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 offered 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, unsucessfully. I joined the conventional 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. It resulted in more frustration than satisfaction. I was trying to give the kids more freedom of choice, not use a punishment/rewards system, and do projects meaningful to the kids but I still had to make sure I was covering a boring and overloaded curriculum, filling out paperwork to justify the work I was doing, preparing the kids for standardized exams, respecting unnatural schedules, and not annoy my colleagues and principal by running things differently.
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 where we build the Society that we want and where we learn how to live with people from different backgrounds. Unfortunately, the conventional school system is a reflection of our current broken Society and it simply perpetuates inequalities and problems that we are experiencing oustide, in the “Real World”.
After 7 years of teaching, I was fed up and decided to take a year off to travel, learn new stuff and visit schools that were offering an alternative pedagogy. I visited Sudbury schools, democratic schools, arts centered schools in Brussels, Sao Paulo, Austin, and NYC and finally got to do a three week internship at Summerhill in the UK.
All of these schools were quite small (less than 100), 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. I started designing my own school based on all these visits and the readings I was doing.
After that year of enlightening experiences, I decided to move back to New Orleans and, with my new friends Anne and Katie on board, I started working on the project of a school that would give the students the opportunity to be themselves and to choose what, when, and how to learn. In 2015, after a visit of the Agile Learning Center in NYC, we decided to rally their network.
With the support of the Agile Learning Center network and 4.0 Schools, our project evolved into a year-long pilot and Dat School finally opened its door in August 2018.