New City, New School: Brooklyn Free School
I write this post from the Brooklyn Public Library, the poor woman’s co-working space. After roughly four weeks in New York, my bank statement calls me to task – what am I learning here? Is this worth my time?
I came to Brooklyn because I was fascinated by what I’d heard of the Brooklyn Free School. Though it bears some resemblance to the Philly Free School, there are major differences that have significant implications for the values, skills, and mindsets with which kids leave the school.
Some of these differences appealed to me because they speak to my long-held doubts. For example, the Brooklyn Free School organizes a regular class schedule; this practice arose because some students of color reported feeling unprepared for academic classes when they left Brooklyn Free School. Confronted with that concern, the school shifted course, aiming to better prepare kids for ‘traditional’ academic spaces while simultaneously trying to offer kids greater autonomy than conventional schools. Since inequitable access to dominant knowledge (i.e. the types of knowledge that confer privilege – analytical writing, statistics, Western professional dress, etc.) was my primary concern at Philly Free School, I was deeply curious to see how Brooklyn Free School was navigating this challenge. Teaching a couple of my own classes seemed like an especially interesting way to gain insight into this major difference.
Other differences seem to move further from the mark of fostering young people’s freedom – for example, many key decisions about the school are made by adults, without student input. Some are off-limits for debate within Democratic Meeting, like the school’s cell phone policy.
PFS Vs. BFS: A Very Long List of Differences
After three weeks, I’m beginning to see the core differences between the Philly Free School and the Brooklyn Free School. I’ve tried to outline them briefly, but the full list is here.
|Demographics||Both schools are rare for ‘free schools’ in that they are racially and economically diverse. This is in part a result of sliding scale tuition.|
|Democracy||Both schools try to involve students in decision-making, to different degrees. At PFS, School Meeting (SM) happens once a week. This is where all rules and most of the important decisions (hiring/firing, budgeting, etc.) get made. Students and staff each get one vote. Rules are written down in a large law book. At BFS, Democratic Meeting (DM) happens once a month. Smaller meetings happen for specific age groups, usually when staff see an issue. Some rules and decisions are made in DM, but many are made by separately by adults, including hiring and ‘health and safety’ policies (e.g. the cell phone policy). Students and staff each get one vote. Some rules are written down, others are just ‘understood’.|
|Interpersonal Accountability||At PFS and BFS, students and staff are encouraged to resolve issues on their own. If they can’t, both schools have structures to help. At PFS, students and staff can ‘write up’ rule violations to Judicial Committee (JC), made up of 3 students and 1 staff. JC reviews the concern and the rules. If (and only if) a rule has been violated, JC assigns consequences, ranging from a warning to expulsion. Students and staff may ask for separate mediation if they wish. At BFS, students and staff can ‘call a meeting’ on others. These meetings are often coordinated by a staff member and follow a mediation protocol. When a student violates a rule (e.g. cell phone policy), staff often pull them aside for discussion. This can escalate into further consequences and even expulsion, but rarely does; the school community tries to avoid punitive measures.|
|Administration||At PFS, tasks like bookkeeping and clean-up are handled by committees of kids and staff; there is no formal administration or staff hierarchy. At BFS, administrative tasks are handled by adults and there is a formal hierarchy among staff (e.g. Executive Director, Administrative Coordinator, Teachers).|
|Teaching and Learning||Both schools value student autonomy and see the educative value of activities outside conventional ‘lessons’, but their educational philosophies, practices, and even terminology differ widely. At PFS, kids do whatever feels meaningful to them. Knowing that they’ve internalized ‘schoolish’ mindsets, adults avoid organizing or evaluating kids’ learning, but serve as resources when asked. In this vein, adults call themselves ‘staff’, not ‘teachers’. Able to do as they wish, kids spend their time wrestling, playing games, creating businesses, learning instruments, working on committees, exploring the city, or talking with friends. At BFS, teachers arrange classes with input from students. Though they aren’t required to take classes, most students do, encouraged by their parents and teachers. Students are expected to spend most of their school hours engaged in ‘learning activities’ as defined by adults. Teachers vary in what learning activities they value, but book/computer study, class and field trip attendance, and art-making are all deemed ‘productive’. Sitting and talking for long periods, social media, sleeping, rambunctious play, and video games are tolerated in moderation.|
|Age Segregation||At PFS kids hang out with whomever they want, and friendships form across age lines. At BFS kids are age-segregated by floors of the building, with high school on the 5th floor, middle school on the 4th, etc. Kids sometimes intermingle for select classes and activities, but this is rare.|
So I’ve Found Some Answers, Right? Oh Please, Dear God, Where are the Answers???
With this laundry list of differences, I hoped to begin comparing these two approaches to radical schooling. What’s working for kids? What’s not? Coming to the Brooklyn Free School, I expected insights to roll out before me – for some of my stickiest questions to unstick themselves.
This has not been the case. Instead, I find myself lugging around multiple ideologies regarding the means and ends of education, and questioning each of my observations from each of these worldviews. It’s no wonder people don’t look too hard at their beliefs; holding two opposing beliefs about the ‘right’ way to do something is dizzying.
Part of this process, both disorienting and exciting, is the vantage point I’ve gained on some of my own impulses. The best, most amusing example occurred several weeks ago, while I was observing my friend Cortnie’s classroom. Cortnie teaches at a progressive charter school in Baltimore. The school has some interesting features – kids have a lot of bodily autonomy, they’re permitted significant choice in what they learn, and most of this learning is project-based – but it is still a conventional school in most respects.
While I was there, a student got out of his seat, picked up an inflatable globe, and began walking around the classroom, bouncing it off other students’ foreheads. My initial impulse was to tell him to put the ball down, take his seat, and continue his assignment. My next impulse was severe disorientation. I’d been at the Philly Free School only a week earlier. If a student had done exactly the same thing there, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. If I had noticed, I would have said nothing, or I would have asked him to pass me the ball, so we could play together. Had I already shifted back so quickly in my thinking, that I was uncomfortable with this student’s behavior? Was it because he seemed to be disturbing something I viewed as ‘legitimate learning’? Or was it just the context – seated kids, worksheets, a classroom – that activated my impulse to redirect him? All I could say with certainty was this – at PFS, his behavior would have elicited little or no emotional response in me, but here in this class, I was profoundly uncomfortable witnessing this and doing nothing.
Everything Is Ideology and It’s Scaring Me
Using this anecdote as an illustration, I would like to propose an axiom here: our beliefs about child development, the proper balance of power between adults and children, and the ways in which children ought to be reared and educated – everything that seems right and obvious about how we as adults interact with kids – all of this is socialized into us, all of it is ideological. Even these categories, ‘kids’ and ‘adults’, are ideological. Stick with me here.
Here is how I understand ideology, drawing largely from Louis Althusser’s 1970 Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and my friend Dave Backer’s excellent writing about Althusser in the education context, linked at the bottom of this post. Althusser puts it this way: “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” In other words, there is a human experience we aim to describe, explain, and organize through our words and actions. We say things like, “children must learn discipline if they’re ever going to keep a job” or “kids just need time to be kids,” and in saying these things, our words give us a sense of ‘so-it-is-ness’.
Whenever we feel this settled sense of ‘so-it-is’, we are in the presence of ideology. Althusser calls this process interpellation – when we integrate a representation of our relation to the world by recognizing that relation as true. When someone gestures towards me saying, ‘that young woman over there,’ and I respond, I am interpellated into multiple ideologies, not just gender and age categories, but even my sense of being a unique individual, “that woman.” In sensing that ‘so-it-is-ness’, we rarely recognize the ideologies that we ourselves reproduce, because ideology doesn’t announce itself as such. Were ideology to arrive hemming and hawing, admitting the use of abstractions and generalizations, it wouldn’t be very compelling (a fate to which I fear this blog post will be consigned).
Often, interpellating and reproducing ideology is less about belief and more about enactment. Whether we confiscate a kid’s blow-up globe or begin tossing it back and forth with them, we are enacting ideologies about relations between adults and kids, power and age, and human development. Ideologies are probably most powerful in this form, when they flow through our bodies without much thought – the way we hug kids, shrink away from their contact, or change our intonation in displeasure. Laughing together about my recent, mixed-success forays into dancing, my friend Xian said to me, “it’s not that white bodies can’t dance – it’s that they can’t imagine themselves moving in that way.” From dancing to hugging to hitting, our embodied actions also create this sense of ‘so-it-is-ness’ that is the hallmark of ideology.
Some readers might protest that there are real, material conditions underlying our beliefs and categories. For example, modern neuroscience demonstrates biological changes in children’s brains that correspond with ‘real’ (i.e. material, not ideological) developmental phases and behaviors. If this is true, the argument goes, our approach to engaging with children can be tailored to fit our knowledge of human development. From this perspective, ‘science’ gives us a path out of ideology. I often lean on my understanding of child brain development when I’m working through how I should respond to kids. For example, knowing that the adolescent brain is late to upgrade connections between older brain regions like the amygdala (the smoke alarm of the brain) and newer regions like the prefrontal cortex (which handles executive functioning) grants me slightly more patience in the face of seemingly insane pre-teen behavior.
But still we do not escape ideology. Even in this example, I am relying on a host of generalizations about the material world and my relation to it that allow me to think, ‘so-it-is,’ and feel at ease with my decision to tolerate some teen behavior. Were I operating out of another ideology – that teens need to be curtailed even more tightly during this period of development, for example – I might reach a very different conclusion. Any claim to understand our material reality through science rather than ideology is itself ideological.
If this line of reasoning sounds ridiculous, consider the same reasoning in the context of other categories. In the case of gender, most of my readers will have little issue applying this logic. Yes, people are born with bodies and certain sex organs, but what that material reality means, what it implies for human action, is ideological – people and societies (re)produce the categories, beliefs, and practices that they use to respresent their relation to their material bodies and those of others’. Age categories and our norms around how we act in relation to these categories are as much a product of socialization/ideology as gender categories, though they are less often recognized as such, perhaps because people labelled ‘kids’ are less effective at combating disadvantageous ideologies about age than people labelled ‘women’ and ‘non-binary’ have become at combating disadvantageous ideologies about gender.
Multiple, competing ideologies can exist within the same group, even within the same person, and can provide a vantage point from which to critique the ideologies we’ve inherited. Take the ideology that produces a phrase like “the man is the head of the household.” To many people, this phrase does or has evoked a sense of ‘so-it-is.’ To me, it seems absurd. To represent my relation to my material reality, I reproduce other, sometimes competing, sometimes compatible ideologies that produce statements like, “a woman must always be prepared to take care of herself” and “gender is a social construct.”
Exposure to competing ideologies provides a little extra space to recognize ideology for what it is, to have a flash of understanding, “ah, I was in ideology!” But this too doesn’t signal an escape from ideology, in the same way our thoughts cannot escape the use of sign systems. We are operating in a different ideology now, and while it may have given us insight into our previous beliefs and enactments, we are still in ideology.
If You’re Not Reeling By Now… Don’t Worry, I Am
The wonder and advantage of being in new and different educational environments is that they afford me space to ask new questions about ideologies that – being in ideology – I couldn’t have asked before. The other end of that stick is an unending sense of vertigo.
When I saw the student bouncing the inflatable globe off other kids’ foreheads, I had an impulse to intervene – a physical urge to enact ideologies that I reproduced daily as a classroom teacher. Instead, I took a moment to wonder at this impulse. Three months at PFS gave me a new vantage point, not to discard my previous ideologies about kids, students, and my role in their development, but to look at my impulse, recognize it as ideology, and question it. Finding myself sandwiched between two very different ideologies, I hesitated.
In this moment I asked myself, what is right?
In light of my discussion of ideology, such a question seems naive. The answer, surely, depends on ideology, depends on how I imagine my relation to this material reality. Given everything I’ve interpellated about the classroom space, our respective ages, my role relative to him, our racial difference, everything – ‘what feels right’ will, of course, be a product of ideology.
But that question remains, and it’s at the heart of the pickle I find myself in at Brooklyn Free School.
Had I come straight from teaching at a conventional school, I might not have noticed many things that now seem strange. For example, at BFS, adults often nudge kids towards classes or independent projects, away from activities like sleeping, chatting with friends, or watching Youtube videos. Were it not for my detour at Philly Free School, I would have thought nothing of it. Nudging students from sleep, conversation, or cell phones back to an assignment was automatic when I was a teacher, as were the implied beliefs about ‘productive learning’ on which I would have drawn if asked to explain my actions.
Having been at Philly Free School for three months, these actions are no longer comfortably automatic, nor are their supporting beliefs so readily accessible. At PFS I was interpellated into a different ideology, that kids know best what they needed in any given moment, that it would be presumptuous and rude to redirect a kid’s activities. Though I question this logic, I still enacted this ideology by not interfering in kids’ pursuits for three months, regardless of my judgments about whether their activities constituted ‘learning’. That enactment has conditioned my reflexes. Now, when I hear an adult nudge a kid to wrap up their conversation, it grates on my nerves. Nudging no longer seems like a natural course of action – it sounds like nagging.
Ideology of Adult-Child Relations, Learning, Etc. at BFS
If you skimmed the long list of differences between the Brooklyn Free School and the Philly Free School, it should come as no surprise that there are major differences in ideology between these two communities. After a few weeks at BFS, I’ve begun to catalogue the ideologies underpinning the school. Of course, these ideologies aren’t monolithic; different members of the community bring different enactment/beliefs with them. I pick these because they are fairly consistent.
|Adults urge kids to attend classes, work on projects, and go on trips. Adults challenge kids in different ways, sometimes based on identity. They try to dissuade them from device-use, sleeping, or chatting with friends outside of designated unstructured time. Adults sometimes confiscate phones and often tell kids to put them away.||Adults must ensure that kids learn certain things – doing otherwise is inequitable or otherwise bad. Learning is best done in structured activities. Kids’ activities derive legitimacy from their resemblance to what adults deem to constitute ‘learning.’ Adults must hold kids accountable to norms/rules if they don’t comply on their own.|
|Some kids circumvent adult authority using avoidance, excuses, and occasionally, express refusal. Others comply pretty neatly with implied or expressed adult preferences, like attending many classes. Most engage in a mix of these behaviors.||Sometimes adults know best, but not always. Kids’ chosen activities might not count as learning, but sometimes they should get to direct their time. Adult nagging is annoying, but kids are lazy, so maybe they wouldn’t learn without it.|
|Kids and teachers participate in race-based affinity spaces. In the white spaces, people moderate the time they take up by gesturing to others, monitoring air-time, etc. People critique their own past actions/impulses and those of others.||Race is a meaningful category that shapes our interactions with other people. We have all internalized the ideology of white supremacy and have a responsibility to examine these parts of ourselves and shift our enactments/beliefs accordingly.|
|The trip coordinator urges kids to go on trips, including visits to a hydroponics garden and the first black-owned Urgent Care in Brooklyn. In some cases, adults mandate student trip attendance.||Learning can happen out in the world, but it’s best as a structured activity. Kids need to see examples of others doing work connected to social justice themes like climate change and racial justice activism.|
|Kids use meetings/mediations to resolve interpersonal conflicts. When a kid wants to ‘call a meeting’ on another kid, they often go to a teacher. Adults sometimes pre-plan how to facilitate these meetings and discuss how to ‘hold the space’ for kids.||It’s possible to address breaches in norms and relationships through talk, not just punishment. Kids often need help from adults to resolve conflicts. Sometimes, empowering kids requires managing their interactions through prior planning.|
It’s easy to think of ideology as something other people are in; other people may be in ideology, but we see things as they are. For that reason, I’ve tried to include examples that seem ‘right’ to me – examples of ideologies into which I myself am interpellated and reproduce – for example, the enactment/beliefs connected to racial identity and white supremacy.
So What the Hell Am I Doing Here?
This all sounds very theoretical, but there are real consequences for my actions. If I accept the ideologies present in the Brooklyn Free School community, then I was a tyrant in my high school classroom. If I accept the ideologies of the folks running Philadelphia Freedom Schools, then those at Philly Free School are almost sinister in their neglect of black student achievement. If I accept the ideology of unschoolers like Akilah Richards, then Philadelphia Freedom Schools are liberatory in some respects, but perpetuating a colonial brand of schoolishness in others. If I accept the educational ideology of the Philly Free School, then my time at Brooklyn Free School is taking me in the wrong direction, away from trusting kids and seeing them as equals.
It would be easier if I could neatly label some of these projects as counter-hegemonic and liberatory and leave it at that, but each of these communities and their attendant ideologies run against the grain of dominant ideologies in some way. Some reject the factory model of schooling, some trust kids to make their own choices, some affirm the worth of black and brown people. They all stake a claim to being liberatory, to opposing the balance of forces that marginalize poor people, young people, and people of color.
I’ve always held this inkling that exposure to multiple, diverse worldviews is a powerful way to expand the ideological options from which a person can choose. This is what initially drew me to Classics – I hoped that by studying a different group of people as exhaustively as possible, I might be able to question my own sets of categories. In a shocking twist, my college thesis (about perceptions of and categories for child development in Roman North Africa) is relevant here – it was my first exposure to the idea that our categories for age are just as socially constructed as our categories for any other facet of the human experience. That realization was exhilarating and – at the time – felt liberatory.
Now that I’m awash in a sea of so many divergent ideologies, I feel less liberated, more frustrated. The emotional experience of sitting wedged between these diverse ideologies is heavy. I default again and again to my (perhaps naive, but still pressing) question, what is right?
Doing Yoga in Brownsville and Sword Fighting with Kids – It’s Relevant, I Promise
I try to start every morning with yoga. On my best days, I stop worrying about what the poses are supposed to look like, what I’m supposed to be feeling, and I allow my body to move in a way that feels good. There are times when my movement seems to flow out of my breath, when I stop thinking about what should come next and just flow. Doing yoga this way, it’s possible to imagine that I’m outside of ideology in some way, that I’ve let go of all my internalized shoulds, that I’m existing within something deeper, truer, more essential.
In this place between so many ideologies, I can approach my experience in two ways. I can analyze each situation from all my different lenses, feel disoriented, paralyzed, purposeless, or I can allow myself to flow through these new experiences like a yoga practice, feeling out what’s good, reflecting and analyzing my inclinations at times, and doing my best to breathe along the way.
To that end, there’s two things I’ve learned along my journey so far, two core beliefs that anchor me, whose truth feels so powerful that I can’t deny their rightness.
The first of these truths is about oppression along lines of race and class.
I’ve written this post during the month I’ve lived in Brownsville, sharing an apartment with a mom and her two kids. The mom works long hours every day (including weekends) as a home health aide, and she has little time to spend with her kids – a particularly cutting injustice, as she primarily cares for the child of a white couple who ‘can’t handle’ their own kid. The teenage girl often picks up the slack, cooking and caring for her little sister.
Two days ago I visited my friend who works at Google. I’d taken the L train from Brownsville and when I walked into Google, I was immediately surrounded by affluence. As I sat in a rooftop cafe, mouth still agape around a free, perfectly flaky quince pastry, I wondered at the journey I’d made that morning.
The class analysis that occured to me that morning is probably just as much ideology as anything else; I could go on about oppressor and oppressed, redistribution, different understandings of equality, equality vs. equity, but I feel rooted in this – that I must work to shift the balance of power so it will no longer be true that one person struggles to support and spend time with her kids while another eats flaky quince pastries in a rooftop cafe.
The other of these truths is about love, equality, and intersubjectivity across age lines.
As a kid, then as an adult and teacher, I was taught that adults can and should exert power over children, often uncritically. I was taught that adults know better than kids what kids need. I was taught that – as a component and product of this hierarchy – adults must maintain a level of remove from kids. Our fleeting moments of contact should be vertical: mentoring, caring, disciplining, teaching. Physical touch should be restricted, if not totally off-limits.
My time at Philly Free School has given me a vantage point, an opposing ideology, from which to critique these learnings. I’ve learned new actions: really hugging a sad kid, sword fighting with a kid who wants to play (and really having fun, trying to win instead of trying to appease her), collaborating with kids who’ve given me critical feedback on my writing, and telling a kid their behavior upsets me, not as a ‘teachable moment’, but as one person to another. These ways of relating to kids previously felt off-limits. Even now, they don’t feel ‘natural’, but they do feel right.
At Brooklyn Free School, I often feel called (and sometimes literally am asked) to manage kids’ relationships, behavior, and time. Sometimes I assert my adult power to those ends, sometimes I don’t. It’s not about following my first impulse – if I did that, I’d be plucking a globe ball out of a kids’ hands one minute, tossing it back to them the next. It’s more about doing what’s available in the moment and listening to the feelings that follow – mine and those of the kids I interact with.
I think I know an authentic moment of joy and relationship when I feel it. So it is.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” La Pensée, translated by Ben Brewster, 1970, p. 52.
Backer, David. Interpellation, Counterinterpellation, and Education. hcommons.org, https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:20497/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.