Trying to Find Balance in New York City

I spent the past two weeks in New York City. The first school I visited there, called Pono, is a small (11 students the day I visited) independent school in Harlem with kids ages 3 to 8.

Maysaa, a founder of the school, said that Pono emphasizes democratic education and outdoor education. In terms of democracy, the kids have opportunities to have their voices heard on matters relating to school rules and lessons. The “Pono Agreements” are a list of rules and suggestions that hangs on the wall in the main room. The “Agreements” were arrived at by consensus with the kids playing a role in their creation. An example agreement: “We can take home books and work from Pono for one night. We leave toys at Pono.” Additionally, during school meetings kids share what they’d like to learn about and the adults then think about ways to accommodate those interests in future lessons.

Doing outdoor education in Manhattan at first seems like a difficult endeavor. One way to interpret outdoor education, especially in the context of Harlem/Manhattan, is that the school community aims to be integrated with the larger community and surrounding areas. In addition to visiting local parks, the kids take one to two field trips per week to various buildings, factories, museums, and other locations both within and outside of the city. The kids also help take care of various plants and animals and watch them grow.

Each week three to four ‘visiting teachers’ teach lessons or engage the children in various activities. On the day I visited the visiting teacher was a professional storyteller who told a group a fantastical tale about the adventures and tribulations of three Persian royal sisters. Those students who were either too restless or too occupied by a desire to do something else were allowed to leave and find their own activity during the story.

Most days there are also literacy and math lessons, and these are often taught in hands-on ways. For example, the math lesson involved measuring ingredients for making popcorn and adding/using fake money. In the literacy lesson for the older group, the kids learned about what makes a paragraph and what non-fiction writing means, then they wrote their own non-fiction paragraphs.

The word pono is Hawaiian for “balance”, but it also means “harmony” or “balanced way of life.” At Pono a balance is cultivated between adult direction and self-direction, structured lessons and free time, and the give and take of relationships.

I think I can safely say that New York City is unlike any other place in the country. It feels as through there is just enough space to navigate through the city but not much more than that. The buildings are endless, the people are endless, the things to do are endless, and the energy is loud. There seems to be a palpable sense of judgement and comparison in the air, as if each person’s worth could be gauged from a distance. And yet the shallowness and the impersonality of such judgement lend you a sense of acceptance–you’re an anonymous being in a mass of anonymous beings, and so you can be yourself. Maybe this is why Tom Wolfe wrote, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”

Brooklyn Apple Academy is a small education program in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Most of the kids (who range from age 5 to 10) are homeschooled and go to the program two days a week, with around 10 kids a day.

After I arrived, the kids gathered for morning meeting. They discussed the agenda for the day, there was an announcement for an upcoming science fair, and a kid presented and then explained the design and use of a plumb bob (a small weight hung by a string and used as a vertical reference line for building/measuring).

I participated in the drama class, in which we played “duck, duck, animal” (instead of saying goose you say an animal that the tagged player must act like as she chases you around the circle), “guess the murderer” where someone murders by blinking directly at others while a detective tries to figure out who’s doing the murdering-blinking before everyone’s dead, as well as “love your neighbor” and “family picture” whose rules, well, I don’t feel the need to explain here but you can google them if you want to.

Once drama class was over, the kids grabbed their lunches and everyone headed to Prospect Park. After picnicking, the kids grabbed foam swords and cardboard shields and prepared for a quest: Some kids were tied to a tree as ‘captures’ in need of saving by the good guys while the bad guys/monsters attempted to fend off the would-be heroes.

The whole spectacle (though for me it wasn’t merely a spectacle since I was squarely in the action as a bad guy) reminded me of the importance of fantasy, quests, heroes, and pretend conflict in the imaginations of kids. I found myself marveling at what seems the human instinct to invent narratives of adventure, heroism, and struggle. “Why do we enjoy this so much?” I found myself genuinely curious, as if searching for a scientific explanation. I imagined that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution contributed to this enjoyment of fantastical pretend violence–our brains rewarding us for practicing what our ancestors had to be prepared to do.

The Calhoun School is a progressive preK-12 school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with around 760 students that began as a small schoolhouse in 1896. Dubbed the “school without walls” because multiple classrooms share large, open floors of the building, the school emphasizes collaboration and a sense of community. Andrew, the director of enrollment and my guide around the school, said that to them progressive means an emphasis on three main aspects of learning: 1) experiential 2) individual and 3) diversity/social justice.

Experiential means that learning is tied to real-world experience. Kids use their hands to build things as often as possible. They learn in a way that taps into their life experiences, and they learn about a wide range of subjects including but not limited to history, math, science, art, woodshop, drama, and music.

Individual means students take control of and use projects to explore their own interests. Project-based learning empowers kids to take their learning in directions that they choose. Additionally there is a small student to teacher ratio which allows for individualization. There are also many opportunities for elective courses. And all the students do a 6 week internship during their senior school year.

Calhoun’s 7:1 student to teacher ratio, along with it’s plethora of in-house resources and facilities, is mostly attributable to its $45,000 a year tuition. The tuition makes for an interesting relationship with trying to teach for social justice. That said, I did see some projects and posters on walls examining issues of discrimination, oppression and privilege.

The last school I saw in NYC was the Brooklyn Free School. The school has around 70 students, ages 5-18. Started in 2004, the school is located in a 5-story brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.

When we arrived (myself and five other educators/visitors), we were given a tour of the school by two students. In the kitchen high school students were baking brownies for a fundraiser for a trip to an amusement park. Many of the walls presented information and asked probing questions about the history of slavery in the US. For example, one poster asked, “how much did slavery contribute to the growth of our economy?” BFS’ says its dedicated to social justice, and issues of race, gender, and sexuality are often discussed in the school. Upstairs there was a room called “The Space” where one can go to relax, cool down, and reflect.

When I asked one of the staff members how students sign up for classes, he said, “you sign up for class with your feet.” You’re free to come to classes that are happening, and you’re free to go if or when you no longer want to stay. He mentioned the idea of “freedom not license,” a phrase coined by A.S. Neill that basically means you’re free to do as you please but not free to disrupt others.

The other visitors and I observed “Democratic Meeting,” a weekly meeting in which students voice their ideas and opinions and vote on issues important to the school. During the meeting there was an intense discussion about the proper role of video games and screens at the school. One of the youngest kids expressed his concern that the high school kids were playing video games too often and outside of the time that’s designated for screen time. It was clear that everyone, no matter how old, had a voice in the community.

Later we learned about the graduation process. First each senior must be nominated for graduation by a student or staff. Then they form a committee to evaluate their readiness for graduation. Then they must create a portfolio with an essay that answers the question, “Why are you ready to graduate from Brooklyn Free School?”  and includes a transcript that highlights their work from their years at the school.

We learned about the way classes are formed. First they are proposed by teachers (after getting input from students). Then they’re voted on by students before each cycle of classes begins (there are three cycles in the year). There are also numerous independent studies and projects that the kids take up.

Toward the end of our Q&A session with Lily, the director, one of the visitors asked whether most of the students graduate with a clear path for the future. Lily’s answer really impressed me. She said that most of them graduate “clear about who they are as people” and “confident as who they are in the world.” I felt these are both more important than having a clear path in the traditional sense. How many people are out there right now with a ‘clear path’ in the traditional sense of a career but without a sense of who they are? Which form of clarity do you think is more important?

Instead of being primarily concerned with helping people figure out a profession, a path, or even a future we should be focusing on helping them find out who they are as individuals. The real path follows from that knowledge.

When I reflect on my time spent in conventional schools, I think about how for so many years I did what I was supposed to, not because I wanted to but because I thought I owed it to other people. I spent countless hours trying to please, appease or impress others without giving myself the time or space to find my own path.

Ultimately we each must find our own way, our own self, and our own balance between what others expect from us and what we want for ourselves. No one can find those things for us or give them to us. The question is whether or not we’re giving ourselves and others the space and the time needed for the search.

In Central Park



Teachers College at Columbia University


At the City Museum (Photo credit to Michelle Demeroukas-Fetterman)


The stairwell in the City Museum is full of quotes about New York


One World Trade Center


My cousin Jordan and me

On Wednesday I arrived at the 2015 AERO conference in Long Island. AERO stands for Alternative Education Resource Organization, an organization dedicated to alternative education in its many forms and to spreading knowledge and awareness about the alternatives that are out there. I’ll be here for the next few days, attending workshops and meeting people in the world of alternative education. A post on my experiences at the conference will be sure to follow!


2 thoughts on “Trying to Find Balance in New York City

  1. Thanks for sharing so much valuable and thoughtful information about the specific schools as well as the discussion of the bigger picture of educational alternatives and perspectives on approaches to the most effective ways to enhance children’s growth, development, and capacity to help them be intrinsic learners “for life”. You mention a number of excellent perspectives looking at the larger question of how to enhance the development of young persons. I’m very interested in hearing about the AERO conference and what you learned from attending the conference. Be well. Happy Travels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael
    Very well written and presented. We all could use more space and time to find out who we are. Seems like you’re on the right track in finding it out for yourself. Happy and safe travels.

    Liked by 1 person

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