There are moments in life, where a series of events converge, to put one in a position that questions the core of our very existence. This may be one of those moments for me. It is one of those times I have to ask, why I am where I am, without the wish for a ready explanation. It is this kind of questioning, which needs to go deep, that there is a flash of great wisdom—one in which a vision on how everything is connected. If I were a better mathematician, I would be able to write an algorithm that would explain not only all of nature, the stars and the galaxies, but how those realities are connected to my struggles with money, the illnesses of loved ones, the seemingly chance encounters with new strangers and the opportunity to express myself in front of different groups of people.
It was with a sense of abandon that I agreed to spend a day at the Alternative Education Resource Organization Conference (AERO) which has been going on for the last few days at Long Island University’s CW Post campus. I will justify my first paragraph in a bit, but I wanted to give a brief recap of the day and why my sense of universal connectedness is especially strong this morning. My daughter and I left here early in the morning to catch the trains out to Westbury. We were met by taxi and en route, the driver picked up another attendee. We quickly exchanged introductions and before we even reached the campus, I was already engaged in discussions about the school, where this person came from and by the end of the ride we quickly delved into philosophical territory about why we care so much about the education of children. It set the tone for the day. Not having a clue or an agenda, I randomly picked which workshops I would attend. My method was akin to throwing a set of dice or going “eeny meeny miny moe.”
I saw the workshop “Experiencing Awareness Through the Body” by Margo W. MacLeod. Margo and her assistant were the first people I met at the table in the morning. I was unsure if I would attend. I spend my year engaged in activities centered around self awareness. Being a bit of snob I saw myself rejecting another approach. But looking around at the other topics, and my daughters enthusiasm, I followed the invisible thread that led me into the room.
I was pleasantly surprised with the gentleness and unpretentiousness in the way the workshop was conducted. We were led in a very simple sitting, which covered familiar territory for me. It established a quiet in my body and deepened breath which supports a state of calm. Next we were asked to stand and with eyes closed, to slowly and carefully walk around the room with this same sense of awareness. When we came into contact with another person, we were to stop and take an impression of what we felt the moment before we made contact. For me, there was a sense of the subtle body heat of another. The second part of the exercise was when making contact with another person, we were to stop and slowly stand back to back with that person. Then sit down on the floor with our backs together. Keep in mind that I did not know any one except my own daughter so there is a huge element of trust here. As we sat, the presenter placed an object into our hands. With eyes closed, I tried to sense what it was. At first I thought it was an artificial flower but then realized it was simply a balloon. We were asked to try to feel the color and texture (interestingly, I sensed it to be red and when I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see that I was correct.) We then followed with a number of games involving the balloon.
I left the workshop feeling very refreshed and awake. This particular approach to quiet work was not presented without reason. It is a method of creating self knowledge in children as well as adults. It originates from a school in India and you can find out more about it at their website. The video is of particular interest and was shown at the beginning of our workshop.
Next we went to the auditorium to witness the two keynote speakers of the morning. Ramchandra Das who runs 3 ashram schools in Nepal, and Skyping from England, Zoë Neill Readhead, daughter of A. S. Neill and now Principal of Summerhill, the oldest democratic free school in the world.
After lunch we attended “Bringing Democratic Education to More Communities” with Nikhil Goyal. This is where it became interesting for me. Nikhil is a very engaging and intelligent speaker. He is also very young (19.) The discussion went around the topic of why we have such a difficult time getting others to accept this seemingly successful mode of education. Nikhil said that when he visited Brooklyn Free School, his first reaction was “where were the metal detectors? Where were the guards? Where were the unhappy children?” But here is where I saw the opportunity to bring a certain level of understanding which has come from experience. I said (in essence), “what you are asking for is a huge paradigm shift. The world, at least to my eyes is extremely messed up. A situation that has in truth, been created by us adults. And we are asking that our youth take possession of this f**ked up situation, and fix it. Then the education system that created this mess wants to tell the children what they need to know in order to have the skill, knowledge and desire to correct the woes of humanity. What we in the democratic movement are suggesting is that EVERYONE drop their attachment to how they understand things, and trust children to find their own path to knowledge and actualization. But most human beings, including those sitting in this room, are unable to do that completely. Talking about it does not really help because we are asking people to “imagine” what this form of education can do. Until one actually experiences it and is directly affected by it, over a period of time you begin to absorb the fact that Democratic Education is actually another dimension of learning which is completely unfamiliar to the average person. To change how people receive this is paramount to trying to change the whole of the planet.”
We all eventually agreed that the process needs to be through osmosis. There are many more Free Schools now then there were ten years ago. But there needs to be a bigger understanding about how these schools will survive past a decade or so. One elder gentlemen brought this out very clearly. He said that we need to become familiar with the word abjure (def: solemnly renounce.) This is a huge leap for most of us, including this writer. It requires a willingness for me to give up my false sense of authority. But in doing so, it allows me to realize that in truth, I am not in control of my life. I would like to think I am, but as I approach my 59th birthday, I am beginning to accept that I am not. And I am okay with that. Because it gives me the opportunity to study my condition in a whole new way. There is a sense in me that everything is connected and that my own condition has brought me to the unique understanding that is beginning to unfold in me. I am still thankfully in a process of learning and growing.
This sense of “being-connectedness” draws me out of any self pity for things not always being easy—for events converging in a way to make me feel the truth of my own discomfort. It is because I have a wish for something more. A wish to live a life that is truthful and meaningful. How that happens may not be entirely up to me. But there is something I can do. I can make myself available to this new understanding and not resist the truth of it. I am where I am because of where I have been. If I surrender my false sense of authority, it gives me a chance to find a real sense of authority. And that sense has much greater value in the real world. So by the end of this workshop, the fact that we had gotten out of bed in the wee hours began to make itself known. I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. After the second afternoon workshop, where I worked with mind mapping, we headed home. But I am full of thoughts and feelings this morning about the strong sense that I am just one small point in a grand fabric. I am grateful for my one day experience for helping me back to that truth.
Join Chris on this twenty-year tour of his singular writings on children and education. His parable-like stories and probing essays deliver his insights with a clarity and immediacy seldom found in books about teaching and learning.
Chris’s four decades of experience with kids of every imaginable kind in deeply human settings have earned him a profound understanding of just what it is they need in order to develop to their fullest. While so much of the educational literature today deals with children as though they were disembodied brains, A School Must Have a Heart explores every dimension of learning and development—and doesn’t stop until it gets to the heart of the matter.
Last 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
A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.
In 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
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.
Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012. One of the best commencement speeches. A must watch for any artist and everyone who hopes to be creative and successful.
Make Good Art.