As a student, I loved above all the social life the school could offer, mostly during recess. If I was interested in a class, I would pay attention, participate, and sometimes do my own research on the subject because I thought that what we were learning in class was not enough. On the other hand, there were some subjects I wouldn’t get interested in and the 50 minutes of instructional time would seem endless and a waste.
There were also a few subjects I wish were offered at school like cooking/nutrition, psychology and drama. Because I was from a caring and “privileged” family, I was able and even encouraged to have activities outside of school.
During high school, I decided that I would become a teacher because I had always aspired to make the world a better place and because I loved vacation! I’ve always been convinced that this ambitious first goal could be partially worked on at school.
When I was in college, studying to get my bachelor’s degree in primary education, my mother gave me the book “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing” by the educator A.S. Neill.
The book is about the school he started at the early 20th century, initially for kids with behavior issues. In this school, the kids are free to be themselves, make their own decisions about their learning and also have a word to say in the management and organization of the school. He also develops other aspects, such as freedom, religion, sexuality, good manners, etc. That book changed my life.
When I graduated, I immediately applied for a job at Summerhill, in vain. I finally joined the traditional school system in Belgium, and in the US afterwards. I would read a lot about child centered education and try to implement some ideas in my classroom but at the end of the day, there was still curriculum, exams, fixed schedules, and there’s only so much I could change in my class while making sure I was respecting the rules and not annoying my colleagues and principal.
I’ve always disliked the school system, as a student and as a teacher, even though I could enjoy some aspects of it. To me, school should be a place of interaction with people that you wouldn’t rub shoulders with if it weren’t for school.
After 7 years of teaching, I was fed up and decided to take a year off to travel, learn new stuff and visit alternative schools. I visited Sudbury schools, democratic schools, arts centered schools in Belgium, Brazil, Texas and NYC and finally got to do a three week internship at Summerhill in the UK.
All of these schools were quite small (max. 60 students - but I’ve heard of bigger ones), had a very positive energy, rich interactions between the staff, the older and the younger students. Some kids would be very involved in more traditional learning classes while others were very busy playing or running their own projects.
After that year of enlightening experiences, I decided to move back to New Orleans, teach in the traditional school system but with the project of starting a school that would give the students the opportunity to be themselves and to choose what, when, and how to learn.
I am convinced that such a school would work in New Orleans for several reasons. First, children are naturally curious, and New Orleans has lots of kids. No matter where they live kids are eager to learn if you surround them with a rich, safe and stimulating environment. New Orleans is one of the most culturally vibrant environments in the US and provides the perfect backdrop for children to learn and explore. Secondly, I have witnessed and read about child-centered learning being successful in all parts of the world: developed and underdeveloped, upper middle class kids and at-risk kids, modern cities, small towns and in the countryside. However unique New Orleans is, it fits into most of those categories simultaneously. Thirdly, there used to be such a school in New Orleans, the Free School of NO, from the early 70’s until 2005. I think that it is time to provide an alternative education to the children of New Orleans once again.