Grassroots: Day 2

Today I met two more teachers, Luis and Chloe. They were both very willing to share their stories about Grassroots, but Luis was pretty busy with projects all day, so I’ll talk to him more tomorrow hopefully. Chloe’s children went to Grassroots when she began teaching there, and her grandchildren attended also; she may even see her youngest grandchild start next year when he turns five! Luis gave me a small book made in 1997 called “Grassroots Freeschool: Former Participants in Their Own Words”. It was fabulous to read. I’ll be posting quotes from it in one of my upcoming blogs here!

Chloe showed me some examples of events that happened years and years ago at the school. There used to be a LOT of kids, between fifty and sixty, who were mostly teen or preteens! They had several dances, where a band made up of students (including Chloe’s son!) played. The band was called “Inappropriate Behavior”; they started off not knowing how to play a single note of music, but they really wanted to form a band, so they found the teachers and instruments and it slowly came together. Here are some of the advertisements they made for the dances:


I started off the morning by trying to warm up on the school porch. The huge trees surrounding the property blocked most of the sun until about 9:45, so I shivered for a little while. One of the six year olds, Nathan, kept me company as he ate a sandwich. Nathan and I discussed the sun, planets in general, lizards, wood, and why people get cold while we watched the other children arrive. Once again, it’s wonderful to see people of all ages treating each other like equals. Nathan spoke to me in the exact same way he would talk to his friends, his parents, or his teachers.  All the kids were more talkative around me today, which was nice.

Jan made a general announcement to the students running around that she would be having a gardening session if anyone wanted to come down with her to the garden across the way. Only an eight year old and two of the six year olds wanted to come. I tagged along for a bit. They were planning where their personal garden plots would be. Jan explained what many of the currently growing flowers and vegetable shoots were. The children could also choose to plant seeds for new crops. Jan wanted to do more with the young plants, perhaps have a plant sale, but the little boys soon ran back to the school and I followed them, wondering how Jan could get anything accomplished in the garden today with only one interested child.

Yesterday I had told one of the eleven year old boys, Wyatt, that I would play Monopoly with him, since I had been too busy at that time. As promised, we set up the Lord of the Rings version of Monopoly. A nine year old boy and two six year old boys came to watch. Everyone wanted to do something, even though they couldn’t join in since we’d already started, so one of the little boys rolled the dice for me while the other moved my character along the board, and the nine year old was in charge of the property cards. It interested me to see that he didn’t appear to be able to read yet. He would look at the first few letters of the property we wanted to buy on the board, then find the same match with the cards he held, instead of reading the words. He didn’t seem bothered by this, though. All the children were completely focused on the game. They were disappointed when I had to pause our play after about forty-five minutes because I was told that a former student was visiting to talk to me. But I promised to come back soon and finish the game.

Jan’s son, Allen, had come by with his baby son, River. We met on Jan’s back porch since she lived in the house across from the school. As I was walking over, I saw at least five children working with Jan in the garden! They were busily repotting tiny plants. I guess the plant sale will happen after all. Jan told me later that they prepared over one hundred plants to sell!

I basked in the warm sun as Allen told me about his experience at Grassroots for his first two years in school, then his time at a local public school (he had to attend because his father wanted him to, and his parents were divorced), then his eventual return to Grassroots until he went to high-school at another local alternative, a charter school. Allen went to college for art and now works as a graphic designer. When I asked if he felt that he was “deficient” in any academic way after his time at Grassroots, he answered with a sigh, “Yes, I wish I had paid more attention to math.” However, he said that he would never change his decision to attend Grassroots, even with the lack of attention to math he had growing up, because there were too many other things that were absolutely wonderful. Allen remembered a lot of fort-building, tree-climbing, drawing, art, writing, and playing with friends at Grassroots. When he had to switch to the public school at age six, he said that he clearly remembers feeling that things “just weren’t right” there. Here is an example:

“In the cafeteria there was a traffic light post set up. The students had to pay attention to what color the light was: if it was green, they could talk amongst themselves; if it turned yellow, it meant they had to begin to quiet down; when it turned red, no noise or talking was allowed. Even when I was so young I remember wondering why we had to follow these orders, because all they were trying to do was control us! It seemed so regimented, like we were being made into little factory workers, little drones.”

Grassroots is the opposite of that mentality. As Allen was describing his memory, the scenario around us was very different. He sat on the wooden porch in the shade, playing with his baby on a blanket. Four little girls from Grassroots had joined us on the patio, their hands dirty from working in the garden. One of the teachers, Genoa, who often looks after River in the afternoon, had come over also. Her four year old son, Jasper, was happily tossing a ball into the air. This caused Allen to pause as he began showing Jasper how to juggle.

Jasper thought juggling was magical!

Allen told me that he had heard about my guitar playing. He had just bought a small guitar from a yard sale for ten dollars, so he got it from the car and handed it to me. I played “Turkey in the Straw” which set everyone’s feet tapping. One of the girls said, “I can play the song ‘Free Fallin’!” and demonstrated the chords when I gave her the instrument. I was impressed. Her friend said, “Oh, that’s so cool, teach me!” And a guitar lesson began. Both girls were intently focused for about twenty minutes until the girl learning the song could play it fairly well.

I think she is a better guitar teacher than I am, seriously.

Soon Allen had to leave for work. Genoa took River on a walk in his stroller. The children went into the house with Jan to wash up, and they began making honey-mint ice cubes, a recipe that was a favorite for tasty drinks, I was told (picture below). Time for me to head back to the school!

Tasty treats being made in “food science” class!

Wyatt and I finished our game of Monopoly. He creamed me pretty thoroughly after putting four “strongholds” and a “fortress” on a series of properties (Lord of the Rings version, heh) and I went bankrupt after mortgaging all my lands. A fair game.

I brought my lunch back over to the school to watch Pat giving djembe lessons. He had a crowd of the boys around him. Children would stay for a few minutes or a long time, wander off if they lost interest, sit nearby just to watch, and laugh and talk around Pat. Kicking myself for not having any pictures of this… maybe later this week. It was wonderful to see how much patience he has with the children. That, I think, is one of the most incredible traits about him: the vast stores of patience that translate into love and care for all the students at Grassroots.

At one point, several students announced a dance party in the back building. Nathan, six, told me, “They have five boys and two girls. I don’t think that’s going to work out so well, because girls dance much better than boys!” Hilary Duff songs wafted through the air shortly after that. I never heard whether the dance party was a success or not.

Teacher Chloe made the announcement that she would be holding a bookmaking session in the art room. I followed her there. Only Griffin seemed interested at the time. She had stapled paper together into a booklet of twenty-six pages so that Griffin could make an alphabet book. He began writing each letter, uppercase and lowercase, in the upper corner of every page. He knew more than half of the uppercase letters but very few of the lowercase. When he didn’t know how to write one Chloe would either write it lightly on the paper for him to see or write it on a different piece of paper so he could copy it into his book. He quickly became absorbed in his project. Chloe started looking through old magazines for pictures of things he could cut out that would represent each letter. She also brought out some of the past books that students had completed.

Examples of the books.

Some were typed out. All were illustrated beautifully.

This was one of those cool books where you get to choose what happens next.

Soon Emma, eight years old, came in announcing that she’d like to make a book. She examined all the previous students’ books before deciding to make an alphabet book like Griffin.

Emma begins her alphabet book.

However, it was soon time to put everything away to prepare for clean-up. Parents trickled in to pick children up, there were last-minute tetherball matches, and I finally headed back to the house.

Tandy, Pat, and I went to hear Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel speak about education and peace at Florida State University this evening. I’d never heard of him before, but Pat and Tandy really like his books, plus they’d seen him speak before when he was last in Florida years ago, so they said it would be a good event to attend. We waited for over an hour in a line to see if we could get seats in the huge auditorium, but unfortunately all the tickets were sold out to FSU students, since they had first dibs on seats. Thankfully we were able to watch and listen to Elie Wiesel’s speech on monitors that were outside the auditorium; it was freezing in that part of the building and we had to sit on the floor most of the time with at least forty other people, but it was well worth it. He was a fantastic speaker; I have a feeling that he probably has more humanistic-centered views than I would hold to, but it was still a good talk to hear. There were four quotes I remembered particularly:

– “And yet…”  These were his two favorite words, he said. I wasn’t quite sure why, because his thick accent temporarily prevented me from understanding exactly what he was saying about them (this only happened twice during the lecture), but it seemed like he enjoyed these words because they held so much possibility, that things could always change and life was more huge and complex than we often realize.

– “We must learn from others, not seek to eliminate them.”  He spoke a lot about the Holocaust, since he was a survivor from the Jewish prison camps during that time. One thing he brought up again and again was that even if you disagree with someone, how you treat them is of greatest importance, rather than thinking that they are so wrong that they must be silenced.

– “The opposite of education is not ignorance, it is indifference to education.”  The main point he emphasized besides peace was the need for real education, to train ourselves and others to appreciate and stand up for real beauty, goodness, and truth in order that we might see those things in others.

– “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”  This was the statement that hit me the hardest on so many levels. I felt that it put into words the driving force I’ve felt for the past few years in researching education, seeking to become a better teacher, striving to understand people better, and questing for truth. I can’t live with idleness. That means no learning, no gaining wisdom, no action! It was like an encouraging anthem to hear Elie Wiesel speak this phrase, especially as I am so involved with educational philosophy right now. May these words always be a powerful call for continued growth and change in the fight against injustice in the world, whether it is against racism, oppression, or the inability of children to pursue freedom in their education.

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2 Responses to Grassroots: Day 2

  1. Devin Matthews says:

    This is very interesting, Alyssa! I really enjoyed reading it. That’s such a fascinating approach to education. I wish there was a school like that here in Arkansas- my brother is 11 and he really dislikes public school. He’s very bright, and he’s a very advanced reader, but public school doesn’t challenge him enough in some areas and fails to ignite interest in others. The teachers talk down to all the students, and in turn the students come to hate their teachers! The children’s disregard of ageism that you wrote about here was something I found really fascinating as well. The freedom that the children are given in their education at this school is really admirable. It’s like the best blend of homeschooling and public school.

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

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