Grassroots: Day 1

Today was my first day visiting Grassroots Freeschool in Tallahassee, Florida. I arrived by plane yesterday afternoon; Pat and Tandy Seery picked me from the airport and took me back to their home where I’ll be staying. We had a lovely time talking for several hours before going to a community social gathering at a neighbor’s house. Potluck dinners are the BEST! I had three plates of food. It was good to talk to some of the parents whose grown children used to attend Grassroots. When I asked each parent why they chose to send their children to the freeschool instead of other schools, the answer was almost unanimously “I wanted my children to have freedom to be who they wanted to be”. The desire for freedom in their children’s lives seemed to be a popular theme. All the graduates of Grassroots from this group of families went on to get college degrees and have careers; several are married now.

After the potluck dinner and playing guitar for everyone, we headed back home. I was too tired to do much else, so after several phone calls to family members, I went to sleep almost instantly. No writing tonight!

The air was so chilly this morning when I woke up around seven that I burrowed back under the down comforter for “just five more minutes”. Then I woke up at 8:30. Arrrrggg. Fortunately, school doesn’t start until 9:30 in the morning, so I didn’t miss anything! Before-school and after-school care is offered for working parents for an extra fee, but most kids arrive around 9:30 and get picked up between 3:00 and 3:30.

Yes, Florida has chilly weather right now. The temperature was hovering around the high forties last night! I was shivering with my sweater and jeans until at least noon today, since it was cold indoors. In the later afternoon the sun warmed everything up to a balmy seventy degrees.

The steps leading into the main school building.

Most of the morning I spent talking to family members as they brought their children to school. A few of the oldest students were simply dropped off, but most parents took their time, leisurely chatting with each other, talking with Jan, Kerrie, Pat, and Genoa (teachers), having a last moment with their children, and graciously answering my questions. It was so interesting to hear the different answers as to why they felt Grassroots was the best educational choice for their child. Here are a few examples:

– “Grassroots gives my grandchildren freedom to live their lives. So many kids are stuck in school so that they can grow up to be consumers, but they’re not happy because they’re not really being who they want to be. One of my grandkids would have been at the bottom of the class if he was in a regular school; he’s intelligent and a great person, but he’d be bullied and always struggling with academics if he was forced to be sitting at a desk all day. Here he has the freedom to become who he wants to be. And it’s made a huge difference in him. Now he’s confident and happy, and learns what he wants to.” (from a grandfather whose two grandchildren have been at Grassroots for several years)

– “My wife thinks it’s better for our son to be in a place where he can be free to do what he likes, learn at his own pace, and not be cooped up in a classroom all day.” (from a dad, who expressed some worries that his six year old boy would not bother to learn anything unless he was given “a carrot on a stick”, but said he was willing to give Grassroots a chance)

– “My son might have Asperger’s Syndrome, since he’s beginning to show signs of it at age five, and it runs in almost all the males in our family. I didn’t want to put him in a regular school because he’s so sensitive to sound and light. He’d be miserable if he was ordered around all day and felt like he had no control over his environment. Here he has control over what he does and what affects him, so he’s much more balanced, and I really feel like the teachers here are great at understanding what his limits are.” (from a mother, who wants to give her son the best opportunity at education with the added challenges he has)

– “I researched schools when I was pregnant with my son. This place seemed like the best fit for a child, with so much freedom to play and enjoy life, while being able to learn what they want, when they want. In almost any other school, my son would have to deal with bullies, authoritarian teachers, and strict rules, and there would be very little time for play. But Grassroots is the complete opposite of that.” (from a mother, who wants the best for her six year old)

You get the idea of the kind of responses families were giving. Variations of these reasons were spoken consistently all morning.

Teachers were available for different activities or subjects throughout the day. Most of the time, the schedule seemed fairly relaxed, with only a few “classes” held at a particular time. Every teacher there was always doing SOMETHING with one or more students. Genoa and a group of laughing, shouting children roamed across the playground. Pat taught various students different rhythms on the djembe while sitting on a stump outdoors.

The schedule written on a blackboard in the entry room.

Another teacher, Kerrie, started a board game called “Eye Know” with five students ranging in ages from eight to eleven. An older boy and a six year old boy were watching the game, but didn’t care to join in. Game cards were laid out on the board, each with a picture of something on it. Some pictures were easy to guess (an armadillo, lemons, pistachios) while some were a bit more tricky (Old Faithful geyser, the Mustang car, a mandolin) and some cards were downright difficult (Winston Churchill, the Prudential Insurance symbol, the Colosseum). The player would say the correct name of the picture, then another player would read them either a true-or-false question, a multiple choice question, or an open-ended question; the player guessing the answer would bet a certain number of points (tokens) on whether they thought they would get the answer right or not. Points were accumulated based on betting, correct answers, card colors, etc. I was surprised at which answers and how many facts the children knew.

Whoever made this game was pretty much a genius.

Next, they took out another board game called “American Trivia”. A few of the younger children wandered away, which left the nine through thirteen year olds to play with the teacher. Questions were categorized under “general”, “geography”, or “history”, and players moved forward based on correct answers. The questions ranged from simple (“Who was the first president?”) to more challenging (focused on actors, sports teams, political figures, and so on). Eventually I ended up playing the game as children left until finally it was just me and an eleven year old still going. He totally beat me. There were some questions that stumped both of us, but in general he was very quick to remember information, only occasionally needing a little hint to find the correct answer.

One thing I noticed in particular about the way the children played these games was that although they were competitive, they were also cooperative with each other; the older children would often give clues to the younger ones, ask them an easier question for a better chance to win a point, or speak encouragement if someone lost a point. “It’s okay if you got the question wrong, because now you know the answer for next time, and that’s the point of learning, right?” said one girl to another. Every student was certainly intent on beating the others, but the attitude of each child towards those younger than them was much more gracious and helpful. This behavior was consistent throughout the day at Grassroots. Even eight year old students were kind to the five/six year olds, giving them piggy-back rides around the playground when they asked. It was as if each child considered all those younger than themselves to be little siblings.

Here’s part of the library. It was really cool.

I tried to pay attention to what all the children were doing throughout the day. Here are some of the activities I saw:

– The eleven-thirteen year olds (about five of them) went to a class for preparatory high school math with a teacher.

– A few of the younger kids played dress-up with some old costumes a parent had just donated.

– A group of children did a “food science” project at teacher Jan’s house (she lives across the road from Grassroots), making two different kinds of muffins by experimenting with various ingredients and learning what baking soda and baking powder would do. We ate the muffins afterwards!

– An older boy spent several hours reading in the library.

– Some of the girls played a trading game with little plastic animals.

– Two girls worked on art projects. Not quite sure what they were making, but it appeared to involve plastic cups, yarn, a hot glue gun, and paint.

– Little boys played computer games on one of the three working computers.

– Most of the children spent some time playing outside in the sandbox, on the swing-set, on the tires, or on the rope swing.

– Some of the boys kicked a soccer ball all around the property.

Here’s the rope swing. You have to be of a certain age to swing down from the platform!

There are quite a few six and five year old boys! During much of the morning they ran around in little packs outside. Eventually they began to find different activities. One boy played a math game involving astronauts on the computer, singing to himself as he figured out math problems that became harder and harder. One five year old spent an hour exploring the computer, using the mouse to click through every page he could find on the desktop; I don’t know what he was seeing in the pages of coded numbers he would examine so deeply, but it enthralled him. There always seemed to be a little boy tagging along with a group of older kids, usually content to watch or join in if he was able to.

The children ate whenever they felt like it. Some began munching on their packed food immediately after arriving at school. There was never an “official” lunch period, but sometimes a few children would be seen eating together on the porch or at one of the outside picnic tables.

One of the most intriguing events was a math session Kerrie held for three of the youngest boys, Nathan, Gulani, and Griffin. Nathan, six, had done easy math problems two or three times before, so Kerrie began writing him out problems such as 9+7, 8+10, 12-6. Gulani and Griffin had never done any formal math work. Kerrie started out by having them copy the numbers 0-9 in rows on a piece of paper with a pencil. They started out writing the numbers very sloppily, but by the end of the copied row the number would be much improved. Once they showed her that they could easily write numbers (it took about fifteen minutes of work), she took a minute to explain what the plus and equals signs meant, then wrote several easy problems like 3+4, 7+1 on their papers. She also showed them how to use their fingers to help add numbers together.

Gulani did two problems correctly, but pushed his paper away after that and said that he was done. Kerrie asked him if he was sure, then on hearing his affirmation she cheerfully congratulated him on his work and told him to let her know when he’d like to do math again. Nathan continued to ask for more math problems; he eventually finished almost two pages full of them. Griffin was thrilled with math; he quickly finished the first easy problems, then asked Kerrie to teach him “what Nathan is doing”, so Kerrie told him how to subtract, and Griffin spent the next twenty minutes doing both addition and subtraction problems. Kerrie would write out a few at a time, only giving more if Griffin asked her. In the end, Kerrie had to bring the math session to an end because it was almost time for clean-up, but Griffin and Nathan both said that they were looking forward to doing more math later. Kerrie made a folder for each of the boys to keep their “worksheets”; she also wrote a brief sentence in the folders describing what the boys had learned that day.

It was fascinating to see how quickly the boys picked up on the concepts, going from never having written a number in their lives before to doing basic math, all in about one hour! The best part was that they truly WANTED to do it. Nobody was forcing them. They thought it was great fun!

School-wide clean-up time is held every day at 2:30. Everyone gets in line with a selected student at the head holding a bucket full of chores written on wooden tags.  The students pair off to make the chores easier to accomplish, then one of the pair picks a chore tag without looking. The different areas of the school grounds and different parts of the buildings are divided up for cleaning, picking up trash, putting away materials, and general tidying up. There is one “wild card” in the chore bucket which lets the lucky student pair go free without having to do chores. Also, there are two “inspector” tags, one for the inside and one for the outside; the inspectors have to go around to each spot and ensure that the pair who was assigned to clean that area did their job correctly. This process took about half an hour, not because the chores were difficult but simply because nobody was in a hurry.

By three fifteen or so, parents began picking up students. Some had to stay later because their parents were still at work. Once again, families didn’t seem to be in a terrible rush to leave, standing around to chat while the children continued to play.

One girl, Emma, who was eight, began talking to me. She told me about her Japanese pen pal. We talked about Japan, the tragedy of the tsunami there, and her friend. Then Emma asked if I’d like to learn how to make origami. Of course! We went into the art room to work on it.

The art room!

Emma found a book of origami, but she said that she didn’t need a book to make her favorite one. She taught me how to fold the papers carefully then weave them into each other to form this beautiful piece of art. She also gave me a swan that her friend Rose made.

So lovely.

One thing that I’ve been hearing consistently from teachers and parents, and experienced first hand with the students today is this: children who attend Grassroots become so comfortable with themselves and independent that they are not bound by ageism. This is the concept that people should be treated drastically differently based on their age. The students certainly know that some things are allowed as you get older (the rope swing, certain privileges with materials at school), but they speak the same way to four year olds as they do to adults. Students learn to respect everyone and to do no harm; however, students are not encouraged to be deferential in an obsequious manner to anybody, including teachers. Everyone addresses each other by their first name. Disrespect to a peer would be treated the same way as disrespect to an adult.

The last thing that happened at the school was my favorite moment of the day. I walked onto the porch to hear Griffin telling his mom and Pat something. “You should hear this,” Pat said, smiling. So Griffin turned to me, saying, “I was just explaining about tessellations. Here, let me show you over here.” He took me to a metal cabinet with lots of magnets on its side. “A tessellation is a pattern of shapes put together so that there are no gaps or overlap. Four shapes can be used for a tessellation: squares, rectangles, triangles, or hexagons. I learned about this on a show called Cyber Chase on t.v., so I started making them with shapes! Here are these.”

Tessellations made from squares and rectangles.

So I learned about tessellation from a five year old. How cool is that?

I spent the rest of the late afternoon and evening with the Seerys. Tandy took me to downtown Tallahassee to see the sights. We had a tasty dinner. Now Pat is doing things around the house and Tandy is sleeping peacefully on the couch with a book in her lap. Oh wait… now we’re having vanilla ice cream and pineapple for dessert!

I’d call this a good day : )

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4 Responses to Grassroots: Day 1

  1. Kevin Taylor says:

    Complete excellence.

  2. Pingback: Visit a School Part 2: the Free-School System | lifeistheteacher

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

  4. Pingback: Exploring Education! | lifeistheteacher

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