The hot sun shone as I grabbed my hat and snacks out of the van and strolled down the hill to the entrance of Pine. We first visited The Pine School several months earlier as a family adding a slight sense of ease to my visit, I knew a little of what to expect. That said, this being the first day at volunteering myself, past the theory and into the practical classroom experience of democratic education…the butterflies were flapping.
Past the totem pole of fabulously carved creatures and the stack of enormous pieces of bare cardboard canvas, I arrived outside the principle’s office. Maris, the beating heart of Pine School greeted me with warmth. Her phone rang and I got a chance to gaze at some of the many things piling up her desk: the trolls, the artworks and the metal trinket puzzles to name but a few. With business sorted she showed me a new history book that had been sent to her and with a chuckle, she explained the author was rather biased in his thoughts and that the book would be getting a once over before making its way to the shelves. She advised that all the staff knew I was going to be there and to go where I felt called. With that and her next visitor at the door, I headed to the Little Ones room.
The Pine School is a small democratic school with a high teacher to student ratio and structured in multi-age groups commonly known as the little ones, the middle room and the big kids. With my son being very close to the age of the youngest students I felt I may feel more comfortable in that space. As I arrived in the little ones room, a trio of kids sat intently with the teacher on the floor passionately discussing and trading Pokemon cards. The teacher Jesse’s attention wasn’t swayed by my arrival so I wandered around a little, dodging the children flying past with dress ups and lego creations. The room felt like chaos! Several adults were also in the space but there was no way of telling whether they were parents or teachers. As I approached the back of the room I was greeted by Beth, one of the teachers. I felt very out of place, I was in a space not governed by the rules that I remember from my schooling, a space that belonged to a group of free spirits exercising their freedom and following their creative impulses. The internal urge to tidy up made me chuckle inside but I gathered that wasn’t the done thing. When the Pokemon trades had been exhausted Jesse greeted me with excitement and welcomed me to engage with the children. I stepped back to see kids of all ages so engaged in each other and their play that I was compelled only to watch.
Shortly after meeting the third teacher for the room Tom, the morning circles were called. I found a small circle of about 9 children and 3 adults including myself, sat around a candle and several items of nature. One student self nominated herself to be the leader and called the topic to be ‘books’. With the speaking ‘totem’ in hand she began speaking about the book she was currently reading before passing the totem on. Students raised their hands to request the opportunity to respond and share. The teachers sat as participants in a circle run by the students. I shared my excitement about audiobooks. After everyone had shared, the circle was concluded and most students then headed outside to participate in the ‘whole school game’. One of the students who had sat next to me in the circle filled me in on how the game worked. We walked out to the oval chatting about audiobooks and comparing stories on how painful our nose piercings had been. I started to relax realising that I just needed to be present to fit in here.
As we began the game of chain tag the rain began to pour. I waited for either a student or teacher to call it off but quite the opposite occurred, we ran and laughed and ran some more. One of the older students and fastest, as my new little friend had informed me, soon joined the game with a very young girl dressed in a full princess outfit on his back. There was no banter, no negative energy, just lots of running, squeals, team work and fun. We strolled back towards the school after 3 rounds soggy and satisfied.
Back in the classroom, students were everywhere doing all sorts of things. The older students disappeared to their rooms and I was able to gage who the little ones were. It was novel reading time and a student had requested that today this happened in the fortress. Beth let everyone know this was what was happening but only a handful of students with their lunch boxes followed us outside to the play equipment and up into the fortress.
As Beth began to read the novel “Tashi“, students snuggled and ate and jumped from the structure. So what is democratic education? In theory it can be described as
“…a school which is, in some capacity, self-governing, with each community member having influence on decisions and outcomes. A contrast might be made with more ‘autocratic’ school structures, in which power and authority are concentrated in the teachers and adult administrators. In democratic educational philosophy, students, including and especially children, are seen as active participants in their own learning and their environment. Each student’s voice is given weight in decision-making both personal — for instance, the direction of his or her own education — and communal — the rules and adjudications by which the school functions as a whole.” – Andy Holloway.
In practice my experience was showing me that it is messy and loud, vibrant and in the moment, chaotic and free, unpredictable and packed full of opportunity.
After the chapter had been read we returned inside to the calendar board to count the days the children had been in school and to mark off the date. There wasn’t much interest for this today but one student soon became 6. The stacking blocks were pulled out and simple subtractions and additions were raised and solved, all led by the students. An older student seemed to take great pride in supporting and guiding his younger friends through the problems, providing appropriate stacks of bricks to help them. It was beautiful to observe.
After ‘out time’ (recess), a suggestion was made to make a shop. The tables were cleared and placed on their sides and soon, sheet after sheet of printed money arrived in the classroom. Students scattered the floors busily cutting out their wads of cash. I sat down to help but my scissors were soon requested, preferring to do it themselves. Before long there was a bank and a toy shop and a job agency and a Pokemon card stall and…..the robbers! The shouts and thieving and snatching and brawls prompted Jesse to call a town meeting where everyone willing to sit on the rainbow rug for a moment was asked to have a think about why there was stealing and what to do about it. I sat back and watched Jesse in awe, but mostly my heart just sang watching these little people contemplate justice and equality for their little pop up town. Before long the robbers became the bank managers and a wallet making shop appeared so everyone could have somewhere safe to store their money. As I walked away from the job agency having just been given the job as a ranger one of the earlier robbers approached me wanting my money, when I showed my last $5 he pulled out a stash from behind his back and gave me a wad!
Pine School captured my heart. The time and attention to focus on the students voices gave way to some wacky and wonderful creative streams. The language of play appeared to be the mother tonge of the school and through that play I got a sense that other learning could happen. At several moments during the morning however I was aware of some concern about how the students learnt past their playful freedom. The teachers welcomed with ease my questions regarding this and shared their feelings. I concluded that a greater sense of trust in the process helped combat any fears that emerged for the teachers. One teacher told me of his activity planning, how activities are conceived around the interest of a particular group of students. Sometimes they work in engaging these target groups but he told of other times where the desired engagement doesn’t happen and the feelings of frustration involved. None the less, trusting that simply doing the activity will always engage someone.
One teacher being a former student and graduate of The Pine School also gave insight into the challenges sometimes faced by the students too. Slow to pick up reading herself, she recalled her frustrations at the freedom of her alternative education and her longing at times to have been in a ‘normal’ school where she perceived things would be different. Her return to Pine school as a teacher however appears to honour so much that this school is about much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
I felt a strange sense of familiarity at Pine, a common ground. As I parent, I strive for a democratic reality for our children built on respect. This can be a great challenge in a society that doesn’t necessarily share the same belief that children are deserving of equal respect. The Pine School however does share this belief and they live it. I left the chaotic grounds with a rich sense of hope and community. Imagine that, a school built on equality, play and respect.