Tagged democratic education

What’s Behind Our Dreams & Goals?

We’ve wrapped up our second week of school! This week we had my dear friend Mariusz & and his wife Maya come visit from Poland. Mariusz started his own preschool in Poland, Zielona Wieza, currently serving between 50-60 children ages 2-6. He is now planning to open a school for the graduates of Zielona Wieza and has been doing quite a bit of research over the past few years to get ready. He’s visited many democratic schools, including one of the oldest – Summerhill. It was really great to have Mariusz attend our week one ALF summer program and then come back to see our Agile Learning Center in action. The kids loved having them visit and @libby tried to learn some Polish words and phrases from Mariusz as well. I love having the kids exposed to many different cultures and types of people!

This week we had many exciting things happen: we got our school pet, Buns the bunny; the band Fish Out of Water came to lead us in a drum circle, perform, and then try out their instruments; some went on an Uptown adventure to Romare Bearden Park to meet Roots, ping pong continued to be a huge hit; our Minecraft/Terraria gaming culture blossomed with teamwork, collaboration, and joyful play; we started our InterALC Psychology Crash Course with @cammysherbert in Wilmington; and so much more. Please visit our September album on Facebook to see pictures!

Review: Why Do We Spawn?

The focus of this blog post, like last week, is to dive into and record what we’ve been up to in our Spawn Point. Our Spawn Point at the beginning and the end of the day are our times to coach, mentor, and connect with the students. It’s also a really important time for the kids to connect with each other and hear the interests, goals, and intentions that other students have. I believe that carving out this time together is crucial to create positive culture in school. While we do our best honor the individual needs and differences of each person, the fact that remains is that if you are choosing to come to our ALC, you are choosing to “live” with a community of other people for a portion of the day. This means that time spent to know each other has to happen so we can learn how to navigate the day in harmony despite our many differences. Learning about each other will help us act more compassionately toward one another and allow us to see situations from perspectives outside of our own. So the buy-in to attend ALC Mosaic is that we take time each day to connect as a group.

Meeting whole school each morning would be counter productive, however. We have too many students to do this. Trying to hear each other with respect and honor with 25+ people in one room would lead to frustration and probably have more of a negative impact on our culture than positive. So at our ALC, we split into two Spawn Points to start and end each day. Each group was chosen by the Lead Facilitators at the school to create balance groups that have mixed gender and age groups. We spend the first 30 minutes of our day in our respective Spawn Points. At 3pm the kids clean up and then go to an end of the day Spawn Point which ends up being about 10-20 minutes depending on when we finish our clean up jobs.

One interesting observation Mariusz shared with our staff after attending our older campus for three days was that the kids here seemed really connected and able to work out their needs and problems with each other through communication. He felt that there was less conflict here than in the other democratic schools he’s attended and that perhaps that was because the kids had such a strong bond to each other. I agree with him that our students are really connected. What’s interesting is, that at times, their deep connection can actually lead to conflict at school when they act as if they were all brothers and sisters (think about how siblings bicker)! However, the kids ultimately seem to really love and support each other and we can work out most conflicts through communication. This year there has been a lot of intentionality on the part of the Lead Facilitators to cultivate peaceful and connective Spawn Points to start and end our days, which I do see reflecting in the general flow & feel of the rest of the day from 10-3.

This Week’s Spawn Point Focus: What’s Behind Our Goals & Dreams?

Last week my blog post contained a detailed breakdown of what happened in my Spawn Point each day. At the beginning of this week, I thought that we might dive deeper into our goals, perhaps even breaking those goals down into SMART goals with more specific, measurable, and time-constrained steps. However, as we got into the week, I felt that this wasn’t the place to go. I did have a breakout goal setting work session with two students, but I didn’t feel that Spawn was the place for this right now. Instead, I felt it important that we dissect what was behind our dreams.

The most important thing I believe an adult in an ALC can do is to model knowing oneself truly. This means connecting to who we truly are and using our inner guidance and intuition to guide our actions with intention. This is how we can support the kids to do the same. One of the reasons I felt guided to not dive into deeper goal setting this week is because I realized that doing so was missing the most important piece: Who are we and why do we have the the dreams we have? To just jump into goal-setting setting is just an outcome based approached, an approach that is typically found in schools to make adults feel better: Oh look at those kids doing so much! Isn’t that just wonderful! They are busy and look at the outcome of all they have produced! But the work of the kids learning to listen to their inner guidance and intuition has been overlooked and disregarded – instead, they are just busy doing things that make us feel better. We don’t do that here!

Inspiration from Marie Kondo

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I am reading a book this week that has become pretty popular lately: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. This book was a part of my inspiration to try to support the kids in Spawn Point this week to focus on who they are rather than what they want to produce. Kondo’s approach is different than any other tidying method I’ve come across: rather than focus on rules, like “If you haven’t worn it in a year, donate it,” Kondo focuses on first examining why you want to tidy up your home and asks you dig into that question. She suggests asking yourself “Why?” at least three times so you can get a specific answer to how you want to feel in and experience your home. Her process is mostly focused on teaching you to know yourself and listen to your intuition of whether or not an item sparks joy in your heart. All things that don’t, you get rid of.

According to Kondo, “Follow your intuition and all will be well.” Her point is that if you follow someone else’s guidance for how to tidy up your home, you’ll rebound because the criteria set most likely will not match what you need to have in your life to experience joy. She writes, “only you can know what kind of environment makes you feel happy…To avoid rebound, you need to create your own tidying method with your own standards” (page 126).

Reading her book, I felt alive with joy at how she applied something I believe to be the most important skill a human can learn to tidying up: How to listen to our intuition (or inner guidance as I sometimes refer to it). To Kondo, when you hone this skill you can create magic in your home. I believe honing this skill will lead to joy and magic to your life as a whole. Teaching kids to create their own standards for what they need in their life is the starting point for them to create and build their own lives. Telling them our standards to live by is not the same as supporting them to discover their own.

Practical Application of This Concept to Our Spawn Point This Week

At the end of the day, I asked the kids to partner up with a buddy with the Goals & Dreams folders they made last week (see last week’s blog post about that). I showed them the book I was reading and told them a little bit about Kondo’s “Why?” questioning she does with clients before they even begin the tidying process. I asked the kids to do the same with their buddies: they were asked to switch folders and then interview the other person, picking a goal or a dream listed in the folder and then asking them “Why?” they have that dream at least three times. I reviewed my example of the goal, “I want to practice Spanish.” When I asked myself “Why?” the first time, I answered, “So I can speak fluently.” Asking “Why?” again, I answered, “Well, I think it would be really neat to live in a Spanish speaking country for a year at some point.” But why do I want to do this? “Oh…learning about different cultures and how other people in the world live is absolutely fascinating to me!”

I told the kids that if we examine the “Why?” behind our goals and dreams, than it can help us stick with challenges or obstacles that come up if following their dream or completing their goal gets tough. If you aren’t connected to your personal motivation for completing a goal, it’s easy to just stop and not complete it. This is why it is so important to not just give kids busy work and then chastise them when they are “lazy” or don’t complete it. The lesson for the child in that situation is that they are lazy. But if person hasn’t had the opportunity or coaching to understand who they are and what inspires them, then they might not have the opportunity to learn that they are actually a motivated and driven person.

The kids seemed to have fun with this buddy activity and I hope to repeat it for the next couple Mondays. I also think it helps build connection and support – with the buddy learning more about the other person as you learn about yourself.

A New Experiment

I built on this concept by then asking the kids to do a little experiment with me for a week. I was reading some goal setting literature I was given over our ALF Summer Program by @drew’s mom, Lorna. Part of the process was to identify your core values in order to get to a place where you’re ready to set goals. This felt really aligned with the “Why” activity – know yourself before jumping into setting goals.

As I looked over the list on the adult handout, I had an idea. I would write some values down on slips of paper and ask the kids to identify their top 5 core values. As I looked at the values on the sheet, I realized that not all of those listed would make sense to younger children (the ages in my Spawn range from 7-12), so I added some simpler categories that might just cover types of activities kids enjoy, like math and science. I also left slips blank so kids could write in their own values or categories for how to spend their time.

The slips had words like Peace, Making Things, Service to Others, Understanding People, Community Building, Science, Math, Physical Activity, Solving Problems and a few more.

I told the kids: “Now I’m going to ask you to do something really, really tough. If you’re up for it, I want you to look through the stack of words I handed you and ONLY choose 5 words that feel really, really important to you. These 5 words should represent who you think you are and ways you feel are really important for you to spend your time at school. If you don’t see any that move you, please use the blank slips to write in something of your own choice. But remember, no more than 5 can be chosen!”

Some of the kids seemed to like the challenge of only picking 5 – saying “this is hard!” aloud but with smiles on their faces as they sorted through the words. Each student had their own stack to sort through. Below I have pictures of the pages they made, which we hung up in our Spawn Point room:

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Note: Again, as I wrote last week, I don’t force the kids to do this. A couple didn’t want to do it, and that’s totally okay. Some people really want to see how something goes before they try it themselves. Some simply learn by watching and absorbing. Some kids really, really like activities such as these and find it exciting and fun, while others go along with it just because. The most interesting cases are those that always refuse in the beginning and then ask to do the activity a different day. This happened with one of the students who said no the first day, but then asked me if they could chose their words the next. 

The next day, I prepared envelopes for each of the kids with the values/ways to spend their time they selected with boxes. They color coded the boxes and the experiment we are currently embarking on is one where they color code the ways they actually spend their time to see how it aligns with the selections they said are important to them. At the end of the day, they take their intention sticky notes from the morning and color on them to match the category it fits in, if it fits in one at all.

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I asked the kids to do this for a week and then we’ll check-in and see if this type of reflection gives them information that is useful for how they make decisions and if it helps them better articulate how they spend their time:

1) Making decisions: Are you making decisions that are aligned with values or interests that are important to you?

2) Articulation: I find that kids in our schools are told by kids in traditional schools that they aren’t learning anything. I think it is important for a school setting such as ours (with pedagogical ties to free schools/unschooling) to help kids build their vocabulary for how they describe what they learn at school. Can we support them to say to the neighborhood kids, “Oh, at my school I learn how to make decisions that reflect my values, passions, and interests. I value peace so I help others solve conflicts or problems. I also really think physical activity is important to me so I organize an active game with my friends every day.” My heart hurts some when I hear stories of neighborhood kids telling kids at our school that they just play all day and don’t learn anything (which is impossible – we are always learning!). Play is how we learn, and through play we can explore our values. The trick is to support our kids to articulate that so they can feel confident and great about what they experience and create for themselves each day at an Agile Learning Center.

I enjoy hearing at the end of the day how the kids sort their activities. One child said when they play ping-pong it brings a feeling of peace to them as they hear the “ping-pong” of the ball back and forth. Another child said when they play ping-pong it helps them understand people because she has to think about what the other person is going to do when she plays opposite them. I am seeing that this just adds a deeper layer to the end of the day reflection and I’m getting to know the kids more. I am also doing this with the kids each day too and am personally enjoying that experience as well!

 

Re-visiting My Roots

I remember thinking that there would be no book that would affect me like A.S. Neill‘s Summerhill when I read it. I read Summerhill during the AERO school starter course led by Jerry Mintz four months before I opened The Mosaic School, LLC in January of 2013. After reading Neill’s book I felt empowered and inspired to take action to create a school grounded in principles that I believed in. Neil showed me that an education centered around the needs of individuals – who they are, their passions, their interests – was possible.

democratic education     Summerhill book image2

Then I read Democratic Education by Yaacov Hecht in August of 2013, weeks before Mosaic officially launched as a full blown school. Hecht’s writing and story are incredible and I found myself blown away as I was when reading Summerhill. Even more remarkable, as I was reading his book during IDEC in Boulder, CO that August, Hecht ended up walking over and joining me and my friend @Alex for lunch. If that’s not divine universal intervention, I don’t know what is!

With Hecht (far right) after meeting him at IDEC 2013

Hecht founded the Democratic School in Hadera, Israel, the first school in the world to call itself democratic. His model was so appreciated by parents and students that when his waiting list grew to the hundreds, he ended up starting another school. He has since been called the “Father of Democratic Education” in Israel, establishing a network of schools serving over 7,000 students in his country. I highly encourage that educators and parents read his book, as he provides a very easy-to-read account of his journey, from how he grew up to starting his first school, how he expanded on his ideas, vignettes about students in a free school setting, detailed learning theories, as well as his current and future projects.

Before I met @Tomis at the Agile Learning Center in NYC, I had read Hecht’s book and knew that I wanted to be a part of a network of schools united in supporting each other. I had previously taught at a small school start up in Charlotte, called The Friends School of Charlotte, where I was one of 2 teachers. I knew how isolating and challenging it felt to try to create something so different than the social norm. I didn’t want Mosaic to only be one school. I wanted to have other schools and educators that I could learn, play and grow with. Reading about what Hecht had created inspired me to keep hold of a vision where I wouldn’t feel like I was creating alone. I knew I would one day be able to connect with other educators that wanted to create schools aligned with a similar philosophy.

What I am feeling extremely grateful for right now is how the reading of both of these books directly contributed to my next steps in the creation of Mosaic. I read Summerhill (by Neill who started and ran one school for his lifetime), and shortly thereafter, I was starting a school. I read Democratic Education (by Hecht who started a network of schools), and again, within months, I was joining forces with the team at ALC NYC to create a network of schools. I do believe that we all have the power to manifest what we want to see created in our own lives. Sometimes a little inspiration from the work of those preceding us helps us remember what is possible.

Recently, I’ve felt challenged to re-visit the reasons I started this school and ALC movement. This is a good and healthy challenge, one that I enjoy diving into so I can stay connected to the heart of what I do rather than live in my head and the stories I can tell myself. From time to time, I need to create space where I can get quiet with myself and remember why I do what I do.

Over the course of our ALF Intensive last summer, we identified the roots of ALC’s, which are what grounds & unites all of our ALC’s together. Each one may look different, but we have fundamental agreements that:

  1. Learning is natural. It’s happening all the time.
  2. When people make their own decisions, they learn better. (And children are people!)
  3. People develop their strengths through cycles of intention, creation, and reflection.
  4. People learn more from the culture and environment they are immersed in than from the material they are taught.
  5. The 21st century world demands the creation of visible, shareable value as evidence of learning.

The first four are roots that I really wanted to re-visit, and to do so, I’ve taken a journey back to Hecht’s writing that inspired me so deeply to action over a year ago. I remembered how Hecht so diligently described what he calls “pluralistic learning” that is able to happen in an environment where students make their own choices about what they are doing and learning. I have been re-reading Chapter 3 of this book and as I read his words and stories, I am reminded of what I see happening at ALC Mosaic in connection to Hecht’s words and our Agile Roots. I’ll attempt to share what I mean through my synthesis of this chapter of Democratic Education below.

 

What is Pluralistic Learning?

Hecht chose the name “pluralistic learning,” describing it as “a learning process that recognizes the diversity among learners – learning based on the equal right of every individual to express his or her uniqueness.” He continues on in this description to explain how every individual has a “unique learning profile” and that “Human diversity means that the learning framework must acknowledge the fact that [every human is] different and unique.” (pg. 94)

Furthermore, in Hecht’s opinion (which I share), we are faced today with a new challenge for what human beings need for their education. According to Hecht, “The only man who is educated is the man who has learned how to learn; the man who has learned to adapt to change; the man who has realized that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives a basis for security.” (pg. 98)

 

Areas of Strength & Growth

Our traditional education systems are set up in a way where there is a limited box of knowledge and skills of what administration & teachers want children to learn and be skilled at doing.

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Image from page 96 of Hecht’s Democratic Education

In the image above, Hecht represents what schools decided students need to learn with the little square, and the larger shape represents the world of knowledge available. This little box is what most education systems deem time “well-spent” for children. For those people who aren’t naturally good learning or doing what is in that little box, school is quite a frustrating experience. Hecht points out that many times, when children are doing things in school or in life that are not related to learning what is in that little box, adults consider it time wasted.

According to Hecht, “The purpose of democratic education is to provide students with the conditions that will encourage them to step outside ‘the square,’ to begin a process of searching for areas of strength where they can enhance their belief in their own abilities.” (page 104)

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Hecht speaking about pluralistic learning at IDEC 2013

It is when we venture outside of this box to find our areas of strength that we also find our area of growth, which is “the field which fascinates the learner, at the present time, more than any other area…characterized by intense emotions, such as enthusiasm, excitement, challenge and an acute desire to return to that area of interest again and again.” (page 105)

Hecht accompanies this explanation with descriptions of how children learn, first describing how when a toddler learns to walk the try so again and again even though they keep falling. They are so fascinated by how they have just figured out a new way to be mobile – of course they will want to try out and refine this skill at all costs, perhaps frustrating to parents wanting them to sit still at the dinner table! The same goes for babies when they learn to babble and then talk. Hecht also describes a child in his school who was obsessed with practicing handstands and cartwheels for a considerable amount of time. While to other educators this might be viewed as time wasted, Hecht understands that “When children (or adults, for that matter) are allowed to remain in their area of growth without being disturbed or forced to leave it, they acquire considerable emotional and cognitive skills.” (pg 107)

What does Hecht recognize from the child doing handstands over and over again? “The child who did the handstands succeeded, thanks to a belief in his own persistence; he learned about overcoming difficulties and about courage; he drew conclusions from his falls, and his learning ability grew. The next time he wishes to enter the learning process, he will be able to use the tools he gained from doing handstands. The ability to draw conclusions from failing, and understanding of the importance of persistence and patience – all these will serve him well when he tries to contend in other areas of learning.” (pg. 107)

The really important reminder that Hecht has given me as I re-read this chapter is that the content of what we are learning is never more important than how the process of learning occurs. We can have children learn content that we think is important for them to learn, but if that learning process occurs by telling them “This is important for you to learn because we deem it so. Even if this does not contextually make sense for your understanding of life and meaning, don’t think about that. Just learn it and show us you know this content by doing ‘X’ so we can prove to others you know it,” the student actually learns that learning occurs when you get information from others – and that others decide what information is important to know. They are learning a lesson that they are not to be trusted to determine what skills or knowledge is important for them to gain. To me, this increases the chance that the child will grow up to be disempowered to create change or meaning for their own life – they will think that other people who have authority are the ones smart enough to make change and decisions. They might learn that complaining about how things are is the only way to cope through life.

What Hecht describes taking place in democratic schools is the ability for pluristic learning to occur where the learning is not about “what is done, but rather how processes occur….What is important and meaningful is the growth of inner strengths that enrich and enhance the repertoire of learning tools.” (pg 107) Students who are able to spend time learning in their area of growth are spending time practicing all the skills they need in order to learn any other type of content or skill. They are developing the connections in their brain for learning how to learn, rather than how to conform. Just like working out, what muscles we work out are the ones that end up being developed. I think parents and educators need to examine closely what “muscles” we are having our children practice in school settings.

 

Connecting Hecht’s Pluralistic Learning & My Observations at Mosaic

When I began re-reading this chapter, the vignette about the child doing handstands immediately had me thinking about two of our students learning to skateboard this year.

These two went out almost every day this fall to skateboard. Again and again they would ride down a gently sloping hill on our campus on their bottoms. It was only a couple weeks ago that the girls excitedly called for me and @Charlotte to see them finally standing up on their skateboards! Were they wasting their time at school this fall? Certainly this is not in the little box of knowledge that many educators deem important for children to learn.

I, and I believe Hecht would agree, observe that these children learned how to persevere. They learned how to commit to learning a skill. They learned how to be brave enough finally stand up on the skateboard. They gained so many skills that will help them learn how to accomplish many more things they commit to learning in their lives.

Re-reading this chapter inspired me to take a journey through our school’s Facebook photos, with a thoughtful perspective of all the amazing things the children are able to learn and practice in this free setting.

It’s all about perception – one might choose to perceive that some children have an unhealthy obsession with Pokemon. There is also a choice to perceive this game differently. You can take a look at @Charlotte’s lessons learned from Pokemon, including the skill of organization, equitable trade, planning, creation, and even the academic discipline: math. What I value most from Pokemon is how the children create their own value systems based on what they find important. Some value the cuteness of a character, some value the HP. Each create a meaning for why they covet a particular card higher than another. What muscle are they practicing here? Perhaps when they grow up these children will have a strong ability to discern for themselves what values are important to them politically. They won’t need to just take on the beliefs of those they deem smarter than them (i.e., repeat political agendas of their parents or a teacher they come across in school). They will have had the practice of learning to discern for themselves what values are important to them.

My last blog post was about the game Werewolves and observations I made about the perseverance and determination I saw demonstrated as the kids tried again and again to play this complex game. The kids gained experience in how to organize themselves, children of all ages, to listen to each other. I don’t think I need to explain how valuable this skill might prove to be for humans to gain…learning how to support different individuals to listen and respect one another. This is the “muscle” we practice the most at our school, one that I wish more human beings (including myself) had practice in growing up in schools. Perhaps if the privileged children in the United States learned how to support and listen to individuals coming from different perspectives than their own, global change might happen in how humans perceive and treat one another.

Why do I share this? Why blog these details? 

I want more parents and educators to rally to support educational reformation. The stories of children learning how to learn need to explained in detail, and I am committed to sharing these stories over and over again. I am committed to helping others draw the connection to the importance of play and autonomy in the lives of children to how those can create a future generation that is capable of creating positive social impact for all human beings.

This is the a part of the reason why I stated in the beginning of this post that re-visiting my roots is a good and healthy challenge for me. When I speak to people unfamiliar with alternative education, the questions I constantly face are, “Well how will they learn math? Don’t you think learning (insert academic subject here) is important?”

Sure, but learning how to learn is even more important. Learning how to commit, persevere, be courageous, make decisions, collaborate, share, create meaning and purpose, create your own life…all those things I find more important. Re-reading Hecht’s journey alongside my walk down Facebook photo lane has me feeling energized and excited about the adventure I have embarked on.