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Blowin’ the Roof Off

So what if just about everything you thought you knew about schooling was wrong.  What if the structures, curriculum, behavioral expectations, student-teacher dynamic, daily scheduling, assessment methods and criteria, etc. –what if all of the stuff you had been told was immutable could be different…really different?


In my previous post “Is it a cop out to drop out?” I described my decision to leave public education having become disillusioned with the entire soulless endeavor.  The next step for my family was to find ourselves the most beautiful place and the most welcoming community on the planet and restructure our lives to return to balance.  We moved to a fairly remote island of 5,000 residents in north Puget Sound thinking we would share parenting more fully and look for a way to secure a modest income that would afford us a simple lifestyle.  I was done teaching; that was for sure.


Within a short time of moving to the island, we came into friendship with a handful of parents with 3-5 yr old kids (our own son was 4 at the time.)  These families had been hosting a small playgroup for the kids and we started some dialogue about education.  Long story short, I was hired to teach a part-time preschool class.  This soon grew into the founding of a small one-room school (and my work was no longer part-time).  And, as these amazing kids grew over the next few years it became a two-room school and included primary grades.


In those days things were relatively easy.  The parents agreed that they wanted a safe and nurturing environment for their young children.  Aesthetics were important, natural materials and plenty of time for the kids to play.  But as time passed things became much more challenging.


I was a neophyte in the world of educational alternatives and so followed my instincts and employed a smattering of the more or less progressive methods, which I had used in my public school teaching.  But parents began having some questions about where we were going.  What was the role of academics to be?  How was I going to design curriculum?  Shouldn’t there be homework?  An emerging diversity of perspectives combined with my own desire for answers led me to start some research.  I looked on line, I read books and magazines.  I visited schools.


What I began to discover blew me away.  School did not have to look like I was used to at all!  Educators had in fact for centuries explored all kinds of radical alternatives.  And the contemporary landscape included homeschooling, deschooling, unschooling, free schooling.  Waldorf and Montessori approaches offered radically different ideas about teaching methods and educational purpose, with incredibly diverse spiritual notions of childhood rooted deeply in child development theories that I had no idea existed.  I came across the Reggio Emelia approach.  Folk education, Foxfire education.  There were the Deweyan progressive schools, co-op schools, community schools and open classrooms.  Quaker education, democratic education, Sudbury Schools, schools focused on experiential learning, expeditionary learning, place-based education ecological literacy, social justice and there were learning centers of every stripe, that didn’t even ascribe to the moniker of “school.”  And, of course, all this was the tip of the iceberg.


I had gone to college, taken educational philosophy courses and plenty of methods classes before becoming a teacher (It seems they mostly focused on classroom management, from what I can remember.)  I was certificated.  I had worked for a decade in public schools.  Why had no one told me about the plethora of diverse ways to understand and approach education?  My own ignorance and naiveté was shocking really.


What a period of awakening for me.  I had previously been a young idealistic teacher, but had been defeated by the crushing weight of the dominant standards-based Nation-At-Risk-No Child-Left-Behind monolith.  Now, having previously left the system in utter disgust and contempt, precisely when I was not looking for anything in particular, I came to find out it was all a huge lie, a hoax.  It was possible to educate differently, humanely, creatively. The roof was blown off!  It seemed that almost anything was possible.  And, at this very point of realization I found myself with a school!  Unbelievable.  We were in a lovely home-like school site we had just remodeled and I had a small cohort of truly incredible children and parents just waiting for leadership.


I looked in the mirror.  I hadn’t planned for this, but look what just fell in my lap.   YIKES!  Was I up for it?


So what would you do?  Could you design a utopian school?  Would you want to try?  Where would you start?  What pedagogy would be your foundation?  What Mission?  What core beliefs?  What methods, what materials, what curriculum?  In a future post I’ll continue my story.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.




About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


16 thoughts on “Blowin’ the Roof Off

  1. What a wonderful tale! It’s exciting to hear a teacher so enthused, and so filled with hope about the way things really can be.

    How I envy you! My best friend (who is also a teacher) and I have long dreamed of creating a school of our own. It would be a small school, very much like a one-room schoolhouse, but with more space, and the kids would be a mix of ages, and would live nearby.

    Many a night we’ve just sat and talked, exploring our mutual beliefs and desires and hopes, and dreamed of how happy a place it could be the majority of the time, if we were freed from the ropes of big district culture, and that familiar old goblin, state-mandated testing!

    I can’t wait to read the next installment of your exciting story. I imagine there have been some pitfalls along the way, but what a glorious opportunity you created for yourself!

    I’m proud of ya, girl!

    Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 22, 2010, 5:03 am
  2. I’ve loved reading about educational alternatives – all my life, but when teaching junior high was way too hard, I moved up to community college.

    Becoming a parent got me involved with alternatives, and my son is now in a mini-school (5 kids), run by a wonderful woman. We are in Richmond, California, although the school will move soon to North Oakland (still close by). We would like to provide an alternative that is affordable for working parents. The director’s perspective isn’t exactly like mine, but close enough.

    Here’s a poem about my ideal school. Maybe the first line needs to change: “My ideal school Is part of an ideal community” puts this in some utopian future. But I really don’t think the schools can solve the problems we face. Kids need food, safe and stable homes, and safe communities. Their parents need stable jobs that will support the family and give them time to be at home with their kids.

    All kids need time to play and learn on their own terms, but food and security come first.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | November 22, 2010, 11:16 am
    • Sue, I want to include your poem on my blog, with links and full attribution to you, of course! I too doubt people will click the link if I just tell them I found an awesome poem about a dream school.

      I went to your blog, but can’t find any way whatsoever to contact you. My email is paula_lee_bright at I’m really hoping to hear from you!

      And thank you for telling us your dreams.

      Here’s to all of us, hoping that maybe these things can come true some way, somehow.

      Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 22, 2010, 10:03 pm
  3. Thanks Paula,

    I know you are not alone. In fact, I think it must be a universal fantasy. If I could have my own little school… oh, think how different it could be! That was why I paused the narrative at this point. Tapping into those ideals and reconnecting with the visioning process is certainly one important step to meaningful reform. Like I said, I was not one of the brave few who set out with determination to realize some utopian goal. I was unbelievably lucky and was given this gift. And I have tried to make the most of it.

    So, once you and your friend imagined the sweetness of FREEDOM FROM testing and old school culture, did you ever go deeply into the question of how to use the FREEDOM TO create something entirely different? What would be YOUR key core elements? You gave us a hint, but I’d love to know more. Truly.

    You are so right, my journey has been fraught with surprises, challenges, compromises. That’s the thing about carrying idealism into the real world, I suppose. I will continue to tell my story in snippets.

    Thanks for adding your voice.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 22, 2010, 11:17 am
    • One of the basic tenets of our school is that we would surround children with learning opportunities each day, and let some self-selection take place. We’d use gentle guidance to ensure exploration of clear core concepts such as reading and math, early on.

      I am ecstatic when teaching reading, and do it naturally, and YES, government, I do teach phonics. It can be a lot of fun! DRILL isn’t the way, engagement is! I have a ton of strategies, and will be showing them in videos on my site very soon. (Working on learning video editing as we speak—or should I say, as I type??)

      Learning materials would be immersion in stories, books everywhere (I had a classroom library of 8,000 books, and yes! I was BROKE), cards with letters, blocks with letters, magnetic boards, white boards, letter shapes in a variety of materials; the same with words, words to put together—letters and words alone have infinite ways to be played with. Spaghetti work one day. Shaving cream learning. Go outside and collect sticks and vines. Make words. Small groups make sentences. Everybody can write.

      The early stages of math are learned so much more successfully when it’s hands-on. We’d have lots of toys to use in math games and math play, and this too would be gently directed, as well as self-directed time with the materials.

      Science is around and about us everywhere. We’d make the resources for learning available, and lightly suggest ideas for experimenting, such as, “Hey, let’s put things in this tub of water and see which ones sink and which ones float.” The kids always gather round! Of course they do: it’s something they do on their own if allowed!

      Family would come in to help us learn about their talents. Cooking. Photography. Gardening. Robotics. You name it.

      These are just descriptions for some basics. Obviously the techniques would grow more elaborate and include academics as the children’s abilities grow. But always exploration of personal interests will remain a key component. A child will master anything they have to if they really want to know! Learning how to learn is key in this new time and space.

      Every student would have a computer, or whatever serves as a computer in the future. The iPad, for example, would possibly take the place of a laptop on every desk. That remains fluid in our minds, since tech changes so quickly.

      We’d have a big van or small bus, because if we want to know about something and it’s not at school, then we’d all go to it!

      History and civics and social studies would be taught through exploring how our own community works, and through story and hands-on churning butter and talking to elders and reporting back.

      Oh, dear, I could ramble forever! We’ve thought it through up to grade 6. Then we agree we’d pass them along to a similar place, while we continue working with the age group we most love to teach. The littles.

      We’ve thought it through much more deeply. But enough for now. How does it sound?

      Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 22, 2010, 10:34 pm
  4. Sue,

    Your poem is so beautiful. I hope you don’t mind me pasting it in here. I’m afraid people may not click on the link and all should see it! Many of these stanzas are so familiar, and not at all out of reach. We absolutely can create schools like this. I have seen many. Let’s dream them together. We should all write a “My Ideal School” poem.

    And yes, kids need food and loving homes, agreed. I am trusting that some other incredible and dedicated folks are pouring their hearts and souls into that work. My arena is education. But for those selfless social workers, grandparents, foster parents and child advocates everywhere, I am forever in awe and debt. Their work is every bit as critical as ours in the creation of a just world in which children can grow and thrive.

    Here’s the beautiful poem:

    My Ideal School
    My ideal school
    Is part of an ideal community
    People aren’t separated by wealth and poverty
    The richest have a little extra, the poorest still have what they need
    People aren’t pulled apart by race
    And they’ve learned to respect the glory of differences
    If gender differences still exist, the ones who don’t fit are celebrated
    They all mix together in a public school that they,
    Neighborhood by neighborhood, control

    My ideal school
    Is close to home
    The kids can visit whenever they want
    Perhaps a dedicated mentor lives there
    (Can’t say teacher, it makes the wrong image)

    My ideal school
    Has a garden and a kitchen and hot yummy food
    And a beautiful place to sit and eat together
    (Is it calm? Or is the excitement of the children too much for ‘calm’?)

    My ideal school
    Is full of resources that draw the kids’ interest
    Is staffed with adults who know
    That children have their own ways of thinking
    That each child moves through learning in their own way
    That there must be safety, both physical and emotional
    That there must be affection and loving and hugs

    In my ideal school
    The children see adults learning
    They see adults getting stuck, and then getting it, frustration and joy
    Here is a woman learning cello
    Here is a man learning to knit
    Here are 3 grown-ups talking about a book

    My ideal school has traditions
    They go camping in September
    They make Stone Soup together in January
    Each day begins with music, someone is playing guitar and many are singing
    Most everyone gathers together at lunch time and shares their food
    The day and the year both have a rhythm

    At my ideal school
    When two kids fight
    Bigger kids come help them to use words to solve their problems
    The big kids help to build a deck or a chicken house, or a new classroom,
    trek through the mountains and fix bikes,
    take responsibility for the gardens, chickens, and maybe a sheep or a goat

    My ideal school might not be called a school
    We need a break from the past, we need a new word for a new place
    Maybe it’s the Children’s Center
    Except there are lots of grownups there, too,
    Learning as much as the kids

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 22, 2010, 11:28 am
  5. This is extremely interesting. I am a student myself and I’m a senior and I find it so amazing how schools can be different. I feel like I have been brainwashed. I feel like this is the only way a school should be run. This post made me realize that there can be so much more to school than the habitual school week. This was an interesting post and I enjoyed every part of it!

    Posted by Akash | November 23, 2010, 11:23 am
    • Akash, we’re always appreciative of students’ points of view – thanks so much for reading and commenting! Please let us know if you’d like to post here about how you think school could and should be.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 23, 2010, 11:30 am
  6. Hi Paula,

    I love your vision! Beautiful. Some phrases jumped out at me:
    And let’s not forget: SHAVING CREAM, BUTTER, and SPAGHETTI

    Don’t mean to truncate your beautiful prose (hope you don’t mind.) Just thought these key point bear repeating again and again. Sounds so wonderful. Is it possible? What’s holding you (and all of us) back? We know what it should look like, don’t we?


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 23, 2010, 3:38 pm
    • I love truncating thoughts to make a point. After all, I love my Twitter!

      Actually, I’m honored.

      What stops me is, quite frankly, money, since I have none. The second and equally definitive reason is that the laws for creating even a tiny school are overwhelmingly burdensome, and I don’t want to go to jail for breaking “school law.”

      I did homeschool a third grader and a sixth grader, both of whom were reading failures. It was a phenomenal year for the three of us! Alas, at the end of the year, the authorities started looking into it.

      I was (chicken, yes!) scared, and didn’t pursue it. Now I wish I had.

      Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 24, 2010, 3:46 am
      • Paula,

        Every situation is unique, of course, but if you’re serious about realizing your beautiful vision, you might start with some networking in your community. Is it possible to post fliers or run a newspaper announcement calling for a gathering of people interested in exploring the possibility of creating an incredible learning environment for their children. If you get a handful of people together, chances are each is connected to a small network, and if a few are dissatisfied with current options, there are undoubtedly many many more. In this group someone may have resources, grandparents, or fundraising expertise. And it really only takes a small handful. Just start talking, you never know.

        In terms of state laws for private schools, in WA it really wasn’t too bad. You did need a certificated teacher and a facility that met building codes for educational usage – very little else was required. If it is too daunting, I know a number of schools avoid all the hassle by calling themselves a “learning center” or “community of learners” or something. They are not an approved private school and are unregulated by any agency. The downside of course is that you are then not able to provide a legal education for the enrolled kids. The parents will need to register with their district as homeschoolers, (WA enjoys some very progressive homeschooling laws, so not a big deal here) or possibly with a school district in your state that has a liberal parent partnership program (ALE “alternative learning environment” programs in WA.) I also know of a handful of private schools that, even with out-of-state kids, will, for a fee, allow kids to register with them, satisfying the state’s legal requirement, and then will rubber stamp the kids’ alternative learning experiences. Again it’d take a bit of research, but all of these options have been very doable for many folks out here.

        Where do you live?

        Posted by Paul Freedman | November 24, 2010, 11:32 am
  7. Hi Akash,

    Thanks so much for joining in this conversation. I am genuinely sorry for the pain you’ve experienced. School is not supposed to be that way, and really needn’t be (in my opinion.) Sounds like any brainwashing, though was not complete as you obviously remain a strong and self-aware critical thinker. Good for you!! Maybe education is your field. Use the deficits you saw in your personal experience to envision something whole and beautiful. Think big. Dream. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Thanks for your courage in speaking out.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 23, 2010, 3:53 pm
  8. You’ve given me some real thorough ideas on how I could proceed. Hmmm. Wheels begin to turn.

    Nieca, (my best friend and co-dreamer) hates her work right now. She’s burnt out on public schools, I know.

    I’m in St. Louis, Missouri. Hmmm.


    Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 30, 2010, 3:48 am


  1. Pingback: You Want Ideas? We Have Ideas! « Cooperative Catalyst - November 22, 2010

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