Voices from the New American Schoolhouse

Sometimes I take procrastination and forgetfulness to new heights. (In case you didn’t get it, this is one of those times.)

In June 2007, I wrote a post called Thinking differently about schooling, which was actually a post about a movie called Voices from the New American Schoolhouse. Somehow, the person who made the film, a very nice man named Danny Mydlack, read my blog and offered to send me a DVD of the movie. Really.

And he did send the DVD, which I received in March 2008. (Long story.) I watched the DVD a couple of weeks later and I intended to blog about it. Clearly, in my case, intention does not translate to action quickly.

Moving on to the documentary, it was an eye-opener. For those that didn’t read the earlier post, the movie’s about Fairhaven, a school in Maryland. (You can read about Fairhaven’s philosophy on their website.)

What’s unusual about this school is that it’s student-driven and it’s democratic. The students decide which classes they want to take, they vote on various school decisions, they are on a “judicial committee” to settle disputes, etc. The school doesn’t restrict students from classes based on their ages, so you can have a youngish student taking “advanced” maths classes. The students essentially can learn what they want to learn.

What makes the DVD endearing is that the narration is done by the students of the school and it’s really interesting to hear the students, of varying ages, speak about their school. You can sense the passion that they have for their school.

A couple of the students stood out for me. One was a teenager who spoke about how, every morning, he read The Guardian for left-leaning news and Fox News for news with a right-wing perspective to get a balanced perspective on the news. Seriously, teenager. The other was a young girl who spoke about her passion for maths (algebra and polynomials if you must know) and how she was taking classes with older students.

One thing that I hadn’t realised was that the documentary was created over a two-year period, which is a lot of effort. It’s worth it because the end-product is terrific — informative and more importantly, inspiring. It really shows how children can be educated differently and how they can thrive in a democratic educational environment. It really makes you think about how we are educating children and whether the route that everyone takes is the right one for children.

If you have any interest in education, teaching, or schooling, this really is a DVD you should not miss. Who knows, it could even inspire you to do something along similar lines. A big thank you to Danny Mydlack, the filmmaker, for his generosity in sending me the DVD and for creating an exceptional documentary.

P.S. 1: When I read about Fairhaven and saw the documentary, I remembered that Ricardo Semler is trying to do similar stuff with his school Lumiar. Semler’s company, Semco, is run like a democracy and it seems that schools like Fairhaven are “doing democracy” in their schools.

P.S. 2: I found out later that Fairhaven is a Sudbury school. Apparently, there are a few schools like Fairhaven in the US.


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