Medgar Evers And I

Inside myself, there is a battle going on. There is a wish to report on the day I spent at the Democracy Education Symposium, which took place this weekend at Medgar Evers College (ME). There is also the fact, that as I awoke this early morning, my head was playing a speech, in which I made my passionate case to those gathered around, as to how a new vision for education is important for all life on earth.

Now since one scenario actually took place, and the other is a product of my overactive imagination, I will try to start in reality, and if the words lead me in the right direction, possibly, I can share some of the hope I have in helping to bring new ideas to those who care about the state of affairs in the public school system and America in general.

There was a good assembly of parents, teachers and students from BFS as well as many ME professors, teachers from other schools, Manhattan Free School folks, Jerry Mintz from AERO, and a few curious and caring individuals wanting to become involved. Key among them was the symposium organizer, Dr. Rosalina Diaz who along with Alan Berger, BFS director and founder, made this event possible. This is a gathering of minds. Not a mutual admiration society. We come together with different experiences and hopefully come away with a larger view on how to create solutions and activism.

The first speaker was Senator Eric Adams, whose district covers the ME area.  The senator made a very impassioned case for the return to community. He spoke about how the ethnic world around where we live has sprouted up many diverse communities. And many of them are not communicating with each other. He spoke of the community as global. And as he ended his pitch, he said “and we need to EDUCATE our children!” This he repeated over and over again.

I am not a politician. So when I write, I am not aiming to please everyone. When I heard “we need to EDUCATE our children!’, my inner response was that we need to allow our children to educate us. I have been hearing the same rhetoric over and over again. How we are not doing enough in the system and that there is always more to be done. I sometimes think that when politicians and administrators are describing our current public school system, they are describing a speeding Mac truck on the interstate, and we are supposed to run as fast as we can to catch up with it. It is a hard sell from us on the reform side, to get average folk to consider a completely different approach “What, listen to kids? Are you kidding?”

Semo Doe & Nay Streeks

Following Senator Adams were two BFS students who spoke very strongly on how democratic education has given them the opportunity to discover who they are. Semeo Doe made it clear that he had been given a unique opportunity. One of self-discovery. And for him, that was worth more than any standard math/science/social studies curriculum could ever accomplish. Naya Streeks followed him with a carefully crafted dissertation. She has, at 18, the attributes of a seasoned speaker in the making. She told us that a “prepackaged and force fed’ version of education was not good for anyone. And she spoke to the idea that now was the time to create more democratic free schools.

Pedro Noguera, is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU. He spoke to the idea that even though we may not like it, public education in this country offers something to everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, homelessness, immigration status or physical disability. We need people like him in this movement. But I did find him very political and I did not agree with all of his points, but I fully respect his experience in going into schools, and support the positive work going on there. I say this because from my point of view, fixing a hobbling system is a waste of time and resources. And those resources are our future citizens. Those future citizens are needed to help clean up the mountain of crap and inequality that has pervaded history. If we continue to put them through the same rigors, the same results will follow. And the evidence is very strong that we are not just singing the same song, but there is clearly a deadening and dumbing down of everything. A vacuous, empty shell of an institution which only seems interested in self perpetuating itself. As Jaques Fresco, founder of the Venus Project and the Zeitgeist movement says in relation to how our systems of living have failed to produce what humans need to exist on this planet “this shit has got to go!” And the institution of education in this country is one of those systems. It is failing to produce what we need as humanity. And fixing it, or tweaking it are not, in my view, going to accomplish anything. It is tantamount to doing nothing, because when all is said and done, we will find ourselves as a society having to start from zero. If not now, then when?

“We talk about civilization as though it’s a static state. There are no civilized people yet, it’s a process that’s constantly going on… As long as you have war, police, prisons, crime, you are in the early stages of civilization.” — Jaques Fresco

Alan Berger and Pedro Noguera

It was in the early breakout session where I got to share some of my own views publicly. I shared the room with our own David Easton, who has been a BFS teacher and friend for the past 6 years. He was joined by Karen Green, who spoke on nurturing behavior  in the classroom and home. Diane Smith, who is building an inter-generational reading project in Long Beach, LI, an approach which I am in great support of. My only argument was that many of these good approaches and ideas, still relied on an old model. The outdated desire to generate early readers, studious children working away at their homework, so that possibly, they can survive in a regimented environment. The best case I can make in this condition is to present the idea that in a world that is changing so drastically, how are we going to teach our heirs, with tools that expired their usefulness 60 years ago? And only by allowing children to inform us, in an environment where they can be supported and empowered to do so, can the answers be arrived at. Or can we generate new questions? One point I should mentionwas suggested by Mr. Easton when he spoke of his experience in the public school system. He said that learning was encouraged to be “rigorous.” He then gave his definition of that word: rigor – numbness, stiffness, rigor, from rigere “be stiff.” Essentially it refers to a state of death, and somehow that is not an idea I wish to to see coupled with learning or curiosity.

This positive approach was clearly illustrated by two student panels in the afternoon. The first was a careful study, presented by students from MS 447, Exploratory Math and Science Middle School. Their research among a group of 50 students as to what they did not like about school. What they found hard or boring, and what they would like to see more of. It is no surprise to note that the kids found math and science boring, and physical education and creative time fun. This was a noble attempt from a group of 6th graders to introduce some aspect of democracy into their world. With charts and graphs they simply laid out the facts. School sucks. Give us more fun time. I applauded the nerve these children had in making their research before a room full of adults. But the fact still remains for them to make their case to their own teachers and school administrators.

At the other end of the spectrum were the laid back crew of BFS making their case for how life proceeds on a daily basis for them. Semeo led the room in a mock democratic meeting. The agenda item put before the room was that Abby (one of our lower school advisers) complained that she did not want Seth (our stalwart intern) to play in the fort she built. The participants put in their view as to how to come to a resolution. Noah made a proposal that, Seth be allowed in Abbey’s fort for one hour a day. After much discussion and amendments to the original agenda item, a resolution was arrived at and a vote was taken. This gave the room a clear idea as to one of the key components of a democratic free school: the weekly meeting. It was followed by a brief description of life in the school, internships, the variety and abundance of courses and the freedom to not do anything if you do not want to.

Benjamin Schindler-Terry and Ari Bernstein

The middle school students were full of questions. “You mean you do not have to go to a class if you don’t want to?” I watched as their hands went up constantly asking questions. Noah told me that one of the girls chased his friend Benjamin around trying to get him the answer long division questions. To which he just kept brushing her off. The notion of self possession is not seen as a valuable process in public education. But as Jerry Mintz has said, we disempower children for 18 years of their lives, and then we want them to step up and take over.

Despite some of my criticisms, I feel this was a positive event. For people to be willing to come together and have discourse, despite their varying viewpoints, is an indication that the larger community can work together and find support. There can be an exchange of ideas and resources. At the end of the day, Jonah Canah and Dana Bennis from IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America) spoke about how some of the radical ideas used in “free schools” are being introduced into public schools all across the country. In speaking with them personally, I felt a hope in delivering radical ideas into the system, where a day might come when these concepts are no longer radical. Bringing children into the conversation. Mediate their own problems and direct their own learning. How this can become a fact of life. This may seem Utopian to some. But to me it is already a reality. And helping it to become truth, is a useful way to spend the rest of my life. And every day, there are more people who want to help. Something positive is growing in Brooklyn.

Special thanks to Brian Finke for the photography.


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