“Tell Me What To Do” : Black Students In Free Schools

I wanted to start a school when I was in high school. After spending my childhood dreaming about being a teacher, I guess I figured it was time to move up the ranks and dream of being a school founder. Reasonable self-doubt pushed that down, but now that doubt’s mostly gone and here’s that school-starting desire bobbing assertively on the surface of my mind. Forget that I haven’t taught yet. Forget that I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, children of my own, or another successful career to transfer from. What I have is increasing disdain for the dreams that have built me and fervor for the ones that are replacing them.

I’m disdainful of the relentlessly hierarchical sorting system that our public schools were well designed to be. I’m fervently exploring how the ideals we’re told our public schools were built on can be real. This fever, then just a slight temperature, must have been what led me to AERO, the Alternative Education Resource Organization, almost ten years ago. There was probably some fantasy googling – “alternative schools with black kids,” “progressive education critical pedagogy” and then, refining my search with information gathered, “free school,” “free school african american.” One click leads to another and when you’re lurking around spheres online (I’m big on sphere lurking) there’s always a hub. AERO’s such a hub. Or maybe I found it during my Alfie Kohn & Homeschooling Book Binge of 2007. But I abandoned it because I didn’t see very many brown faces and I always take that as a warning sign. Like an empty restaurant – maybe the others haven’t discovered it, more likely they’ve been scared away.

My relationship with AERO was restored when my school starting desire returned. I was a teacher licensure candidate and what I saw in the classroom threw me into crisis. I felt to my core that I wouldn’t serve my students or myself well by being a public school teacher. I’d lose my moral compass or my job. I couldn’t keep both. I HAD to go to the AERO conference. I just knew I’d gain some clarity there.

I was excited to meet like-minded people. I thought they might energize me. The first woman met at the conference, who became my roommate, let me know that the conference would “blow my mind.” I doubted it. I felt bad doubting it, but I did. And, anyway, I just wanted to be energized; expecting to have my mind blown would be setting myself up for disappointment. I’d spent years getting excited about alternative education, then letting it go because it only excited half of my heart, again and again. I worried that the conference would be that experience with faster and in person. It was somewhat annoying to me that she tried to interrupt my tepid expectations with her chipper whiteness  – a familiar feeling. I brushed it off.

By the end of the conference her words were the ones that I knew would stay with me. Now, I think they’ll stay with me forever.

See, I have lived my life in the margins, not only because I’m black and a woman, but also because there’s a way that I’ve been treated like an exception to blackness, tokenized at a “gifted” (read:privileged) student throughout my early education, raised by an educated family in communities where most of the people of color were not. And that’s the identity I bring to learner centered education. I love it, but I know that I am not completely welcome. The discomfort of that is familiar and still as painful as it always has been.

Hence, my tepid expectations. I am so thankful for the honesty of my roommate. She shared with me that she founded a school that serves white students (“I know what to do with them.” she said) and hispanic students, but black kids…not so much. She told me about one student, a black boy, who found himself at her school. He de-schooled for a while as is to be expected, but then he came out of it and said “Please, tell me what to do now.” Her response: “No. That’s not what we do here.”

I think I understand why she said no. Because she believes that students should be free to do whatever they want with their time, without an adult telling them what to do. But what if what you want is for an adult to tell you what to do?

I think that this is one of the reasons there are so few black students in Free schools – the adults refuse to exert explicit power over students. The adults share their power with the group (which could be seen as a charade as they always have the power to rescind it) and much of the work of eliciting desirable behaviors that in traditional schools is done by exerting positional power is instead done by cultural norms, but Free school educators believe it happens “naturally.” Like colorblindness, this culture blindness is pernicious. The converse of the idea that desirable behavior, like independent research and creative exploration, is natural is that the need for explicit guidance is unnatural. So when a student from a different cultural background finds themselves in a predominantly white Free school without the cultural knowledge of how to be successful in a free school they encounter educators not only unwilling to explicitly guide them, but also harboring some unexamined (and, of course, unintentional) bias against them.

I believe in the philosophy of Free schools. I love the direct democratic decision making, the lack of compulsory classes, the time to be a young person and figure yourself out. I worry that, by relinquishing positional power,  Free school educators believe that they have gotten rid of it. And anyone who challenges that perspective is unwelcome. White people are a part of the culture of power in the United States and if white people only interact with other white people who understand power in the same way they can all pretend it’s gone, but it’s not. The bulk of the people of color in the country don’t buy it and won’t buy it.

Racial diversity serves every member of a school community – being blind to the lived experiences of other people robs us of some of our humanity. We feel it. Often we feel it as fear. If Free schools are to truly welcome students of color they must be willing to tell students what to do – give everyone the cultural knowledge that many of the white students came with. This way we can learn about power and everything else together.

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