Beginnings at the Albany Free School

For the 2012 -2013 year, I will be an intern at the Albany Free School.  I found out about the Free School through AERO, the Alternative Education Resourse Organization, back in the days when I first began learning about democratic schools. I decided to join their intnship program as my own form of alternative learning. I’m a self design major in the “Progressive Program” at my school. Having been founded upon the core beliefs of progressive educator John Dewey, I’ve been afforded the freedom to craft my own hands-on educational experiences in this program. With the support of my advisors at Green Mountain College, I will be learning about democratic education and other interests, such art and urban sustainability, by teaching at AFS and doing independent projects and programs on the side. My orientation starts tomorrow, and I am really excited to meet all of the staff. I’ll be documenting my experience in a variety of formats and keeping folks updated about my experiences and adventures here at the school and in the city.
I live in downtown Albany, and it’s nothing like what I had heard of it to be – a drab and dreary wasteland with nothing to do. Quite the contrary, Albany is a vibrant little city that’s very community oriented and diverse. There are tons of local unique business, cafes, and stores. It has an atmosphere that’s very modern while still maintaining its colonial roots through architecture and historical landmarks. The neighborhood I live in is pretty friendly for the most part, and has an abundance of urban agriculture which I heard is a product of 1960’s counter culture. The local area is very politically oriented, with a fair amount of activist groups, collectives, and community centers. Really awesome stuff! Albany is not perfect, and there are poor neighborhoods and people who are far from friendly, as unfortunately to be expected in any urban metropolitan area. All things considered, it feels nice to be in a city again, which, as an SoCal native, I’d been missing quite a lot.
I must also admit that while this internship is an alternative “gap year”, I’m nervous about “failing to deliver” on the independent study credits I tacked on to it.  I made the projects pass/fail with grading my evaluation, because my goal is to unlearn much of the traditional school habits I’ve accumulated over the years. I really hope to treat this “school year” as a chance to explore my interests while helping young people to do the same at AFS. I view myself as someone who is “helping people learn” as opposed to someone who is “teaching people”. Teaching isn’t some sort of profanity, but I try not to rely on the term because of its usual authoritarian connotations. I hope to be more of a guide and leaning partner with the students and avoid the top down paradigm of teaching students as if I have all the answers, because I don’t.
This is my hello to all of those interested in exploring and understanding education, and answering the question of what schools are for.
-Zuleika

Desiging your own post-graduate education

I remember exchanging many messages with a friend of mine about the increasing demand for more certified education. She wants to make a living doing creative non-fiction and media, and she always tells me that her goal is thwarted by the fact that she didn’t go to graduate school. In her situation (the hope is that she gets a teaching fellowship) getting more “professional” education is a good choice for traveling further down on the road to success. In talking with my friend, and reflecting on the education I have received so far in my life, I realize that I too need more education after undergrad. However, I don’t want to drop more money that does not belong to me in order to do so. So what do I do? Lately, I’ve been weighing my options.

About a year ago, I had an overwhelming zest for ideas like UnCollege, and Zero Tuition College. These are organizations started for the purpose of showing people that you can increase your knowledge and skills without going to a paid institution of education. For a good while I was considering opting out of college to try this out. But then I realized that there would be too many hurdles and curves for me to get over. Getting a job with only “some college” is difficult. How would I find a support network? The biggest obstacle of all is the fact that I would still be thousands of debt if I left college before it was time for me to graduate. Debt is debt and at this point, accruing more for two more years doesn’t make a difference. So I decided to continue college with a self designed major. The problem with this course of study is that – I’m not really increasing any skills. I’m still managing to skate by with minimal effort, and I still have no idea what I want to do as a “career”. I’m still taking classes and doing internships to figure it out. The bottom line of all of this is that I will have graduated college without a ticket into a specific field. It’s not like I majored in biology with the intent to go to med school. I will be in severe need of more ongoing educational experiences. How can happen without money?

My very first thought was – more internships! I appear to have a sustained interest in urban sustainability. After college I wanted to do the Kitchen Garden internship at Yestermorrow design school. For some reason it flew over my head that internships like that are UNPAID. So now, I am pursing another route to “post grad” study – live-work jobs and paid internships.

I happened upon a great website called Backdoor jobs, that lists seasonal live/work opportunities at last anywhere from 3 months to a year. I am most interested in their “sustainable living and farming jobs” listing. The tradeoffs are that I will have to have money for traveling to different opportunities across that country, and I will not have a permanent residence or steady income from year to year. But I will be gaining growth and mastery along the way, as well as some sort of income that I can use to pay off my loans.

Educational Goals

I want to be verse in understanding and interpreting the sociopolitical goals, events, and policies of the United States. I want to be able to use critical reasoning and traditional logic to comprehend the logic behind my thoughts and the thoughts and ideas of other people, writers, and groups. I want to be adept in detecting arguments and determining validity and soundness/cogency. I want to develop non-fiction writing skills similar to op-ed journalism and books on social commentary. This all stems from an unrelenting curiosity about the traditional education system.

Oracy and rhetoric. I want to develop public speaking skills, better grammar usage, and learn Spanish. I want to learn Spanish because although my father speaks Spanish, I never learned it. Also, coming from Southern California, and realizing just how mixed it is, encourages me to learn the language. I want to be able to get before a group and convey ideas and express myself with relative ease and capability.

I want to become numerate. I have never received an F grade in any class. The only time I did not pass a class was in my second semester of Algebra II, in which I received a D grade. I passed the high school exit exam and was always promoted to the next grade with A’s and B’s in most classes, yet my true numeracy has not passed beyond arithmetic. I cannot perform quick mental math, and have had a history of making “careless mistakes” on problems and tests because I was unable comprehend how to perform a calculation. I did not understand algebraic symbols and how they came together to become equations. I need remediation in arithmetic. And I would also like to learn elementary statistics and how to interpret statistical data as it relates to claims made in sociopolitical studies and information in the media. I know that remediation will be successful with memorization of multiplication, subtraction, and addition tables, followed up with problem sets for concepts such as working with decimals. I want to be numerate because I want to understand personal finance and statistical claims in the media and books I encounter.

Sleep, exercise, and nutrition. I would like to bring these up to the highest level I can in my personal life.

Autonomy. I read Dan Pink’s “Drive,” in the second semester of my first year in college. I think Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, sums up everything I want to get out of continuing my learning outside of school.

These goals do not translate into a career, although they translate into life skills. At the moment I do not have a career path in mind. The problem is that my reading comprehension and linguistic ability have masked many skills I lack. If I do not correct my progress in other areas, I am concerned that I will “get through” college the way I “got through” high school. College is based mostly on reading and writing. I really do not want to risk having low ability in numeracy and oracy by continuing to skate by on my literacy.

What will an educational program look like if I took these goals seriously? It mostly resembles an “adult education program” or a general education degree from a community college. I am not sure how to feel about that, because of the stigma attached to those types of learning programs.

The education I am actually receiving is different. I am an undergraduate, majoring in art in a self design program that allows me to skip distribution courses, and no longer want to major in art because it is not my main interest now. This academic program is actually just what I need, because it provides a diverse education and allows me to grow by creating my own academic opportunities. The problem is that I just can’t afford this. I actually like the college program I am in, but worrying about debt really holds me back – what if I am doing the “wrong” studies? There is no return in opportunity cost for a self designed degree, not in today’s “global economy.” I have been eying Zero Tuition College because a free mentorship/apprenticeship program along with independent study is exactly what I am looking for. I am applying for an apprenticeship with the Albany free school to see if I can get that chance. In college, few teachers have the time to offer intense one-on-one guidance, not because they don’t care, but because the culture of college thrives on overcommitment and overextension. Everyone has multiple classes, clubs, committees and projects under their belts. I want intimate help in discovering my potential and becoming proficient in basic skills.

It is also important to note that I am in college because I don’t want to make people angry or let people down. My mom would never talk to me again if I left school. My grandma, who’s health is steadily deteriorating, said that she is only living to see me graduate from college. I am excited to be in a more liberating learning environment, but more than anything, fear of shame and failure are the emotions that drive me to keep attending school. That just isn’t healthy.

DIY Sustainability in the Media

Please find out more about these shows to get an idea of some of the concepts I convey in DIY Ecology.

Today on the Science Channel premiers a new series called “Stuck with Hackett.” In this series, Hackett takes up radical projects to create items in “western civilization” out of the junk and scraps that western civilization leaves behind.

Also shown on the Science Channel on Thursdays is a series called “JUNKies.” It the same concept, but taken up by a team of three who have made a business out of selling junk to people looking to create or fix things.

Visit the links for schedule information and a preview video.

DIY Ecology: Transportation

Transportation in DIY ecology involves more social interaction and new ways of travel that do not rely on the current system of fossil fuels. I am not talking about new hybrid cars, solar powered vehicles, or electric vehicles coming out on the market. I am talking about things like converting used oil into car fuel, localizing businesses and services, and a surge in the use of human powered transport.

The cut back on car usage is the first phase of this transportation shift, mostly due to rising gas prices. For the society around during this time, the near-depletion of fossil fuels became a reality, rather than something far off in the distance. With less and less of those fuels, several things happened.

Carpooling. People start getting together to drive their friends and family to and from. It comes to a point that you rarely see people driving alone. Great networks of travel are established, and through these carpooling networks friendships are created. People who carpool to work soon get together for leisure trips.

People recycle oil for fuel. People recycle motor oil more often, but what gains the most popularity is the conversion of cooking oil into car fuel. People do DIY conversions, or go to people who offer conversion kits and other accessories to turn cars with diesel engines into vehicles that can run on this fuel. People make deals with restaurants and other businesses to buy fuel or get fuel for free by being a patron for the store or making a trade. When veggie oil powered vehicles become commonplace, restaurants sell unfiltered oil at a price.

Human Powered Vehicles

In  DIY Ecology, the city boundaries  “break down” to reduce commuting distances. Residents in counties of large cities seek independence to become their own “city” or community. This focus on smaller communities brings about a need for basic centers to be localized. There’s an increase in neighborhood markets (and keep in mind that in DIY.E Societies, people grow most of their own food, which cuts down the need for markets), as well as health clinics and small k-8/k-12 “community schools.” The goal of schooling is no longer to get a job to compete in the “global economy.” There is an increase in apprenticeships, unschooling and homeschooling circles. Large high schools are converted into age mixed schools, libraries, and cultural centers. This high localization means that it is not even necessary to get in a car to run errands. The following are the most used vehicles in DIY.E Society.

The Bicycle. There are also tricycles, recumbent bikes, and tandem bikes. They can be fitted with carrying racks, panniers, baby/toddler seats, carts, and passenger carts for any people or things that need to come along for the ride.

The quadracycle, or surrey bike. This is comes in two-seater or four-seater designs. I first saw one of these while I was visiting a friend in San Diego. In the Balboa Park pavillion and museum grounds, you can rent one of these and travel through the area with them. This is a human powered option for families. The customization with bikes like this are numerous – they can even be outfitted with solar panels and motors. Do you like to be big and flashy with your vehicles? Well look no further than what I call the hummer of human powered vehicles.

There are many brands of quadracycles, and people can even build their own out of pvc piping.

HumanCar (R). This is a four person human powered crank car. Type this into youtube to see a video of it in action. It is quite fast with four people and it is “street legal” today. Here are some alternate “body” options and ideas:

Skateboard, Longboard, or Cruiser board. These are really simple one person vehicles, and they are not good for carrying anything, but they are still human powered.

Homemade Ripstick (instructables.com)

Then it gets more obvious and simple with scooters, roller blades, and skates. And let’s remember – WALKING! What is “DIY” about these things?

  1. Many of these vehicles can be repaired are fixed by people without a large top-down intemediary. Most of what is required is a learning curve and teamwork. The human car might be the only exception cecause it is manufactured with special parts that are hard to find elsewhere or substitute.
  2. These items (the ripstick is an example) can be built by people with the right tools, help, and guides.
  3. The veggie oil cars come with DIY kits, or people often get together to learn about the system, purchase and gather the materials, install it, and even create fueling stations out of defunct water heaters. I hope that it would be hard to set up company-owned veggie oil stations when it is possible to create your own and teach others how to do it.
  4. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle comes back into play, because older diesel engine cars can come back into use.
  5. Widespread use of various human powered vehicles would keep the cost of used cooking oil vehicles low. Therefore, these innovations are inexpensive.

I argue that fixing and using these vehicles creates a more open and resourceful society.

Some top-down innovations that could be implemented in DIY.E are

  1. increase in public transport with electric/solar/hybrid trains and buses and cabs.
  2. right turn only street efficiency
  3. Using electric/solar/hybrid vehicles for Para-transit and school busing

Why [I Assume] this is Unrealistic

The private, gas powered car, with it’s ease of travel, flash and daring sounds, is a great treasure in the United States. In all of the first world (with the exception of Amsterdam) this is also the case. One sign that a third world country is “developing” is if there is a large amount of people using gas powered vehicles (or at best electric vehicles). Human powered cars don’t go as fast as gas-powered cars (the solar powered quadricycle that I linked to only goes 14 mph, the non-motored HumanCar goes 25-30 mph top cruising speed – and that seriously depends on the stamina and health of the riders). These vehicles are not as good looking as the cars we have today because they are bodyless (human car is an exception).

It is possible to ride bikes in rainy weather (a great book on the subject is Urban Biker’s Tricks and Tips) – but people are not going to do that.

People seem to believe that things that aren’t private and in the control of important companies and government agencies are part of some State socialist scheme to control everyone.

As a nation leading in obesity rates and sedentary lifestyles, people do not like the idea of having to use their own energy to get from place to place. The main point of owning a car is to avoid physical effort. Just imagine the energy it would take to ride from central Los Angeles to the beach in a surrey bike or HumanCar – you would be really tired by the time you get there. Although if  DIY.E society was real, I would hope people would be smart enough to use something like the veggie oil car or public transport for long trips.

DIY is tedious and most of all, intimidating. It requires a major change in that way you live and interact in life.

Peace One Day

Please share this video with as many people as you can

Building Credit

I often hear that the only way to get by in this country is by having credit. My dad says that I should get a credit card so that I can “build credit” by making certain expenses with that card. He told me that when he first came to the United States from Panama, he lived a cash only lifestyle. Things changed when one of the store owners/clerks asked why he did this. “I don’t see anything wrong with paying with money if I have saved enough of it,” he told the man. “Well what about building credit?” The clerk replied. The man reasoned that it is important to build credit, and that there is a safe way of doing so without going crazy with spending and running into debt. My dad took this advice.

My dad has a good head on his shoulders. After following this plan he has never fell into significant debt, or had to file for bankruptcy. Still, I believe he was taken advantage of by this man, who obviously would make a financial gain by encouraging a patron of his store to make transactions with a credit card. After recounting this story, my dad said that I could use a credit card to buy items that are too expensive to pay cash, like furniture. He made the point that there are many things I cannot accomplish without credit such as renting an apartment or car. A real case scenario confirmed this. When I went to Best Buy to get my first cell phone, I wasn’t able to buy a cell phone plan without a credit card. Since I did not have one, and my dad doesn’t think it’s wise to have a credit card and no job, we looked for a loophole. The only other option was to pay a large deposit of money that I did not have. My dad had just started a saving account for me, and we knew we wouldn’t touch that unless it was necessary. I settled for a crappy At&t gophone, complete with dropped calls and it had to get repaired once. The other gophones were probably of the same quality.

I understand the rationale behind the credit system. Businesses use it as a way to insure that their patrons are capable of paying for their products, making rent payments on time, and being a responsible consumer. In reality, it tempts people to live out of their means and always strive for an ever-escaping tomorrow. As someone who wants to get away from that, the credit system is just another hindrance to a less stressful lifestyle. It’s an entrapment when businesses leave the inferior products for those who don’t use credit, or not allow people to rent without credit. Rather than live an alternative to this system, not having credit just kicks me out instead.

My dad has really helped me stay conscious of credit, but there are parts of his plan I don’t agree with. He said I could build credit by buying things like tv’s or stereos (something he did) on credit, and by having at least one credit card once I have a job. Once I have that credit card, merely holding on to it for emergencies is not enough. To build credit I would have to spend with it. I do not want this at all. I do not plan on buying cable, a tv, a tablet, a new phone every year, or a car. I’m looking to head the opposite direction, which by today’s standards is seen as choosing poverty. Living within your means and not looking to raise your standard of living is social suicide. The whole idea of living here is to go higher and higher and higher, get more, and make more to get more and go higher. Even at the top you need to go on. The plane “never” stalls and drops back down – never even considers landing either.

DE in real life

Before I continue this series I must say that a widespread version of this lifestyle well not be adapted. Capitalism is highly unsustainable, environmentally, socially, and emotionally, but it provides us with pacifying comforts we have grown to love. I took the bus to a concert yesterday. The ride was not great (mostly because Los Angeles’s public transportation system is awful). Walking to the concert grounds, I saw people living in tents on the sidewalk. One man quietly slept on an air mattress in his tent. His luggage with all of his belongings was beside him. Some other people were having a conversation in theirs. They were much more comfortable than the more open homeless people nearby, but that’s because they bought a ready made tent from a store.

I write about EP because I do not find the capitalist system fulfilling. I wish that I did not hold such unpopular opinion, because with capitalism I have this computer and the house my dad pays for, and everything I buy. But in light of the characteristics I have learned about this system, I feeel that I better learn to live without money as best as possible. Governments can go bankrupt. The standard of living, although it makes life relatively comfortable, is expected to grow forever. Prices are expected to rise forever. A person can buy one technology and before the year is out, there are 5 new things on the market for you to buy and make your life “easier.” It seems like there’s never an end in sight with this system, which makes sense I suppose, because humans are wired to do and improve more and more. Don’t get me wrong. Technology is great, and inventions like the Internet have greatly improved my knowledge. However, I don’t like the overindulgence and overabundance, and the rapid upgrades.

I hate feeling this way, being against capitalism. It’s the only system we have. It’s the only one that has been able to thrive in civilization. It rules everything and gives everything, right? I should be grateful, I should be happy. Especially as a citizen of the United States, the most powerful and capitalist country on the planet. The rising superpower, China, is also extremely capitalist. Something has to be working in these systems. Every developing country wants to be a capitalist one. But I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel proud. I don’t want more and more money and goods. I just want happiness. I want to live with what I have and be in a community of other people who care about people more than things.

Body Talk, Gender Walk

If any of you have seen the movie Inception, you may be familiar with the job of “the architect.” Cobb and the Architect venture into a dream, so that the Architect can become familiar with the duties she was hired to perform. As an architect she is able to move and shape the entire structure of a dream however she wants. Excited, that is just what she does, going off to play with this world. Cobb warns her to slow down, and that’s when it happens. Dream charters begin to stare at her and soon start to bump into her. She asks what the problem is, and Cobb warns her that the dream characters have highlighted her as a foreign body because of her sudden changes. Eventually a crowd gathers and around her and attacks her before the two of them wake up.

About a month or so ago, I became aware of something similar happening to me. I am at a point in my life where I feel comfort – excitement even – with my gender identity. Ambiguity is my home, and gender is my playground. This experience does make life feel like a dream. I feel that society is a series of stories we’ve agreed to live by. So off I’ve gone, leaving a mass of hair on my legs, wearing a skirt with men’s dress shoes – or wearing a tie and button-up shirt because I enjoy looking handsome. I am in the margins of our story’s pages, crossing things out and making new notes.

I’d been so deep in my own zone, that I didn’t notice the attention this was creating. Early on, I would walk down the street and get nothing more than second peaks and side glances, but soon people were outright staring at me. I decided to observe people’s reactions to my various gender get ups. When I was blending in as just another female, nothing was wrong. The only stares I would get were from hungry men with sly smiles. Likewise, when I passed as male, nothing was wrong. I’d get an “excuse me sir,” or “hey buddy,” which only threw me off guard a bit. It wasn’t until I towed both lines that I got the looks. Women would glare at me in confusion. Men would stop and stare, but with a blank look on their face as they tried to size me up. The most striking moment came when I was walking home one day and a man drove along, staring in the same way as these dream characters. Moments later it happened with someone else driving by. Even as they drove off, they turned their heads as long as they could as an attempt to rationalize my body. It was the same way ever since in restaurants, stores, and similar places.

Since then I’ve been cautious about my androgyny. It’s an invasive feeling to be analyzed with such intensity, like I don’t belong. I feel like I’m under attack as a foreign body in society’s dream. I have heard stories of people actually being bashed – or killed – for being those bodies. For gesturing a certain way, dressing a certain way, or being with someone that didn’t fit the mainstream dream. As the architect of my body, I am changing things that aren’t supposed to me changed. People are taking watch, and I am not sure what the consequences of that is.

Social Ecology: Water

At this point that I have to stretch far beyond what I know. Water is essential to survival. Getting fresh drinking water is now a complex global issue. The goal with access to water is to figure out a way to recycle water that isn’t chemically harmful and destructive to the environment.

How compost saves water
In “Social Ecology: Food,” I explain the common use of technology like pee separating compost toilets. Turning that waste into soil or fertilizer is not only good for growing food. Gallons upon gallons of water can be saved and used for other purposes if composting toilets were the norm. Sewage systems would not be strained by millions of inhabitants in some cities.
In real society, people love the idea of never having to deal with what comes from their body – down the drain it goes – it is someone else’s problem. Well, even still a good solution is to use low flow toilets.

The Banana Filter
I found out about this from The Science Channel. According to a report covered in a Live Science article, “Compounds in banana peels contain atoms of nitrogen, sulfur and organic compounds such as carboxylic acids.” Those compounds are able to pull and attract some heavy metals – keeping them out of your water. There are manufactured filters too.

Greywater Recyling – editing

Rice filtration systems – editing

A top-down innovation, treated wastewater
During a field trip tour of a ski resort during my first semester of college, the guide told us that they use treated wastewater to spray onto the grounds of the park. This water, when tested, turned out to be on par with regular tap water. The guide wondered why they were not allowed to use that water for snow-making, because if they did, it would save a lot of money. Apparently there are health codes that disallow that. In DE, that is different, and in a slow way, some places are coming around to the idea – or at least to developing a stable way of ensuring that the water is drinkable.

Desalination: converting salt water into drinking water
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are plants in America and other parts of the world that use treatment plants to take out the saline in salt water. The webpage with this information shows that on a small scale, desalination can be done without a plant, and has been that way before modern times. However, places like Tampa, Florida use plants to provide freshwater to citizens. More on the topic here and here.

Low Flow Shower Heads
Self explanatory. If you get one that spreads out wide, you can enjoy a comfortable shower.