About the Project

Over the course of the next 1-2 years, I will visit, participate in, and write about schools, educational programs, and teachers who are challenging the status quo and making learning liberatory. The project began with my interest in Anarchism and my curiosity about what a truly Anarchist educational program would look like. In the past year, as I’ve learned more about the work that liberatory educators are already doing, I have been compelled to expand my scope to include free schools, social justice schools, radical summer programs, and many of my friends and colleagues who are doing the work of liberatory education within traditional schools. 

The term ‘free school’, once designated explicitly Anarchist schools, but now usually refers to democratic free schools that practice self-directed education. Most of these schools have maintained pedagogical methods from earlier radical schools but ditched the political and ideological content. Despite the fact that many free schools avoid explicit political positions, they are still a productive site for learning about radical education. In these environments, students and staff work together to make decisions and structure a learning environment. Students learn through practice how to work collaboratively with those different from themselves and self-govern within democratic principles. I will be starting my journey at two free schools to learn about how their unique communities have developed alternative structures that offer new possibilities for our kids.

I also plan to visit and interview leaders and students within other educational projects that are not necessarily democratic in their governance structure. Projects like the Philadelphia Freedom Schools and the Social Justice School may not share the free schooler’s vision of student autonomy, but they are committed to liberation and express a radical vision for social justice. These projects are important sites for learning about radical education, especially because they center racial justice, a priority that often falls to the wayside in the predominantly white, progressive education movement.

Finally, I plan to observe classrooms in traditional schools where teachers are helping students to liberate themselves. I have known many teachers who pushed the boundaries within their classrooms and schools, who created pockets of possibility within their walls. Many of these teachers have committed to working within institutions that often frustrate them because they know this is their best opportunity to work on behalf of students. Having had teachers who contributed to my liberation and having done the same for many of my students, I strongly believe that traditional schools can still be sites of resistance, love, and liberation.

The Route

WhereTimeframeWhy I’ll be there
The Philadelphia Free School (PFS)Sept 2019 – Nov 2019PFS is a democratic free school. The basic principle of the school is that every decision is made democratically at the School Meeting, which includes students and staff members. The school meeting establishes rules and determines how money will be spent. It delegates many of its powers to smaller committees.
Other sites in Philly
While in Philadelphia, I’ll also be speaking with Shayna Terrell, the Director of the Director of the Philadelphia Freedom Schools, a project of the Center for Black Educator Development.
The Brooklyn Free SchoolDec 2019 – Feb 2020 (tentative)The Brooklyn Free School operates on the same basic model as PFS but has added social justice as one of its key values. A student’s school day is also more structured at BFS; teachers establish classes and students participate in more direct instruction than at PFS. Based on my initial conversations with Monique Scott, the school’s Education Director, BFS will provide a useful comparison to PFS.
Other sites in New York
The Archibald S. Alexander Library at Rutgers University houses a collection of manuscripts from the Modern School, an Anarchist colony and school initially founded by prominent anarchists in New York that later moved to Stelton, NJ after increasing police raids.I may make a trip up to the Albany Free School, the first free school in the US that explicitly sought to educate a racially and economically diverse group of students.
TBDMarch 2020 –TBD

The Questions

When communities do away with a cookie cutter, centralized approach to education and commit to self-governance, they also take on the responsibility to encounter new challenges and work them out for themselves. This process of forging solutions can be challenging and messy. It can lead to great successes – new approaches to education and community building that account for a community’s unique needs – and great struggles – personal conflicts and solutions that don’t reflect the entire community’s will. Our current society, with its power disparities, prejudices, and value pluralism, intensifies the difficulty of democratic self-governance within diverse communities.

As I travel between educational projects, I will look for opportunities to learn from their unique contexts. I come into this work with the assumption that every community has its own challenges and priorities, so each community will develop its own solutions. Yet we are also rarely as unique as we think we are, so I also assume that many of the strategies that communities have developed hold transferable lessons for others. In particular, there are a few questions or themes that hold particular interest for me and for which I hope to propose some answers:

  • How do radical, anarchist, and social-justice education communities foster equality and freedom inside and outside their walls? What happens when these values come into apparent conflict? (More on this here)
  • Among educational communities that commit to participatory governance, how are decisions made? What types of decision-making structures are used, and how does this vary by cultural context, power disparities, and the presence of value pluralism?
  • How is authority structured, challenged, limited, or distributed to support the development of free, capable children who respect the freedom of others? (More on this here)
  • How does the community develop and perpetuate a set of values while also respecting the free and critical thought of each of its members? In other words, how do these communities undertake to provide children with moral education without coercion?
  • How do these communities balance the responsibility to prepare children to survive and thrive in the world as it is while also holding hope for a new, more just world?

Most of these questions center on the relationships, values, and governance structures within the school. They focus on how community members relate to one another. After teaching in a traditional classroom as well as in more informal contexts, I’ve come to believe that a school’s social fabric largely determines its success, so relational matters are my main focus. 

Yet there are other, often more scientific aspects of pedagogy that also play an important role in a child’s development. There is a science to how children develop, learn to read and write, and overcome individual obstacles; entire academic fields are devoted to studying these matters. Not wanting to bypass the importance of these issues, I will also seek to document what and how children actually learn in these non-traditional environments. 

Experiential, Participatory Research

For me, one of the most compelling aspects of this project is the fact that I will not simply be observing these educational projects, but participating in them as well. At PFS I will have administrative and teaching responsibilities like any other staff member. Likewise, I will participate in the School Meeting and will be subject to any determinations made by the Judicial Committee.  This will give me a unique window into the functionings of the school community and its self-governance procedures. 

Another interesting outgrowth of the free school’s democratic structure is that anything I wish to publish about the school – including posts on this blog – must be approved by the school meeting. Whereas at a traditional school, the Principal could sign off on such a decision, at PFS these decisions are made by the school community. Some might see this as a weakness, as it compromises my ability to be critical should the need arise. At the same time, I see this as a great strength. The process for gaining the school community’s approval means that each reflection is both an observation and product of the school community. As this blog develops, I hope to increase the element of community participation by co-authoring posts with students, parents, staff, and community members.