Friday, October 28, 2011

After two months in a Montessori school...

I've taught in a Montessori school for two months now. Its a much better gig than public schools, but the pay isn't nearly as good. That's not to say public school teachers make a decent wage. In my opinion, the vast majority of teachers are not paid what they're worth. My salary is somewhere in between that of a public school teacher, and that of a free school teacher. As for the school community being democratic, it is to a certain extent. For the most part, children have free choice in their activities. However, they do not make the rules as a community in a free school would. I don't see why the elementary students couldn't have court and community meetings though.
 I think my main issue with the school I work at is  we still admister the state's standardized test. I get the sense that Maria Montssori would've thought the standardized tests we give kids today are limited at best. The main reason we feel "pressed for time" is the tests. Activities such as knitting and yoga are pushed aside because we fear the scores. In free schools the teacher does not use coercion and they could care less how their kids rate according to the state. I think coercion isn't so bad, and I like Montessori's notion that we should feed children's natural love of learning. They are intrinsically motivated to "know", why not expose them to what is out there. Her idea of going from the big picture to small details makes sense. Montessori Montessori felt work was not a bad word. I agree. However, I also agree with A.S. Neill that children learn through play. I don't think it has to be one or the other. I think the philosophy and ideas of the two could be united to for a Super School. I imagine a place where children could learn democratically, with plenty of opportunites to work with interesting materials as one chooses with the guidance of an adult. I imagine this adult to be both wise, and not afraid to admit he doesn't know something. I see no reason why Dewey, Montessori, and Neill couldn't find a way to get along. In my mind they certainly can.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Imagine a School... Summerhill - Trailer 208450


Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!

Education Or Indoctrination Trailer

Free Schools Free People: Education and Democracy by Ron Miller

                If Kozol’s Free Schools were to be considered Free Schools 101, this book would be Free Schools 102. The material is more dense and political. It was a great way to end this portion of my studies on Democratic schools. In the future, I will study Sudbury schools, because they are the most common and the longest lasting type of Free School in America.              The book is a historical account of the free school movement of the 1960’s. It looks at influences such as the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech Movement, and over all transformation of consciousness that occurred in the sixties. I, like Miller, find this decade fascinating. I also share his viewpoint that, “…one of the serious flaws of the free school movement was its excessive emphasis on freedom at the expense of other educational, cultural, and even psychological values.” (32). This is why Kozol said we must find a balance between giving students freedom and what they need in order to make it in this world. Miller feels those running free schools should be realistic and reasonable rather than romantic and irrational
In addition to giving me a sound understanding of the historical context of the free school movement, the book helped me to understand what a technocracy is and how it relates to American society and education. Miller states, “The counter culture of the 1960’s, including the free school movement, was essentially a rebellion against the triumph of technocracy over the ideals of a democracy.” (10). A democracy is holistic and all-inclusive, while a technocracy breaks shatters a society by breaking it into individual units. The same holds true curriculum in technocratic education. Just as an assembly line breaks down work into small parts, technocratic schools separate subjects such as Math and English from one another. This sort of system promotes “existentially deadening conformity and a repressive intellectual and political discipline”. (11). It also values materialism over ideals such as cooperation and civic responsibility. Miller explains that many scholars believe American schools are organized to serve the interests of corporations and the elite who run this nation.
It goes without saying that Miller’s chapter on Education and Democracy was of particular interest to me. However, what stands out about the chapter was his attention to John Dewey. He credited Dewey, author of Democracy and Education, for having a profound influence on free schools, and pondered why no one involved in the movement had credited him before, when it was so obvious he had affected their reasoning. Miller writes, “It is not clear how many free school writers had read Democracy an Education, so the direct influence is hard to determine, but it seems legitimate to claim that Dewey provided a serious philosophical voice to the normally ‘romantic’ critique of technocracy, giving free school ideology an intellectual heritage it that would otherwise have lacked.” (144). To me, Dewey is the godfather of curriculum and instruction. It frustrates me that Democracy in Education has been around for so long, and we still have the problems we do. The same could be said about the free school movement. Perhaps the problem is those who care about education need to get the word out. At least I can say I’ve done my part.

The School Without Walls by John Bremmer and Michael von Moschzisker

                This book is about a school unlike any I’ve ever heard of. It was written in 1971 about Philadelphia’s Parkway Program. Rather than confine themselves to one location, the students and staff at this school made the entire city of Philadelphia their campus, and curriculum. They gained first-hand experience studying the city. The founders saw education and politics as inseparable from one another. The book begins with the following statement, “America has never had an educational system worthy of itself after pioneering a continent, developing new forms of social and political organization, absorbing countless immigrants and bringing technology into a close relationship with human life, it is nevertheless true that Americans have adopted principles and practices of education belonging to another age and imported from another society. The Parkway Program tries to provide a mode of education in keeping with the major traditions of American life.” (xi). While I do not think a program such as this would work everywhere, I learned a lot from this book. I consider it a worthwhile read as part of my independent study on democratic schools.
                From the authors’ viewpoint, school is a process not a place. They see the current system as obsolete and inefficient. Bremer and Moschzisker criticize the belief that students learn inside the school and not outside in the real world. The Parkway Program was a bridge between students and the community they lived in. The authors state, “Everyone has a stake in education, everyone has a right and a duty to be involved, to participate.” (279) More than once I have bemoaned the community’s lack of involvement in education. I especially feel that those who have retired from working should be involved. However, as a teacher it is my job to reach out to others and ask for help. That is precisely what the Parkway Program did. It involved members from various organizations throughout Philadelphia in educating its youth.
Besides involving the community, the school had other desirable features. It allowed high school age students to take responsibility for their own education. They were permitted to make choices from a wide variety of course offerings based on their individual interests and face the consequences of those choices. The Appendix contains a statement made by the program’s director. In this he says, “We are not the private preserve of any racial, social, economic, or professional group, and, if we were, it would be impossible for us to be an educational program at all simply because the students would then be instruments of somebody else’s purposes, that is, of the purposes of that special group. But in education, the student is always the end, never a means.” (283.) This rings true with everything I’ve learned of free schools thus far. The Parkway Program didn’t indoctrinate or oppress students; rather, it allowed them freedom of choice and responsibility for their own learning. While the program is not a Free School in the strictest sense, it embodies many of the movement’s core values.

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling

On the Side of the Child: Summerhill Revisited by William Ayers

I chose this book because I wanted a current viewpoint on the work of A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill school in England. Ayers explains the title of this book in chapter one when he says, “What captured me then, and what has the power to move me now was Neill’s seemingly bottomless commitment to children, his steadfastness and emotional generosity, and his willingness to take the side of the child even, or especially, when doing so seemed more than a little loony.” (4) It is no shock that a character such as Neill would inspire Ayers. His involvement in the Weathermen Underground is testament to Ayer’s attitude that there are times when one must go to extreme measures to rectify the injustices in a society. While Ayers is not perfect, I think he is an outstanding citizen. His work at the University of Illinois Chicago has made up for any past mistakes in my eyes. To call someone who helped blow up government buildings an outstanding citizen may make me a bit “loony”. I feel that way because Ayers, Like A.S. Neill, has moved many teachers (myself included). His work as a teacher educator has inspired those of us “in the trenches” to think seriously about what and how we teach, and despite all odds to not give up.
Having said that, I’ll do my best to sum up what Summerhill school is all about. Neill’s school was a place of love and freedom. He made the school to fit the child. His primary objective was to ensure that the children were happy. Neill believed that discipline problems in a school were the result of unhappy students. He also thought schools should have no form of adult authority. Ayers explains this in saying, “By adult authority, I take him to mean arbitrary or formal authority; moral authority is another matter, and it doesn’t rely on structure for its power…Neill saw Summerhill as a resistance to the sit-down-and-learn crowd and an affirmation of the natural instinct and disposition to learn that is every person’s birthright.” (10, 18) Neill understood that a love of learning is ingrained in all of us. If we trust children to learn on their own they will! At Summerhill teachers are guides, mentors, coaches, and conductors. They take on the role of the student as they try to understand each individual. In contrast to the hierarchy of traditional schools, Summerhill does not follow a top down approach. It is democratically run, which means students preside over their own social lives. It should be noted that Neill wasn’t for spoiling children, but he did think they should be treated as equals to adults.
The last thing I’d like to mention about this book was I appreciated Ayer’s focus on the role of education in making the world a better place. He describes schools as mirrors and windows into society as a whole. If we live in a democracy, then our schools should be democratic. Ayers explained that the goal of schools is to guide children towards restoring a common world. I think I speak for most teachers when I say we are in it to create responsible and charitable citizens, not mindless drones. The time for schools that produce compliant unquestioning factory workers is over. American education needs a makeover, and I’ve got just the outfit: democratic schools.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Non Literary Field Work

1. Personal Interview: William Ayers
I had the pleasure of being able to interview Doctor Ayers about the free school he opened in Ann Arbor Michigan. I learned about it from reading Kozol’s book, Free Schools. While Kozol saw the downfall of Ayers’ school as a result of the children not being able to read, Ayers saw its downfall in a very different light. He felt the students could read fine. To Ayers, the program’s demise had more to do with a lack of strong leadership. He explained that as the program director he had spread himself too thin. At the time, protesting the Vietnam War became more of a priority to him. We discussed the immense difficulty of funding Free Schools, and paying teachers a living wage. This difficulty remains today.
In this interview, the best piece of advice Ayers gave me was to be conscious of your approach in starting a Free School. If you come off as too “counter-culture” you’ll make enemies. He gave the example of Deborah Meier and the small school movement in New York. Ayers explained that because Meier is so vocal, those who hold positions of authority in New York were working to shut down a number of the schools she had started. While Edward Said would say that Meier was doing what a true intellectual does, Ayers’ advice had some merit. In questioning the status quo, one must do so with tact and care. Rather than outright proclaim a democratic or free school is counter –culture, it would fare better if it defined itself as an alternative to public schools. Having said that, I don’t want to discredit what Meier has accomplished, as I have true admiration for her expertise and mission.
2. Observations at Sudbury schools: Alpine Valley in Denver and Tallgrass in Chicago
I needed to visit a couple of free schools to see for myself if the stories were true. They are! The students who attend are as unique as they come. These children have no worries about what others will think of them. They are happy and extremely intelligent. In contrast to Erica Goldson, students who graduate from Sudbury schools know who they are and where they are going. The most remarkable thing I witnessed at Sudbury schools is democracy in action. Students who break rules are tried by their peers. They take their sentences seriously, and without objection. School wide decisions are made in community meetings by the community as opposed to a top down model where one person creates policies that affect many.
I will say that in conversing with the director at Alpine Valley I came across a question I have yet to answer. My dilemma has to do with the fairness of coercion in education. After reading Decolonizing Methodologies I can see why educators in Sudbury schools shy away from deciding what students should and should not learn. However, the reality of the situation is our country is not a Utopia. One day the students of Sudbury schools may chose a career that expects them to know certain things. Free schools do not guarantee that students will have the necessary knowledge to “play the game” or “work the system”.  As I begin a career in Montessori schools, I may fine tune my thoughts on this. In a Montessori setting students are given freedom within limits. In a lot of ways, Montessori has more accurately depicted America’s version of a democracy than free schools do. In other words, we have freedom, but only so much.

3. Personal Interview with Celia Force: A Child of a Summerhill Alumni and Close Personal Friend

                Upon a visit to my home town, Flint Michigan, I learned a friend of 17 years had heard Summerhill. My friend Celia said her mother, who is from Holland, stayed at Summerhill, which is a boarding school. Celia’s mother has fond memories of Summerhill, and still keeps in touch with Zoe, Neill’s daughter. I have corresponded with Zoe via email in efforts to visit Summerhill, but my trip has been put off because of financial reasons.  Her mother moved to Michigan, and worked the Flint police department for 20+ years in the traffic division as a school crossing guard. Since then, she has been assistant chef at a catering company for over ten years.   Her family isn’t rich, but they are happy and live in a nice house. Its obvious Summerhill didn’t corrupt or destroy Celia’s mother. She has a sense of civic responsibility, and her decision to switch careers shows she is flexible and open to change. Not only is her mom a great cook, she also is an outstanding organic gardener. She owns a share of a cow so she can get fresh unprocessed milk, and she buys produce from local farmers. Little things like this show her mom is aware of her impact on the world, and takes responsibility for her actions as a consumer. I’m willing to bet Summerhill played a part teaching her to be so conscientious. It is no doubt that A.S. Neill would be proud to see one of his graduates living such a fruitful life.

Other Sources of Inspiration

1. Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith
While the book’s primary focus is on the effects of research on those who are colonized, it had a great influence on my studies. I gained a greater understanding of how people are colonized. I also came to view the indigenous person as necessary for genuine research. Smith asks, “Why do they always think by looking at us they will find the answers to our problems, why don’t they look at themselves?” (198). She goes on to say that questions such as these also are relevant in education. Smith feels as if researchers cannot adequately address the problems a community faces if they are outsiders to that community.
Smith’s questions made sense to me. Those who make policy in education, are often far removed from the community in which those policies take place. When it comes to issues such as the achievement gap, researchers ought to look at why the system isn’t working for a particular group rather than why the group doesn’t conform to the standards the system has set in place. In other words, perhaps it isn’t that black boys in America who are the problem. Perhaps it is the system within which they are working that has defects.
2. Representations of the Intellectual by Edward W. Said
Said asks what it means to be an intellectual in an age of information. Rather than seeing intellectuals as specialized servants of special interest, he views them as thinkers with great responsibility. Said warns that the path of an intellectual is not an easy or mainstream one. He purports, “It is a spirit of opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.” (xvii). It is this spirit of opposition that my studies envelop. I question my country because I love it. Rather than just accept things as they are, I feel it is my responsibility to question how I can make things better.
3. To Teach: the journey in comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner
In the forward to this book, Johnathan Kozol speaks on the myths of education that Ayers addresses in this book. He states, “Not the least among those dragons is the notion that ‘technique’ alone- and especially the technical devices typically associated with a set of arbitrary state-mandated standards that induce subordination in the minds of students- are a good and proper substitute for the exhilaration that good teachers take in plunging ‘into the unknown’ beside them.” (xi) In other words, Ayers questions the status quo. To him, the state is taking away the opportunity for both students and educators to find excitement in discovery and learning. Ayers feels anyone who tries to define knowledge, which is infinite intersubjective and multidimensional, is killing learning. Ayers, like Schubert saw good teaching as an act of love, rather than a specific technique. He clearly defined my dilemma as an educator in Chicago Public Schools and a student at the University of Illinois Chicago when he explained, “To name oneself as a teacher is to live with one foot in the muck of the world as we find it- with its conventional patterns and received wisdom- and the other foot striding toward a world that could be, but isn’t yet.” (11). This study came to fruition because of the disconnect Ayers describes. At the time I started this project, I felt torn between the books I was reading and the life I was living. When I tried to discuss what researchers had shown was best practice with my administrators, I was told “these aren’t normal kids” and advised to teach lessons that wouldn’t require them to move or leave their desks. Needless to say, my questioning the system was not appreciated and I was not asked to return the following year.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why I Was Inspired to Study Free Schools
 I have included two links above. The first contains the written version of a valedictorian’s graduation speech. The second link is a video of her actually giving that speech. This speech embodies my motivation to study Free Schools. In my studies at UIC I found a grave disconnect between the way schools ought to be and the way they are. The speaker states, "In retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared… And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us."It is obvious that she learned to "play the game" yet has no genuine interests or passions. The education system she took part in prepared her for a life of materialism and thoughtless work. Eric Goldson, like many other Americans yearned for something more. She wanted to see herself as unique and well rounded. The system that educated her was not set up to promote this sort of independence.
                Erica’s speech eloquently and accurately portrays the disconnect I saw between what schools do and what they ought to do. However, it was the book Love Justice and Education by William Schubert that first inspired my research. In this book, Schubert takes the viewpoint of a Utopian when considering education. He based the book on a short article by John Dewey titled, “Dewey Outlines Utopian Schools”.  Schubert describes Utopia as a place with no schools. He points out the difference between school and education, and calls for a focus on how humans deal with problems in everyday life versus the study of isolated bits of information. That which resembles a school is actually more akin to a home in Schubert and Dewey’s Utopia. It is a welcoming place that is filled with love. Rather than have content objectives, this sort of learning aims to develop life. In other words, individuals learn for the sake of learning, not a materialistic ends. In addition, a Utopian education would value what a student values versus focusing on his deficits. This idea was of particular value to me. I have become fed up with the focus on test scores in this day and age.
 I found great comfort in the concept of focusing on a child’s strengths versus his weakness. Schubert wrote, “Instead of valuing their own inevitable learning as a natural internal guide, members of the middle class are pushed to value externally awarded credentials that only provide a costume of success-test scores, work reports, diplomas, certificates of performance on the job, and so on. This great hoax is perpetuated by having the middle class teeter on a precipice of just enough contentment that its loss makes the costs of revolt seem too severe to endure.” This quote reminds me of the “proles” in George Orwell’s 1984. While they are considered lower class in that book, their plight is the same. Wilson, the main character, comments that if there is ever hope of a revolution it lies in the proles. However, the one time he thinks they are revolting it turns out to be a squabble over a cooking pot. In this dystopian society, people are just content enough not to overturn the system. The power lies with them, yet they are too caught up in trivialities to realize they could better their lives.  As things become more and more out of hand with America’s obsession with test scores, I can’t help feeling as if we’re moving away from Dewey’s Utopia and towards Orwell’s dystopia. This blog is an attempt to process my thoughts on how we might better our currently mismanaged and misguided system and work towards a more Utopian and democratic education system.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


This blog is a means of sharing what I learn during my independent study on democracy in education. Instead of just writing a paper, I decided to share what I've learned. I want to spark conversations on this subject in pursuit of a more utopian world. As John Lennon said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."