Decisions, Decisions

The past few weeks have been full of great experiences. I got to spend a week with Emma, my girlfriend, in Portland. I’ve seen a number of schools and gotten deeper into some great books—namely Excellent Sheep by Bill Deresiewicz and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And I’ve had some time to reflect.

In Portland, I visited the Village Free School, a free/democratic school located across the street from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Like in most free schools, the students (ages 5-18) choose how to use their time. There are plenty of resources around, like books and computers, that the students take advantage of. There are also classes that the students can sign up for (and propose), including everything from “circus games” to chemistry. Students ages 9-12 have “project time,” which involves designing and completing projects. The activities you might find kids doing in a free school, even in a single day, are as numerous as the ideas those kids can cook up. The younger kids spend much of the day playing—though playing is an encompassing word that fails to describe the richness and variety of experiences involved in it. When you go (and I hope you do) to visit one of these free schools, I hope you’ll see that the separation between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’ is really an artificial one (you may have already seen this if you’ve closely observed a child absorbed in play).

I joined one class, called “Fairy Time,” which consisted of mostly younger kids and a staff member who take a short walk down to the shore of the Willamette River, where they read fairytales, act them out, and play. I spoke with the mother of one of the kids, who told me her son is actually homeschooled but comes to Village Free School once a week to spend time with other kids. As we talked and watched the kids play by the river—examining rocks and pushing logs out into the current—it struck me what this school was about: the kids are simply given room to grow into who and what they want to be. It was an important moment for me because I realized that that goal is enough.

Many schools claim to do it all—to put kids through a ‘rigorous’ academic curriculum while building responsibility, citizenship, and independence, all the while giving kids the space and freedom needed to find their passions and pursue their dreams. In practice, however, those ‘rigorous’ academics (the rigor of which is the subject of its own discussion), implemented through a system of coercion, are given primacy to the exclusion of the other values. In practice, most schools give kids little to no freedom to choose their own activities or to develop along their own path.

How can you develop independence, responsibility, or love of learning by making a child’s choices for them about where to be and what to learn? And is it so revolutionary to say that we don’t primarily care whether our kids go to the Ivy League or follow any of the prescribed paths to success? That instead our primary goal—way, way high above the others—is to help them develop into independent, responsible, engaged, and happy people?

One question that the phenomenon of free schools raises and that I’m still mulling over is this: which decisions are children capable of making for themselves, and which should be decided by adults? It seems obvious that young children shouldn’t be allowed to use or play with dangerous tools, or walk dangerously close to the raging waves of the ocean or the edge of a cliff. But should they be allowed to make decisions about what they want to learn? Does the same logic that pulls a child back from walking toward the crashing waves wean her from playing and place her in a desk? Essentially, do we protect our children’s futures by placing them in a compulsory system of learning in which they spend most of their time doing and learning things that have been determined externally? Or can children, when given the freedom to explore their own interests and choose their own activities, develop independence and responsibility from a much earlier age than a system of compulsion allows for, and also be able to perform in whichever field they eventually choose to go into?


When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced…Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?—for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light…

–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Instead of success, make the work itself the goal. That’s what I always come back to. When I start to care too much about rewards, I remember to return to the work—to the never-ending effort to perfect it.

–Bill Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep


As I’ve had some time to reflect, what I’m learning now is as much about myself as it is about education. And now that I’ve taken a little time to step back, I’m seeing that I need to step back even further, that this is just the beginning of my soul-searching. I realize that I often seek personal affirmation in the opinions of others, that I tend to base my sense of self-worth on how others perceive me, and that somehow I believe that to lead a good life involves little more than to have others believe I lead a good life. None of these are ways in which I want to live my life.

I want to bring some genuine value to the world. I want to take some time to focus on bringing real value to, and finding real value in, my present moment—for it’s all I have, and it may be taken away any day. And I want to further develop my own passions, that I may find what it is I can and should do during my relatively short stay on this earth. In order to do these things I need time and as much freedom from external pressures as possible.

What’s in a Name?

Is “Alternative Education” the best term to describe what I’m interested in? David Marshak, director of the SelfDesign Graduate Institute, first posed this question to me when we had coffee in Bellingham, Washington. Some other possibilities: progressive education, holistic education, experiential education, humanistic education, democratic education… None of these terms may be entirely accurate. David resists the term “alternative” because it artificially separates education into two categories: mainstream and alternative. In reality, there is only education. Some forms of it may be more conducive to human development than others.

Additionally, there is a stigma attached to “alternative” education: Alternative schools are where students go who can’t behave in or handle regular schools. Windsor House School in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and Nova High School in Seattle are two schools familiar with this stigma. Both are publicly funded alternative schools. Both schools take a mix of students, some who come to the schools entirely by choice and others who don’t get along (or at least who make clear that they don’t get along) in regular schools.

Windsor House School was one of the most unique schools I’ve seen so far. There was so much activity, and on the surface it seemed disorganized. But there was a deep structure at Windsor house, if you paid close attention. Students were absorbed in whatever it was they were doing—creating a model of an island for a science project, skipping through the halls, drinking coffee and chatting in the common room, to name just a few examples.

Helen Hughes started the school in the mid-70s—just a handful of students in her house. The school grew, eventually becoming a public alternative school. Now there are around 140 students, ages 5-19. There are 10 staff members, and many parent volunteers can be found at the school every day.

The school has evolved according to the needs and wants of the community for 40 years. Evolved is the term Helen used. According to Helen, when it began they didn’t know what they were going to do. They only knew what they weren’t going to do. In that sense, Windsor House may fairly be called alternative. But in terms of what it actually is, Windsor House is hard to define.

Classes at Windsor House are optional, though most students take at least a few classes. There is a schedule wall that shows classes/times for each day, and a suggestion wall on which ideas for classes are posted and interest in those classes are gauged. If high school students wish to gain diplomas, they have to meet certain credit requirements. Rowan, who was about 20 years old, was sipping coffee in the ‘community room’. He recently finished his time at Windsor House, where he chose not to get a diploma. Instead of academics, he had focused his energies elsewhere. He had been quite seriously involved in the school council and the drama club. He’s now pursuing a career as an actor, and he was back at the school to help out with this year’s fledgling school council. The school council meets once a week, and students, staff, parents, and volunteers can cast votes that affect school policy.

Cheryl, a parent and frequent volunteer, showed me around the school. I got to talk with her, another parent, and an older student, Theo, who transferred to Windsor about a year ago. Theo said he came to Windsor house looking for an easy path to graduation. Now he feels more educated than ever—he was quite articulate—and it didn’t even feel like work. The classroom dialogues, he said, are endlessly intriguing, and during them he’s learned more about philosophy and literature than he ever did when those things were forced on him at his old school.

After the school day ended, I joined Helen, Cheryl, and Linda, another volunteer, for tea at Helen’s house, where we talked about education. Helen could possibly be the most experienced educator I’ve ever had the opportunity to talk with. Her years of work in the field seemed to have both hardened her as an educator and filled her with immense wisdom.

“I’ve lost some of my idealism,” she said, referring to the supposed predictability of how children will act and grow when given freedom. Some will use it well, it seems, and some won’t. Nonetheless, she’s full of the conviction that students and communities are capable of taking education into their own hands. But she doesn’t feel she subscribes to specific educational philosophies anymore. “The older I get, the fewer theories I have,” she said.

Helen learned what she knows by close observation and hours of reflection, and she continues to learn all the time. She feels that one should start by simply listening to and observing students. That subtle, detailed observation may allow you to help students get what it is that they need. Helen’s power is that she learns new things from the students all the time. It’s clear that she’s learned as much, if not more, from the students at Windsor House as they have from her.

Nova High School in Seattle is likewise a public alternative school, and it shares similarities with Windsor House. Many decisions are made democratically by students. The teachers create classes based around student interest. Assessment are holistic and involve detailed writing from teachers instead of grades.

There are 341 students at Nova. Many of the students transfer here to find a safe environment. Mark Perry, the principal, said “The core of everything we do is safety. Not just physical safety, but social, emotional, and intellectual safety.” There’s an emphasis on social justice, finding one’s identity, and allowing students to be themselves. Teachers and administrators build trust with students and try to create as non-judgmental an atmosphere as possible. I only spent an afternoon at Nova, but the non-judgmental atmosphere seemed tangible. The school felt free from many of the pressures you might find in other high schools—to outperform others, to gain status, etc. Instead, the students seemed very accepting of one another and the teachers and administrators seemed very accepting of the students, no matter where they were developmentally or academically.

Many former Windsor students keep in contact with Helen, and many have gone on to lead interesting, contributive lives. Helen said it’s amazing to see some of these kids suddenly grow up. They might pose problems for years and years, and adults might worry about what these kids are going to do with their lives, and then suddenly one day the kid might say or do something, and you’ll see maturity blossom in them. The key, at Windsor House and Nova, is patience, something our larger culture seems to have less and less of as time goes on.

Briefly I’d like to mention a number of other schools I’ve seen in the past few weeks. People at all of these schools welcomed me in and happily showed me how their schools work, and to them I’m very grateful:

Chicago Grammar School – An elementary/middle school that focuses its curriculum on history, literature, Latin, science and math in an effort to give its students a “classical liberal arts” foundation.

Chicago Free School – A new school in the Hyde Park area that offers elective courses to elementary and middle school age students.

The Ancona School – A blended Montessori/progressive school that stresses art, languages, and experiential learning. (Chicago)

Zooschool Preschool – A preschool inside of a zoo, where the children learn about animal behavior and biology alongside their regular preschool curriculum. (Billings, Montana)

The Clark Fork School – A school that uses place-based learning to teach its preschool and kindergarten age students about the local (and broader) natural world. (Missoula, Montana)

Wheels of Life Community School – A free school in Bellingham, Washington in which the kids choose their own activities and can take part in environmental education lessons.

Explorations Academy – A high school in Bellingham that stresses experiential learning, in which students go on at least one field trip a week and get the opportunity to take a month-long trip abroad.

Clearwater School – A sudbury-style free school in Bothell, Washington located on an outdoor campus. Children ages 5-18 play and learn on their own volition with access to a number of rooms (e.g., music, art, kitchen) and resources. The kids here seemed extremely independent, even from a young age.

Puget Sound Community School, which I saw today – A school in Seattle that offers many elective courses to middle school and high school age students, both on and off campus. Students can pitch ideas for classes and even facilitate classes. The students seemed quite interested in their classes. The school seems to strike a pretty fair balance between personal freedoms and responsibilities to parents/adults.

I would like to write a detailed post for each school above, but writing this blog while traveling, seeing schools, and exploring cities is a handful (a joyous handful no doubt). There were a number of people behind each of these experiences. I’d like to give a huge thank you to the people who allowed me into their schools, showed me around and shared their insights with me. If you’re reading this, I apologize for the brief descriptions above which don’t do justice to the rich experiences I had at your school. I hope to revisit these schools in future blog posts and write more detailed accounts of my experiences at these unique ‘alternative’ schools.

I’d venture to say that it doesn’t really matter which terms you use to define your school’s educational model. More important to what you do is how you define success for your students. People at Windsor, Nova, and just about all of the ‘alternative’ schools I’ve visited for my project strongly believe success involves fostering happy, independent people who care about and contribute to their communities. I’d say that’s a definition worth fighting for.


A beautiful city whether you call it Seattle or anything else