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Learning at its Best

first year reflection: a home for a “small-a” anarchist

I’m a philosophical wanderer moving away from ideological islands in search of some intellectual space. I’m a perpetual bender of paper clips, an incessant doodler at staff meetings and a cook who rarely cracks open a recipe box.

I’m a “small-l” liberatrian,  a “small-c” conservative, a “small-l” liberal and a “small-d” democrat.   I’m not a fan of labels or jargon or anything else that forces me to abandon nuance and push toward educational tribalism.  I like to protect my voice, not because it’s better or even different from others, but simply because it’s mine and I’ve seen how quickly individuals abandon their voices for the mainstream megaphone that dominates the dialogue.

I’m an anarchist.  Not the kind who wears black and throws bricks into Wal-Mart, but the kind who embraces the idea of an absence of a leader.  I love the idea of organic change, starting as a movement, growing as a rhizome.  I love the idea that change won’t happen through heavy-handed power struggles, but through humility and meaningful conversations.

So, it was admittedly odd for me to embrace the idea of the Cooperative Catalyst.  It felt trendy, because it was popular.  It had this strong sense of shared values and a collective voice and yet . . . each individual had the freedom to be themselves.  Conversation could get intense, but always out of respect and honesty.

I was drawn to the community within the conversation.  I quickly found that I could speak openly, sharing my geekiest thoughts and most personal stories and I would run into people who would challenge my thinking while affirming many of the ideas that seem strange within my current school context.   I found other writers doing amazing things throughout the world and rather than feeling jealous (which I sometimes do when someone does “something big”) I felt hopeful that things could change in education.

I admit that sometimes I still feel like an outsider.  Perhaps that’s part of being an introvert.  Maybe it’s a part of feeling distant from big events and conferences and anything else that starts with a proper noun.  I get it.  I can be pretty improper.  My voice is unflitered.  My writing tends to meander.

However, what I’ve found is a community where I can express that unfiltered voice without judgement.  I’ve found a place where my thoughts are valued and where people actually want to engage in hard conversations about learning.  I’ve found a place that will accept a small-a anarchist who sometimes wonders if he’s wandered away so far that he’s thinking in isolation, until he runs into people who remind him that the quest for authenticity is perhaps the most sane journey available for those who are drowning in a sea of standardization.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


13 thoughts on “first year reflection: a home for a “small-a” anarchist

  1. Beautifully put and absolutely in line with what we hope the site is and will continue to be for us all.

    Thanks, John –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 3, 2011, 8:18 am
  2. John,

    I love your writing and also your need 🙂 to be outsider…. when everyone see you as a leader or at least I do. Your posts have a great mix of humor, truth, wisdom and day to day struggles that make them so fun to read.

    Well I will continue to argue that you are one of the most active and popular members of the cooperative….if you want to continue to be the outside with a little o…awesome! as long as you still write…

    also wonder if you read John Holt… he use the terms teacher with at Big T as the traditional knowledge authority teacher and the teacher with a little t as the model we should move toward…. same with school…..

    Your biggest fan at the coop!


    Posted by dloitz | May 4, 2011, 2:53 pm
  3. I’m a fan as well. Just reading and enjoying some older posts at the moment. Thanks for sharing so many ideas and insights. Your stories have such heart.

    Posted by mindyfitch | October 3, 2011, 1:30 am
  4. I’m a fan (and outsiderish) as well. In fact I’m taking a moment to enjoy some older posts like this one. Thanks for sharing your insights and ideas so openly and with such heart.

    I also wonder whether you’ve read John Holt since writing this post.

    Posted by mindyfitch | October 3, 2011, 1:35 am
    • I have mixed feelings on Holt. While I agree with a lot of what he says, I sometimes wish he had more nuance to his arguments. I don’t mind big, bold statements (which he uses) but I also like those to be tempered with a touch of humility.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 7:45 am
  5. In that case I’d be even more curious to hear your take on John Taylor Gatto—I am a fan and see a lot of truth in his perspective, but he is certainly hyperbolic and perhaps not extremely modest. I actually find John Holt’s voice pretty humble by comparison.

    Posted by Mindy | October 3, 2011, 4:17 pm
    • I actually read his book after I wrote “Sages and Lunatics” and thought, “here’s a lunatic speaking out in the best way possible.” I enjoyed his work and found myself smiling and nodding often. Was it polemic? Absolutely. Was it true? Oftentimes, yes.

      The tricky part with Holt is that he was so logical and thorough that I kind-of hoped he would add a touch of nuance.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 6:57 pm
  6. What book did you read of Holt’s… I agree with Mindy. I think he is really nuanced.


    Posted by dloitz | October 3, 2011, 7:00 pm
    • I read “Instead of Education” and loved it, but I didn’t find it to be very nuanced. The same goes with “Escape from Education.” I realize these were his works from the seventies and maybe he’s a little more tempered in his approach (postmodernism tended to do that with many alt. ed. reformers). In many respects, he reminds me of Alfie Kohn – solid in his approach, thorough and not arrogant, but still not nuanced.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 7:04 pm
  7. Yes those are more of his “issue” books! I highly recommend “Learning all the time” and “what to do on monday”

    These books are very nuanced!


    Posted by dloitz | October 3, 2011, 7:08 pm
  8. All this talk about nuance has me thinking about the word itself. From my perspective John Holt had an unusual knack for noticing (and respecting) the nuances of childhood. Still, I think I know what you mean about Instead of Education. (I haven’t read the other book you mentioned.) My favorite of the three Holt books I’ve read is the 2003 version of Teach Your Own, with notes by Pat Farenga. The copy I read came from the library, so I don’t have any dog-ears pointing to favorite passages, but skimming an online version just now led me to at least one example of the sorts of stories I appreciated:

    Years ago I went to a meeting of Catholic educators, where I heard a talk by a wise, funny old man who had been teaching all his life. One thing he said made us all laugh, and has stuck in my mind ever since: “A word to the wise is infuriating!” Yes it is, because it is insulting, and little children pick up this expression of (often loving and protective) distrust or contempt, even when we’re not conscious of sending it.
    Some years ago I was reading aloud to a small child, as yet a nonreader, perhaps three or four years old. As I read aloud I had the bright idea that by moving a finger along under the words as I read them I might make more clear the connections between the written and the spoken words. A chance to get in a little subtle teaching. Without saying anything about it, and as casually as possible, I began to do this.
    It didn’t take the child very long to figure out that what had begun as a nice, friendly, cozy sharing of a story had turned into something else, that her project had by some magic turned into my project. After a while, and without saying a word, she reached up a hand, took hold of my hand, and very gently moved it off the page and down by my side—where it belonged. I gave up “teaching” and went back to doing what I had been asked to do, which was to read the story.

    While we’re on the subject of unschooling books, I might as well throw out Grace Llewellyn’s name. Have you ever read The Teenage Liberation Handbook? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that one, too.

    Posted by Mindy | October 4, 2011, 12:35 am

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