Six weeks on the road is behind me. In those weeks I saw tear jerking beauty as well as devastating ugliness. I met all kinds of sizes, shapes, ages and flavors of people. I visited schools. I talked with educators. I talked with people I met in parking lots and gas stations and at shops, on trails and at checkout counters. One young couple decided to be informally interviewed in a hot tub. I had formal interviews with people….some lasting hours.
People were eager to talk with me about school. When people talked about school, memories of belly shaking joy poured out. Or terrible hurts. They remembered the people who saved them and the people who did not. They remembered friends. Many remembered a teacher who finally understood them and made a difference in their lives… the teacher who saw them… actually saw them, and encouraged and challenged them.
Some people never had that kind of relationship with any teacher, and one interviewee wept openly that this was the case for him, and spoke bitterly of his best friend being forced out of school because he had not learned how to read. The administration decided he would never amount to anything anyway. This was a friend who could build a canoe out of resources found in the local forest, and make it water tight. This friend knew the habits of fish in local rivers…as well as he was expert about the river currents and how the seasons effected them. This was a friend that was lost after the expulsion. 50 years later he is still mourned, and anger at school for this injustice still burns in the heart.
Most everyone felt school was a place to practice literacy and computational skills. Not everyone agreed that school is the only place people can learn how to read or become adept with numbers…..though the educators I interviewed felt that there were many students who needed schooling to become at least competent enough for societal survival. These young people also needed school to be their anchor. Life at home, if they had a home, was poorly structured and sometimes chaotic…… and in some cases dangerous. For these students, school becomes home. They get food and shelter there….and in one impressive school I observed, they get the gift of time. Time to heal..time to learn how to do hard things. Time to learn algebra. Time to read books and discuss literary themes..human themes. Time to form important relationships with their peers and with teachers.
No one I have interviewed yet has seen school’s utmost importance as preparation for a good job and strengthening the economy. Preparation for economic survival was a concern, but not at the top of the list when people contemplated the purpose of school. Yearning for belonging to and contributing to a community was consistently expressed as the most important goal. Equality of access to knowledge and learning about and understanding democratic principles was also expressed as key.
All the while I was traveling, the national common core debate was bubbling under the surface. Every person I interviewed was concerned about the future, and there were a variety of solutions being thought about. Unschool. Home school. Democratic school. Public school..but not in its current form.
Some young people I spoke with told me that nothing mattered anyway because they had no future to prepare for. Hopelessness and anger about the way their elders had plundered and spent away the future resonated. Big time. Other young people told me they had gone through a period of hopelessness and anger but had come out on the other side searching for others who want to forge a difficult but vibrant path toward a future we would all want to live in…and that some form of schooling needs to be a part of that.
But what would that look like? One thing that was agreed hands down by all is that school should be free…public…but that there needs to be a variety of configurations of school that is responsive to local community needs as well as individual needs and interests.
Community was a strong theme, not only in an expressed need for the differentiated social support a community can offer the individual, but in that the people of the community would be the most knowledgable and best equipped to organize and respond to the individual and collective interests of their family, group, town or region.
This author expresses elegantly, a yearning for something better… a community that each person no matter their age, spoke of in wistful or passionate terms during interviews..
“Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise, the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted—what I still want, even now, as an adult—is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like. But for some reason, such a possibility was unthinkable, a wild fantasy—instead, the only option available was to submit to irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells. If nothing else, we should pause to wonder why there’s so rarely any middle ground.” A link to her entire piece is at bottom of this page..
The project continues..
At this point I am planning to visit some more established, and not so established schools in this area of the world. I have some more interviews on my list of things to do. I have a few schools to still tell you about that I visited during the six week tour. I have some tentative thinking about travel to a few schools across the Atlantic as well as some interesting places South of the border. I am also thinking about the possibility of joining with some other experienced educators to begin the work of opening the doors to a new school, perhaps in this area, that would honor the yearning for community I have learned more deeply about.