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.

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