Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Education as the Practice of Freedom

A grassroots movement is forming in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans with the goal of offering a true educational alternative to the traditional system of public education that has long failed many of our community’s young people.  We are educators, students, parents and others who believe that freedom and democracy are not just textbook concepts, but a way of living and learning - for our children as well as ourselves.  The New Orleans Liberation Academy (NOLA) operates as an independent  home-school resource center for youth who have not found success in traditional school environments, yet need and deserve a supportive place to learn and grow.  Presently we work with a small number of youth and as we develop further will begin formally accepting new students in September 2011.

This blog will document our development and will eventually provide an opportunity to showcase the incredible work of our students.  We will share our thinking, our accomplishments, our challenges, our successes and our failures as we move forward on the incredible journey of achieving education as the practice of freedom.  We know this work is hard, and will require resources and support beyond our present means, so we will also use this blog to seek support and share opportunities to learn and grow with us.

NOLA is a democratic school for children and youth of all ages.  Each child and staff member will have an equal voice in major decisions (and minor ones) affecting the day-to-day running of the school.  NOLA is dedicated to the belief that all students must be free to develop naturally as human beings in a non-coercive educational environment and empowered to make decisions affecting their everyday lives and that of their community.

In Teaching to Transgress bell hooks writes:
"The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom," (1994, p.207).
Practicing education as an act of freedom involves learning and unlearning.  Student’s minds and hearts are often crammed with information and knowledge, the remembered bits of content of their years of education and varying degrees of understanding of how to study, research, and write.  Stuffed in between the fragments of history and literature and math is the information and misinformation they have learned about race, gender, class, and sexual orientation; their understanding of their own identity, place and history and their understanding of the "other"; groups or individuals who are different from them.

NOLA places the highest emphasis on the personal development of each student and seeks to minimize, or if possible eliminate completely, undue influence, pressure and stress that accrue from expectations on students to acquire the accepted wisdom of present day society or meet arbitrary standards, so that each child can become an independent learner and thinker.  NOLA believes that all children and youth are natural learners and they are fully supported to pursue any interest they have, in the manner they choose, at their own pace, and for as long as they want to, as long as they do not restrict any other person's right to do the same.

The school will accept students aged 6 through 16 and will serve students up to 20 years of age.  Students are not segregated by age.  There is no set curriculum except the establishment of an all-inclusive democratic system that runs the school, and the communication of that system to all members of the school.  The communication of the twin philosophical underpinnings of the school, including the democratic system stated above, and the understanding that students are free to pursue their individual interests for however long they want and in whatever manner they choose, thereby placing the responsibility for learning on the students, also constitutes the curriculum of the school.  There are no compulsory grades, assessments or homework.  The students will be in charge of their own learning and progress and are able to adequately assess themselves and perform any additional work or learning outside of the school that they want to in line with their interests.

The school will provide a multi-disciplinary, reality-based/project-based and applied learning approach to further the student's understanding and appreciation of interests that they are pursuing.  This includes the use of a varied and differentiated assortment of learning materials, supplies and resources, as well as frequent trips to visit individuals, organizations, businesses, and/or communities in the New Orleans area that can enlighten and enrich students' understanding, knowledge and experience in a given area of interest.

At its best, education as the practice of freedom allows both teachers and students to do exactly what bell hooks (1994, p.207) describes "...to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries..."  This education does not mean replacing one set of information with another, nor replacing conservative values with liberal values nor moving from the politically incorrect to the politically correct.  To teach in a way that is liberating for students and teacher alike requires teaching and learning how to think independently, assess information, and reevaluate what has previously been taught and learned.  The freedom to make our own decisions about beliefs, values, attitudes, behavior, and knowledge about diversity can be liberating, even exhilarating.

We invite you to join us on this journey of learning, growth and liberation.

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