What would school look like if our students were truly free?

6th & 7th grade students discussing competing utilitarian ethical claims in the “philosotree” – a tree they designated as the meeting place for their philosophy club.

When we imagine a “good student,” to what extent are we simply imagining a compliant student? Is our idea of “good” interchangeable with “well-behaved,” or even “docile”? Are our classrooms rewarding the wrong things — rewarding students who aspire to our idea of who they should be, and penalizing those free enough to insist on becoming their fuller, better selves?

I wondered that this morning as I re-read English professor Catherine Savini’s reflections on her own assumptions in an article on academic rigor and mental health. Savini noticed that, like most teachers, she inferred a great deal about her students’ character and capabilities from their in-class behavior. She was concerned that those inferences had led her astray:

But after more than a decade of teaching, I realized that my idea of the good student was standing in the way of good teaching.

This was because her preconceived notions of what a student should be kept her from seeing her students as they were. So instead of deciding that the student who left abruptly in the middle of class was inconsiderate or indifferent, Savini decided to gather more information. And by learning more about the students in her classroom, she was able to teach them more effectively. (A recent study bears this out).

Teachers know this intuitively and witness it every year: taking the time to know our students as full human beings frees them to flourish in and out of the classroom in ways we can’t predict. But we rarely look more closely at this magic. Why is it so liberating to be truly known by someone who matters to you? What happens when we step back and make space for who students are and who they can become?

I think about freedom in those terms – the powerful and creative spontaneity borne of meaningful relationships that leave room for ourselves as individuals. Philosopher Erich Fromm argues that true freedom requires the kinds of relationships that help us shed our loneliness without losing our individual selves in the process. Novelist Toni Morrison offers a similar vision of liberatory human connections in her novel Song of Solomon:

Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him.

I want my students to be free: to be known and cared for by the trusted adults in their lives, yet unencumbered by the kinds of artificially-imposed expectations or demands that would constrain what’s possible for their development as thinkers and human beings. I want my students to be mountains.

At LSG, I’ve seen kids transformed time and time again because adults took the time to create the conditions for this beautiful kind of freedom. Here are some ways our students respond to those conditions:

1. Students are free to care

Knitting enthusiast and viral internet sensation Samuel Barsky.

All that I understand about what’s most precious and worthy of protection in my students is embodied in a sweater-knitting internet sensation named Samuel Barsky. I was likely procrastinating grading when I came across one of his videos last year, and I was moved by the unguarded joy of this man who knits jumpers inspired by places and then photographs himself wearing his work at the actual place. His year is ordered by the careful craft of making these sweaters he’ll never sell, and traveling to the places he’d stitched freehand. He mostly taught himself how to do this beautiful thing that matters so much to him, and he decided on his own terms the purpose of his intensive labor.

It’s obvious from the first minute of the interview: Samuel Barsky spends his time doing what is most personally meaningful to him, and he would devote himself to his sweaters even if no one else valued them. Barsky reminds us of all that life has to offer when we care with openness and depth about the thing we feel most called to do in the world. How many human beings are brave enough to be that free? And yet: can any human being do great things without being that free?

Perhaps no one at LSG is more Samuel Barsky-esque than Kamran, one of our graduating seniors.

Kamran is the sort of student who sends thousand-word emails at 2 AM about the United States’ diplomatic relations with Iran, or the shortsightedness of establishment Democratic politics. Kamran is the sort of student whose class participation consists of delivering gesture-laden monologues with little warning and no preparation, to the enthusiastic, impromptu applause of his peers. Kamran is the sort of student whose mind lights upon a detail — a nineteenth century painting referenced offhandedly in a seminar discussion, or the cycle of idealism and disillusionment present in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — and fixates on that detail for months, building it into an original, all-encompassing theory he’ll expound on to anyone who will listen.

Kamran is the sort of student, in short, who cares unapologetically and publicly and eccentrically, in a way that few people are brave or free enough to do.

Most people walk around trying to hide who we are and what we care most deeply about, because to be truly known and then rejected or mocked seems far worse than to never be known at all. And we see this in our students: so many children come to our classrooms already having been told by the world that they must hide who they are.

But Kamran puts himself out there fully, and because of that, he learns more, does more, and leaves his mark wherever he goes. He single-handedly built one of the only student-led Model U.N. programs in the nation as a freshman, and students signed up to join him only because he cared so desperately about the team. He spent half his senior year in D.C. as an intern for the National Iranian American Council and a communications staffer for two nationally-significant campaigns. He lobbied incessantly for history courses reflecting his personal interests and worked alongside the teacher to design them. He emailed local politicians so relentlessly that they finally showed up to speak at the school.

It’s not just his deeds but his presence that impresses people. I see it in the classroom and at school-related social events: when Kamran is in the room, everyone notices; when he is not, everyone wishes he was. There is a definitive idea of “something Kamran would say” — he has a sensibility all his own. Community leaders have remarked to me how surprised they were to learn he was in high school. Teachers and students alike will never forget him.

In preparing to write this post, I interviewed teachers who’ve worked with Kamran throughout his time at LSG to get a better sense of what was distinctive about him. Our school founder Deep said something worth sharing here because it articulates precisely what is at stake in preserving students’ freedom to care:

I think the real lesson for us as educators is: we have designed all of education to make sure that people like Kamran don’t stay people like Kamran. And we are doing our very best to homogenize these kids. And so the real lesson of Kamran is: what type of teacher or school leaves Kamran as he is? That is the challenge. And that is all we’re talking about when we talk about teacher autonomy, and by extension student autonomy.

We must build classrooms and schools that protect students’ ability to care publicly and vulnerably about the work they are called to do — both because we owe it to all of our children, and because our shared future demands it.

Kamran (12th).

2. Students are free to question

Biology teacher Ashley Gam leads her Evolutionary Biology students in a discussion of pain receptors in the skin.

What I am most struck by when I observe my colleague Ashley Gam teach her evolutionary biology course is how she encourages and embraces students’ questions about the material in real time.

The excitement of great content always prompts questions for students. When kids find a way into the material that’s personally meaningful, they naturally want to know more. The difference between a good teacher and a great one is how she responds to those questions: does she make space for students’ interests, or does she stick to her lesson plan? Does she free kids to participate in the construction of knowledge, or does she constrain them to the passive role of information receptacles?

I watched Ms. Gam deliver a lesson on sensory receptors found in our skin. After reviewing the differences in construction and placement of nociceptors, thermoreceptors, and mechanoreceptors in the dermis, she began explaining what happens in your body when they are stimulated. Her explanation fascinated Cam (10th), who peppered her with questions:

Ms. Gam: I blow on Keaton’s eye. It activates specific neurons that tell whatever, tell your brain in this case, that your eyeball has been blown on. It’s immediately going to send a response. But it’s not thinking about that stimuli. If these neurons are activated, you’re automatically going to get that response —

Cam: But where is the programming?

Ms. Gam: The programming is in the structure and organization of the neurons.

Cam: So it’s in the spinal cord

Ms. Gam: In the case of your knee jerk reflex, yes. I want to get back to Cam’s question about the reflex: if it’s trainable, can you inhibit them. Can you inhibit or —

Cam: So what’s muscle memory?

Ms. Gam can barely get through a sentence without Cam interrupting her out of a sincere desire to know more.

Other teachers might see such questions as a disruption. Even in more progressive classrooms, teacher talk typically dominates instructional design. We know that students who talk more in our classes learn more, but children simply don’t spend much time using their voices at school: wondering aloud, making observations, reacting to new information, pursuing original lines of inquiry. They stay quiet because they know there is no space for them to speak up.

Here, though, I watched Ms. Gam draw on Cam’s enthusiastic inquiry as a source of engagement for all her kids. His questions were surprising and delightful detours through the content of the lesson, and the exchange created an improvisational structure that crescendoed toward shared insight.

Ms. Gam continued to respond to Cam’s question about whether our reflexes can be trained, and she marshalled memorable details (including the possibility of death) that might not have emerged without Cam’s participation:

Ms. Gam: Can you inhibit or override? I’d like us to look at this and I’d like us to look at some of these reflexes. To your question of muscle memory, of can you train a reflex: these are highly ingrained in your body. Everybody’s body. If they weren’t ingrained, you would not be here. These are highly adaptive responses. You would have things in your eye and you would die from some sort of infection if you did not have this response. If you can develop a reflex, ultimately what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to speed up a response so you’re not thinking about it a lot. That information is —

Cam: So you are thinking about it a bit though?

Ms. Gam: It’s about how fast you can process the information given a specific stimuli.

There are few things more discouraging to young learners than a teacher hearing their earnest and passionate questions and admonishing them to stick to the topic at hand. And there are obvious reasons a teacher might shut down student inquiry: the fear of failing to “cover” the material, of losing control of the lesson, of chaos ensuing. Ms. Gam approaches Cam’s questions entirely differently: she tacitly invites him to help her build the lesson, and everyone engages more deeply as a result.

Cam: Is it – if you’re playing a song on the guitar very quickly, you hear what’s happening now and you predict, you do something before there’s a sensory input, you think ahead?

Ms. Gam: So the idea is there’s a specific neural network that’s responsible for your environment, how you process it. “I just played an A, what am I gonna play next?” But all these pathways can be kind of modulated depending on how much time you spend doing them. So you can increase the neural networks to specific parts of your arm or your hand —

Cam: is that just building muscle?

Ms Gam: It’s building, and changing, and modulating neural connections in your brain and nervous system connected to areas responsible for the behavior you’re trying to cue.

Cam: So that’s purely speed or coordination?

Ms. Gam: Or sensitivity or —

Cam: That’s interesting.

Because of the space she leaves for her students to wonder aloud, Cam was able to make a personal connection between the course content and music, one of his core passions. Teachers spend months building relationships with their students so that they can facilitate these connections; Ms. Gam achieved it simply by being responsive and flexible in the moment when it mattered most. And Cam is far more likely to understand and remember what he’s learned because of this opportunity.

Ms. Gam: Yeah and a lot of physical therapy is about retraining that. Musicians trying to maintain their dexterity – you can desensitize some of those aspects, and you need to retrain them through physical therapy.

Cam: Does touch incorporate temperature, like if you get goosebumps?

Ms. Gam: We’re gonna do that in a little bit. I learned this from a crazy, wonderful poultry science teacher, but he was in love with histology which is basically cells and tissues. It’s a matter of appreciating the complexity and also the logic behind the relative position of things right on your skin. So this is what your textbook doesn’t necessarily do: it doesn’t provide you context-dependent information about what’s going on in one location and how it goes down.

When they work with Ms. Gam, students get the sense that they have this great opportunity to learn stuff with someone who clearly knows a lot more than them, but is still curious and growing, and willing to think alongside them. They feel like they’re free to — even expected to — pursue their own lines of inquiry during class, and they approach Ms. Gam as a thinker who is open to seeing her area of expertise in new ways. The freedom to question is the kind of freedom that reminds students that their ideas and interests matter in ways that can shape their world.

3. Students are free to play

Sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing students observe samples in microscopes to prepare for a writing exercise.

My sixth- and seventh-grade Nature Writing course this year was a beautiful mess.

The idea for the class came to me awhile ago from two sources, weeks apart: an eager pair of seventh-grade girls who’d formed a club dedicated to caring for and observing a caterpillar they’d recently acquired named “Stripey,” and a recent book on composition pedagogy by Ralph Fletcher that drew on a nature metaphor to advocate for what he termed “feral writing”: letting kids run wild as writers in their English language arts assignments.

In Nature Writing, we’ve collaborated with art teacher Danielle Ferrin to visit beautiful local sites and reflect on our relationship to the natural world. At the suggestion of biology teacher Ashley Gam, we’ve constructed Smithsonian-inspired “biocubes” and looked closely and patiently at these diminutive units of nature. We’ve read Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver and even Henry David Thoreau — and we’ve tried to emulate their styles. We’ve kept nature journals with weekly entries cataloguing minute details observed in our environments, exploring what wisdom or insight is to be found in such documentation. We’ve collaborated with history teacher Jim Percoco to write research-based personal essays grounded in a particular place that matters to us. We’ve used long walks and model texts and even actual stones as writing prompts. I never quite knew what would happen during any given class period, but it was always extraordinary.

And thanks to Ms. Gam, we also used microscopy as a tool to generate ideas for poetry, short stories, and essays.

I prepared students for the activity by asking them to think about the role of perspective in the literature we’d studied. The essential questions of our discussion were were: “How can we as writers help others see ordinary things in new ways? And why is such a thing worthwhile?” We brainstormed the different ways the writers we’ve studied — Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver, Sharman Apt Russell — helped us see ordinary things in new ways. Here’s what the students came up with:

  • By providing the hidden backstory or secrets about the thing
  • By using unconventional imagery which helps make the thing seem unfamiliar or new
  • By creating unlikely comparisons through metaphor, simile, analogy
  • By making personal connections through flashback, memory, narration
  • By shifting perspective or scale

But the exciting part was actually going into the biology lab to see our world in new ways.

Ms. Gam brought in wildflowers, grasses, and other samples from our local environment. (An insect that tagged along on one of the flowers excited the pair of boys lucky enough to find it). After a brief lesson on how to use these tools, and a mini-lecture on spring as a time of reproduction and rebirth for these plants, students were left to explore these natural materials.

Here are some images students created during the lesson:

Evalynn (7th) wrote this poem after thinking about the activity:

Thoughts on Perspective

It’s amazing how much the world changes when seen from a different perspective.
There is always more to see.
There is always another angle to look from.
You thought with your incredible eyesight you could see all of it.
Your naked eyes could see that there was texture in the center of the wild daisy, yes.
But could they see that each dot was a tiny hexagon,
Blooming at the edges of the center of the blossom
Into miniscule golden flowers?
Could they see that the seed on one puff of a dandelion had stripes running down it?
Each with its own row if tiny spikes,
Hooks to hold on to a landing place?
They couldn’t.
You couldn’t.
There is always more to see.
Don’t try to kid yourself otherwise.

And here is what the classroom sounded like:

Part of Ms. Gam’s introductory lesson:


Student group work:


As I listened to my students generating ideas and reveling in the experience of discovery, I thought of a piece by Anthony Brandt and Dave Eagleman about what they call “sandboxing”: trying out multiple ideas before getting graded and moving ahead with a longer-term project. They argue compellingly that for students (and for all of us), “knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point-it should be a springboard. More class time needs to be devoted not just to mastering the material, but launching from it.” Indeed, we tune out and learn less when the events of our classes happen in fixed and predictable ways:

Our brains gradually tune out the predictable, making it a struggle to stay focused in the face of drills and rote learning. Surprise captures our attention.

When kids are free to play, they do sometimes make a mess – and as I said above, my Nature Writing course often felt like a beautiful mess. But the joyful depth of learning students access during these ill-structured and delightful experiences means that mess will take shape in students’ minds, anchoring their understanding and extending their skills. The poetry and stories that came out of that exercise were only possible because of my students’ freedom to play during that class period.

4. Toward a conclusion: Free to become

One of our parents recently told us that her daughter, a former LSG student, said that here, she felt free to become who she should be and not who others expected her to be. It was the most important thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about this school.

Hearing those words made me reflect on what conditions make such a personally-meaningful, student-directed transformation possible. I think a big part of it is beginning with the assumption that students’ interests, passions, and voices are worthy of our attention. All of my colleagues do this, and I am gratified to work with them everyday. 

Too much instruction proceeds from the unexamined notion that there is something wrong with our children that must be fixed.

Instead, a truly liberatory and transformative education is one that takes at its starting point the act of seeing the whole child, and making space for all the inquiry and discovery and creativity that naturally follow from such recognition. The school that accommodates truly free students is ultimately one in which adults decide each day to insulate the students’ learning experiences from any short-term or narrow or bureaucratic exigency so that what matters most is placed at the center of the instructional design.

When our students are free to care, to question, and to play, they can (in the words of that eloquent LSG alum) become the people they should be instead of the people our flawed, existing world expects them to be. And it is only in this way that we can imagine and work towards a better future.

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