, say, 17.

… “It comes down to trust,” Ms. Werner said, “the trust that given time, they’ll find their passions, and when they do, they’ll be eager to learn.”

Students and faculty members debate and vote on all matters of school policy, but the grown-ups are outnumbered: The school has two full-time teachers, and relies on parents and other volunteers who believe in the program to fill the gaps (including calculus, if a student were to want to learn it).

Students: Tell us how you think you would do in a school like this. What would you do all day? Are you self-motivated? Do you agree that “the flip side of freedom is responsibility”? What balance of freedom and structure do you think would benefit you best for the purposes of learning?

And here is some of the negative student feedback:

  1. Well, I assume that those high school students aren’t that bright, and their parents are just as dumb. In order for this to work the students attending this school, must really enjoy learning. The purpose of going to school is pointless, and the students are setting themselves to fail in life. — Tony G
  2. I think that kids wouldn’t be able to focus in this “free school” because they would do whatever they would want. If no one gave them any directions or require some work then the students wouldnt learn anything at all. Their time would actually be free time istead of learning time. — Alexis

And now for the comebacks:

I go to this school. I take classes there. I take on Independent Study there.

I, along with the student body and teachers, make all decisions for the school. Quite frankly, the presumption that students at MFS don’t learn or that they are somehow less intelligent is insulting. I love going to our school, I can learn about things I care about and the environment at a Free School is infinitely more respectful. Bullying DOESN’T happen in our school. Ever.

Generally, when students enter MFS they go through a period of just hanging out, while they learn about themselves, and then they eventually start studying. (This period is nick-named, ‘detoxing.’)

In a world of dull passionless students, the students who study at our school actually want to be there. When you request/sign up for a class, you actually make a commitment. It’s so much more fulfilling to be in a course at the Manhattan Free School, because everyone there wants to be there and time isn’t wasted with disciplinary issues and uninterested teachers. There is LOTS of discipline in our school. The difference is that the rules come from the people within the school, not from frustrating bureaucratic hierarchies. At MFS we make decisions on everything from attendence policies (four tardies=an abscence) to what happens if you break someone’s property (if you cannot fix it, you have to replace it).

I’m studying things I never thought I would have at my old school. I’m challenging myself, not sitting back and day-dreaming the way I did at my old school. I understand if you have philosophical differences with Democratic Education, I think a dialogue is important and valuable but please stop making assumptions about things you obviously don’t understand. — MFS Student

From one of our BFS high schoolers:

There is a lot to be touched here, but first i’ll be one of the first to actually answer the question, “How would you do in a free school.” As a 16 year old student of the Brooklyn Free School in Clinton Hill, i can say without a doubt that I have accomplished much more in just a little over 1 year at this free school, I have accomplished much more in here then in any other educational environment i have been in. I am never sitting around doing nothing, for there is a class i am interested in everyday. there are also projects that involve the community and activities that are always keeping me active. I did not have to be told, i simply wanted to learn and enjoyed learning.

Now on to the bigger picture being drawn here. A lot (really most) of these comments and the article itself seems to suggest that a free school is a place where students “just lay around and play games all day” and there are no teachers to push or motivate students. Where classes are only taught by “a parent or volunteer” who is unqualified to teach. Where the students “are probably so stupid that they don’t even know they’re stupid.” and “are not getting a good high school education and learning [sic].”

I would like to be put on the record to say that this is an understandably ignorant and straight up untrue generalization based on the misrepresentation and unacceptably poor explanation of a free school (in this case the Manhattan Free School) on the article’s publisher and the New York Times editorial staff.

Let’s start with one of the biggest concern and most commented idea, that students at a free school will not be educated and not be able to pass college or get a job or be ready for real life in general or to put it bluntly as one commenter did: “…going to a free school is a not a very wise idea. If you want to actually do something in life that will give you a lot of money. Because if you went to one you would not do anything and play all day long and talk and not do any work.”

With a little research this (and many other comments) will easily be dispatched as untrue. MANY free school students have gone on to college and excel where they wanted to in life. They didn’t need to be told what to do. They discovered when being free to decide for themselves what they wanted to do, they found what they truly wanted to do in life and passionately pursued that goal.

To continue, let’s look at the idea that students aren’t learning or as one commenter put it “if you had one of these type of schools all the students would not learn a single thing.”

As a free school student, i can say that there are opportunities in academics every single day. Classes we have range from Math, Philosophy, Physics, Art, Black Studies, Economics, Film Making, Creative Writing, Poetry, many language classes, and countless others you would see in any high school environment. Not to mention that there are SAT preparation sessions, Resume writing preparation sessions things many public schools probably don’t offer. Students willingly participate in these classes as i cannot recall a time i ever went to a class alone. all the classes are taught in interesting ways that introduce and create an interest within a student. Again, many of these students have gone to college.

As for who is teaching the classes, yes many are volunteers, ranging from college graduates with degrees in their fields, to simply local professionals willing and excited to share there life’s work with young people with open minds. Even students themselves are allowed to teach classes in whatever they feel comfortable, something i have never heard any public school allow, begging the question how does one prepare you for such an important job: teaching.

As for playing video games all day, I know that at Brooklyn Free School, there are limitations set for video game play.

There is an insurmountable amount of exciting things i can say happen at free schools that would paint a very different picture than what this article has. It disappoints me that so many teenagers would accept that they need to be in an enforced academic zone where they have to be forced to take test and stay in 2 hour classes in order to feel like they are learning. I would urge everyone here whether you feel you would or wouldn’t do well in a free school to research free schools, visit one if you can. If you would take the time to discover for yourself what a free school really is, then you will be astonished at what you find. It is that philosophy of self direction and pursuing one’s interest that make the very foundation of the free school. — Semeo

I hope to post more throughout the day, but I think you get the picture. And you may say that my view is slanted as a BFS parent founder. I will quote one of my heroes, Howard Zinn

“I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.”

More to come.

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One Comment on “From a Student Perspective”

  1. Julia says:

    I read through several pages of the largely negative comments from high school students in regular schools. What struck me was the high number of inarticulate, poorly spelled comments, many filled with bad grammar from students saying that a free school would make them more stupiderer.

    It’s important to compare outcomes for children in free schools to real outcomes for students in regular school. The quality of writing and thinking demonstrated in these comments seems to speak for itself, in particular after reading Semeo’s comments who clearly hasn’t had his mind turned to mush by attending a free school.


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