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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

People Don’t Understand Schooling

In relatively recent news, a high school valedictorian really criticized the nature of compulsory schools, and advocated a changed system of choice and autonomy. In response, I have seen many people say that she was wrong for this, and that although schools aren’t perfect, they do serve a great goal of educating all citizens. When people are critical of compulsory schooling, the response is generally this, “So what, you’re against education? You’re defending ignorance, and blind rebellion.”

No. People like myself, those proposing alternative free schools/democratic schools/holistic schools, or the “Valedictorian [who] speaks out against schooling,” are not against education or learning. We are against compulsory schooling. There is a difference between all these things. Learning is a process, or experience, that leads to education – the acquisition of knowledge. Schooling is a system, a specific environment (school) in which the acquisition of specific subjects and information is obligated to take place at specific times with specific outcomes for all. People against this system realize and propose that learning is not as narrow as we think it is. Learning is not something only invoked in a controlled environment. It happens outside of school buildings. It happens on the internet. It happens in a conversation, on a trip, or through reading a book. People against schooling encourage learning, not by the force of standards, curriculum, or career prospects, but rather, through will and intrinsic motivation. External motivation can be a jump-start toward a goal, but is only valuable up to a limited point. In order to learn and succeed, one seriously has to want the end result.

People also try to argue that without school, there would be no base of knowledge to rely on, and that people would be clueless and ignorant. This would be true – before the advent of the internet, and global electronic communication. In his “Open Letter to Educators,” Dan Brown highlights a great point that many people miss when they defend schools – facts are no longer restricted to schools or things such as physical libraries. We are reaching a point in our existence in which holding in all those facts is not necessary to survive in society. We have that breadth of information available to us for free AT places like libraries, and we can pay to buy laptops and internet connections at home. All cell phones now feature internet access. You can read news papers on smart phones, and phones such as the Black Berry have built in dictionary searches. Now sure, we are in the early stages of this eworld of information and communication, but we can only move forward. Point is, as the world of information and communication opens up for free more and more, the need to go to compulsory school to learn a base of knowledge will be useless. In a sense, it already is, but the government pitifully tries to hold to standards and rigid expectations of how information needs to be obtained, and where. People against schools realize that education is a free form occurrence hardly dependent on a physical space to learn in UNTIL you need to specialize, as with higher education. So schools are only necessary for depth, not breadth, and in lieu with the previous paragraph, that breadth is only meaningful if it is brought about by personal will and interest.

“Shakespeare is the greatest playwright. Everyone should read his work.” “Students need the classics. Students must be well rounded.” Humans are specializers, not generalizers. What use is it for our society to function, for everyone to be required to know the same amounts of things at the same time? Especially when much of this information is now readily accessible, and when people are expected to go off to study and work on what they care about anyway. Some people really like cooking, others really like math, or buildings things, and there are artists and writers. Some people like money and the way economics works. We all have inclinations and talents that push us one way or another. Although standardization’s goal is to have everyone learn the same thing and be on the same path for average knowledge, it fails because again, everyone is different and has a brain for grabbing different information, and it is not necessary to be standardized in “the real world.” The only place in which standardization and not deviating from the norm is valuable is in industrial, “blue collar” jobs, and at the typical “desk job.” But as more technology takes the place of human labor in these areas, creativity and innovation is needed more and more for the eworld of communication and exploration, for space exploration, for art jobs, for new technology, for architecture, for industrial DESIGN. Increased and changing aesthetics and efficiency is very valuable for the new way of society. The government mistakenly thinks that more standardization and indoctrination into our society of information is what will bring about innovators in these fields, but freedom and intrinsic motivation is more important. People need room to breathe, think and experiment outside of standard ways of doing things in order for the tweaks and creativity necessary for our lives to be enhanced. Change does not always come from standardization and knowing the same things. Those opposed to schooling see the detriment of standardization that is praised and enforced on the impressionable youth of our rapidly changing society.

Now, those opposed to standardization do not deny structure, for the most part. Humans are very sensitive and complex beings, and as our societies advance, we must deal with equally complex and sensitive systems. Having a certain amount of structure and familiar procedures in our daily lives can actually have us prepared to think outside the norm. Routines are valuable, but again, in most situations, being standardized in the same way becomes a problem. In many situations, having a variety of personality types and thinkers is critical to problem solving. One major qualm that opponents of compulsory schooling have is that uniform standardization does not prepare youth for the random occurrences of “real time” and “the real world.” The government needs to loosen up or break down the standards, allowing enough diversity of thought and action to penetrate school relationships and actions. Standardization does not take emotional and behavioral factors into account. School is often too much of a controlled environment, far different for what happens in the various environments outside of school. While standardization works for this environment, once youth move on to a different stage, or even a different controlled environment, such as college or a job, the rules change, and many are left unprepared to adjust quickly and appropriately, after 12 years of the same methods and treatment.

Another thing defenders of school don’t realize is that everyone is different. Now this seems obvious, but when you look at the nature of compulsory schools, the goal is to have everyone be the same in what they know or aspire to do. Government standards invariably describe what each student should know at each stage of the schooling system and process. It also sets the prescription of what level they should understand the favored information. Advocates of alternatives and learner centered education assert that this isn’t possible, and since the standardization of schooling, it doesn’t appear that the model student is ever lived out truly. It can appear as if standards work because many people graduate from the school system. However, democratic and alternative education advocates don’t see that as a success. Most students save for the valedictorian and a group of contenders probably did the basics to get by, or more realistically, performed at various levels of competence while still meeting the basics of the standards. In “low performing” schools, students get by to the next grade automatically, whether they individually meet the standard or not. People opposed to schooling assert and show through various alternative school models and programs, that learning and education takes place on a case by case basis. People learn in various ways, on various levels. Just look at multiple intelligence theory, emotional intelligence, and learning style theory. People have the aptitude and competence for some areas over others, and demonstrate their education in different ways. This intellectual diversity is crucial to innovation and creative developments, and trying to marginalize this leads to a lessening of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Then there is the argument that, “If it was left up to me at that age [high school, middle school, etc.] I would have sat around and done nothing.” Now, this argument holds some weight and validity. Most youth as they get older in the schooling system probably would do nothing for a while if they suddenly stopped schooling. Actually, many youth do that while they are IN school, and IN a classroom. When a teacher is absent, the class slumps into apathy. On school breaks, students forget everything and they seek opportunities to play and do things relevant to them. The argument goes awry however, because of the reason for this apathy. Think about the lower grades, and children. Years of being told what, how, when, where, and why to learn have not settled into to these youths minds. What to THEY do when given a break? They play, explore, and discover. They are prone to asking more questions, and engaging in conversations about fantasy and possibility that lead them to wonder about life and the world around them. The very young are always looking to discover something that captures their interest. They may not go for depth right away, but they do search a wide array of things until eventually something does stick. But over time of having the learning process being decided for you by everyone but yourself, it starts to sink in that discovering things on your own is not possible, and maybe even useless in the face of the agenda set before you. When a youth seeks to learn something outside of the curriculum, it often is penalized and scorned as “slacking off.” Extracurriculars not done for college resume one-upmanship are also seen as useless. After having your outer school goals and interests put down continually, the experience can lead to apathy, a sort of learned helplessness brought about by lack of autonomy. Youth have no meaningful or powerful stake in their education. Proponents of alternative education assert that youth should have more to input.

This ties into the rebellion argument, saying that those against schooling are romanticizing opposition to authority, and encouraging rebellion for rebellion sake. This is far from the reality of views on this topic. Many, if not all alternatives usually seek to create an environment of empowerment and having a stake in choices made in ones life. Through learner choice and voice in education, students gain responsible freedom and understanding of their personal goals and desires. Many alternatives seek to create an environment of inquisition, in which students don’t take rules and those doling them out at face value. At democratic schools for instance, students vote on the rules of the school, and the hiring of staff. If offenses are committed, legitimate school trials are held to solve the matter and everyone present has say in how the conflict will be resolved. Often at these schools, other barriers such as age segregation are removed for more equality and realistic interactions. In unschooling, a form of homeschooling in which the youth has free reign and guidance from those around him or her to learn what he or she pleases, respect for the youth’s choices is a given. Again, running a muck with TV, video games, and apathy will most often occur in those who have been oppressed. It is a means of escape to finally do something, anything, of your own will before you have to go back to doing merely what you are told and expected to do. Now, for most who have been in the compulsory system, giving power to youth seems silly, but think about the society we live in. Isn’t the United States a democracy? Isn’t this country founded upon the motto of  “power to the people,” and “individual liberty?” Those against schooling argue that compulsory and standardized schools do not allow the freedom of choice and the power of voice necessary to raise citizens of a democracy. They are in opposition to the blatant authoritarianism and top down lack of freedom inherent in most schools.

Many arguments against the learner centered approach are weak if thoroughly examined. I make this bold claim because the rhetoric for their arguments often goes towards the easiest assertions based on the way things were in the past. We need basic facts and skills – but they don’t only come from schools. Technology has changed this access. Most kids would do nothing if given a chance to learn – only if their personal attempts to learn and discover are thwarted by the expectations and systems of those with power. You just want a rebellion – only if that’s what it takes to give youth the early experiences with power, choice, and autonomy necessary for democracy. People won’t even know what the basics are without school’s telling us what the basics are – as if we don’t realize that you cannot get along in modern society without reading, writing, comprehension, and basic math. Kids can’t just learn by themselves – as if parents, books, the internet, libraries, friends, mentors, internships, community organizations, tools and materials don’t exist or cannot be found without school.

Lastly let’s take a look AT computers and AT the internet. Who really taught those who grew up in the information age how to use the internet? Aside from educational games and sparse typing courses, many of use have self taught when it came to the internet, and we still do it. When the latest operating system comes out, do you learn how to use it at school? No, you need to get a feel for it and read the instructions on your own. Do teachers make you learn how to host a website, or do you delve into instructions, css, and html on your own? Is it necessary for everyone to know html and css to navigate the Internet at this point? Not really. Do you need to be a computer programmer to run anti-virus software? No. These are some of the most complex systems in our society, and we have come a long way through experimentation, with some taking interest in more complex parts of the system, and learning along the way. Education is a process and an experiment. It is not final or fixed, and that is what those against schooling really stand for.

A “Rainforest” Brain in a Sea of Standardization

I read two articles today that lifted and sank my heart. The first was an article in ODE Magazine (“for intelligent optimists”) written by Thomas Armstrong. It was an excerpt of his book, “Neurodiversity: Exploring the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences.” The second was an education article by Our Weekly, a newspaper about current events in the African American community that circulates in my town. The title of that article is, “California’s Education Transformation: New standards, programs, and funds introduced.”

The Ode article indeed was a source of optimism for me. Thomas argues that rather than focusing on the stigmas of psychological or developmental disorders, psychiatrists and others should start looking at the unseen abilities people with these issues have, the three disorders in the title of his book being the major contenders for investigation. Based on strides in neuroscience (neroplasticity and neurodiversity), Thomas likens the human brain to “more like an ecosystem than a machine.” He essentially says that just as different environments fluidly change from place to place, so to does the human brain lie on a continuum of potential and ability. He recalled from watching the scenery on his way to  Yosemite National Park that “The green fields did not stop cold to become brown foothills. Foothills didn’t abruptly become mountains. It all happened naturally along a continuum.” He says it’s the same way even with these disorders. Not everything is as black and white as we continue to hope for it to be. Humans are biological just like everything else in nature despite our need for concretion and completion. Nature is a fluid and flowing thing, and our brains follow suit.

Much of nature also works by adaption, and I will admit that with our industrial and technological progress, humanity understands adaptivity for everything but our our brains, until now. From season to season, environment to environment, organisms respond accordingly. Much of that is automatic, but in this article I believe Thomas’s argument in relation to neuroscience is that with current findings, people have the ability to adapt by will, rather than by influence or instinct. He notes that autistic people “are systematizers. rather than empathizers…[and] that they often work better with non-human factors such as machines, computers, schedules, maps, and other systems.” Someone with ADHD can be good in quick response situations and rapid-paced careers. Everyone is different and needs to find their place in their society, but having a developmental or mood disorder doesn’t mean you’re doomed or will never fit in. To provide people like this with opportunities to succeed, Thomas argues that it is important to look into other characteristics, environments, and skills that can benefit these people. Nothing is really one sided.

This is very important to consider, given the continual push for more standardization and the rising rates of disorders and grief. On that note I feel the key thing Thomas mentioned was this, “Instead of pretending that hidden away in a vault somewhere is a perfectly ‘normal’ brain, to which all other brains must be compared to…we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.” Here are seven tenants to realizing this neurodiversity, and doing something about it (number 4 strikes a chord in the theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s, “Outliers”; number 6 tunes in with Mark Hyman’s “The Ultramind Solution”):

  1. The human brain works more like an ecosystem than a machine
  2. Human beings and human brains exist along continuums of competence
  3. Human competence is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong
  4. Whether you are disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you live
  5. Success in life is based upon adapting one’s brain to the needs of the surrounding environment [likewise…]
  6. Success in life depends upon modifying your surrounding environment to fit the needs of your unique brain
  7. Niche construction includes career and lifestyle choices and assistive technologies tailored to the needs of a neurodiverse individual
  8. Positive niche construction, directly modifies the brain which in turn enhances its ability to adapt to the environment

His article can be found here.

So time and time again I hear people discuss the fluidity of the individual over the standardization of all. I’ve also read segments of a book on neuroplasticity, “The Brain that Changes Itself.” And what does the California Department of education (CDE) do? They “Race to the top” after the external motivators of money, and will use that money to cash in on national academic standardization. State Superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’connell  will “adopt the Common Core Standards which were developed to establish consistent  and clear education standards for English language arts and mathematics that would better prepare students for success in the competitive economy.” I knew I wasn’t crazy in thinking education is only about a job, and that this new/global/competitive economy is cropping up fast and being tossed around as the ultimate goal for learners of the 21st century. “Common core standards are a set of guidelines that detail what students should know at each grade level,” the article reads. The overall goal with these implementations is to “close the achievement gap” in low economic areas, and “prepare all students for college and careers in the 21st century.” So, this is the third ring towards my “College is Mandatoryfears. California is a finalist for $700 million dollars in funding according to that article, and the state is getting ready along with 34 other states for “phase 2” of the race. The claim by the CDE is that adopting standards will cause schools to have new curriculum, better instruction tools, batter assessments and better ways to gauge accountability. Sounds great, but what about individual choice, ability, and interest. This Common Core Standard program also coincides with STEM, “student achievement in science technology, engineering, and mathematics. So to add insult to injury, there will be nationwide intellectual standardization, as well as emphasis on science in math rather than all subjects. This narrows things down more, and from the findings of the previous article and neuroscience, this is bad news for people who are different or have disorders.

Rather than look to see how people can live and benefit from things in various ways, the government looks to bring people even more into narrow unified systems, while those who are different or learning disabled become or continue to be the minority, only left with disability services or various forms of maladjustment in their lives. Alternative learner-centered education is in for a hard struggle I realize, as the people implementing these monetary-centered standards have money, the media, and tradition on their side.

A follow-up to College Inc.

I think that I’m just going to burst multiple posts into being like this – at random. I am not centered enough to post everyday and by a schedule – that pains me. I want to be focused.

It seems that everyone, except I, knows how to articulate exactly what I mean. Here is a short TED talk video by Sir Ken Robinson about school. Check his 2006 video about school as well.

Predetermined Learning Material

Taking notes. Mindless reading. Shifting from class to class. Two hour blocks. No breaks other than lunch. Limited space. Getting arrested for escaping. Going to court for truancy. No talking out of the subject. Standardized testing. No art program. Only ranking matters.

I’m sitting here redoing my hair. Listening to music. Earlier I was listening to a lecture about transpersonal psychology. Then I read material on coily hair texture. I’m considering if I should continue to be interested in French and Acoustic Guitar/ musical understanding & theory.

I really realize that not everyone cares about education as much as I do.

Error number one of traditional/conventional education: Required Learning Material.

Having set subjects and material to learn at set times is counterproductive (one of my favorite words). 1. The students are at different learning levels. Everyone learns differently and each have their own talents and knacks at things. Some children may not be in the reading stage until 7 years old, perhaps later. While I personally had a passion for reading at the ages of 3 and 4. Then you have your math whizzes and science folk, but there are others that want to color and doodle all day (that was moi).

It’s like the functions of daily living. Not everyone is hungry at the same time. Not everyone is drowsy simultaneously either. People just aren’t the same. So to lump them up in groups and grades and subjects at the same time is frustrating.

2. Students get bored. Now, there are many definitions on this. The the best one in relation to this post, from thefreedictionary.com states:

bored – uninterested because of frequent exposure or indulgence

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Listening to instructors drone on about subjects students are not into will result in the following:

3. Acquire a strong distaste for learning.

4. They give up on school and resort to more unproductive activities.

5. In my case, they continue to do well, but lose purpose for the future.

Not giving students the chance to develop their own drive and skill causes them to lose sight of what is right for them and their futures.

Currently I am learning about electricity. despite the fact that i don’t want to be an electrician, electrical engineer, or anything related, the grade I receive in this class makes a difference in my future.
My principal lied to the entire school stating that colleges and universities will be looking at California Standardized Tests during admissions season. This demonstrates the lack of people wanting you to learn what’s best for you as an individual. It’s all about ranking. Another topic I will be discussing in this blog.

The solution to this problem – student directed learning.

How I spend my “free time”.

While conventional schooling has brought me to have a strong distaste for acquiring knowledge, my observation of my free time says differently.

I read (novels, blogs, articles) -> fantasy fiction, psychology, religion/spirituality (although I am currently agnostic) etc.

I watch documentaries ->science channel, the-n (I am still a teen), and noggin (seeing what small children learn helps wake up things I don’t use anymore) -> family guy/robot chicken (I like to laugh)

I study astrology

I paint

I practice guitar

I skateboard or ride my bike

I listen to music and share/discover music with others to increase my library

I write -> short stories, some poems (not a poetry fan, ick), theories, summaries of something I learned, personal journals, blogs (sparingly at the moment)

And I come out of all this well read and able to have a nice conversation in the long run. All without the help of a “school”. I was even at a point where I was studying basic math to improve my awareness of how it works. Basic geometry, fractions, metal math, money, etc. I hate higher level abstract math.

I soon came to realize that if I had been in an independent study program, unschooling, or democratic education of some sort, I would have more vasts amounts of intelligence.

But I simply wasn’t put into this environment. So that’s just too bad. It’s very bad in fact. And so I, like many others against the ignorance, tyranny, and counterproductive results of traditional/conventional schools – I will give light towards the numerous ways that this type of schooling poisons the mind.

In the days of Olde

Trad. School in days of olde

Things haven’t changed much.

But they should, and I just feel a strong inclination to explain my personal reason as to why this is so dire.