Making School Optional for Everyone – Talk by Kenneth Danford

Kenneth Danford, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, Massachusetts, gave a talk at the Thrive 2020 Conference held in Guernsey, UK, on October 17, 2015.

Kenneth’s talk was titled “Making School Optional for Everyone,” and featured the personal stories of three North Star alumni and one current member. These stories and the overall presentation build on our awareness that young people are natural learners, and that what they need from adults, above all else, is trust. Teens also need caring adults to provide the space and the opportunities for learning. Kenneth argues that inviting teens to learn, while being prepared to accept “No” as an answer, is the core of adult mentoring in this model. The speech provides a suggestion for how the people of Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel, might use their legal autonomy to become a model for the world.

5 Dumb Things I Used to Think About School – A Teacher Turns on the Value of Obligation, Math, Homework, Deadlines and a Strict Demeanor

I have worked in a middle school for 20 years, and over the past eight years I have changed, and not just in the wrinkly, grey-hair way. My thinking and philosophies have changed as well.

Below are five dumb things I used to say. I considered calling them something less caustic, like five misguided things or five illogical things, but when I think of how and why I thought them, the word “dumb” really feels appropriate. Does that mean I was dumb? No; it just means I tried to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. So here are five dumb things I used to think/say:

1. School is your job. Just like I have a job and your parents have a job, you too have a job. I said this to kids often in my role as a teacher and parent. I said this to answer the question: “Why do we have to do this?” I said this as a reason to explain grades. The thinking behind it is that we all have jobs, and school is to prepare kids for future jobs that they probably are not going to like, so they had better get used to school. It is unreasonable to expect kids to be paid money, but they can be paid in grades. We adults all went through school. We realize that much of it was boring. We realize that like us, the student will forget much of the content because it is irrelevant to everyday life. So, we rationalize the purpose of school, and all we can come up with is that it must be to prepare kids to be disengaged employees.

What I believe now: School can be so much more. School can be a playground for a kid’s mind. School should not be a job but can be an exploration of life. We do not need to make things hard to justify a professional’s salary. All we need to do is supply a child with space, safety, resources and time. Why we have this notion that learning is serious business is now bewildering to me. Learning is joyous. Learning can cause dissonance, but in an engaging way, like walking through a haunted house at Halloween and wondering what could possibly be around the corner, while at the same time wanting to run backwards to the safety of the known. Grades are not needed and, in fact, they are a problem. Learning for learning’s sake is rewarding. We need to trust a child’s natural instinct to learn. We need to trust a child’s innate curiosities. We’ve tried trusting adults to pave the way, and it isn’t working. Let’s start trusting the children and stop acting like school is a child’s job.

A student hiding under a mathematical symbol

2. Algebra teaches you how to think differently. This was the answer I gave to students when they asked me why they had to take algebra. I believed this because it was the only thing my brain could come up with that made sense. I could never think of an actual example from my life of when I used algebra, but I just figured I wasn’t aware of the algebra in my life.

What I believe now: Algebra is a gatekeeper. School is a filtering system, and algebra is one of the ways we filter kids. We create two tracks for kids — a track for kids that would like to go to college and a track for those that would like to go into a trade. Algebra is one of the classes that we use to determine which track a child goes on. It doesn’t matter if the kid wants to study philosophy in college, or if a child wants to go into hotel management. If one wants to get to college, one must get through algebra first…and of course, feel free to forget everything you learned in algebra after the course.

A character sitting up too late with homework

3. Homework will teach you how to do things you don’t want to do. I would say this to kids who didn’t understand why they had to do 20 math problems they already knew how to do, or to explain why they needed to cut and paste various items onto a piece of poster board. My thinking was that students needed to learn how to “just do things” without wasting time thinking about the value of what they were doing. I would add: “Life is filled with things we do not want to do; do you think I want to do my taxes?”

What I believe now: Homework is something teachers give for several reasons. They may give homework just because they need some more points for the gradebook. They may give homework because they think they are supposed to give homework, because that’s what teachers have always done. They may give homework because some parents expect homework and it is viewed as making the teacher a “hard teacher.” These parents falsely believe that the students’ having to manage all this work, combined with other obligations, is preparing them for the future. Again, It is one of those “we must teach the kids how to deal with things that suck so they know how to handle things that suck” types of things.  Some teachers think that if you do the homework, then you are more likely to remember the content for the multiple-choice test (but then feel free to forget the content after the test; the rest of us adults did).

Homework may also be about control. How can we have some control over the student outside of the classroom? How can we still maintain a small piece of the child’s mind? Through graded homework, of course. What all these adults are not taking into account is that many students do what they don’t want to do from the moment they wake up on a school day. They drag themselves out of bed much earlier than they’d like. They get on a school bus with kids they may or may not like. They move from class to class sitting, listening, and regurgitating all day, every school day. Isn’t that more than enough? Aside from that, they have plenty of opportunities to learn to do things they don’t want to do when they are not at school. Like brushing their teeth, being dragged to the grocery store and sitting through Aunt Betty’s retirement party.

4. My strict deadlines are teaching them accountability and responsibility. The thinking behind this comment is very prevalent in school. There are deadlines in life, and we must teach kids that deadlines are serious business. “My deadline could be saving you from prison for not filing your taxes. You will thank me later.”

What I believe now: Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback. We all have our own set of priorities. If a student hands work in late, it may be for many reasons. It may be due to a major personal life issue, or it may simply be that the assignment was very low on their priority list. Teachers use strict deadlines and high point values as a means of coercion, to raise the threat in the hopes of making their assignment higher on a kid’s priority list. We don’t think of raising the relevance of the activity, or finding more engaging activities; that would be too difficult for the adult, so instead we raise the point value and become inflexible. If they don’t do that activity on time, they will get a zero.

5. Difficult/strict teachers help you learn how to deal with those types of people…it’s good for you. This is what I told my students or my own kids when they complained about having certain teachers – those that appeared to not like kids very much and appeared to be inflexible, angry, and argumentative. I thought “iron sharpens iron, and whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. The more you have to deal with these types of people, the more you learn how to deal with these types of people.” I would even go further with that statement: “I have people that I have to work with that are difficult, and some of my bosses may be unreasonable.” This statement confirmed the “school is your job” narrative.

What I believe now: Difficult teachers help the child hate school. Difficult teachers confirm the fact that the kids are powerless. Difficult teachers are the worst kinds of bullies in school because they can hide behind their title, their inherent power, and their rationalizations that they are being rigorous vs. unreasonable. If I have a difficult, inflexible boss, I can choose to get another job. I can choose certain avenues against the employer with a lawyer. I have many choices, but the child has very few if any choices. The child is stuck with that teacher for the entire year. That child is missing opportunities to learn, and that child is missing opportunities to have a positive relationship in an environment of his choosing. School should be a place where a child feels safe to grow, explore and investigate interests. It should not be a place where students “learn” how to endure angry adults.

Inspecting these basic, commonly held beliefs has led me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. As I continued thinking about and questioning the concept of traditional schooling, more and more of our practices and beliefs seemed illogical (dumb?). I do not yet know what grand thing I am going to do because of these realizations. I wish I could write a glorious statement about how I will be creating a new school, etc., but I can’t. What I have been doing in the meantime is talking to other educators and to other people interested in education. These five beliefs are a good place to start when I have these conversations. I do know that through these conversations, I have changed the story that many people believe about education, and I feel that each time the story gets changed, it gets us closer to the tipping point. The more people who truly inspect and question the traditions of schooling, the sooner true change can occur.

- Mike

 

Bringing Unschooling to School – A Conversation with Free Student Press founder Damon Krane

By Alex Walker

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Alex Walker

My son is only three years old, but even before he was born I was determined to raise him in a less conventional way. I knew homeschooling – or more specifically, unschooling – would probably be part of that design.  My unconventional view of education is bound up with my attraction to a less mainstream, off-grid lifestyle. So, naturally, part of me longs to turn on my heel, leave all the worldly nonsense I detest about society in the dust while at the same time keeping my son out of the depressing feedback loop of the 19th century factory-style education system.  As my son becomes an adult, I want him to have an experience that is itself significant, and not a contrived training for what is expected of him as an adult. I want him to have the guidance and resources available to become an independently minded person who can make empowered decisions for himself.

Yet I face an ethical impasse. To renounce the society you are born into comes with a price, and I find myself in a very privileged situation to even be considering homeschooling my son. As a white, middle class, college-educated American, I have both financial and social freedom to make relatively bold decisions in my life. And yet I am coming to acknowledge that the privilege I hold exists because of the very system I want to reject.

Furthermore, caring about my son means caring about the larger world he’ll live in and the society he’ll have to negotiate. Being an off-grid unschooler won’t make that world go away. Whatever protective buffers I create for my family, we will always be umbilically linked to the larger world, populated and sustained by individuals whose experiences may have been curtailed by public schools; flawed institutions that are symbiotically necessary to our current social framework.

While struggling with these issues, I was contacted by an old acquaintance, Damon Krane, who has been an activist, journalist, and grassroots social justice organizer for the better part of 20 years. His initiative, Free Student Press, amounts to an utter infiltration of independent thought within high schools, giving students the power to challenge norms, confront authoritarianism, and engage in constructive dialogue, while discovering and exercising their First Amendment rights to distribute independently produced publications that are often illegally inhibited by schools officials. By developing self-confidence and learning to work together, he believes that students can become empowered to build a better world.


Recently, Krane launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive and dramatically expand Free Student Press. Already, his vision has been lauded by such prominent educators, authors and activists as Ira Shor, Noam Chomsky, Bill Ayers, and Dawson Barrett.

I recently spoke with Krane about Free Student Press and the relevance it might have to those interested in homeschooling and unschooling.

So what is Free Student Press (FSP) and why is it relevant to people interested in homseschooling and unschooling?

Damon Krane. Photo by Ece Ucoluk Krane

Homeschooling and unschooling have a lot of appeal to parents who believe children and adolescents deserve more freedom to pursue their own curiosities and creative impulses than conventional schools allow. FSP is based on the same conviction. But instead of seeking to create totally separate alternatives to our public schools, or trying to reform national school policy from the top-down, FSP takes unschooling to school.

What exactly do you mean by that? 

FSP starts from the assumption that teenagers don’t need anyone else telling them what to do. What they need are more meaningful opportunities to express themselves, to make sense of their world, and to have an impact on that world. So FSP offers teenagers some very practical tools. The first tool is the knowledge schools typically hide from students about their First Amendment rights to distribute independent student publications at school.

More commonly known as underground newspapers or zines, these publications are produced by students, outside of school, and without using school resources. But then students can bring these publications to school and pass them out to their classmates on school grounds, during school hours. School officials can’t control the content, they can’t punish students for writing things school officials don’t like, and in the overwhelming majority of cases school officials cannot legally prevent students from distributing independent student publications at school.

Within one of these publications, students can create for themselves a unique forum for public dialogue among their peers that is anchored to their experiences as students within their schools, and as young people within their communities. From my experience with these publications, I’ve learned that whatever disagreements students may have with one another, they tend to all want a place to discuss what they care about. So students learn how to manage this forum, because they’re committed to keeping it. They learn how to communicate themselves better, because that’s necessary to change minds and have an impact. They learn about their peers and others’ perspectives, and the situation forces them to contend with others’ arguments. Finally, if school officials attempt to illegally censor a publication – as they often do – students get to learn how to defeat corrupt people in positions of power and authority through grassroots organizing.

And the best part of FSP’s approach is that we don’t have to wait until we’ve changed our schools, or until we’ve built better large-scale alternatives. Instead, we literally turn public schools into an opportunity for a massive unschooling campaign – one that not only enriches learning and improves young peoples’ lives, but which also dramatically increases Americans’ capacity to create a freer, more just society.

Let’s back up a bit and talk about students’ legal rights to do this. Are student press rights just a matter of the First Amendment, or of court decisions and/or other legislation?

The First Amendment was a concession early American elites granted in order to get the Constitution ratified. It really didn’t mean anything in practice until mass movements of ordinary people made it mean something – and that’s true for student press rights, too.

Back in the mid 1960s, a group of families in Des Moines, Iowa decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Some of their kids wore these armbands to school, for which the children were threatened with violence by school officials and then promptly kicked out of school. The families and allied individuals and organizations fought back, and eventually this resulted in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Tinker decision did several things. Most important for FSP, it established the right of public high school students to distribute independent student publications at school.

Are there any legal limits placed on what students can do with these publications?

Independent student publishers and journalists are still bound by the same laws as professional journalists, publishers and everybody else when it comes to stuff like libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, copyright infringement, and so on. But there is only one additional legal restriction that applies to independent student publishers at public schools.

School officials may only attempt to prevent distribution of an independent student publication if they can show there is a very high probability that the either the contents of the publication or the manner of its distribution would cause a severe disruption of official school proceedings or invade the rights of others. What 46 years of case law following Tinker has made clear is that it is extremely difficult for school officials to meet this standard.

If students have had this right since 1969, why am I just hearing about it now?

It’s not just you. Practically everyone is unaware of this.

For nearly a half century since Tinker, illegal censorship has continued to run rampant in our schools, as documented by groups including the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Student Press Law Center. But the many reported cases of illegal censorship are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t tell us about all the kids who were lied to about their rights at school, or simply not informed, or students who never reported illegal censorship because they didn’t know it was illegal.

Take me and many of our high school classmates. During our senior year some sophomores created a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak. As soon as the students passed out their first issue, they were called down to the principal’s office and told they could not hand out a student publication at school unless they first allowed the principal to edit its contents. Since they had not done so, they were all punished with several after school detentions, and that was the end of Hide and Go Speak. That’s miseducation and illegal censorship, but none of us knew better, so it was never reported.

So what happened when you first put the idea of Free Student Press into practice?

Within three weeks of our first outreach event, the very first group of high school students Lisa and I worked with produced a publication called Lockdown. On page one of their first issue, Lockdown’s creators accurately explained their First Amendment press rights and the Tinker decision.

Student reading paper issue of Lock Down

And how did the school respond to Lockdown?

The principal threatened to suspend all of the students involved if “anything like this ever turns up again.” Then he informed the family of Lockdown’s lead publisher, Devin Aeh Canary, that a suspension would likely prevent her from becoming class valedictorian. Later, school authorities falsely accused the students of promoting drugs and violence through their publication, and local police were called upon to illegally break up a meeting about the paper the students were trying to hold at a public park. The superintendent, meanwhile, issued a press release declaring members of FSP irresponsible outside agitators who had made children feel unsafe at school, and he pressured officials at Ohio University (where I was an undergraduate education major) to encourage me to stop FSP’s work.

The conflict was pretty intense, and it lasted for nearly four months. But with FSP’s support the students mobilized so much community support that they completely defeated both their school administration and local police. The students kept publishing Lockdown, and the school’s principal resigned. FSP went on to work with more high school students and independent publications in the years that followed. However, officials at all of the five districts we worked with remained opposed to teaching students their press rights, publicly refusing to include accurate information in their student handbooks after FSP audited the handbooks a few years after the Lockdown controversy.

Why do you think censorship and deception about First Amendment rights are so common in public schools?

Public schools are supposed to be how we teach Americans constitutional rights essential to American democracy. But the design of our schools is at odds with that mission.

ks_memes_chomskyOur schools are designed to carry out what Paulo Freire called the banking concept of education. Within the banking concept, students are considered empty containers for a teacher to fill up with deposits of whatever information authorities have deemed valuable.

The first problem with the banking concept is that from the time we’re born, we human beings have our own curiosities and creative impulses. We want to figure out and consciously shape both ourselves and our world. But in the banking concept, these aspects of human nature are the enemy. They’ve got to be beaten down and suppressed so that students can be filled up with whatever is on any given day’s lesson plan.

For the banking concept to be implemented students must be silenced and made powerless. In contrast, independent student publications give students a voice and a means of developing power. That’s why our schools usually oppose student press rights.

You worked through FSP from 1999 through 2006 with students in Southeast Ohio. Now you’re trying to launch FSP in four Southern states over the next two years, and then take FSP nationwide. Tell me more about that plan.

If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its goal, I’ll begin traveling to several college towns in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In each town, I’ll recruit a team of college student activist-volunteers to assist me with outreach and working with the high school students in their areas.

Once we’ve established contact with interested area high school students, we’ll hold two separate weekly meetings in each town – one for just the local FSP team, and one with the local FSP team and the local high school students. In the beginning, I’ll be leading FSP’s work with each group of high school students. But as the skills of the local team members become more advanced, they’ll gradually take over from me, freeing me to launch FSP in additional towns.

In the meantime, I’ll try to facilitate online networking between the different student publications, and I’ll help the students access the additional resources of other press rights advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center.

Finally, I’ll be chronicling FSP’s work in a book. After this new two-year phase is completed, I’ll get the book published and use it to try to convince major funders and national organizations to expand FSP all across the country.

I can see this being something that homeschooled teenagers would enjoy and benefit from being a part of. Do you foresee FSP collaborating with and reaching out to kids who are not educated at school, but who want to learn about their rights and how to organize and engage in a more meaningful dialogue within their communities?   

Homeschoolers – along with private school students, who aren’t afforded the same press rights as public school students (except by California’s Leonard Law) – can attend FSP meetings and connect with independent student publishers at the public high schools in their area. This gives homeschoolers the opportunity to submit writing and artwork and even participate in governing student publications. So the experience can benefit homeschoolers and give them a great opportunity to interact with other young people.

How can people support this work?

The Free Student Press campaign on Kickstarter needs to reach its goal by August 24, so I encourage everyone who supports this work to donate immediately and to tell all their colleagues, friends and family to do the same. This only works if a lot of us pitch in. But if this campaign succeeds, its impact will be tremendous.

____________

NOTE: This is a condensed version of a longer interview. To learn more about what the digital age means for independent student publications, the situation of students at private schools, and critiques of the banking concept of education, see the full interview.

____________

BIOS:

Alex Walker is a stay-at-home mother to a three-year-old son. Formerly a figurative artist and portrait painter, Alex is fascinated by sustainable architecture, homeschooling, gardening, and anything involving creative design. She is following her intention of learning more about human rights and progressive values and movements, as well as becoming a practitioner of ecological living. She lives with her son and husband in Littleton, Colorado and is thoroughly enjoying what the state has to offer.

Damon Krane is co-founder and director of Free Student Press. He has worked as a news reporter, opinion columnist, magazine editor, communications director, non-profit director, grassroots organizer and activist, journalism educator, and business manager. Much of his writing is archived at damonkrane.com. He is also a visual artist, specializing in black and white pencil portraits of people and pets at fineartpetsketches.com He lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

 

A Letter from Teaghan Rose, Homeschooled Teen

teaghan

Hello!

My name is Teaghan Rose and I am 18 years old. I began homeschooling when I was seven years old, stopped at 12, and started again at 15. I have two brothers (six and 12) and a sister (16) who all follow a self-directed learning path, too.

My schooling path has been a world of contrasting learning environments. From traditional school to online and an adventure at a Performing Arts School, my academic explorations have always led me back to self-directed learning and to truly being in charge of my education.

I attended kindergarten and continued with traditional education through first grade. I can remember as a six year old thoroughly disliking the classroom environment; all I wanted to do was play. Focusing was extremely hard for me, and I could never quite comprehend what the teacher was talking about because I simply did not care. Granted, not everything was a negative experience. I enjoyed the friendships that I made in school and made some connections that I still enjoy today. However, academically, traditional school was somewhat of a disaster.

After first grade my mother decided to start homeschooling me. I liked this a whole lot better. I could play as much as I wanted and explored what interested me. If I didn’t want to do something, I didn’t have to. And I certainly did not have to sit around all day while information passed straight through my head.

I spent most of those first homeschooling years outside, building, playing, and creating. But as I got into the middle school ages, I started to worry about my education. I worried that I wasn’t learning enough or learning the right things. I would hear my traditional school friends talk about their classes and felt under- educated. At this point I decided I was finished with homeschooling. I thought that if I were going to be successful later in life, I needed to know certain things.

I can remember my friends discussing a history class of some sort and not having any idea what they were talking about. I am sure they’ve now forgotten all the facts and information that were being discussed, but in the moment I felt bad that there seemed to be general knowledge I knew nothing of. I love to read and did it all the time, but felt I was lacking in mathematical and scientific knowledge. I thought maybe attending traditional school would awaken some deep scientific appreciation within me. And, in time, I have come to really enjoy science a lot and I love to learn about it. However, that appreciation certainly did not come from traditional school; instead, it stemmed from a curiosity about the world that I was unable to pursue in the direction I desired within the traditional school environment.

Instead of believing in myself to teach myself the things that I wanted to know, I opted for having others choose for me. I wanted to be smart and felt that I wasn’t, and that pushed me away from homeschooling.

At the time my neighbors were attending an online charter school that also offered a Performance and Fine Arts Center for interested students, and after talking to them I signed up. The Performing Arts Center was somewhat selective, and I had to submit art work and prepare a dance audition. After weeks of waiting, I received my acceptance letter and ecstatically started my online work.

The first two years of online school went well. I was doing all my work on time and felt very fulfilled and productive. I was also enjoying the Performing Arts Center and created many friendships there.

However, my enjoyment of online learning did not last long after that. When I graduated from 8th grade, I was excited about 9th grade. My fellow students were always complaining about how hard it was to balance online work and the arts assignments, but I had always juggled the work load well. Until 9th grade, that is.

High school was overwhelming from the start. The workload was huge, both academically and at the Performing Arts Center. I was constantly working, would stay up well past midnight on most nights and worked on weekends and holidays. I never had any time to explore what I was interested in because I was always learning what other people thought was important.

openconnections

Open Connections

Throughout 9th grade, I was exhausted and soon decided that I needed a healthier learning environment. My sister and brother had been homeschooled the majority of their lives and had recently begun attending a center 45 minutes away called Open Connections (OC). Every Tuesday and Thursday, after my art classes, I would drive over to OC with my mom to pick up my siblings. I loved to sit in the quiet space of the Barn and read; it was wonderful to have a few moments away from schoolwork to focus just on myself. I also enjoyed coming to OC events, the Pausing Ceremony and Music Night. The community was so positive and laid back, I felt instantly welcomed.

The choice to begin homeschooling again and to attend OC was an easy one to make. I desperately wanted to be in control of my learning—and I soon was. I created a schedule and curriculum for myself and started to really love learning again. It felt so natural to be teaching myself, and learning what I knew was important to me. I realized that this was where I belonged all along, and that learning at my own pace was what would truly make me successful.

I began homeschooling and attending OC in 10th grade and am graduating this year. I got into my top three colleges with good scholarships (woohoo!) and have big plans for the future. If it weren’t for making that vital decision to begin homeschooling again, I don’t know if I would be in this position, ready to attend college. I don’t know if I would have realized my potential as a scholar and person, and if I would have taken the initiative to succeed. The homeschooling and OC communities are warm, encouraging, and truly enabled me to set big goals and then achieve them. I am so thankful for the the community and opportunities that have presented themselves through Open Connections and self-directed learning!

- Teaghan Rose

A Visit to Summerhill – Possibly the Happiest School in the World

By: Alexander Khost

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Summerhill students along with students and staff from five countries during International Schools Week 2015.

“When people come here, they don’t say that Neill’s writing inspired them, but rather, that Neill’s writing changed their life,” I heard Zoe Readhead say in a meeting I attended last week. Zoe is the principal of Summerhill, a ninety-four year old boarding school in Leiston, England and the daughter of A. S. Neill, the school’s founder and the author of many transformative books. I am one among the self proclaimed life-changed people.

Many years before, across a huge ocean far away in the suburbs outside New York City, Summerhill seemed like an unattainable fantasy to my fifteen year old public-schooled mind, But the very thought of it, just the possibility that a school could be as such made me come alive and has had me so for the twenty-five years since.

A life’s dedication
I have dedicated my life to Neill’s simple philosophy, Freedom not License. At Summerhill, children can do as they please (freedom) so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others (license). That means, for example, students only go to the classes they are interested in attending, but cannot play their guitar at 2am while everyone else is sleeping. It is a century old self-governed school run predominantly by the young people living there.

An invitation from Summerhill
My partner, Amanda Rose Wilder, made a documentary entitled Approaching the Elephant about the first year at a school I founded in New Jersey based on Neill’s principles. The film debuted last year and was discovered online by Philipp Klaus, a Summerhill teacher and house parent. Philipp invited Amanda and I to attend the school’s annual International Schools Week and so, among thirty-six staff and students from free schools in South Korea, Italy, Spain, and Germany, we found ourselves immersed in a week long sampling of what life is like at Summerhill.

Getting there
Neill once said that “Summerhill is possibly the happiest school in the world.” If I had any doubts of that claim, I was certainly assured that it was true last week, as I joined the ranks of the happy community. Amanda and I arrived at the Saxmundham train station and took a fifteen minute cab ride to the small village of Leiston on the eastern shore of England and onto the many acres of land that houses the Summerhill community.

So many rules!
After being shown our tent among the many tents to house the international guests in the horseless horse field, we were shown around the grounds by P., a thirteen year old student and member of the committee that put together this International Schools Week. P. briefed us on the most important of the school rules.

Paradoxically from the school that has inspired so many stories of freedom, my first feeling at Summerhill was one of panic should I break any of seemingly many stringent rules. One of the most common misconceptions of Summerhill (and other free schools alike), is that it lacks structure. The massive law book and specific visitors rules I reviewed were the confirmation that quite the opposite is true. Summerhill has a great deal of structure, perhaps twice that of a typical community. To successfully allow everyone to have an equal voice there, it must be that way. Whereas in the more conventional top-down environment many of us are used to, less rules are needed, since authority presides. Just think of any decision-making environment you have been in, where you try to give equal voice to each member of the group– it is perhaps much easier in the short term to have one person make all of the decisions but is it as fair that way, is it respected and obeyed? Self-governance is indeed governance, just a form of structure many of us are not accustomed to, having been raised to do as we are told, not as we all decide together.

Bedtimes
Amanda and I learned of the complex system of bedtimes at the boarding school (which I could not accurately repeat without a rule book cheat sheet in front of me). It began with the youngest children being in their rooms at 8:30pm and lights out fifteen or so minutes later, working it’s way up to the older 11pm bedtime children and the oldest of whom have no curfew at all but need to respect the quiet time mandated by after hours.

There are Beddies Officers, community members who are over thirteen who are elected to the Beddies Officer committee, who go around and lovingly tuck in all of the children each night. In my questioning of many in the community, the bedtime rules seemed to be some of the most important to them. And not once in a school of more than seventy sleeping children and a dozen or so staff, did I ever witness the bedtime rules being broken.

…and more rules
There are laws to regulate meal schedules, class schedules, event schedules, the mandates of how the two trampolines and various skateboard ramps can and cannot be used and so on. But somehow within this blinding list of laws, time there seemed so simple, so… un-bureaucratically just and efficient.

School meetings
The school meeting proved to be the finest decision-making process I have ever been witness to. All free schools have a weekly school meeting (Summerhill has two) in which school rules are discussed and voted on (or come to a concensus on in some cases, depending on the school’s decision-making process) and at Summerhill, where members of the community can be “brought up” by other members for breaking laws or personal grievances. I have been to the school meetings of perhaps a dozen different free schools and by far Summerhill’s was the most impressive. Sixteen year old I. ran the meeting both times I was there (meeting chairs at Summerhill go through chair training and then rotate weekly upon election by the school meeting each Friday) and the meeting secretary, G.– with the kindest smile– who was about the same age, sat next to her keeping the meeting minutes.

Discussion included voting the international guests into the meeting (so I was told, as I stood outside hoping to get in!), a discussion on one student who was brought up for saying mean things to another student (who was given a “strong warning,” which was recorded and could result in, for example, a work fine if there were subsequent offenses), a request to use £15 to buy a cake to celebrate the 70th anniversary of UNESCO (the organization that wrote the Convention on the Rights of the Child), announcements of the pool opening, and many other topics. Each meeting I was at lasted about forty-five minutes and was run so smoothly, I can only hope the United Nations takes note.

Getting to know students and staff
I spent my mornings sitting at a picnic table front and center on the school grounds, painting a picture for a friend’s children we were to visit in London once we left Summerhill. I secretly sat there hoping children would approach me, ask to paint alongside me (with the many extra canvas boards I consciously brought along with me on the trip for just that purpose) and strike up conversation. On day one M. approached, a ten year old or so boy, and at the moment, the only student from the United States. He had just started attending the school half a year prior. He unfalteringly painted his vision on his canvas (a city skyline that cleverly reversed itself when held upside down), asked if he could keep it, cheered when I nodded yes, and ran up to his room to assumingly hang it. Our conversation consisted mainly of how he got here, how he felt about the school (he loved it but missed his family), and many bad jokes by both of us that continued throughout the week (and somehow lost me fifty pence in a fixed game of rock, paper, scissor, where M. pulled out “bazooka”).

On the soccer field (football pitch), I secretly laughed to myself as I struggled to figure out who was staff and who was student. The game was intense and serious but aside from keeping score, I heard not one competitive remark amongst the players (even despite the fact that my team was crushingly defeated 11-1). In capture the flag the next day, I found myself most seriously stomping through stinging nettles on the enemy grounds, only to be discovered by Michael, one of the staff, who assured me he was not playing. It was at that moment that I, the forty year old adult I am, looked into the eyes of another adult who laughed at me in the bushes that I realized that I was finally fulfilling my twenty-five year dream. I had made it to Summerhill, warmly and kindly invited to share in a moment here.

 

picnic_table.jpg

At the picnic tables with some of the Italian visitors.

The next day I had great success at the picnic tables, where a group of Italian girls joined me and painted sun filled skies and flowers while others stood around and braided colored wire into bracelets. At lunch Amanda and I met F., who spent the rest of the meals that week giggling as she stole Amanda’s seat when she got up for a drink and would poke me in the arm and say “dead.” That evening, Philipp invited us to his house’s bedtime, which was the warmest, most nice moment of the trip. Bedtime simply consisted of having perhaps a cup of tea and toast while sitting around and sharing stories before the brushing of teeth and the Beddies Officers coming for the lights out tuck-in.

The highlight of the week, however, came most unexpectedly at dusk on Thursday evening, two nights before we were set to leave. Sitting with Amanda in my usual spot on the picnic bench but now listless, since I had finished the painting for my friend’s children, we were approached by F. and E., a friend of F.’s, who inquired if we had been up Big Beech. We followed their lead after they saw our blank faces, anticipating not much more than perhaps a silly joke. We were led behind Class 2, the building housing the classrooms for the second youngest group of students at the school, where we looked up, and then up further to see the most giant beech tree I have ever laid eyes on.

Like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, the two girls led Amanda and I up a ladder and sat with us out on an enormous branch twenty some odd feet in the air (I did not dare climb to one of the higher branches that our young counterparts more confidently walked along like trained tightrope walkers). They told us how the tree had been here since the school had begun and about the boys in the past who had presumably climbed to the highest branches, I want to say, a good fifty or sixty feet in the air. They told us of their time at Summerhill and of their families at home and made up stories for us. And as we walked away to attend an adult get together in the staff lounge we were invited to (again discovered by Michael, smiling, looking up at us in the tree, “I heard your voices…”) we overheard one girl say to the other, “I like them.” And my heart warmed as I felt, for a moment, as an accepted part of something bigger, something wonderful.

 

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F. on a branch up Big Beech


Goodbye Summerhill!
We postponed our plans to leave for London Friday afternoon to attend the last night party in honor of the international guests. A campfire and marshmallows and dancing and limbo and goodbyes followed. Early Saturday morning Amanda and I zipped our tent for the last time and jumped in a taxi we had reserved the day before (we learned!) right after one last look at the school grounds and one last cup of tea. We sped off to meet old friends in London and to take a marvellous charge at a rope swing at Glamis Adventure Playground, a junk playground in London that supports free-play for children, but that’s a story of children’s freedom for another day.

- Alexander Khost

Why Homeschoolers Are Winning

Homeschooling is growing at breakneck speed. It’s the fastest growing form of education. Soon 4% of U.S. students will be homeschooled, that’s 2.5 million children! To put that in perspective, the proportion of students in private schools is 10% and declining.

Why is homeschooling growing so much? Well, besides being a much more humane way of educating the young than institutionalized coercive learning, it’s also very effective, it’s cheap, and it produces excellent results. The homeschool movement is not only winning in recruiting new practitioners, it is also more successful at what many probably, subconsciously, think of as the true reason for attending compulsory schooling: getting into college.

So let’s pretend that the purpose of the first 18 years of human life is to get into a good college. I don’t believe that, but for the sake of argument, let’s do it. Let’s take a look at how homeschooled children are doing at that game, because it might just be that not going to school Is the new Eton or Andover, and more interestingly, that not going to college at all is the new Cambridge or Yale.

Homeschooled children are already winning because…

They do better academically
On average homeschooled children perform better on standardized tests than 80% of their schooled peers. Now, standard academic tests are arguably not the best way to measure how much someone has learned lately, especially if they have engaged in self-directed learning, but I just wanted to debunk the myth that to excel academically, even by nonsense government standards, you need to spend time with professional instructors.

Homeschooled children spend less time studying what doesn’t interest them
Homeschooled children spend an average of 2 hours per day to keep them on grade level with their schooled peers. That’s three to four times less than schooled children, by a conservative estimate. Imagine if we invented a car that used 25% of the fuel of regular cars. What Tesla is to automobiles, homeschooling is to education.

Homeschooled children spend more time studying what interests them
Because they don’t spend much time in buses, homeschooled children can be done with “school work” before noon and then have all afternoon to engage in learning things that they are truly curious about, or play, which is the same thing. In other words, they can engage in self-directed learning, a much more effective, meaningful and long-lasting type of learning than forced education.

Homeschooled children can use evenings for socializing or being active in their community
Because they have no homework, a homeschooled student’s evenings can be spent with their parents, siblings, friends, being physically active, engaging in after school activities, or doing volunteer work. All these activities are important for building community and family ties, and to promote a healthy lifestyle, undoubtedly forming relationships and habits that will help them later in life.

When they apply to college homeschoolers win because…

They are more often accepted to college than their schooled peers.
Word has it that Stanford accepts one in 20 schooled applicants and one in five homeschooled applicants.

The main reason homeschooled students are more often accepted to colleges than high school students seems to be that in order to be Stanford material you need something more than just perfect grades and scores. You also must have a personal story and a unique demonstrated expertise, like being a high level violinist or a top notch dancer. Now, if you had all the hours of the day, except for one or two, to find your passion and delve into it, you’d probably be a lot further along than most others at your prefered skill. You’d be mostly, or fully, a self-directed learner and colleges love those.

Homeschoolers are more motivated when they get to college
Eighty percent of high school students don’t like school very much, so by the time they get to college, despite the change of settings, their motivation to attend classes and do academic exercises suffers. This is not likely to be a problem for the homeschooled students, unless they have had overbearing parents. Homeschooled students often report feeling more motivated to study when in college than their peers, and less motivated to party and consume alcohol.

While we are at it, why not skip college too?

This could be a good idea! If not going to school is the new Eton or Stanton, not going to college could very well be the new Cambridge or Yale. Because…

Future employers will care less about credentials and more about portfolio.
Google already claims they do. An increasing amount of the company’s employees have not gone to college, currently the number is as high 14% on some teams. Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google said to the New York Times: “When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.” Too many colleges, he adds, “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

People who don’t go to college won’t have student loans.
College tuitions just keep going up. You don’t want them.

Colleges will have less and less chances to educate people within new areas
In the sixties going into plastics seemed like great advice. In the eighties learning word processing was thought to secure your professional future. As the world moves faster and faster, large educational institutions have a harder time catching up in disseminating the latest expertise. The best way to catch up is to give their students more freedom to learn what they are interested in. Nothing gives you more freedom than not going to college at all.

In the future the brightest young minds will be paid not to go to college
There is already the Thiel Fellowship, founded by entrepreneur Peter Thiel, which grants fellows US$100,000 to forgo college for two years. One of the first projects founded was UnCollege, a movement that “provides resources for students that wish to define their own educational paths”.

Another interesting development is the Hacker School in New York were tuition is free for accepted students. The school makes its money from companies who pay when they hire graduates. Here is my prediction: In the future promising students will be identified early by recruiters, as early as high school, and be given a grant and a space to study what they wish, in return for signing on with the recruitment firm.

No school, no worries

Now, my children don’t go to school. We are homeschoolers, but of the subset called unschoolers. We have no curriculum, we simply assist our daughters in following their own interests, and let them set the pace at it. A recent study shows unschoolers seem to do well in life as adults also.

The reason we homeschool is not that I want them to achieve great things in life, academically. I don’t care. I just want them to be happy. I really don’t believe childhood should be a prep race for the rat race. A.S. Neill, the founder of the world’s first democratic school, said “I’d rather my school produced a happy street sweeper than a neurotic academic.” I agree, so forget what I said about Eton and Yale. Just leave them kids alone. Ultimately it’s all about trusting that children want to and will succeed in finding their own path in life, if not pushed one way or the other. All we need to do as adults is to be there to assist when they ask for help. Your dreams are not their dreams. So just relax.

Education today is a cynical race to “success”, and by opting out of it and allowing their children to find their own paths in life, homeschooling families are clearly winning.

——–

Jens Peter de Pedro is a collaborator with Alternatives to School. By day he is a Play Designer at Toca Boca, the Swedish digital toys studio. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter: @jp_de_pedro

Articles referenced:
Home-Schooling: Outstanding results on national tests
Home Schooled Students Excel in College
Home Schoolers in Ivy League Universities
How Do Unschoolers Turn Out?
How to Get a Job at Google
UnCollege.org
Proportion of U.S. Students in Private Schools is 10 Percent and Declining
Alternatives to School: Democratic Schools
U.S. Teens in Our World (80 percent of U.S. students don’t enjoy school very much)
Why Play = Learning

Harnessing Children’s Natural Ways of Learning – Article in MindShift

Fed up with the restrictions at his conventional school, 10-year-old Scott Gray convinced his parents to transfer him to one where children control their own education… Read article

By Luba Vangelova

 

BBC Panel featuring Dr. Peter Gray

BBC World Service—World Update program

Interview with Dr. Peter Gray on afternoon drive program

KRBZ 96.5FM—Kansas City

School is a Prison – And Damaging Our Kids, Salon

Longer school years aren’t the answer. The problem is school itself. Compulsory teach-and-test simply doesn’t work.  Read article.

By Peter Gray.