Free to Learn Study Guide

Page 1

Contact information Directed, filmed and edited by:

Bhawin Suchak Jeff Root

FREE TO LEARN A radical experiment in education

On the Internet:

A Documentary Film By Bhawin Suchak and Jeff Root

Email: Study guide by: Kristan A. Morrison, Ph.D. Bhawin Suchak Jeff Root 28

Table of Contents


Description of Video……………………...3 Who would be interested in viewing this video…………………………………..4 The producers……………………………..5 Program Outline…………………………..6 Pre-viewing questions/activities…….10 Extension activity ideas……………….11 Questions this film tackles/ Post viewing questions………………...12 FAQ and answers about this school..16 Map of school building ………………..20 Additional Reading/Resources………22 Contact Information…………………….28 2



Description of Video "Free to Learn" is a 70 minute documentary about the Albany Free School, which offers a non-traditional approach to education. At the Free School, the children (who span the grades of Pre-Kindergarten through 8th) are not compelled to follow a standardized academic curriculum. In other words, they are free to decide their own curricula (what, when, and how) and are free to spend their time at the school as they wish. In this radical education, the students invariably learn valuable lessons, not only about academic/traditional content area knowledge, but more importantly about interpersonal interactions, democracy, autonomy, and problemsolving.



Who might be interested in viewing this video?

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Any college department of education professors (particularly those who teach foundations of education, curriculum theory, and developmental psychology classes) and their students parents, teachers, and policymakers (e.g. school boards) questioning traditional schools high school students Parents considering enrolling their children in a free school. Children considering attending a free school. Scholars conducting research on non-traditional education. Educators looking for nontraditional approaches in instruction, school structure, etc.


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Morrison. Kristan. (2005). Do free schools promote chaos? A study of the Albany Free School. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 18 (issue 1, Spring). Neill, A.S. (1966). Freedom, not license! New York: Hart Publishing Co., Inc. Neill, A.S. & Albert Lamb (ed.). (1992). Summerhill School: A new view of childhood. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Piluso, Geraldine, Gus Lyn-Piluso, & Duncan Clarke. (1996). Challenging the popular wisdom: What can familes do? In Matt Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives (pp. 4857). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Rogers, Carl. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co. Sadofsky, Mimsy. (1996). A school for today. In Matt Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives (pp. 120-125). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Snitzer, Herb. (1963). Living at Summerhill: A photographic documentary on A.S. Neill’s pioneering school. New York: Collier Books. Sudbury Valley School. (1995). "And now for something completely different...": An introduction to Sudbury Valley School. Framingham, MA: The Sudbury Valley School Press.


Additional Readings / resources

The Directors


Jeff Root has been involved in • • • • •

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Illich, Ivan, ed. (1973). After deschooling, what? New York: Harper and Row. Kozol, Jonathan. (1972). Free schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. Leonard, George. (1968). Education and ecstasy. New York: Delacorte Press. Mercogliano, Chris. (1998). Making it up as we go along: The story of the Albany Free School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Mercogliano, Chris. (2003). Teaching the restless: One school’s remarkable no-Ritalin approach to helping children learn and succeed. Boston: Beacon Press. Mercogliano, Chris. (2006). How To Grow a School. Oxford Press Inc. Miller, Ron. (1997). What are schools for? Holistic education in American culture. Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press. Miller, Ron. (2002). Free schools, free people: Education and democracy after the 1960s. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Montagu, Ashley. (1970). In Harold Hart (Ed.), Summerhill: For and against (pp. 4863). New York: Hart Publishing Co., Inc.


making several short films, music videos, short documentaries, and radio documentaries. In 1999 he co-founded One Skate Media Arts Center a non-profit providing urban youth in Albany, NY with access to new media technologies. Free to Learn is his first documentary feature.

Bhawin Suchak has directed and edited several short video documentaries which have appeared on local television. In 1999 he co-founded One Skate Media Arts Center, a digital video production house which also serves as a community media center, providing urban youth in Albany, NY with the opportunity to experiment with a variety of new digital mediums. Free to Learn is his first feature length documentary. 5

Program outline

(all times approximate)

• Chapter 1 (runtime: 0:00-0:09) Introductory scene: outside of school with voice-over from teachers. Title screen. More introductory scenes give the feel of what is happening in and around the school: kids building with blocks; student pushing a cart of breakfast food out to eating area; glimpse of kindergarten class; student with sword; kids at park looking at trees/berries; students interacting/ fighting and teacher intervention; talking with student regarding making a movie.

Chapter 2 (runtime: 0:09-0:14) Current and former students talking about the school, comparing it to public school; here the students provide powerful insights into how kids view and value traditional schools. Also, teacher reflections on the school, on teaching there, on interacting with children.

Chapter 3 (runtime 0:14-0:16) Montage of teachers doing pottery, and a visit to the school’s goat barn with some kids.


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Fromm, Erich. (1970). In Harold Hart (Ed.), Summerhill: For and against (pp. 250-263). New York: Hart Publishing Co., Inc. Greenberg, Daniel & Mimsy Sadofsky. (1992). Legacy of trust: Life after the Sudbury Valley School experience. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press. Gross, Ronald. (1973). After deschooling, free learning. In Ivan Illich (Ed.) After deschooling, what? (pp. 148-160). New York: Harper and Row, Publishers. Hemmings, Ray. (1972). Fifty years of freedom: A study of the development of the ideas of A.S. Neill. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Hern, Matt, ed. (1996). Deschooling our lives. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Holt, John. (1972). Freedom and beyond. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc. Holt, John. (1989). Learning all the time. New York: Addison Wesley Publishing Company. Holzman, Lois. (1997). Schools for growth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Hughes, Meghan & Jim Carrico. (1996). Windsor House. In Matt Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives (pp. 134-139). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Illich, Ivan. (1971). Deschooling society. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.


Additional Readings / Resources •

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Apple, Michael & James Beane. (1995). Democratic schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Bettelheim, Bruno. (1970). In Harold Hart (Ed.), Summerhill: For and against (pp. 98118). New York: Hart Publishing Co., Inc. Bhave, Vinoba. (1996). The intimate and the ultimate. In Matt Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives (pp.16-22). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Clark, Edward T. Jr. (1988). The search for a new educational paradigm: The implications of new assumptions about teaching and learning. Holistic Education Review, 1 (Spring), 18-30. Dennison, George. (1969). The lives of children: The story of the First Street School. New York: Random House. Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan Co. Falbel, Aaron. (1996). Learning? Yes, of course. Education? No thanks. In Matt Hern (Ed.), Deschooling our lives (pp. 6468). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.


Chapter 4 (runtime 0:16-0:18) Clip that shows a portion of a council meeting about cliques. The first glimpse at the school’s conflict resolution system.

Chapter 5 (runtime 0:18-0:22) Montage of several key characters in the film, Miles, Dearon & Chloe. Miscellaneous examples of student-driven curricula (e.g. walking to park, filming movie, "Veterinarian Hospital," girls group, plastering wall, math class, etc.).

Chapter 6 (runtime 0:22-0:32) An in depth look at the council meeting system. Features kids discussing and explaining how the meetings work and what they like or dislike about them. Shows Chloe calling a meeting, then shows discussion of the problem by students and teachers till a resolution of the problem.

Chapter 7 (runtime 0:32-0:39) Miles continues his adventures in film-making and does some problem solving along the way. Dearon, Chris and two other students take a visit out to school’s camp, "Rainbow Camp", to do some repairs. Student views of their relationships with teachers at the school.


Program outline (continued)

Map of school

Chapter 8 (runtime 0:39-0:42) Chloe faces challenge at the Swimming pool. Parents views on the school and how it has affected their kids.

Chapter 9 (runtime 0:42-0:46) Three distinct views on the Free School, from a boy climbing a tree, neighbors who live across the street from the school and alumni and the difficulties they faced with their transitions to traditional/mainstream schools.

Chapter 10 (runtime 0:46-0:53) The forces of nature are explored as students go out to The Free School land in Grafton, NY Montage of miscellaneous examples of kids interesting with the natural world with voiceover. Kids find a bat that flies away. Back at the school a thunderstorm is brewing and then finally comes.



Map of school

Chapter 11 (runtime 0:53-0:55) Visit with founder of school, Mary Leue, and discussing with her basic components of school goals.

Chapter 12 (runtime 0:55-1:02) Kids walking around flooded back yard of school and visiting a tree that was struck by lightning. Goat barn fire aftermath, kids discussing what happened, teacher and student reactions. Singing of "Dear Ones" in remembrance, visiting barn.

Chapter 13 (runtime 1:02-1:07) Various clips of school community, eating lunch together, kids planting bulbs, montage of activities with voiceover summary of the school’s purpose from the two key teachers at the school.



Pre-viewing questions/activities Pose the following question to a group for discussion or independent writing: "What seems to be the primary purpose of mainstream schools?” “Are there other purposes that are perhaps addressed secondarily?” “What do you think SHOULD be the purpose of schools, or which purpose should take precedence over others?"

What is the cost of attending this school? There is a sliding scale tuition based on family after-tax income. For the elementary (gr. 1-8) students, the costs range from $75 month for a family with an income of up to $14,999 to $400 month for a family with an income over $90,000. The average family pays $ 75-100 a month. The Free School has never in it’s history turned away a family for financial reasons, the school always tries to negotiate something, a barter of some sort or a work trade. Are students assigned any duties/chores? Yes, students in grades 1-8 have a “lunch duty” day in which once a week they help to clean up the dishes, sweep, wipe tables, etc. after lunch is served. Students are also expected to help clean up the school once a week, sweeping, vacuuming, picking up debris, etc.

Read some history of free schools (e.g. info on how long such schools have been around, theories that spurred this trend, etc.). See Additional Readings/Resources page for citations.



Frequently asked questions and answers about this school

Extension activity ideas

(continued) How are actual classes organized? Is there a set lesson planned? This is entirely dependent upon the parties involved. If a student (or students) expresses an interest in a subject and having classes on the subject, an appropriate teacher is found (one who has an interest and ability in teaching the content to the student. Sometimes this may involve finding an individual outside the school who has expertise in a certain area). The student(s) and teacher agree on a time frame for the lessons (how many times a week, how long each time, what time to start, etc.) and location. Dependent upon the subject and the teacher, lesson plans may very well be used. Can students with special needs attend this school? This is also dependent upon the student and what the specific needs are. Children who have been identified as ADD/ADHD in traditional schools have attended this school (as chronicled in Teaching The Restless (see resource list). In the video is a girl who has some speech issues, but services such as a Speech Language Pathologist are not offered at the school.


Visit for information on democratic/learner-centered schools. Visit one in your area (if applicable). This website is also a good resource for those interested in starting a school. Do further reading/research on free, democratic, learner-centered schools. Start a book club/discussion circle on them.


Questions this film tackles/ post viewing questions •

The perennial curriculum question is "what is most worth knowing?" Are there some things (skills/knowledge) more important than others? How do traditional schools answer this question? How does the Free School seem to answer this question?

Should children have a say in their own education and why? Should children/ students play a more active role in school governance and control?

What is lacking in traditional/mainstream schools?

What should be the role of a teacher?

How should adults and children interact?

Should mainstream schools rethink how they approach "discipline" problems/ issues?

What do traditional/mainstream schools tell us about what society values? What does this free school tell us about this?


How is progress measured? Again, it is not measured in the same way that it is measured in traditional schools. The teachers all meet on a weekly basis to discuss the school in general, and students in specific. As issues arise for students on any level (academic, social, psychological) the teachers discuss the situation, propose solutions, and then work to implement them. It is a very informal sort of measurement, but one in which all students are considered and no one seems to be “lost in the cracks” What is the teacher to student ratio? When taking into consideration the number of paid staff, interns, and volunteers, the ratio is approximately 1 adult to about 5 children. Are there grade levels? Students are nominally grouped by age (e.g. 6 year olds in the 1st grade class, 7 year olds in the 2nd grade class, and so on), but because of the children’s freedom to choose their daily activities, there are not segregated grades/ classes as one might find in a traditional school. Rather, there is much cross-age interaction.


Why is there so much embracing of traditional schools in the face of ample evidence that these schools, in many ways, fail to meet their goals or fail to serve the wellbeing of children and society?

Along with this, why is there so much fear, as noted by teacher Nancy Ost in the film, of educational alternatives, such as this one?

What are the deeper issues that lie within the lack of substantive change in education? [Refer specifically to the neighbors’ discussion of the Free School in the video. What is paradoxical is that these women each refer to things in their own traditional educations that lacked meaning for them (e.g. doing homework last minute, not learning from teachers) or that they opposed (as signaled by the one woman hitting her teacher), yet these same women seem unwilling to seriously consider an alternative vision of schooling.]

Do our society’s mainstream schools prepare children to live in a democratic society or an authoritarian society? What is problematic about either?

Does/should "free play" factor significantly into the lives of children? In what ways is it beneficial?

Frequently asked questions and answers about this school

Where is this school located? Albany, NY What are the school hours and calendar? 8:15 am—3:00 pm, traditional school calendar What is their attendance rate in comparison with traditional schools (are the children actually more interested in being in school)? We have to follow state education guidelines for school attendance, and our attendance rate is very high, because kids actually love coming to school. Is there a curriculum? Not in the traditional sense of the word. At the Free School, the children are not compelled, to follow a standardized curriculum. Children in free schools are permitted to choose what, when, and how they study something. If they so wish, they do not have to attend regularly scheduled classes, nor take tests, nor get grades.



Questions this film tackles/ post viewing questions

Space for your Questions


Does such a school structure as the Free School’s speak to the issue of youth alienation/disengagement/disaffection with the world? How so?

Do children need to be led to subjects or will they gravitate to them on their own? (There is an interesting pair of articles that addresses this issue of teacher vs. learner initiative: "The Case for Essentialism in Education" by William Bagley and "The Case for Progressivism in Education" by William Heard Kilpatrick. Both appear in the text Curriculum Planning: A Contemporary Approach 7th edition, by Forrest W. Parkay and Glen Hass, published 2000, pages 23-29.)

Is it important for children to value what they are doing AT THE TIME they are doing it? Or is it good enough to hope that the students will someday realize the usefulness and value of activities adults ask them to take part in? (Might be a useful question to address after program outline number III above.)