In computer games, spawn is the appearance of a player in the game. At the Agile Learning Center (ALC), mornings start with spawn when students share what they intend to do that day and during the afternoon spawn, they report whether they were able to fulfill those intentions. That day I visited their Manhattan school, there was an offering in writing, philosophy and a field trip to the South Street Seaport to check out the ship which Chuck, one of the ALC facilitators, helped restore. The rest of the day, kids played on the computer, watched a movie, hung around and walked to two neighboring deli stores.
The offerings are quirky as the facilitators and students who provide classes to whomever are interested: fermentation, bomb disposal, coding, printmaking, cooking plus the class that’s been offered for the longest span of time – Japanese, courtesy of a parent whose child wanted to study the language. If anybody is interested in pursuing a subject or developing a skill, all one had to do was ask. If any of the facilitators or students feel that people could benefit following a topic or if they have a personal passion for something, it can be offered up to the group. A friend from Brooklyn is tapped to give classes in circus acrobatics. All over whiteboards placed in every room, there are constantly evolving marks, signs, calendars and colored post-it pads which announce ideas and communal decisions.
The ALC takes off or branches off from other alternative forms of education — unschooling, democratic, free school, Sudbury. ALC is more like unschooling but within a community. It’s more intentional than free school and Sudbury in that facilitators can make suggestions to guide kids to advance their interests. How do you know when to actively step in and when to stand back? It differs from person to person but knowing the person within a close-knit community for some time allows you to gauge each case individually.
ALC also takes its cue and inspiration from agile software practices since its founder, Art Brock is immersed in the IT industry. There is a sense of modern fluidity and systems flexibility, an aversion to wasteful long meetings and if I don’t seem to be making any sense describing it, you can check out their website and examine the lingo. They also derive insight from the Quakers who, without resorting to voting, capture the spirit of the meeting to arrive at resolutions. The emphasis is on agility in creatively solving problems and meetings are not platforms for the perpetuation of power dynamics.
To the students who go to ALC, it simply feels like a home – a school and a home at the same time. Everyone who comes through its doors tries it out for a week to see if it suits them. One of the students once struggled and fought over completing homework with his parents when he was going to regular school. When he joined ALC which his dad discovered, there are a lot less conflict with his parents. Another father is happy to see his daughter thrive in a setting that allows an inordinate amount of freedom. He is pleasantly surprised when his daughter spews species of trees and types of rocks after playing Minecraft and how she was able to make a skateboard at six years old. Another student hated school because he was academically ahead of his class and couldn’t go on his own pace which he was then able to do at ALC.
Mel shows a TED Talk video about making sense of string theory and though there are only three other people in the room, there is a thought-provoking discussion afterwards. Every Friday, everyone blogs and reflects on what they did that week. Towards the end of each day, everyone helps clean up and there is an optional Gratitude Circle where you share what you are thankful for that day.
The facilitators in ALC are able to pursue their own personal interests like baking bread in Mel’s case or the nature of dictatorships in Abby’s case. Abby lived and studied dictatorships in Eastern Europe so she once offered a class about that in ALC. She was particularly fascinated by how the educational system differed before, during and after dictatorships which cemented her advocacy to have schools in total service of the children. Abby also worked on a farm so she once offered classes in bird and plant identification. Each facilitator has a “superpower” and Ryan’s is being with the kids without having an agenda. Chuck is into photography and after getting his art degree, went sailing for four years. At ALC, he is happy that he doesn’t have to put his interest on hold. Neither do the students.
Check out the ALC website and one of the coolest thing about it, I think, is the sliding scale tuition fee. One of the parents devised this neat computer trick. The ALC network is also growing. If you want to find out more about ALC, check out their FAQ page. If you want to get into the mind of the ALC founder, check out Art Brock’s blog. What’s in store for the future of ALC is quite exciting as Art explains:
The next step we’d like our older kids program to be in the same building as a social enterprise incubator (EmergingLeaderLabs.org), and a co-working space (WeWork.com). This provides an easy, practical, natural transition into the kind of entrepreneurial activities that most kids will be moving toward in our evolving economy. Also the entrepreneurs, freelancers, and innovators could share their passions with our students in workshops, classes, talks, boot camps. Students can apprentice with startups, artists/designers, and nonprofits working in the same building.
I would definitely want to see that happen and would like to visit the space once it’s realized. Read Art’s whole article co-written with Tomis Parker here.