Visit a School Part 2: the Free-School System

Where are you going?

I’ll be traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, in October to visit the Grassroots School for a week.

Why are you taking a trip JUST to see this school?

Grassroots was founded by Pat Seery to be a democratic free-school. As part of my ongoing research into education systems, I want to visit several schools this year that will broaden my understanding of how children can learn in ways best suited to their needs as growing individuals. Last year I visited a Waldorf school and had many interactions at a public school where I taught a music class; those two experiences were very eye-opening in several ways. The reason I am flying out to Florida to visit Grassroots is because unfortunately there are no other free-schools closer to St. Louis! I can find examples of all the other education systems that I wish to research right here in my hometown, but to see a free-school I will have to go out of my way. I’m extremely grateful for Pat Seery and his wife Tandy who are allowing me to visit Grassroots for an entire week!

What’s so special about free-schools and democratic education?

A free-school emphasizes the independent personal development of children as beings who are all naturally born with a desire to learn and create. There is no set curricula, no required classes, no forced tests or exams, no grades, no homework, no age segregation, and no standardization of classroom subject material. Each child is seen as a unique person with the capacity to be a productive, creative, positive individual who will pursue their own special interests and become who they want to be in the world. Teachers support the child’s desire to learn by providing instruction, materials, opportunities, and/or help when the child asks for it or expresses interest. Gaining knowledge is seen not as something limited to a school building for six hours a day, but as an ongoing process that can take place at any time and in any place in the child’s life. The community of school, family, and city is considered vital to the child’s growth; the school works together as a unified group of individuals to support each other in the constant joy of learning.

Most free-schools’ philosophy is based on the twin principles of individual self-government and community self-government. Democratic education usually means that each member of the school community (students and teachers alike) have one equal-value vote at the weekly school meetings, which address many different topics that involve the running of the school, the smooth functioning of the community, rules, schedules, etc.

The Grassroots school operates under five basic tenets:

1. Feelings and emotions are as important in a person’s development as the cognitive and physical domains.
2. The mind is naturally inquisitive and such inquisitiveness must be allowed and encouraged to the fullest extent possible.
3. All knowledge is interrelated.
4. Each person is unique and it is fundamental in an education setting to fully respect and honor this uniqueness.
5. We are all responsible for, and dependent upon, each other.

Is there any evidence that the method of education used at free-schools actually works? What will happen to students when they have to enter “the real world”? Won’t there be HUGE gaps in their knowledge if they aren’t “made” to learn anything?

There are several free-schools in existence right now which have been around for forty or more years including the Summerhill School in England which was one of the main birthplaces of the democratic school philosophy. These schools have shown by the outcomes of their former students that the majority go on to be “successful”; the free-school philosophy considers “successful” to be a subjective word, so it defines success as a graduating student being socially, emotionally, academically, and mentally balanced and prepared in the best way possible for the student to confidently achieve whatever they wish to in their future.

Advocates of free-schools believe that students naturally learn reading, writing, math, and other “academic” skills simply by living life. No matter what a child might be interested in, whether it is computers, engineering, painting, cellos, chemistry, gardening, poetry, architecture, or any other subject, if the child sincerely has a desire to explore that subject, then they will obtain the skills necessary to pursue it. The free-school philosophy asks this question: who is to say that physics, algebra, several semesters of a foreign language, a (very limited and biased) few classes on history, or other arbitrarily-chosen school subjects are absolutely necessary for a student to be considered properly educated and go on to be “successful” in life?

For more answers to frequently asked questions about free-schools, go here.

Why do you feel the need to know more about free-schools?

Besides wanting to study free-schools as one of the education systems available to children, I’m also interested in their methods because it pains me to see students who hate school so much that they loath any kind of activity that might even hint at “learning” later on in life; I know people who won’t pick up a book to read for fun because they were forced to read boring, “educational” books while they were in school, which completely turned them off to any kind of books. I also know people who have the same kind of attitude towards math, towards history, towards science… people don’t like being forced to do something, even when they are young. Yes, some people dislike it less than others; many children compliantly (if a little sadly) go along with the flow from kindergarten through high school, because that is what society and their family expect them to do. Their parents went through school, their friends all have to learn the same things, everyone’s doing it. And of course there are some children who really love their school; their teachers are great, they enjoy learning what they are taught, and they are supported by their families at home. I wish these children were not the minority.

There are so many children who secretly resent school. They don’t understand why they MUST sit at a desk for six hours a day, five days a week, when they could be outside learning about trees, or creating a new cake recipe, or playing the piano, or discovering new books in the library, or writing a short story, or doing chemistry experiments, or any number of things that they’d rather be doing. Often these children resent school so much that they rebel against it. Hanging out with the “wrong” crowd, drugs, alcohol, delinquency, violence… there are many ways to express their hatred of school and hide away from a system that wants to control what they do with their minds. School is usually not the only problem in their lives, because family and life situation are factors also, but school is just one more place where a child or teen feels “chained”, helpless, and unwanted for who they are.

I see free-schools as being an opportunity for these children to discover that learning is not something to be hated, but something that is inherently part of who they are as human beings. Learning is exciting when someone is not breathing down your neck as they try to force-feed bits of knowledge into your unwilling mind! Even a teen who dislikes math will learn the math skills necessary to pass the SAT or ACT if it is necessary for their future goals, such as getting into a specific college or gaining a scholarship. Children deserve the chance to experience the happiness that comes from having freedom in their quest to discover who they are and what they enjoy doing, and that is something a free-school offers.

Edit, Dec. 13th, 2011: For the first post in the series written about my time visiting Grassroots Free School, click here!

Why bother to do all this research on education systems?

School should be a place that students look forward to attending every day because they know that they are being supported by a staff of mentors and adults who are passionate to teach what they themselves love. School should be a place where students can explore their abilities without fear of failure because they are eager to push the limits of their growing minds and bodies. School should be a place where children are free to use their imaginations and free to be the children that they are, not the mini-adults or compliant drones that they are often expected to be.

This is the kind of school that I hope will become more readily available for ALL students someday. Through my research, I hope that in the future I will possess a wide knowledge of education systems that will allow me to understand what kind of school environment will be most conducive to the student.

Who knows where my own path leads? Maybe I will work with a team of people who help revitalize the education system. Maybe I will teach at a school that supports the kind of ideas that enable children to have the optimal learning experience. Maybe I will help start that kind of school. Maybe I will have the blessing of simply teaching my own children to love learning. Who knows : )

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One Response to Visit a School Part 2: the Free-School System

  1. Pingback: Freedom in Education: Final Thoughts on the Grassroots Free-School | lifeistheteacher

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