Becoming established

Caitlin Macklin, 9th Street Schoolhouse mentor and founder, recently visited the famed Free School in Albany, New York. In this guest post she shares some images and insights she gained there about building a democratic school community and culture over time.

“Wow. I’m really here. The place of my inspiration.”

This summer I made a pilgrimage to Albany, New York, to visit the Free School. This decades-old institution has long been a guiding light for me. It was my first introduction to the concepts of non-mandatory classes, democratic participation by students in conflict resolution and school governance, and putting children truly at the center of education.

As a new teacher (of four years) and a new school (into our third here at 9th Street), the thing that sank in most for me is the sense of being established that the Free School exudes. The feeling of rootedness settled in as I climbed up narrow stairways and stood on wood floors with lived-in scuff marks—I mean, even the disaster area of the summertime kitchen made my heart ache to have a SPACE to CREATE.

I currently teach out of my home on East 9th Street. This year, Laura Ruiz joined the Schoolhouse, and collaborating feels great! We intend to grow slowly but surely into a larger community of families more the size of the Free School, about sixty kids with a staff of five or six. During the visit to Albany, I was just soaking it in—in awe of what people have built together, just “making it up as [they] go along,” doing what makes sense, not what a bureaucrat tells them to do. Working with families, giving kids opportunities and mentoring, so they may discover and grow while staying whole, messy, in touch with their inner selves.

YouthFX program participants rehearse scenes for their summer narrative film project in the great room at the Albany Free School.

I have put so much thought into how to implement in my teaching and in the Schoolhouse structure the lessons AFS has learned that to see it and know it as a place with a particular community and history helped me understand their context and refocus my efforts in recognizing and building on what our community’s strengths are. Getting to ask Bhawin, a longtime teacher, some of my burning questions about the how of their lives together, talking with him about their process of becoming the school they are now, gave me an infusion of patience with our process.

Bhawin stepped out of the frame as we discussed the community-created Rules on the wall behind us.

I left feeling encouraged to give time to developing the particularities of our program, staying true to who we are as teachers, youth, parents—as people—and to respond from those real relationships to create better and better opportunities for living and learning together. Part of that is my commitment to making democratic, learner-centered education accessible to people in Austin who might not be able to afford it. In addition to an affordable tuition and part-trade options, I’ve also been working with the Education Transformation Alliance to collaborate on creating a scholarship fund.

Making meaningful education available to more folks in Austin is what our work with the ETA is guided by. And I think finding meaning is what this shift in education in Austin is all about: this is a growing movement of people who want more than cookie-cutter experiences for their kids and their lives. People in Austin are more than ever feeling acutely that the current system is just not fulfilling their dreams for their kids. We all want our youth to live lives that are prosperous and flourishing, and I want the young people in my program to identify and define that success for themselves within a strong web of community, where they are known and where they know what resources are available to them.

We are seeking meaning in our learning and in our relationships, and we are creating institutions that respond, that put down roots, that take time to get established, that work together. I invite you to find out more about the many alternatives available across the city on the ETA School Tour this Saturday, Oct. 20!

For further reading on the Albany Free School, pick up any of Chris Mercogliano’s works, watch Free to Learn by Bhawin Suchak and Jeff Root, and check out the school’s website or this blog post from an intern.

Caitlin Macklin

Creating school culture

This guest post by Tom Bohman provides a fascinating case study of the judiciary process in action at the democratically run Clearview Sudbury School, where Tom serves on the staff.

When I read the complaint form to our Judiciary Committee (JC), I knew the day had come when our school would have to decide a thorny issue: How do school rules apply to virtual worlds in multi-player online games? Before telling more about this particular issue, let me explain about our school’s uniquely American way of protecting individual rights while also balancing them with other potentially competing school community concerns.

Students and staff conduct a Judiciary Committee hearing at the Clearview Studbury School

At the Clearview Sudbury School, rules are democratically determined at the School Meeting, in which staff and students have an equal vote. The School Meeting delegates to the JC the responsibility of ensuring that students and staff follow rules and providing a forum to address School Meeting members’ concerns about their rights. Two students and one staff member comprise the JC, and they vote on whether a rule was broken and, if one was, determine a consequence when necessary. A complaint form specifies who is raising the issue, whom the complaint is against, witnesses, and the details of the situation. All School Meeting members can attend JC hearings and ask questions or provide commentary. All students, no matter their age, are expected to serve on the JC, including our youngest students, who may be five years old.

This particular complaint was initiated by an eight-year-old female student (whom we’ll call Amy) against a nine-year-old male student (whom we’ll call Eric) regarding actions that took place in Minecraft, a game that can be played in different ways. Minecraft provides a rich virtual world in which students typically construct amazing structures, especially their houses, in which they invest much creative thought and energy. The game also contains a player versus player (PvP) component in which players compete against each other. Amy's complaint said that Eric had harassed her during the game when, after being invited into Amy’s house, he killed her online character and took resources from the house. I was randomly selected by the JC chair, a nine-year-old student we’ll call Steve, along with a six-year-old student we’ll call Sally, to hear the case.
The JC room was full as Amy and Eric in turn described what happened from their perspectives. Amy reported that she had changed the inside of her house on the Minecraft server that many students played on and invited Eric to see those changes. Amy also said that students on the server typically engaged in creative activities in an open-ended and non-competitive fashion. Eric said he was trying to work on his house and needed the resources that Amy had acquired and decided to take them so he could reach his goal. My reaction was that Eric had violated Amy’s rights to be free from interference by others at school as she pursued her self-directed learning. Eric’s defense, which other School Meeting members strongly supported, was that Eric was playing by the rules of the game as allowed on that particular Minecraft server because PvP mode was turned on (not all Minecraft servers allow this). Since Amy chose to play on that server where PvP was allowed, she had the responsibility to accept that other players could play competitively. I argued that our school should be developing a culture in which our interpersonal relationships count the most, and Amy had asked Eric to stop his activity, which Eric ignored. Eric and other school meeting members said that it was unfair for him to be penalized for following the rules of the game that Amy had implicitly agreed to by playing on that server.
After a long, emotional debate, the three JC committee members voted that Amy had been harassed. Since this was the first time this issue was raised and it was clear that Eric did not know that the harassment rule would be applied in this case, he was given a warning as a consequence.

However, we weren’t quite done. As part of our school’s commitment to due process, where everyone’s rights are protected to the full extent possible, any School Meeting member can appeal a JC decision to the full School Meeting in which everyone, rather than just the three JC members, has a vote. Even though JC members are selected so that they shouldn’t have any conflict of interest or appearance of partiality (e.g., a JC member cannot have written the complaint), we know that in a smaller school, the person receiving the consequence may feel the process was unfair and in such a case we provide the appeal process. In addition, anyone can appeal the verdict. In this case, a staff member and older student appealed, as they felt this case set an incorrect precedent for the school.
The School Meeting was fully attended, and the motion was made (and seconded) to overturn the JC decision that a rule had been broken. The debate was almost as intense as the first one, and additional nuances were brought forward to bolster each side’s position. A majority of the School Meeting participants voted for the motion that overturned the previous JC decision. I felt the sting of defeat for my position and still believe that greater weight should have been given to Amy’s request that Eric stop his actions even when they were permitted by the server. However, the counterargument that Amy needed to take responsibility for playing on that particular server and knowing the rules was persuasive to the majority. Given that students have the freedom to choose what they do during the day at our school, they also have the responsibility to be aware of the consequences of those decisions.

Ultimately, I think Amy felt her concerns were heard and taken very seriously. I think our school’s culture was strengthened by this case in which staff and students were on both sides of the debate. JC is where our culture of freedom and responsibility develops over time as everyone engages in the often difficult decisions of how to balance competing rights and how we define them. At our school, we feel this process is the best way to ensure that everyone is fully respected and heard. I personally hope we revisit this issue in the future since I’m still not convinced we made the best choice. However, I really value that each member of the school has a single vote and that no member of the school community (even staff) can arbitrarily decide that his or her viewpoint outweighs the collective democratic decision making that is an integral part of our school. Democracy is messy, but it still feels like the best way to arrive at decisions.

Tom Bohman