Saturday, May 06, 2006

boing boing features a free school documentary

Danny Mydlack's excellent documentary Voices from the New American Schoolhouse about Fairhaven School (which I was fortunate enough to see at its premiere at AERO's conference last year) got a boost of publicity last week when award-winning science fiction writer and all-round cool guy Cory Doctorow featured it on his popular blog Boing Boing. Given that Boing Boing is #1 on Technorati's listing of the Net's most-linked-to blogs, this certainly showed it off to a lot of people who don't follow alternative education.

Right from the title of the post, "Documentary on radical free school - inspiring", it's clear that Doctorow is going to emphasize rather than downplay the departure from the status quo of schooling, even using the term "free school" (which some avoid who consider it passe in an aging-hippie way). Moreover, he refers to his own history of attending a free school that was started during the heyday of the movement in the 1960s, the SEED School in Toronto, and judges it to be "the most important factor in the way I conduct my own adult life"!
Fairhaven appears to be a classical free-school, in which kids self-govern, design their own curriculum, and tutor their peers. I went to publicly funded schools like this from grade four to graduation, and they were the most important factor in the way I conduct my own adult life. Attending schools like this teaches many kids to run their own lives, blazing their own trail, inventing their own careers, and trying anything.... The documentary is narrated principally by the school's bright, well-spoken students, who are eloquent and passionate advocates for open education.
I had seen before an interview with Doctorow where he talks about his experience at the SEED school:
It's called SEED school, and was started in 1969 and SEED stands for Self Exploration something Education and Discovery. Though I suspect people would rather it didn't make up a word that meant anything. It was an incredible school. It was basically started by students that ceded from the Toronto School Board, who just walked out of the school one day and started meeting elsewhere. They started holding classes and finding people who could teach them. Eventually they got pulled back into the Board. Over the years it's faced a lot of struggles and right now it's very embattled. The thing about SEED is that you could study whatever interested you if you could find somebody to teach it. It's kind of like a scene from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, [a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein] where as much of the education was about learning how to get educated as it was about the things you were nominally studying.

It was brilliant. It made me the man I are today. I did five years there voluntarily, cause I didn't want to leave.

When I wound up in university, I found myself studying stuff that was a far less edifying, far less interesting, and certainly a lot more expensive, as SEED was free. It's a public school. I dropped out of four schools in two years trying to find the right school before concluding that there wasn't one, and I never went back.
Elsewhere in the interview, he also mentions that science fiction writer Judith Merril started a writing workshop there, and that Marshall McLuhan's child attended the school.

I haven't seen too many other posts about alternative education on Boing Boing. One is a pretty sad 2002 post about how a clueless administrator is destroying SEED by pushing for "the elimination of every "alternative" element of the school's day-to-day functioning" and to "eliminate the idea that the students have any business guiding the direction of the school" (without saying how it turned out). Another is a 2004 post about Toronto's AnarchistU (which seems similar to Ivan Illich's 1970s "learning network" ideas, but updated by using a wiki website instead of a printed catalog as a medium for coordinating participatorily-planned and autonomous courses held in different locations).

1 comment:

Murray Shukyn said...

Hi Joel:
My name is Murray Shukyn and I was the first co-ordinator of SEED back in the day when it was truly exciting and alternative. I'm glad you enjoyed your time there and got something from those years. I know I learned more from my years there than I had from much of my formal education.
At any rate, the acronym stood for Summer of Experience, Exploration and Discovery since it was a summer program sponsored by the Toronto Board of Education for two years before it became a school within the board.