On Monday, April 20th, I began the last major leg of my journey when I left home and headed for the East Coast. My first stop on the way was Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh area was hillier and more forested than I expected. It felt kind of surreal when I arrived, driving up and over hills in the early evening, golden sunlight peaking through trees and reflecting off the river adjacent to the road. The industrial-era brick buildings and the old factories felt out of place in this terrain. Perhaps because I had been reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, or perhaps because of something particular about the terrain itself, or both, I found myself envisioning the lives of the Native Americans who must have lived there for thousands of years.
In Pittsburgh I visited Three Rivers Village School, a small Sudbury school (around 25 students) that was started two years ago. A student and a staff member gave me a tour. Some activities going on that day included sowing pillows, singing along to music videos on youtube, and strategizing in the intricate board game of Settlers of Catan. I got to speak with Jean Marie, one of the founders of the school and a former intern at the Albany Free School, about her time in Albany and about the process of starting a school. She said that while Three Rivers and the Albany Free School are not exactly the same, she enjoyed her year as an intern and it helped prepare her for starting Three Rivers.
I saw a student play (a murder mystery called “Deathtrap”) at Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (about 30 minutes east of Washington DC). In the play, a once prolific playwright comes across a brilliant play by a young, unknown playwright and then hatches a plan to murder the younger playwright and publish the play as his own. The play (the actual play) was full of twists, turns, and murderous suspense. The entire show was student written, student directed, and student acted. Even the costumes and set were made by students.
In DC I went touring with some new friends I’d met at the hostel where I was staying. We saw the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial before posing in front of a few straggling cherry trees that were still in blossom (we missed the blossoming of the majority of trees by a few days). Then we went to the National Museum of the American Indian on the national mall. An amazing museum, both in terms of exhibits and architecture, and one I recommend visiting if you get the chance.
In Arlington, Virginia, I saw HB Woodlawn Secondary Program. The school’s been around since the 70s. It has weekly town hall meetings where students can vote on certain school policies. There are required core classes but a number of interesting electives for students to choose from. Their guiding principal is “a word to the wise is enough.” There are no official rules at the school. No in-school suspensions and very few out-of-school suspensions occur. When there’s a behavioral struggle, the staff approach the student first and try to find solutions before parents get involved. Frank, the principal, shared with me that he thinks the small size of the school (650 students grades 6-12) and the philosophy of trust contribute to a sense of safety (physically and emotionally) for students. On a fun side note, the students make their own diplomas when they graduate, and they can make them as creative and colorful as they choose.
In Baltimore, I visited Arts & Ideas Sudbury school. There I observed School Meeting, which is a weekly gathering in which announcements are made and issues are discussed and voted on. Among the announcements for events/activities/clubs that students and staff made: a writing workshop focused on the use of commas, a pajama day Thursday, someone baking cupcakes, an art club starting up, a gay/straight alliance being formed, a girls sleepover and a geo-caching club (in case you were wondering, geo-caching is “the recreational activity of hunting for and finding a hidden object by means of GPS coordinates posted on a website.”)
The next night I participated in a protest organized by college and high school students calling for justice for Freddie Gray. Thousands of people filled the street demanding answers, justice, and systemic reform. It was quite a sight to behold.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I visited the Circle School. Started in 1984, the Circle School is a democratic school with 68 students, ages 5-18. I spoke with Jim, one of the staff members, about the school, my project and travels, and education generally. One question that arose was: To what extent can or should adults make decisions for children, whether as teachers or parents? To what extent can or should children make decisions for themselves? These are questions I’ve had since I first started my project, but they’re questions I’m still thinking about intensely today.
I’m in Philadelphia now. On Monday I saw Project Learn School, a parent-teacher cooperative school that came together around 40 years ago. It’s a K-8 school with 54 students currently enrolled. Teachers and parents meet once a month in town hall meetings where they share updates and make decisions affecting school policy. Parents can often be found volunteering during the school day or working behind the scenes to help the school in other ways. For most of the day students are in age groups, but twice a day there is all-school outdoor free time. There are elective as well as required classes, and there is (perhaps obviously) an emphasis on project-based learning. During the day I observed a 4th grader give a presentation on his research into the history of sneakers, shot around at the basketball hoop during the students’ free time, and spoke with Roni, Rebecca, and Liam (three of the staff members) about my travels and about their experiences in education.
On Tuesday I saw The School in Rose Valley, a progressive school founded in 1929 by a group of artists and craftspeople living outside of Philadelphia. The school has 137 students, preschool to 6th grade. Frank, the temporary head of the school, gave me a tour and talked with me about the school’s history and philosophy. He described the younger kids’ curriculum as “play-based, but with a purpose.” In addition to regular subjects, there are a number of specials including art, music, theater, and woodshop. The small size of the school allows teachers to collaborate easily. The teachers try to align their class activities so that the kids’ learning is connected. Each semester there the school has a theme. This semester the theme has been “birds,” so in science class the kids learned about and researched birds, in art class they sketched birds, in woodshop they made birdhouses, etc. There’s also an emphasis on taking care of animals. During the course of the day I saw guinea pigs, chickens, a lizard, a turtle, a bird, and even sheep. Frank said that the relatively small size of the school also contributes to a sense of community, which we agreed is of utmost importance to a child’s growth and education.
I want to send a big thank you to all of my hosts and friends I’ve met who’ve made this trip awesome so far! Patrick, my couchsurfing host in Pittsburgh–we had a lot of fun! Also JoEllen and Sandra in Pittsburgh. My friends from the hostel in DC–Anne, Andrew, Shruti, Srishti, Livvy, Guzman and others. My long time friend Dana who I got to see in DC! Julia, my host in Baltimore–I didn’t plan to be in Baltimore at such a momentous time but I’m glad I was there with you! Audrey, my host in Harrisburg and guide to Hershey! Monica, Rafael, and Justin in Philly! You’ve all made this trip special for me, so thank you!
Tomorrow I’m off to NYC.
Until next time,