May 17, 2010

Start Your Own School!

This week Colorado passed Senate Bill 10-191, one of many legislative moves aimed at standardizing American education. As my friend Sue remarked, it's part of a movement that "takes the craftsmanship out of teaching."

In response to this wave of limitations and standardizations, Sue is starting a school. The Little School on Vermijo is a "village school for gifted and talented sixth graders" who will "become a true community of learners." Sue's school is based on classic academics -- they will study Latin -- but encourages curiosity, wonder, social interaction and public performances. She's starting the school with eight students, including her son.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the art world is hosting more and more projects that take the form of alternative school and attempt to creatively reconfigure public education. One such project I recently learned about is School of the Future.

The website for School of the Future ( opens with an online form soliciting feedback. What do you want to learn? It goes on to state:

School of the Future is a project about what a school can be. We'll open this July as an inter-generational free school for the community around Sgt. Dougherty Park, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From solar-powered lighting to a giant scrabble board, giant Tyvek mountains and experimental food sculptures, the School of the Future is an invitation to experiment and analyze learning through the arts. Each class, performance and student-teacher exchange provides inspiration for a curriculum that allows a community to respond to a particular site, encouraging the use of under-utilized public space as a way to learn and question cultural constructs and personal responses to school and education.

During the School's July semester a research document will be created and distributed in collaboration with the School's student body and teaching staff. This curriculum will draw from the process of building the school and will act as a resource to support the creation of new models for future education.

What strikes me about these two projects is that the process of creating the school is, in fact, a collective effort, one that shapes and is shaped by learning how to learn.

In thinking about the craftsmanship of teaching and artist-run schools (see also Red76, Bruce High Quality Foundation University, Sundown Schoolhouse, Acurious Summer: Extraordinary Workshops for Children, and The Public School for just a few examples) I've dug up another rich resource from the Sixties.

The Rasberry Exercises: How to Start Your Own School (And Make a Book) was written and self-published by Salli Rasberry and Robert Greenway in 1970 and is a collection of texts and images about just that. Ironically, the book is difficult to use and proves more inspirational than instructional (this, however, may be the intent...) The book is reportedly inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog and other DIY manuals of its time. It reads like a catalog, contains resources, books, quotes and photos, broken into chapters:

1) In Search of a Context -- makes a case against public schools
2) Getting Started -- discusses various models and also the needs of parents, teachers, and students
3) Details -- basic taxes, laws, issues of money, records, incorporating and transportation
4) Doing It -- big ideas and curriculum
5) People and People Problems -- structure, visitors, discipline
6) Alternative High Schools -- case studies of various community and free schools
7) There Are No Limits

I have yet to read the book in its entirety but have pulled a few quotes and images for consideration:

"Our aim is to create a learning environment where the individual and his needs will be most important, and where learning can again become the natural and exciting process that it was... This means that students must be allowed to take responsibility for their lives and their learning."

"With our foolish pedantic methods we are always preventing children from learning what they could learn better by themselves while we neglect what we alone can teach them."

"It seemed to me that much boiled down to the relative absence of fear... they seemed to be less afraid of what other people would say or demand or laugh at... perhaps more important, however, was their lack of fear of their own insides, of their own impulses, emotions, thoughts."

"The chief task of educators is to see to it that the activities of society provide incidental education, if necessary inventing new useful activities offering new education opportunities."

"We will share what we can share. There are no limits. We'll make lots of books and change lives -- and thus our children will have lives instead of schools."

"The way to get into free schools is to do it. (Studying, analyzing, planning, thinking about them either delays the plunge or skews the evolution of what could be a free learning place -- with us fully into it, Here and Now."

There are certainly a lot of problems with Sixties models of free education (see earlier post on Pacific High School) but there are riches to uncover as well. Luckily, we can decide to do things differently, based on their flounderings and successes and on a unique set of contemporary conditions.

As I finish my first year of teaching at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, I feel exhausted, inspired, disappointed, and resolute to continue teaching. It's been fascinating to see the industry of public education from the inside and I can understand, more than ever, the need for reform. While budgets are cut, students are underserved, teachers are underpaid, and tests take the place of direct experience, I hear the rumblings of change. Let's hope the collective work of artists, of our predecessors, of women like Sue might provide manifold, contemporary visions of how to better school.

* top image borrowed from, from a 2009 workshop Cardboard City.


  1. amen!
    Thanks for the links to the variety of "schools"... proof positive that all of us NEVER stop learning.

    oh, and I love those old photos!

    I've started a blog for The Little School...


  2. wrong address, sorry; it's:

  3. Salli, very nice post. My congratulations.

  4. love this post!

    however, as someone very interested in alternative education and possibly doing similar projects, i am wondering about the phrase "talented and gifted" students. how does one decide who is gifted? under what conditions can a student demonstrate talent?

    my experience is that the awesome, alternative education model that i love so much is often only accessible to kids with white and/or major financial priviledge. i recognize that this is often due to the fact that obviously states won't fund such models and they are therefor very expensive. can there be creative solutions to this issue?

  5. How does one get in contact with the school? I tried to Google it but nothing comes up