Wishing It Could Be Like Coldplay

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Coldplay is coming to Manila next year and so many people can’t wait to get their hands on the tickets despite the skyrocket high costs.   How I wish there could be a way that the event my friends and I are planning for next year can get the same reception.  I’m not talking about numbers here because let’s be realistic.  It’s not a concert of a popular band.   However, we do like to find people who, if they knew, would jump at the opportunity to meet an international pioneer of self-directed / democratic education.  Every advocacy requires groups of champions and we’d like to connect with those who are passionate about this cause in the Philippines.

My friends and I met Yaacov Hecht at the Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) in Taiwan this year and after talking to him, the possibility of someday holding the conference in China and the Philippines was opened up.  Before we knew it, we were organizing Yaacov’s talk in Manila for late July next year, before he flies off to Tokyo to speak at the APDEC there.

As an introduction:

“Yaacov Hecht founded the Democratic School in Hadera, Israel, the first school in the world to call itself ‘democratic’. The schools operate as a microcosm of the democratic state. In 1993, he convened the first IDEC – International Democratic Education Conference that has run for 24 years now all over the world, each year in a different continent. Yaacov Hecht has served as an advisor to Israeli Ministers of Education past and present, as an expert for creating connections and interfaces between the state and alternative education.”

Early this November, Yaacov spoke at the plenary of the World Forum for Democracy in Austria.  Following are excerpts from his speech:

“I fear that in schools today they prepare us for the past. But how do we build a school that prepares us for the future? That was the idea behind my democratic school.

“And then, for me it was like magic. Once I’d built this school there was immediately a huge waiting list. And I found myself building another, and then another, another. I found myself building 30 democratic schools in Israel, and then I realized that I wanted to understand what had happened in the world, and so I founded an international conference, and I call it IDEC, the international democratic education conference, and I called on innovative democratic schools from around the world to come to this conference. And today, we have more than 1,000 democratic schools from all over the world in more than fifty countries. It is an annual event, running in different countries ever year.

“But what is this democratic school? Look today at democratic schools around the world and you will see that in most of these schools four major rules exist. But before I explain further I should say that among these 1,000 schools, every one is different, because we believe that different is beautiful. We say there cannot be two democratic schools that are the same. But you can find these four major rules in most of them.

“One, we live in a democratic community. For example, my school is six hundred students between 4 years old and eighteen, and every Friday we have a meeting and we make decisions together. My vote as the Headmaster and the vote of the students is the same. We cannot change the rule of Israel, but in the law I give all the power that I have as the Principle to the community.

“The second thing that we have in the democratic school is personalized learning. What does that mean? It means that every student in my school chooses: what, how, where, when she or he learns. Think about the traditional school, the great idea that if you are this age, you need to learn this and this. We think that the most important thing that God created was to create us different. And school needs to continue to find out our uniqueness. But what you find in the traditional school is that they try to make us the same. At the same time, no matter how bored I am, we sit with people who are the same age and we learn the same things. In the democratic school everyone learns differently, in mixed ages.

“Rule number three. In our school we have a very close relationship between the staff member and the student. In most of our democratic schools students choose their mentor. The teacher doesn’t choose us to sit in his class. I choose with whom I want to be in a close relationship, and this is my mentor.

“The fourth rule is content. Our content that we teach in our school is from the point of view of human rights. Most of the content that is studied today in conventional schools is studied from the point of view of nationality. We study from the point of view of human rights.

“Think about schools which don’t give the student any choice. I hope they will disappear very soon. Think how for one hundred years people have been sitting in classrooms being told what to do. From my point of view this is something very catastrophic.  We can explain it . OK. It was the industrial age, and people needed to go to work as a machine, so we helped them go to work as a machine. But today in the knowledge age, it is very clear that we have to help students to find their element, a place where they can connect their talent and their passion. Because in their element they have the most chance to succeed in the future.

“How to do it? There exist a lot of ways, and I hope there will be a net here that will enable us to share our many ideas of how to do it with one another. It is a time for sharing. The young man over there asked me how to push democratic education in your city or in your area. It’s easy, build a network around this. Don’t be alone. Find another person who wants to do it. Go and meet together and talk about this. Then find another one. And then a big group, and then go to talk with the Department of Education in your city but as a group. I think this is the time of networking. So build a network around this. Yesterday evening I sat with a huge group of young people full of ideas about how to change the education system. That, I think is the way.”

 

Above are excerpts from Yaacov’s speech at the World Forum for Democracy 2016 in Strasbourg, Austria.  You can read the full transcript here:

Open Democracy: Free Thinking for the World

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What are the Chances?

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Yaacov, Cecelia and Iku used giant leaves to call attention to their cause: fundraising for APDEC (Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference held in Taiwan last July).  Because the organizers wanted more participants to be able to afford the conference, they lowered the fees but didn’t have enough to cover the costs during the week of the event itself.  However, in a gathering of people who champion democratic education, there’s bound to be leaders like Yaacov, Cecelia and Iku who would rally everyone to pitch in and help the organizers.  Aside from putting up a donation box, an auction was held where anyone can contribute anything they could.  The highest bidder gets to take home items such as a drum from Kenya, Japanese green tea biscuits (claimed and proven to be the most delicious), pictures drawn by children, musical instruments made of popsicle sticks, an autographed book and other bric-a-brac.

I didn’t have any thing to offer so I thought of auctioning a blog entry — a writer for hire.  So that’s this article here that you’re reading now and the winning bidder is Taiwanese homeschooling mom, Irene Su.  Now the odd coincidence is: I won the bid for a drawing Irene’s son made of heroes.  Plus, we both have two sons who are the same age.  What are the chances, right?

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Irene’s decision to homeschool didn’t come easy and homeschoolers face that dilemma of choosing a non-mainstream method which people generally tend to be skeptical and wary of. In Irene’s case, it was her architect-husband who encouraged her.  Their eldest son, Timothy also led them towards that path by clearly expressing what he wanted.  Timothy tried going to school for a month and didn’t like it, saying the teacher was often angry at the naughty boys.  Timothy also begged to study Japanese but it’s something not taught in Taiwanese school.  Irene got a tutor for him and now seven years old, Timothy reads and writes Chinese, Japanese and English and can remember more dates and names in history than Irene could.  Timothy also regularly reads stories to his four-year old brother Lewis and helps bathe him.

One of the criticisms levied at homeschooling is the issue of socialization but parents are quick to defend that there are opportunities to play with other kids.  In Irene’s situation, she has partnered with her good friend, Leri who is also a homeschooling mom.  Leri is a missionary and English teacher from South Africa who has two children, Taelyn and Jared.  Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Irene and Leri homeschool the kids together.

Their basic schedule goes like this: morning worship songs, Bible story followed by two subjects and lunch.  They sometimes teach all four kids together or split them into older and younger groups.  The two moms take turns teaching history and the kids are lucky to be able to learn English from Leri and Chinese from Irene.   Leri also teaches drama and organizes an Adventurers Club similar to the Boys Scouts while Irene integrates scientific concepts into the arts and crafts, which sometimes prove to be explosive fun.

Irene maximizes learning opportunities outside of the classroom while Leri loves finding innovative ways to help kids connect with the topic through the use of stories and movement.  It’s the different teaching methods of the two mothers that broaden the children’s way of thinking and that’s why team-teaching for the dynamic duo is a source of joy.  What are the chances that two homeschooling moms can partner with each other and complement each other’s styles beautifully?

Irene loves to travel with her children, even braving the Philippines during a typhoon.  After visiting a squatters’ area and seeing the extent of extreme poverty there, Timothy said he wanted to be a doctor and didn’t want to waste any more food after that trip.  In Japan, they did a homestay with a couple with one child.  Homes in Japan are usually tiny so they were surprised that their hosts lived in a big house.  Irene’s family has been to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Macau and live with the locals whenever they can. Through these trips, Irene prefers that her children learn from real-life experiences like purchasing tickets, planning trips, buying food, solving problems along the way, writing letters to people in other countries and keeping a diary about the trip.

Timothy and Lewis’ friends are from all over the world and of different ages.  If they were in school, they would mostly be interacting with kids their age, but in homeschool, they hang out with kids, teenagers and senior citizens. Timothy especially likes talking about history with older people and could be seen in APDEC talking with the adults or playing zombie with the one of the speakers, Henry Readhead of Summerhill School fame.  Lewis likes climbing, swimming, playing golf, jumping up and down and according to Irene, is never shy.
For Irene, the bureaucratic red tape to apply to homeschool is quite tedious along with the need to do more than the usual amount of house-cleaning.  In the future, Irene will give her children the freedom to choose their high school, whether they want to continue homeschooling or attend an overseas boarding school.  For college, they can choose where they’d like to study or even consider Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).  Even during high school, the option to take university courses is already available.

Irene and her whole family were impressed by APDEC and how people not only talked about but lived their belief that children are important.  She was happy to meet people who shared the same view that learning should take place outside the classroom setting like a library, museum, on a trip and generally anywhere else your feet and minds can take you, which in Irene’s case, is everywhere.

Check out MOOCs:

Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs and Why

MOOCs are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace

MOOCs: Top 10 Sites for Free Education with Elite Universities

Growing Wish List Tracker

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The list of schools and organizations I want to visit is growing faster than the rate I can see them all and I imagine it will even grow longers as we start going around especially during conferences where you meet even more people in the field of alternative education. So before the list balloons out of hand, as if it’s not out of hand already, here’s the list as it stands today.

I’ve been tinkering with the round-the-world routes so the earlier plans accommodated stops at thirty schools and organizations.  Then it got whittled down to ten in the name of economizing but at the end, the number doesn’t matter as much as the experience itself of meeting the visionaries, the teachers and students themselves.

Plus, I’d like to add two more.  I met Moe Zimmerberg at APDEC and though I didn’t get to chat with him much, I checked out the website of the democratic school where he teaches, The Tutorial School and wish to take a detour to Santa Fe when we do the U.S. West Coast.

On Facebook this morning, somebody posted a video of a math teacher dancing a funky hip hop with students.  I googled the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta plus read a review of somebody who visited the school, answering the question, Does it live up to the hype?

 

These two schools may be different from each other.  One falls into the category of democratic while the other operates like a traditional school but don’t be fooled by the uniform because it uses non-traditional methods.  I’d like to see and learn from as many types of alternatives including those that can be considered more mainstream than others.  I wonder if someday, the alternatives will outnumber the mainstream and there will be a switch in nomenclature.

Or will there be a day when we dispense with categories altogether?

School or Organization 

Location

Notes

ASIA
Holistic Education School Miaoli, Taiwan Location of APDEC 2016 Conference
Green School Bali, Indonesia TED Talk – John Hardy: My green school dream
Waldorf School Chengdu, Sichuan, China
NORTH AMERICA
Mosaic Collective Colorado, USA TED Talk – Will Richardson: The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools
Science Leadership Academy 55 N 22nd St, Philadelphia, PA TED Talk – Will Richardson: The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools

Real work for real purpose

Incubator School ·         7400 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles, CA Students launch entrepreneurial ideas
Tinkering School 1960 Bryant St
San Francisco, CA 94110and San Francisco Peninsula Coastside
TED Talk – Gever Tulley: Life Lessons through tinkering

The use of real tools to tackle real problems creates a unique atmosphere of trust and responsibility. From six-year-olds to highschoolers, we empower our tinkerers with tools, autonomy and space. Big responsibilities build competency and leave lasting memories.

Waldorf School of the Peninsula Silicon Valley

11311 Mora Drive, Los Altos, California

180 N. Rengstorff Ave. Mountain View, CA

Waldorf School of the Peninsula was established in 1984 by parents and educators motivated by the great need for a school that would address the heart and will—as well as the mind—of the child. This whole-child approach is the cornerstone of our philosophy, curriculum and environment.
High Tech High School, K-12, Graduate School San Diego, California

 

 

The design principles permeate every aspect of life at High Tech High: the small size of the school, the openness of the facilities, the personalization through advisory, the emphasis on integrated, project-based learning and student exhibitions, the requirement that all students complete internships in the community, and the provision of ample planning time for teacher teams during the work day.
San Fernando Institute for Applied Media 130 N. Brand Blvd. San Fernando, CA 91340

TED Talk: Pearl Arrendondo – My story from gangland daughter to start teacher

SFiAM provides a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every member develops communication, technological, and leadership skills that foster self-confidence and supports personal growth.

SFiAM students learn through rigorous project-based learning modalities that are inherent to the pilot school model. Students are challenged to develop problem-solving and interpersonal skills to succeed in the 21st Century.

Paolo Freire Freedom School and Paolo Freire Freedom University Tuczon, Arizona PFFS – University, with its focus on social justice and environmental sustainability, has been a successful demonstration site/lab school for best instructional practices and small school design for eleven years.  The PFFS – Downtown is implementing these successful strategies with the same focus in a completely redesigned delivery of interdisciplinary, problem-based, ‘full immersion’ STEM curricula.  Both schools are public schools grounded in the legacy of Paulo Freire and the Freedom Movement in America. Both schools are demonstration sites/lab schools within  CITY Center for Collaborative Learning in Tucson.
Timbernook Barrington, New Hampshire Our programming provides ample time for children to explore their surroundings, create, build, design, take risks, and dive into their imagination – all while fostering a love for the great outdoors. Our camps are creative in design and in strong demand.
Big Picture Learning (a network) 325 Public Street, Providence, Rhode Island A student-centered learning design, where students are actively invested in their learning and are challenged to pursue their interests by a supportive community of educators, professionals, and family members.
The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center Providence, Rhode Island First big picture learning school
826 Valencia 826 Valencia St., San Francisco, California TED Prize – Dave Eggers

Dedicated to supporting under-resourced students ages 6-18 with their writing skills and to helping teachers get their students excited about the literary arts.

The Free School

 

Albany, New York Founded in 1969, The Free School in Albany, New York is the longest running inner-city independent alternative school in the United States.  We provide a unique alternative to traditional models of education by offering children a self-directed approach to their learning. Students at our school, many whom have slipped through the cracks of today’s regimented test-driven school system, flourish in a nurturing environment that allows them the freedom to chart their own course of learning while fostering emotional growth and inter-personal skills.
Unschooling NYC

 

Amy Milstein is an active member of the NYC Home Educators Alliance (NYCHEA).   She and her husband Joshua unschool their two children, Maya 13 and Ben 9, who have never been to school.  The Milsteins are pioneers of unschooling in the big city.   Their goal is to create an awareness of unschooling  as a viable option for families looking for alternatives to traditional curriculum based schooling.
Green Bronx Machine South Bronx, New York TED Talk – Stephen Ritz – A teacher growing green in the South Bronx

Green Bronx Machine was born via collaboration between life-long educator Stephen Ritz and his students who observed that as waistlines expanded, engagement and opportunities in school decreased, school performance suffered, and hope and ambition became minimized. Originally an after-school, alternative program for high school students, Green Bronx Machine has evolved into K-12+ model fully integrated into core curriculum. Our students grow, eat and love their vegetables en route to spectacular academic performance. 40,000 pounds of Bronx vegetables later, our favorite crops include healthy students, high performing schools, graduates, registered voters, living wage jobs and members of the middle class.

Alternative Education Resource Organization 417 Roslyn Rd. Roslyn Heights, NY AERO is the primary hub of communications and support for educational alternatives around the world. Our network includes Montessori, Waldorf (Steiner), Public Choice and At-Risk, Democratic, Homeschool, Open, Charter, Free, Sudbury, Holistic, Virtual, Magnet, Early Childhood, Reggio Emilia, Indigo, Krishnamurti, Quaker, Libertarian, Independent, Progressive, Community, Cooperative, and Unschooling.
World Peace Game Camp Charlottesville, Virginia TED Talk: John Hunter (creator of the World Peace Game)

Author wants to register for a Master Class with John Hunter

Compass for Self-Directed Learning 211 Bronson Ave #210, Ottawa, Ontario Canada Compass is a centre that helps teenagers live and learn without school by supporting teens (13-18 years old) to create a customized education based on their interests, abilities, and goals. We offer classes that run throughout the day, tutoring, mentoring, assistance with finding internships and volunteer opportunities, help with university admissions, and a safe and comfortable place for students to work and socialize.
SOUTH AMERICA    
Escola Lumiar Sao Paolo, Brazil TED Talk – Ricardo Semler

In recent a survey jointly conducted by Unesco, Stanford University and Microsoft, Lumiar has been chosen as one of the 12 most Innovative Schools in the World (the only one in Brazil).

Fundacion Escuela Nueva Colombia Across Colombia, 20,000 schools have been influenced by the model, which features project-based learning, parent and community engagement, learning by doing and according to student interests, and democratic decision-making.
EUROPE
Forest Kindergartens Germany
Summerhill School England Founded in 1921, it continues to be an influential model for progressive, democratic education around the world.

Summerhill is the oldest children’s democracy in the world. It is probably the most famous alternative or ‘free’ school. The system that Summerhill employs is not only about education – it is also a different way of parenting which eliminates most of the friction and many of the problems experienced by modern families.

 

AFRICA    
     
AUSTRALIA    
Northern Beach Christian School Australia TED Talk – Will Richardson, The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools
Deep Green Bush School New Zealand We do not have classes, we will not administer any tests and we will not give homework. At the Deep Green Bush-School youth learn the responsibility inherent in freedom and demonstrate how well people can manage themselves through democratic decision-making.
The Kaitaki Collective Auckland, New Zealand We are a democratic, nature-based learning collective in Auckland, rooted in indigenous & Maori wisdom.
Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery Christchurch special character state school with a fundamental tenet that the child is central in directing his or her own learning so that the enthusiasm and love of learning is retained.

These are the conferences I’d like to attend in the future: IDEC 2017 in Israel, APDEC 2017 in Tokyo and AERO 2017 in America.  I might have to sacrifice APDEC in favor of AERO but if I can’t make it to Tokyo, I’ll make sure to get as many people as I can to join.

AERO Alternative Education Resource Organization Conference

Ron Clark Academy teacher busting all the right moves

International Democratic Education Network

The photos above are of Moe and his cohorts raising funds at the auction and during lunch at the APDEC in Taiwan. 

More APDEC Photos

And I haven’t even told you about the performances at night and the auction and . . . .

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Keep in touch.

Check out my nine articles about APDEC 2016 in Taiwan:

About Yaacov Hecht’s keynote speech

About Simon Hulshoff’s speech and notes from casual talks and open spaces

About Shure University, Tokyo and my dream school

About our one-day off visiting an aboriginal school, biking and pigging-out

About Professor Fong’s lecture and Peter Gray’s first open space

About Summerhill and the talk given by Henry Readhead, A.S. Neill’s grandson

About Peter Gray’s keynote and open space after

About various open spaces – many lessons and realizations

About the round table discussion

Photos were taken from Matthew Chen’s and other people’s Facebook pages.  Thank you. 

Manic Writing

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I just wrote my ninth article on APDEC and there are two more to go – one to share photos and the other about the homeschooling mom who won the bid for a blog entry during the auction last Saturday night.  Why am I writing like crazy?  At the same time I’m writing, I’ve been packing all our things, preparing for our big move from north to south of China, the official start of our dream to go around the world.  I can’t stop writing because once we leave our house, there won’t be a stable 24-7 Wi-Fi.  We’d be staying in hotels or camping in our tents and then I don’t know how often I can take time out to write.  So I want to finish everything before leaving.

Today, I’ve been able to write courtesy of our neighbors who have taken Joshua and Jimmy in to play with their children.  Yesterday, I finished the bulk of putting most of our things into boxes.  Today, it’s my husband’s turn to put the boxes into storage.  I can write in peace while all this is happening.

After APDEC, my idea for the trip has been simplified and things have been added into the itinerary such as a visit to Summerhill.  From the start of this project planning, the target number of countries have dwindled from 30 to 25 to 20 and now it’s down to 15.  The time frame also has gone from 4 years down to a year and a half which is advantageous from an economical point of view.  We can always do the other countries another time in the future.

Through APDEC, I realized a short-cut.  Attending conferences is quite an efficient use of time. It allows me to interview a huge range of people involved in the field of alternative education.  It allows me to prioritize certain schools over others so I don’t have to cram the trip with too many schools. At the end of the day, we still don’t know which plan would hold and I should just stop being OC about planning.

I thought I had learned to let go of my control freak self through Simon’s help but it’s still there.  Another friend tried to wake me up by shredding into pieces my power point print outs of routes.  I still managed to insert doing these excel route updates in the midst of manic packing and manic writing, like somebody is chasing me and I can’t stop running.

I wish I was back in the forest.

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How many times have we moved homes?  Each time, the boys have a rollicking fun with the boxes.

Here’s the evolution of the plans to go around the world:

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I think I’m just turning into a documentation freak!

Notice the progression of simplification from the plan prior to Plan A and then I tried to do IDEC and APDEC in 2017 (Plan B) but the shortest, most streamlined and economical plan thus far seems to be Plan C.

 

 

 

At the Round Table

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Lucy from mainland China asked me about the connection of democratic education, a democratic society and a democratic form of governance.  Coming from a country that experiences the pitfalls of “too much” democracy and living in a country which many outsiders believe is not democratic “enough,” it was a hard for me to answer the complex question so I said, let’s look for Simon Hulshoff because his talked touched on those bigger issues.  We didn’t have to find him because on the last day of APDEC, the round table discussion provided a lot of answers not just in words but in actual action – democracy in action.

A group of government officials from the education bureau came to discuss with the conference speakers and participants about the possibilities of improving and expanding the laws regarding experimental education which were passed in Taiwan three years ago.  The palpable excitement made it feel like history in the making.

One of the government officials explained what she wrote in her diary and reflected about democratic education, having witnessed the changes in this field in Taiwan.  “Everyone can be responsible for themselves, feel good about themselves, love themselves and other people, allow children to be responsible.  I believe this is also the objective of APDEC.  Parents and teachers can support each other and communicate with each other.  I believe nobody will oppose learner-centered education.  A responsible government will not treat people as tools and there must be responsible allocation of resources.  This (democratic education) is an unstoppable trend all over the world. . . . . Our government will continue to support the development of alternative education. . . . I fully believe that education that is beautiful teaches people to be courageous.”

Yaacov Hecht hopes that many types of schools can be built, emphasizing, “Different is beautiful.”  Peter Gray comments how fitting that this is now taking place in Taiwan where people are brave defenders of freedom and individual rights.  He then brought up the subject of testing and assessment and how he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society?  None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.
One of the problem, points out Henry Readhead is that there is systemic pressure from the top to bottom.  The government puts pressure on the schools which pressures the teacher who then pressures the child.   How can the pressure building be reversed from bottom to top?  Simon Hulshoff suggests that one of the ways is to make the voice of the student equal to the teacher in meetings.  Another government official recommended that there should be structural reform in the government to allow for more participatory discussions.  Students should learn how to conduct democratic discussions in school and listen to each other.

Somebody who had worked as a teacher for twenty years and was now in the local education bureau said, “The challenge is whether teachers allow students to have different opinions and whether teachers can take back the right of teaching.  In public schools, teachers listen to their bosses, follow the education policies and guidelines so the teachers are very submissive to the orders from the top.”
Peter Gray said, “The most essential idea of democracy is you trust people.  I think you can trust children but for others this may be hard.  At least, we must be ready to trust families to choose how they want their children to be educated.  Denying them this is violating a fundamental right.  In the history of education, schools were built to control people, to indoctrinate people.  Hitler and Stalin were big on education.  If you can control the child’s development, you can control people.  This is the history we are stuck with as a people.  We must trust families to make their own decision.  We are still under tyranny.  Democracy means trusting people.”
One of the conference participants, a Taiwanese homeschooling parent spoke up saying that democratic schools tend to be expensive.  His question struck a chord in me and I wanted to cry, “That’s the same problem I have!  I wish alternative education was economically more accessible!”

Our friends in Taiwan must update us about what happens after APDEC.

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Photos taken by Matthew Chen, a teacher at the Holistic School. 

Opening Up

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Open Space lives up to its name.  It really IS that open.  Anyone can appropriate the space — no bureaucratic application or credentials needed, just the willingness to share something, anything or a burning question to start the ball rolling.

I attended Moe’s open space and was struck by how insidious this idea of separation was but it was quite “harmless” studying in school back then about Descartes and his dualistic model of society. Then we looked at the destruction man has wrought and what the concept of separation has brought. Tragic.  I came out of the dark, hot media room seeking air and accidentally walked into Hoho’s impromptu workshop in the lab.

A photographer, Hoho explained that she’d like for us to go somewhere so we all voted to search for a venue outside.  At a crossroad, she asked again which direction and eventually we trooped to a grassy, sloping area shaded by trees.  She then asked what people wanted to do and we ended up electing to sleep so everyone chose a spot and arranged their bodies in a comfortable position to snooze while Hoho snapped away with her camera.   It was hard to get up after because you just wanted to stay and stare at the trees and blue sky above and I thought how wonderful to get a rest from heavyweight thinking and discussing.

Somebody broached the idea of going to the stream next and what a discovery!  Beyond the path where we usually walk from dormitory to canteen was a sharp drop into the jungle and we lowered ourselves with the help of a rope.  We splashed about in the water flowing over rocks, moss and fern and screwed separation.

Another workshop I joined was Simon’s because of the compelling title, “How to use meetings to solve problems without use of punishments.”   Surely, I knew in theory that reward and punishment are the lowest forms of teaching something but I can’t get out of the pattern like I’m stuck.  Hearing Simon R. was helpful and he continued the thread of conversation with another open space this time, exploring why we keep repeating certain unwanted behaviors by tracing the roots to past occurrences.

Simon R. shared how his ill-tempered father hit and shouted at him when he was a child and as a father himself now, he exhibited behavior towards his own son that recalled his father’s.  He wanted to break the chains that bound him and he was only able to do it through internal work and seeking professional help online.  This revelation touched a nerve in people in the room and others shared their own realizations.

While three more people talked about their experience that made them rethink their parenting or teaching style vis a vis baggage from the past, I pondered what is it that’s triggering my undesirable bursts towards my own children or why I couldn’t change my habit of using reward and punishment even if I wanted to.   The conference had already ended and we were making the journey back home when it dawned on me: trust.  I had a trust issue.  It was hard for me to let go of control and to trust my children more because I don’t feel trusted as an adult child to decide what’s best for my own family.  That neediness to control because somebody sought to control you – the awareness frees you to be less of a control freak and let go.  Belated thanks to Simon R. for aiding in pushing it to the surface!  I went home feeling like a healthier mom.

Because I was interested in the Tokyo Shure University, I eagerly attended the Open Space about Japan’s democratic education movement borne out of a phenomenon termed “school refusal.”  The students refuse to go to school not because of economic or health problems but because they encountered bullying or they felt in their hearts that it was something they believed was true to their identity.  One by one, the people in the circle related their story.

One woman got tired of the situation where everything is evaluated and compared.  In the classroom, her value was measured by how she performed against the others.  To top it off, state school was simply boring. One day she caught a bad cold and decided not to return to school.  At first she could not fully understand and express the reason and it was a difficult time for her.  People regarded students who did this as sick or disabled.

At nineteen years old, she entered Shure University and everything changed for her.  Before she had nothing – no friends, no knowledge, no experience.  She thought she was a “wrong” person and a level below humans.  Those ideas limited her behavior.  Now she’s fine, active and creative.  At the APDEC, she offered her photographs for sale at the fundraiser.  She was lucky that her parents had heard about Shure University and she spent one week to try it out.  During that short experimental period she realized what was taken away from her – that idea that it’s okay to pursue something you are interested in. That idea empowered her to alter her self-perception and turn around her life.

There are so many stories to tell, all worth documenting but it might even be better to just join the APDEC in Tokyo next year.

Lastly, I had one interesting final Open Space in the crowded train from Miaoli to Taoyuan.  We were stuck in a tight space, standing up with no seats because all the tickets were taken.  It was perhaps deliberate on the side of the universe that I ended up beside a fellow conference participant, Leon from South Korea who was so excited to show the pictures on his phone.  He finished chemistry in college and was now pursuing his masters in Alternative Education at the Asia Life University.  Leon’s phone pictures were mostly these groovy-fun-looking experiments he did with high school students plus other student activities that made me think, “What a teacher nerd!”  I mean that in a good way.  Teachers get excited about what they do and the excitement is contagious.

I previously attended an Open Space about the Korean democratic schools inspired by Gandhi and which embraced the ideals of love and compassion.  I thought then how I wanted to visit Korea to see for myself and the train ride with Leon gave me an extra glimpse.

When we got back to China, my two friends Donna and Lucy, who went with me to the conference, and I couldn’t stop doing Open Space, discussing about education that we even formed a WeChat Group called APDEC in the future.

Learn more about Shure University and from Simon R.’s recommended author Alfie Kohn who wrote Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

Moe Zimmerberg has worked for decades in the field of democratic education at The Tutorial School.  I hope everyone who’s doubtful about alternative schools can take time to read this: College and FAQs.

For Simon R., here’s the ikigai diagram I told you about during breakfast:

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