DIY and Cooperative Education
“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”
— – Ivan Illich, “Deschooling Society”
Of course, no one does anything completely by themselves. Still, I call these forms of education “Do-It-Yourself” because they are super hands-on. They come with vague instructions when they come with instructions at all and, when done well, the learner gets to make the big decisions (and do all the work.)
Under this banner I include:
Unschooling – learning by living and following your interests, with guidance.
Self – Education – you want to learn something and do what you need to do to learn it!
Institutional DIY Education – so maybe you attend a traditional school; sometimes there’re still ways to craft your own education within the confines of that structure.
Cooperative education is not about one person learning, but a group – a group of people learning together and making decisions together without bosses.
Free Schools and Sudbury Schools – pictured top right is an old class picture of students at Harriet Tubman Democratic Free School. These students chose how they would spend their days at school. Free schools all differ, but choice is key in all of them.
Homeschool Cooperatives and Resource Centers – these generally come in two flavors – a group of educators establish a place where homeschoolers can gather to learn together or parents of homeschoolers get together to pool resources and spend time together learning.
I became fascinated with DIY and cooperative education long ago, but told myself that it just wasn’t practical for the students I am committed to work with – the disenfranchised, exploited and marginalized. I read lots about middle class, White families involved in DIY and cooperative education and thought I’d take the great ideas they were employing to the public school classroom. Eventually I found it harder and harder to reconcile the assumptions of public school with the principles of DIY and cooperative education and decided I’d break away. My mission is to show how DIY and cooperative education can rebuild our communities around equity. I am a champion of DIY and cooperative education for ALL!
THIS WAS A VIDEO I MADE IN UNDERGRAD ABOUT FREE SCHOOLS. WE HAD A LIVELY DISCUSSION IN CLASS AFTERWARD.
The Story of Oyaya
The myth I tell about myself is that I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I first met a teacher. I remember the first standardized test I took, in the same classroom as I played with electric blue play-dough and drew pictures of flowers with no petals, no stamens, only hearts at the tops of their stems. I loved filling in that scantron. I was a child who loved sitting still, loved reading, fed on the jolt of pride that came from giving an accepted answer. Every bubble I scribbled full with my number two pencil gave me that jolt. Our test scores were sent home with us weeks later in manila folders with golden closures. I was labeled academically gifted and ushered off to learn from exciting teachers who thought I was great to teach and provided me with fascinating classwork, individual attention and lots of forgiveness for willful and snotty behavior – all of the luxuries of excellent schooling.
“Everywhere I carried my fragile superiority that I hated living with and felt I couldn’t live without.”
Often I was the only Black, working class child of a single mother in my sequestered classes, even though all but one of the ten schools I attended before college was chock full of us. My neighbors toiled. I was one picked to escape because of something about me. Whatever it was (smartness?), I knew I had to protect it to maintain my position. I moved on average every other year. I lived in rural places, urban places and went to some of the most diverse schools in the country and some of the least, on the West and East coast. Everywhere I carried my fragile superiority that I hated living with and felt I couldn’t live without.
When I was 16, I found the book Pedagogy of The Oppressed at a beach store. I had never heard the word pedagogy before, nor most of the words I encountered upon opening the book, but I was enchanted by the end of the first chapter. That oppressed people could be actors in their own liberation – AND that of their oppressors. That education is not just about acquiring knowledge, in fact not about that at all, but about understanding the world, about your place in it, about your power. That was good news to me. The way I thought about my life’s work as an educator completely changed. Equity and Social justice became my gospel.
Slowly, I began to notice the toxic messages I was being subtly taught at school. I realized I had learned that intelligence is something that is inherent to people, that living a fulfilling life is about constant competition and comparison, that everyone of a certain age should have achieved a certain set of goals and one is either ahead of or behind everyone else, that some are meant for lives are luxury while others are meant to work hard forever, that ways of knowing are limited mostly to reading, writing and math, that any piece of knowledge could be disconnected from another piece.
With this new perspective I entered the college application process. It was the apex of all of the competition and comparison of my K12 education and I was constantly reminded that the stakes were very high. Where I went to college was to be an evaluation of all I had done before and the determination of all I would do after. But all I saw was the ceremonious beginning to a life of ceaseless competition and joy postponement for externally created goals.
The world was new to me
“I didn’t know any Black people who homeschooled, especially not working class families like mine.”
I went to college for a year, then left for four years of working and volunteering. I found that I liked learning by working and reading independently and being active in my community. I read alot about unschooling during these four years. I was enchanted, but snapped myself out of it. I didn’t know any Black people who homeschooled, especially not working class families like mine. After years of struggling to pay for day care they were happy to send their kids to school, which was paid for by property taxes, not out of their quite unlined pockets. I let it go and imagined taking the spirit of unschooling into the public school classroom with me.
“It soon became crystal clear that I would not be able to be successful in a career for which I had build up a healthy reserve of disgust and disdain.”
When I went back to school I thought I’d be a radical science teacher so I majored in Biology. I was saddened to find that my science classes were all, more or less, based on rote memorization, with some lab work on the side. I hated it. I hated the competition, the curved grades, the cramming of more information than is truly feasible for human to retain, the lack of emphasis on the critical thinking that I thought would actually make someone a great scientist. My education classes were worse. Although there was almost universal agreement that the educational guidelines imposed by politicians were not conducive to authentic education of students in their kaleidoscopic diversity, our professors were required to toe the line. We were taught to disregard our own instincts, our passions, our students unique strengths and interests except for a detour here or there. We were educated out of excellence. It soon became crystal clear that I would not be able to be successful in a career for which I had build up a healthy reserve of disgust and disdain. And which I felt morally opposed to! I left both Biology and Education with gratitude in my heart for the teachers playing the political games required to truly educate and a list of ideas of what else I could do with my lifelong dream of becoming an educator.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in Critical Education Studies. My degree was an inquiry into why there are so few working class kids of color unschooling and in Free Schools. The question is still central in my life. Soon after graduating I conceived of Oyaya – a forum to extend that question to people of all kinds and other community centered and decentralized ways of educating ourselves.
In the Yoruba religion, Oya is the orisha or goddess of wind and change. In the Yoruban language Oyaya means joy. Although I am not a practitioner or adherent of Yoruba, I feel a connection to it. I’m a Black American woman with ancestry in West Africa of which I do not know the details. For that reason and also because human beings originated in Africa, the spiritual traditions of the African, particularly West African, diaspora are deeply important to me.
As I understand it, Oya enjoys egglant and creates hurricanes. This is why I’ve used the colors eggplant, blue, aqua and sand here.
** Please, if you feel I am misrepresenting Oya or the Yoruba religion, share your feelings with me.**
Oyaya – DIY and Cooperative Education For ALL is dedicated to sweeping education toward equity, joyfully.
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.