Learning Flows Naturally:
The Free School, a Multi-Generational Learning Community
by Mary Leue
Talk given at Carnegie Hall
 
 
I want to start with a kind of footnote. What most of you may not know is that about three weeks ago John presented a magnificent workshop in Albany on the day before his keynote speech at the State Association of School Boards conference. Chris Mercogliano, the co-director of our school, was all set to give John a glowing introduction - but John, being John, and not knowing that, just dove in and started ahead on his own. So I'd like to deliver Chris' introduction for him. I think it's a terrific statement about John, too good to waste. Chris wrote it out for me, so here it is.
 
The other day I found myself telling some of the younger kids at school the old folk tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." You probably remember that it was a child in the village who cried out, "But he has nothing on at all!," thereby breaking the thick spell of denial being paraded by the emperor and all of his loyal - and frightened - subjects. Well, there is a magical child alive and well inside John Gatto who is the source of his giftedness as a teacher, and who is now hell-bent on seeing to it that our schools do not grind the magic out of yet another generation of our children. John is a man with a mission, and I pray that the spell that has settled over our teachers and our educational institutions has not already become so widespread that it cannot be broken. If anyone can do it, John and his growing band of merry men and women can!
 
In the sense that Chris is using the term, I believe we are all magical children, now grown up. It is to be hoped that we still remember our childhoods and thus can stay open to allowing our children to grow up living out their magical heritage, not just grow up to become unconscious products of our own pasts as so many adults have done. And in this context, I need here to pay a special tribute to my most important personal teachers - my mother and father, the two most remarkable people I have ever known. They read to us throughout all the years of our childhood, taught us wilderness skills, recognition of birds, wild plants and trees, and geological features of the land. With them we went camping, ocean sailing, mountain-climbing, rock-climbing and skiing. From them I have learned whatever I may have of love of learning, respect for childhood, courage, integrity, curiosity, persistence, discrimination, and cultural breadth. It was at their insistence that I graduated from high school on the high honor roll, from Bryn Mawr College with an A.B. degree, and from the Children's Hospital School of Nursing in Boston, Massachusetts. Their lessons are still bearing fruit for me.
 
At our school we recognize our debts to many educators from the past who understood childhood: such as the eighteenth century thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau; his contemporary, the Swiss Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose beliefs were brought to America by Joseph Neef in 1808; Friedrich Froebel, who worked with and adopted Pestalozzi's insights about childhood as the basis for his concept of children as needing to grow like flowers in a carefully tended garden - a garden of children. The rich experiences provided for children by the Waldorf schools that follow the teachings of Rudolph Steiner are another source from which we draw, as well as the insights of Maria Montessori and John Dewey. Most immediately, we take inspiration from the self-regulatory libertarianism of A.S. Neill and the humanistic insights into the souls of the children of the ghetto contained in the writings of George Dennison.
 
We believe that working with children demands a trained and very keen eye and ear attuned to one's inner truth as well as a willingness to live in the child's own world as a participant observer. In the world that is emerging around us, this need for self-knowledge seems to us to go all too often unmet. We believe it is this unmet need to know ourselves at a deep level which is the chief missing ingredient in a cultural dilemma that is approaching crisis stage as our traditional support systems - the family and the community - break down at an accelerating rate. We are becoming inundated as a society by a tidal wave of acute problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, criminality and psychosis - as well as characterological problems like co-dependency, narcissism, sociopathy, neurosis and chronic physiological imbalances of all sorts.
 
This breakdown process has been defined by John Bradshaw, among others, as arising from the neglect of the feelings - the grief, rage and fear - felt by the neglected inner child and has suggested that it is this neglect which creates such havoc in our adult lives. This might be called the negative side of the magic of childhood. The damage even involves our societal patterns of giving birth - not just the education of our children in schools. Michel Odent, a French research-minded obstetrician has had many years of working with, rather than against, the wisdom of the natural body during birth. His work demonstrates the madness of our technologized system of obstetrical management which has resulted in nearly half of all hospital births ending in Cesarean section. It is to this entire range of issues that we in our school and our community are attempting to address ourselves.
 
Thus, during the 22 years of our existence, we have grown from a handful of parents who had a dream of democratic education and started a little school in the inner city of Albany in 1969, to a multi-generational community with the school as its center. Everything we have grown to be in those two-plus decades has come into being in response to needs we have experienced as essential to a model of life that makes sense in human terms, a model that works. In this process we have grown rich! No, not in monetary terms, but in the real values that make life a vital experience.
 
Our school is one of the oldest urban free schools in the country. In the setting of this all-embracing community, the Free School is far more a community center and less a traditional institution. We don't select children; we accept whoever comes. Similarly, we don't hire teachers; we accept whoever comes. Then we teach them how to be with us. Our community has a simple criterion for evaluating those who are drawn to us: namely, that they take us seriously enough to come, stay and learn. Most of our teachers have lived in the community for ten years or more.
 
Learning flows naturally out of the community atmosphere and is much less a goal in itself. Skills learning - which the children love - takes very little time in the total scheme, and activities such as putting on plays, making puppets, singing, doing sports, watching movies, reading out loud, playing games, and doing crafts, take up most of it. The adults have as much fun as the children, and staff burnout is unknown among us. One very important element we offer our children, both by experience and by example, is an awareness that "You can do it!" Children who leave us after two or three years have a rare natural sense of confidence, dignity and leadership.
 
But the school is only one setting for the learning activities in which our children are involved, just as we, the adults in the community, are only some of the people from whom our kids are free to learn or take inspiration. We have a small farm in the community, and kids help take care of our animals. We have two hundred acres of wilderness land recently donated to the school which is now part of our lives and will be even more so as time goes by and our presence there becomes even more a daily part of who we are.
 
Wilhelm Reich said, "Love, work and knowledge are the wellsprings of life. They should also govern it." The principles by which our community lives and by which it is governed are indeed love, work and knowledge. Two things could be said to define us as a community: work democracy and total mutual support for families.
 
The term "work democracy," coined by Reich, is used to describe criteria for community on the basis of need and obligation. It is a pragmatic definition of peer-level status among adults and between adults and children, both in the community and in the school.
Total mutual support means that everyone in the community plays roles usually assigned to specialists. That has meant taking on many more roles than most people think of doing, as a way of simplifying our lives as a community. We all teach, take care of one another's children, doctor them, take responsibility for their behavior, look upon them as our joint responsibility. We do the same things with each other, as families, and gradually we have taught ourselves how to play all of these roles more effectively .
 
We have learned through experience what community problems to tackle ourselves and what to leave to someone with specialized skills. And we have learned ways that work better than the societally approved ones in the crucial areas of maternity, parenting, and education. Taking over these support roles as we have has meant that our very limited incomes go a lot further than one would expect - and that we work very hard. But over time, we have also learned to increase our joint prosperity and pleasure in other ways.
We have a monthly parenting support group and a cooperative prenatal support group for pregnant couples as well as labor coaching in the hospital. And we have developed a number of additional group resources that allow us to focus on improving our relationship patterns, including personal growth and growth as couples and as parents. We have, for example, a weekly therapeutic group that serves many community functions and, most crucially, gives us a way of steadily deepening our contact with one another.
 
Six years ago we set up a pooled investment, insurance and loan group of the kind sometimes called a Mondragon group (after a very successfulBasque program initiated by a monk of that name) which has provided community families with improvement loans of various kinds and has also paid a large part of our teachers' medical expenses. We also have our own natural foods store at discount prices, a small bookstore, a library, and a large audio and video tape library, as well as a wooden boat-building shop and a clothing manufacturing business owned by members of the community. One of our families is also a husband-wife legal firm, and two of us who are RN.'s as well as teachers also play the roles of school nurse, barefoot doctor and triage agent.
 
Finding money to live on has always been a joint responsibility, since the school belongs to us all. The school doesn't really pay salaries to its teachers in the sense businesses usually mean by that term; rather, we divide up the income, with adequate allocations for the needs of the property itself. In addition to ten buildings clustered in a two-block area of downtown Albany owned by the school (income from which constitutes about two-thirds of the school's economic base), families in some way associated with the school own an additional ten buildings in the area and consider themselves part of the Free School community.
 
Beside describing our school and community in terms of what we do, I want also to emphasize my belief that it has been important for us to understand why we do what we do, not just that we do it. We are all engaged in an on-going process of creating a model of life that includes adults in families, includes adult activities and skills practiced right in the community, and includes teaching kids adult models in both characterological and occupational forms. Like the saying attributed to Dewey, we are learning to do by doing.
So why is it important to ask why we do it? What's wrong with just doing? What's wrong is lack of awareness - or mindfulness, to use the Buddhist term. Being members of the society of the industrialized west, most of us are functional extraverts, and as such, are largely incapable of serving as adequate models for children, we believe. Our own learned inner models of reality which operate beneath the level of "doing" have far more of an impact on kids than most of us feel comfortable in acknowledging, yet there is very little institutional support for becoming aware of this level of experience which comes primarily from the culture of our parents and can only be discovered by the development of inner knowing on our own. Often acquiring such inner knowing involves a willingness to feel one's residual pain.
 
And yet, both as parents and as teachers, we teach who we are, not just what we think or what we give children to do. Many titular adults are unwilling to take this fact into account when they are dealing with children. We fail to compare what we may think we are teaching kids with what they are actually getting from us. Doing that involves a willingness to stay attuned to our inner truth no matter how painful that may be, as well as a willingness to live in the child's own world as participant observers - not just follow a model.
 
It is in this sense that we consider ourselves a multi-generational learning community. We take what we need to learn from our own histories to round out our experiences of ourselves as fully conscious beings; and we do our best to use the learnings derived from our individual histories to help in the process of creating a shared future for everyone, both as individual families and as a community. It's not a way that works for everyone - but perhaps it is a little like what Joe Campbell says of marriage: "Marriage" he says, "Is not about happiness but about transformation." Or as one of our own members said recently, "It's like having twenty lovers!"
 

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