The Final Two Weeks of My Trip

In Providence, RI, I visited the Metropolitan Regional Career & Technical Center (“the Met”). The Met was founded 20 years ago. It is a public school with 850 students, 9th to 12th grades. Every student at the Met takes 2 days per week to do an internship or apprenticeship. Advisors work with students to place them in internships/apprenticeships based on students interests. A student can hold anywhere from one to 10+ internships over the course of their high school career, depending on when they feel ready to move on to another. The school is split up into 4 ‘mini-schools’ of about 200 students each. The small size of these mini-schools—in addition to the efforts of teachers, administrators and students—helps create a sense of community.

In Boston, I visited “School Within a School” at Brookline High School. School Within a School (SWS) was started in 1969. It’s home to 125 students (who applied and were selected via lottery) out of the 1900 that attend Brookline High (a public 9th-12th grade high school). Those students take all their English classes in SWS, as well as some electives. They also spend free time in the SWS space, and they have a little bit more freedom than most students when it comes to choosing their schedule and shouldering the responsibility for their attendance. I was able to sit in on one of the English classes, entitled Race and Identity, which had the feel of a college seminar. The desks were situated in a large circle, which facilitated discussion and a sense of equality. I’ll always remember when, on the first day of my junior year of high school, my English teacher asked everyone to arrange the desks in a large circle facing inward. A subtle change in the layout of the classroom but a powerful and empowering one nonetheless. SWS students participate in a weekly town meetings—where they vote on issues affecting the program—and committees—where they work with a group of others on specific ways to contribute to the community.

In Boston I also saw Mission Hill School (well known in part because of the documentary Good Morning Mission Hill, which highlights some of the schools practices). Mission Hill is a public school with 232 students, preschool-8th grade. Classrooms are made up of 2-year age groupings. A major aspect of Mission Hill, especially for middle schoolers, is portfolios. Students work on personal portfolios throughout the year and present their work to friends and family at the end of the year. Portfolios include aspects of all the subjects the kids study at school. On my visit to the school, I sat in on a morning assembly in which teachers made some announcements and a group of students led the auditorium in singing various songs. Then there was outdoor/recess time. The kids included me in a game of touch football. After that, alas, I sat around while students took the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) math test.

After Boston, I started on my way west. I got to spend a weekend with my cousin Jenny in western Massachusetts. We had a lot of fun hiking, doing yoga, rock-climbing, and making vegan corn pudding for a potluck! Next I headed to upstate New York, stopping in Albany to say hi to the folks at the Albany Free School before heading to Ithaca.

In Ithaca, I visited Lehman Alternative Community School, a public middle/high school with 302 students, grades 6-12. At Lehman, kids can come and go to classes and are individually responsible for their time. Kids have to fulfill a number of credits in specific areas in order to graduate, but within each area there are some very interesting classes offered. For example, I sat in on a class called “Page to Screen” that fulfills an English credit. In the class, kids learn about the relationship between texts and films and how the two mediums have influenced one another. Overall, the class catalog reads very much like what you might find in college. There are committees in which students take on responsibilities in an area of the school’s functioning. An example is the committee responsible for allotting space in the hallways for kids to paint (many of the hallways have student art and colorful, student-painted murals). There is also a weekly all-school meeting in which students vote on policy issues.

In Ithaca I visited the Children’s Garden, a free public garden with a mission to share the joys of gardening and the natural world with kids and families.

In Toronto, I visited Alpha II, an alternative public high school program with around 70 students. I sat in on an advisors’ meeting. The advisors at Alpha II try to help students take advantage of their time in the program by building relationships and getting to know students’ interests. The students have more freedom than I’ve seen at most public alternative schools, the same amount of freedom as you might expect in a Sudbury or free school. In the big main room, some kids were cooking at the kitchenette, some were gathered around a computer. In the art room kids were working with fabrics. I learned about the “Co-op”, a two week course in which students prepare for finding and working at an internship or apprenticeship outside of the Alpha II location. After the visit, Carol (one of the original founders of the Alpha II program) gave me a ride back to my couchsurfing host’s apartment. I first met Carol at the AERO conference. She doesn’t work at Alpha II, but it just so happened that while I was in Toronto she was planning to go to the advisors’ meeting, so she arranged for me to join. During the drive she shared with me the story of how Alpha II came to be. She grew up in Toronto during an era when education was experiencing a renaissance, thanks in large part due to the Hall-Dennis report, which urged major reforms in the education system when it was published in 1968 (here is a description of the Hall-Dennis report, from Alpha II’s ‘sister school’). Carol felt she received a wonderful education during that time, but when she was a little older she noticed that her younger siblings were not receiving the same type of liberatory education she had. Educational policy-makers were rolling back some of the changes that came after the Hall-Dennis report. She felt that an education based on the HD report worked, and that every young person should be able to gain such an education. Years later she had an opportunity to come together with other parents and community members (in 2007) who wanted to bring back for high school students the type of education highlighted in the report, and that was the beginning of Alpha II.

I really enjoyed my time in Toronto. I had a lot of fun with the people I met there. I was struck by Toronto’s size—it’s a huge metropolis, the size of Chicago. I knew it was big, but I guess I was struck by how it could be so big and not very far from the Midwest and yet I didn’t really know much about it. Maybe the invisible wall of it being in another country put some extra distance between us. I do remember having certain ideas about it, certain impressions gathered over the years, but those, like most impressions you have of a place before you actually go there, fade into the background as soon as you spend a few days there. And when you do remember those impressions, maybe days or weeks later, it feels as though you’re recalling some part of a dream.

The last stop on my trip was Ann Arbor, MI. There I visited the Ann Arbor Open School, a K-8 public school with 500 students that was founded in the ’70s. The school uses an approach called “open classrooms,” which involves setting up “learning stations.” Students can move around and choose from a ‘menu’ of activities. Students often work in small groups or independently on a variety of projects. From observing some classes and seeing work displayed on walls, it seemed like the kids had some good opportunities to explore their interests. The teachers and students agree on “learning contracts” together. The contracts outline a project or projects to be undertaken and list the responsibilities of the students in completing them.

Also in Ann Arbor I visited Clonlara, a physical school and an international homeschooling resource organization that was founded in 1967 when homeschooling was illegal in the state of Michigan. My tour was brief, but the school seemed like a relaxed environment where the kids could follow their interests. In the office there were homeschooling advisors who communicate with and offer resources and support to homeschoolers across the country. Clonlara has offices in a number of other countries including Spain, Hungary, Germany, Costa Rica, and China.

Lastly, I got to spend a day at Little Lake Learning Community, a small (~10 students) democratic school that’s been around for 5 years. Little Lake definitely has the feel of a free school, with kids in charge of how to spend their time. They’ve taken inspiration from both the Albany Free School and the Sudbury Valley School, but they’ve also developed their own unique way of doing things. They make most decisions by consensus, while some issues (e.g., the budget) are voted on by a board of directors that includes staff and parents. When I arrived in the morning, Alex—one of the two staff members—welcomed me, introduced me to some of the kids, and gave me a tour of the space. Little Lake rents space from a church, and they have a main open space/kitchen, a music room, a classroom with a whiteboard and books (there are a few scheduled, optional classes including math, German, and French), and an open backyard space with a playground. Some kids brought out a word spelling board game. They spread it out on the floor and used the letter chips to spell words on the board. They asked me to play with them, so I sat on the floor and spelled out words with them. Then I was invited by another student to watch a game of Dungeons and Dragons that was being played on the playground outside. On the jungle gym, A group of 7 or so were playing their own modified version of Dungeons and Dragons. I listened as they described their actions in an imaginary world while I tried to get a grasp of how the game worked (I’ve never played D&D). Afterwards, everyone gathered to play “Groundies”, which I learned was the kids’ most frequently played game. One person was ‘it’ and had to navigate the jungle gym with their eyes closed, trying to tag people and calling “groundies!” if they suspected anyone was on the ground (if they were right then that person would become “it”). After the game of groundies people headed inside. I was asked by some kids to read them a few stories, and I happily obliged. Popcorn was made, some kids built a fort out of blue gym mats and tables and chairs, and a math class gathered to go over multiplication and division. Imagination was in the air at Little Lake. Being there was a reminder of the simple joys that come with being a kid and moving along to your own rhythm. I’m grateful that my last school visit on the trip was a memorable one.

And with that, I come to the end of my school year of traveling. I’ve learned so much along the way, met so many generous and inspiring people, and experienced some amazing places. I got home a few weeks ago. In August I’m heading to Albany. For now I’ll be enjoying the summer.

I want to give a huge thank you to all the people who made this part of the trip amazing for me—Josh, Raúl, Reza, Yassi, Jenny, Kyrs, Tom, Laura, Carol, Peter, Jasmin, Shahrzad, Hediyeh, Shawn, Noah, Alex—and to everyone else who welcomed me into their homes and their schools during my travels.

Lastly, thank YOU for reading my posts and following along with me on my journey.

Yours truly,

Michael

Colt State Park, RI

Colt State Park, Rhode Island

The 'Wall of Shame' at SWS displays some college rejection letters

The “Wall of Shame” at SWS displays some college rejection letters

on the Boston Common

on the Boston Common

I stumbled onto this place while driving through western Massachusetts

in western Massachusetts

The

The “Anarchy Zone” at the Ithaca Children’s Garden, where people of all ages can play freely with all sorts of materials

Taughannock Falls, Ithaca

Taughannock Falls near Ithaca

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Toronto

Toronto

Detroit

Detroit

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The AERO Conference

From Wednesday, May 20th to Sunday the 24th I attended the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) conference in Long Island. There I took part in workshops, listened to some keynote presenters, and watched some documentaries. But perhaps the best part of the conference was meeting and getting to know people who, like me, are excited about educational change.

Details from some of the workshops:

Four students from a public school in Denver gave a workshop in which they presented their vision for an “ideal school.” Earlier in the school year the kids formed a club with the goal of designing a school, and they actually plan to present their design to the Denver school board. In their ideal school, students would have a number of opportunities to self-direct their learning, such as elective courses and independent studies with advisors. The school would be governed in the form of a ‘democratic republic,’ meaning students would vote for other students to represent them in executive, legislative, and judicial committees.

Students from the Brooklyn Free School (see last post) organized a “Youth Oppression Panel” The room split into two groups, those under 18 and those over, and individuals each shared “times we’ve felt oppressed due to our age” and “times we’ve felt empowered due to our age.” It’s easy to overlook the fact that many young people are subjected to types of treatment and control that we as adults would never put up with–we’re so used to it that we often don’t think twice about it, or we rationalize it as part of the ‘natural order’.

In another workshop, Carol Nash, one of the co-founders of Alpha II alternative school in Toronto, led a workshop on developing a narrative around education. Each person in the workshop was asked to pick a memory that serves as a story about education. Then we expanded the stories, one question at a time (in order: when? where? who? what? how? why?) as we went deeper and deeper into the context and the greater meaning behind the stories. My story was about my memory of going to the Museum of Science and Industry at night for a heart foundation benefit. We did that once a year as a family for a while. When we’d go the kids would be ‘set free’ to explore the massive museum on our own. We’d spend hours playing and exploring all the hidden areas we could find. I remember being filled with a sense of wonder as I wandered the mostly empty exhibit halls, my imagination glimpsing the expanse of human discovery. The snapshots that were the memories expanded into narratives about education and about our lives in general. We talked about the importance of knowing our own story. At one point Carol said, “we have to remember who we were as children if we’re going to help them. We have to know our whole lives.” It’s fascinating how you can start with just a little, meaningful memory or story and deepen and expand it until it seems to encompass your entire life.

In another workshop I learned about the practices of a number of “liberated learners centers.” These are places, mostly for teens, where classes are offered but optional, and students plan their own educational paths with help and encouragement from advisors. The advisors are not authorities, and they ask questions like “what do you want to do in life?” and “how can I help?” Some examples of liberated learners centers are North Star in Northampton, MA, Princeton Learning Cooperative in Princeton NJ, and Compass in Ottawa ON. Lighthouse in Holyoke, MA, is a new program (starting in September) modeled after this same framework.

Other workshops included:

• Information about the Ottawa Public Education Remake Initiative (OPERI)’s attempt to start alternative programs within regular public schools.

• Ideas on how to teach global compassion.

• The science behind the importance of positive emotion in learning (the “heart-brain connection”).

• Building tolerance and ending discrimination in schools.

• Students’ responsibilities surrounding language use in a free school setting.

• Interpreting Michel Foucault’s work in the context of democratic education (e.g., can “free schools” really be free? or are invisible power structures always going to be present?)

Some highlights from the keynote presentations:

Yaacov Hecht, who helped start a movement of public democratic education in Israel, gave a keynote presentation over skype. First he introduced a project that he has been working on, called Education Cities, which involves virtual maps of educational opportunities in cities.

Then he talked about some of the ideas behind the democratic school model in Israel, including that each should be free to “choose their life” and that schools should educate for human dignity based the UN declaration of human rights. He also talked about the goal of having each person connect to their “element”/”big motivation”. I found myself wondering why democratic education seemed to be much more accepted in Israel than in the US, at least in the public system, so after the presentation I picked up a copy of his book, Democratic Education, with the goal of learning more about how public democratic education took root in Israel. I also wanted to learn the specifics of how the democratic schools in Israel work (it turns out that there isn’t necessary a blueprint that they all share, but that the schools can be unique based on the desires of the communities that start them. Most involve something along the lines of most or all optional classes, advisors for each student, one person one vote governance, and a lot of involving the community.)

Regarding my original curiosity, it seemed that the journey from one small democratic school in Hadera, Israel to thirty or so public democratic schools across the country was anything but easy. It took a lot of people and a lot of effort to make public democratic schools widely available in Israel. Still, from speaking with some people who have lived in Israel, I do think that there are some cultural differences between Israeli and American parenting which may have contributed to the country’s relative receptiveness to democratic education. Although this is a speculation and a generalization, I think that American parents are more likely to feel it is their job to plan their child’s future, whereas Israeli parents may not be as likely to see that as their role.

Some good quotes and ideas from the book:

• We should aim “to assist the student in creating and acquiring tools which will help him to fulfill his own goals” instead of handing down “goals others have set for him.”

• Not making one’s own educational choices makes for difficulty with clarifying what interests one and what is important to one in life.

• People who are free to follow their interests experience areas of growth in fields that they immerse themselves in. The process of mastering a skill or subject, no matter how ‘invaluable’ that skill or subject seems to outside eyes, teaches important lessons.

• “Since most of us find it hard to see failure as an opportunity for growth, it is best to leave a child alone in his unsuccessful moment (unless he has already adopted our ways) and thus enable him to cope with the difficulty and grow from it”

One of the most important ideas for me from the book is democratic education’s emphasis on empowering kids to choose what they value in life and what they want for their own life (not what others want for their life). I’ve come to think of this line of thought as more of a political stance than a pedagogical approach. You adopt this way of viewing the process of education because you believe that each individual (whether they’re 55 or 5) has the right to be self-motivated and to self-determine.

Sugata Mitra was another keynote speaker. Sugata asked the audience to try something. He asked that we start clapping and that we try to synchronize our claps. So we did. As you can probably imagine, the first claps were scattered, the second claps were a bit more synchronized, and by the fourth or fifth claps we were all clapping as one (and the frequency was beginning to speed up). Sugata then explained why he asked us to clap. He said it was an example of an “emergent phenomenon.” No one led the claps, yet they came together. How? There was no conductor. The same phenomenon occurs in a flock of birds, a school of fish, or the cells of your hand after you get a cut and begin to heal. No one bird, fish, or cell leads the way, yet everyone adjusts and follows. No one is in charge, yet everyone is in sync. As far as science and math can tell us, there is no one conducting. Yet powerful things happen. He believes learning works in a similar way.

Sugata is well known for his “hole-in-the-wall experiments” in India, in which he placed computers in walls in public and found that groups of kids were teaching themselves to use the computers. During the presentation he talked about that and about his newer work with what he calls SOLEs (Self Organizing Learning Environments) which are like computer labs in which children work in groups, using the internet, to try to figure out the answers to big questions. You should really watch his TED talk to get a good sense of his ideas.

Lastly, staff members (called “facilitators”) from Agile Learning Centers gave an interactive presentation about their very intriguing model. There are number of ‘ALCs’ popping up across the country. They said they get inspiration from learner-centered/self-directed learning environments, intentional communities, and tools from the entrepreneurial/start up world. Someone described them as bringing “the free school into the 21st century.” The NYC Agile Learning Center’s website is worth checking out, especially if you want to learn the specifics of their tools, practices, and approach.

I’m extremely glad that I was able to attend the conference. I learned, I was challenged, and I met some amazing people. I know there is a long road ahead for helping all children gain excellent educations, but I left the conference with a sense of hope that genuine change is possible.

Sugata Mitra and Yaacov Hecht share the stage

Sugata Mitra and a luminous Yaacov Hecht sharing the stage

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The audience during a keynote presentation

Facilitators from Agile Learning Center share some of their philosophy

Facilitators from Agile Learning Center share some of their philosophy

I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan now. Tomorrow I’ll have my last school visit for the school year, and then I’ll head home. A post about the last two weeks of my trip will be upcoming!

Until next time,

Michael

P.S. Parents, especially those in or around the New York City area, should check out CottageClass, a website run by the wonderful Manisha Snoyer. If you’re looking for a good school fit for your kid or you want to learn about educational activities in the area, she just may be able to help you!

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

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Teachers College at Columbia University

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

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

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One World Trade Center

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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!

The East Coast So Far

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.

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Pittsburgh in the distance

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A pretty day in DC

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The National Museum of the American Indian

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The set of ‘Deathtrap’ at Fairhaven School

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Thousands of people in the street in Baltimore on Wednesday, April 29th.

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Idyllic Hershey PA (outside of Harrisburg)

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Me and my couchsurfing hosts (Monica and Rafael) at a street festival in Philadelphia

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,

Michael

Albany Free School Internship

I’m happy to announce that I will be an intern at the Albany Free School for the 2015-2016 school year. The Albany Free School is an alternative school in Albany, NY. You can read more about its history and mission here:

http://www.albanyfreeschool.org/about

I learned about the Albany Free School when I read Chris Mercogliano’s book Making It Up as We Go Along, a memoir about the author’s many years working in the school. On the school’s website I found out about the internship program. I applied and was able to visit the school a few weeks ago. Needless to say I enjoyed the visit. The kids there seemed happy and engaged. More than one person told me about how the school helped them feel the freedom to be themselves, to follow their interests, and to be part of a caring community. Happily I found out this week that I was offered the position.

Right now I’m in Baltimore, on the last major leg of my year-long journey. I’ve been on the road a little over a week, and have been able to visit schools in Pittsburgh, Washington DC, and Baltimore. Soon I will publish a post about my East Coast experiences so far.

I want to thank everyone who has supported me during my journey into alternative education, especially my family. I couldn’t have done this without your help, support, and encouragement.

Guest Post on Alt Ed Austin and Other Highlights from My Southern Trip

I recently spent a few weeks in the South, seeing schools in Austin, TX and Fairhope, AL. I also got to see St. Louis, Tulsa, Biloxi MS, Mobile, and Memphis. I spent the most time in Austin (a week and a half), where I saw 8 alternative schools and met a lot of great people working in alternative education. One of those people was Teri Sperry, who runs Alt Ed Austin, a blog dedicated to alternative education in Austin (as the website points out, Austin is home to an unusual number of alternative schools). Teri asked me to write a guest post for Alt Ed Austin’s blog, and I gladly obliged. Here is a link to the blog post, as well as the text in full.

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

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From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.

At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.

I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.

I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.

I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.

At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.

I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.

I learned about Skybridge Academy’s democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.

Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

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After Austin, I made my way to Fairhope, Alabama, where I saw The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, the longest-running progressive school in the country (it was founded in 1907). To this day students participate in folk dancing (a tradition dating to the school’s inception). And there are plenty of creative activities like pottery, silver smithing, and music.

I happened to be in Mobile during Mardi Gras weekend. I learned that Mardi Gras actually originated in Mobile and not in New Orleans as commonly believed. I went with my couchsurfing host Dustin to the Friday night parade, which was an energetic scene to put it lightly.

In Memphis I went to the Reverend Al Green’s church service on my dad’s recommendation. My dad, a huge Al Green fan, went to the service when he was traveling through Memphis 30 years ago.

The whole trip lasted two and a half weeks but felt much longer. I saw and did a lot in that ‘whirlwind’ of a trip!

Me kayaking on "town lake" aka the Colorado river

Me kayaking on “town lake” aka the Colorado River in Austin

Reflections from Home

On Friday I saw the last school I’d see during this first major part of my journey. I’m back in Chicago now. During the last nine weeks I’ve learned a great deal about education, met so many kind people, reconnected with friends and family, and broadened my understanding of many places. Since my last post I’ve seen schools in San Francisco/Oakland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Denver.

Some people have asked me what I’ve learned so far. I can say that I am convinced of certain things, but I also recognize that I have much left to learn. The following ideas reflect my thinking as of now:

• If we want young people to grow into independent, responsible adults, we have to allow them to grow into independent, responsible adults. We cannot assume that upon turning eighteen they will automatically take responsibility for their own decisions. Adults–parents, teachers, administrators, the educational system in general–have made the vast majority of decisions for them up to that point–about where to be, what to do, what to learn. From an earlier age, young people should be given the freedom and responsibility to choose what to do with their time. When their decisions become their own, when they really feel they’re in control of their own actions, they will develop responsibility and independence at an earlier age.
• Perhaps the most important aspect of education is that young people feel respected and supported. This is really the foundation of a good education. The problem is that making people feel respected and supported is easier said than done. How many mission statements refer to respecting and supporting the child for who they are? In how many of those schools do young people actually feel this way? What institutional and systemic obstacles are present (they have a tendency to override individuals’ good intentions)? You cannot respect people for who they are while effectively implying that their grades, test scores, or college admissions prospects are indicators of their worth. I even question whether you can respect people for who they are while replacing their agency and freedom to explore with mandated activities for the majority of the day.
• Externally imposed motivators, whether rewards or punishments, have no place in a genuine learning environment. We forget that human beings are naturally disposed to learn. External motivators remove both the pleasure and power of learning. We should follow students’ interests, wherever they lead (I recognize that this requires immense trust). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer ideas, suggest routes, or share what we know–but it does mean that we must learn to do so very thoughtfully, as equals, without pressure or the authority of ‘knowing better’. Ultimately we should be trying to foster and strengthen peoples’ intrinsic motivation to learn. If it seems that the power or the very existence of that drive is not readily apparent, it’s likely because the system has stifled rather than developed it in people.
• People hold a number of unexamined assumptions about education. Many assume that education naturally involves a teacher leading twenty-odd students in instruction. People take this as the base structure around which they might think about trying new approaches. We should feel comfortable questioning the structure of schooling itself and imagine (and seek out) alternative structures. And when it comes to the purpose of education, we all too often go along without questioning our assumptions, without even acknowledging we have assumptions. Many people assume that they implicitly know, that everyone implicitly knows, the goals of education. But what are they? To get a good job? To become an involved citizen? To be happy? Where do each of these ideas come from? Did you arrive at these conclusions yourself?
• Continuing from the above point: Education is inextricably bound to personal and societal values. Discussions about education, like discussions about politics, are not simply about “what works” and “what doesn’t work.” They are more importantly about what end we are working toward. Education is not simply about effectiveness or efficiency. The fallacy of the standards movement is the belief that you can take what is a complex, qualitative goal–to be educated well–and reduce it to few narrow, quantitative measures (See Campbell’s law and Rachel Aviv’s excellent article on a middle school cheating scandal for more on this). The thinking is that if we could have clearly measurable indicators of success we could increase the effectiveness and quality of education by working toward those easy-to-understand goals. But educational goals, like goals in life, are not so simple or homogenous. Were proponents of the standards movement to be honest, they might say they care more about job training and GDP than producing creative, critically-thinking people. If you find that your values align with that thinking, that’s your prerogative. But I challenge you to determine for yourself what you think the goal(s) of education should be.
I’ve been asking people at the schools I visit, “How do you define success for your students?” It’s a difficult question for many educators to answer, and understandably so. Some say they define success as students’ happiness, some say students’ independence, some say students’ being able to create their own definition of success, one said ninety percent of students majoring in STEM related fields in college. There may never be a definitive answer to satisfy us. Nonetheless, I believe we must continuously reflect upon the purpose of what we are doing if we hope to do something purposeful.
On this journey I’ve been lucky enough to receive help and support from so many generous people. I’m deeply grateful to those who opened their homes to me and to those, adults and kids alike, who opened their schools to me and took the time to engage with me.
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A picture of San Francisco’s Brightworks school, which has an emphasis on hands-on projects and tinkering. The campus is a built-up indoor environment inside of a warehouse.