Schools Where Student Voices Matter, Part II

5001904133_b0545c99e4Building the Chicago Free School

(Read part I of this post here.)

In my quest to become a different kind of educator and to find joy and satisfaction in teaching again, I spent the 2012-2013 school year teaching at the Free School in Albany, NY.  Founded in 1969, the Free School is the epitome of a school that really values the voices of students in directing their own learning.  Without grades or required classes, each student at the Free School pursues an individualized course of learning based on their own interests and following their own trajectory of development.  Students take ownership of their learning and can request classes and activities on the subjects and topics they are most excited about.  Learning math, for example, can take the form of a small-group class, an independent study guided by a teacher, an impromptu lesson in fractions while doubling a cake recipe in the kitchen, or a group of peers getting together to practice arithmetic.

Students at the Free School also experience real democracy in action by participating in all-school meetings to set school rules, resolve conflicts, and organize events.  These meetings are chaired by students and while teachers are allowed to vote, they are outnumbered by students who must learn to respectfully discuss their ideas and opinions and take into account the perspectives of others.  The students and adults at the Free School have frequent, intentional conversations about anti-opression – including sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism – and understanding these issues guides the students in their efforts to build an inclusive community.

What happens when students’ voices are at the center of a school? In my time teaching in Albany I was continually impressed by how self-possessed, self-motivated, and compassionate the students were.  When my junior high math class voted to do more Algebra, when second-graders came to me demanding to learn the computer programming language I was teaching to eighth-graders, when third graders talked thoughtfully about racial stereotypes in their favorite toys – these moments affirmed for me that when we trust students to have a real voice in their learning, they will constantly surprise us with how sophisticated and capable they can be.

We are building the Chicago Free School with the Albany Free School as our model, and our vision for a school where student voices matter resonates with many in our community who are looking for a more joyful, student-centered, and caring community for their child.  What will it look like to grow such a school?  We can’t fully know, because we will entrust much of the decision-making to the students themselves.  We know only that the potential is powerful.

– submitted by Lauren Beitler

The Chicago Free School is opening in Hyde Park in the fall of 2014. Visitchicagofreeschool.org to learn more.

Writing Children is part of the Despres Family Memorial Lecture Series. It takes place January 22, 2014 at Blackstone Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave. at 6pm.

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