Back in Chicago – Free School Forever

By Lauren Beitler
This article was reposted with permission from the author.
Her blog is My Free School Year

She just finished a one year stint at Albany Free Schol

A few weeks into summer and a thousand miles away from Albany, I am still thinking about the Free School all the time. I hesitate to try to summarize what the experience of teaching there meant to me – as it is I even have trouble giving a succinct answer when people ask what the Free School is.

961C61A9-76ED-4B32-B158-E654967BF435Yet I do want to write about some of the ways that my teaching practices changed over the course of my year there. In short I am a completely different teacher than I was. Let me try to break it down:

1. I am so much more relaxed and trusting of the kids.
When I taught in schools here in Chicago, I was often on high alert – ready to intervene when an argument threatened to escalate into a fight, ready to intervene when a bored or frustrated kid did something to create a little chaos, ready to intervene when a kid’s misunderstanding suggested that they wouldn’t master the assigned objective in the class time allotted. It was always my job to manage everything because the kids were not empowered to manage themselves or hold each other accountable.

But Free School kids know how to resolve their own conflicts most of the time, and when they don’t the whole community is there to support a solution. Free School kids are in charge of keeping themselves interested – if a class doesn’t excite them, they don’t attend, and if they are in the room, chances are they are engaged. Over time I found it was not my job to solve every problem – I could relax and let the kids figure things out. And if I needed more calm or more attentiveness than I was getting, usually all I had to do was ask. I didn’t have to battle and I rarely had to cajole. It was extremely liberating and it changed my whole demeanor with kids – I became freer and more fun.

2. I am more patient.
Most importantly, I discovered that in a Free School, class time exists to serve the needs of the students. We were not beholden to standards. We did not need to rush to get ready for a high-stakes test. If it took two weeks to learn something then we could take two weeks. Over time I found that without the time pressures that exist in a typical school, I could be a lot more patient in my teaching. I found myself allowing the kids’ more time to make mistakes and think about them and to explore their own methods of doing things. I found myself giving fewer instructions and asking more questions. In short, I started to teach math the way I had always believed was best but for various reasons had never fully embraced. I lost my fear of blank stares. I improvised more. Which brings me to point three:

3. I experiment more.
In a typical classroom, students have little space to move and, because of the size of the class, few opportunities to talk. They are given little autonomy and, as a result, often lack maturity even in situations where autonomy is given to them. Any lesson a teacher plans has to keep these constraints in mind.

I always wanted to teach lessons that involved exciting materials and encouraged students to move around, but in practice this required very careful preparation to make sure everyone could get what they needed without elbowing one another in the face. At the Free School I could throw a pile of manipulatives on a table and say, go nuts. If a student wanted to use glitter and highlighters to present their work, they knew where to find them. If a student wanted to work in a quieter room, it was no problem to let them go unsupervised.

And if I tried a new activity or game or problem and it fell flat or students were confused, it was easy for them to express their confusion in productive ways – to comment aloud and to question me and each other. It was easy for me to re-explain or make changes on the fly.

I know there are teachers in typical schools who do all these great things, and to some extent I always tried to be one of them. But being at the Free School just made it so much easier. There were no longer any obstacles to trying something new.

4. My values are more connected to my teaching.
I came to teaching with a desire to empower underprivileged kids by educating them and helping them to educate themselves. Over time I grew to believe that my work should be explicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-queer-phobic, and that I should help kids develop a political consciousness. But how could I best bring those values into the classroom when there seemed to barely be time for human connection, let alone deep engagement with politically charged topics? Especially when I began to believe that certain aspects of my school as an institution were actually reproducing harmful patterns of oppression?

For example, I began to believe that our school’s discipline system was punitive in ways that reproduced the worst aspect of our criminal justice/prison system and set kids up to be punished by that system later. But it was hard for me even to acknowledge that belief to myself. Here was a school that I invested a lot of effort to grow. And I needed the discipline system to work so I could teach. Yet I wondered what I should do about the fact that a school I was working so hard to build was in some ways making things worse for kids. I went back and forth between denial, anger, trying to have conversations with the people I worked with and push for change, and wishing the status quo would just work so I could stop having to think about it so hard.

Needless to say that was exhausting. In the Free School, I found a place where staff and students have honest and explicit conversations about values and about anti-oppression on a near-daily basis. Which is not to say that I feel like I have become an expert at teaching for anti-oppression. But I am no longer content to keep quiet about those beliefs in any school where I work. I have come to see that engagement with such topics is both necessary and possible.

4. I am more myself.
I let the kids see my unshaven legs.

5. I am happier and less tired. And I want to go to work.
The school year ended and for the first time this year I didn’t feel relieved. I felt sad to go and I felt like I could just keep teaching forever. Now a few weeks later I am back in the classroom helping teach a summer program for students from Woodlawn, and it feels great. I have become so much more optimistic about what kids are capable of when we let them have the autonomy they need to do things for themselves. And even in contexts that are not the Free School, I am able to trust kids. And it feels great.

6. And more?
I know there are other ways my teaching has changed, but I can’t necessarily see them from inside my own body. If any of you out there reading this can think of anything you would like to ask me about this experience, please do ask.


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