Education Cities

Last year at the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) Conference, I had the opportunity to meet and see Yacoov Hecht speak. Yacoov Hecht is a prominent figure in the democratic education movement, the founder of the Democratic School in Hadera, Israel, and author of the book, Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story. However, his most exciting work is his current project in Israel, called Education Cities.

An Education City is a city that has redesigned its school system so that, instead of the school being a separate entity, the entire city is the school, or rather, the education system. On Yacoov Hecht’s website, he describes an Education City as the following:

An Education City perceives the education system as an essential instrument for a citywide development, and the city as a central instrument in the education system’s development.

This idea is exciting to me for several reasons: First, he is re-imagining the idea of a school. Why can’t an entire community be a school? Why shouldn’t it be? Why are our schools segregated, not only away from the rest of the community, but into specific age groups? Second, in order for this to be successful, the mayor and the citizens must be on board, and be a committed part of the planning process. And third, each city is differentThe Education Cities model recognizes that a single method won’t work for every city, just as a single method won’t work for every child; each community needs a method that fits its ideas, strengths, and passions.

In his Keynote speech, Yacoov Hecht talked about several cities that he is working with to transform into Education Cities, each with a  method that fits that community. I will give a brief overview of three of these cities. (Disclaimer: These ideas are drawn from my notes on his lecture, I do not guarantee that they are one hundred percent accurate, but rather they give an idea of what these cities’ education methods are like).

In Tiberias, they have developed a program that encourages students to identify a life dream. The students also identify stepping stones that will help them to reach their life dream. They call it a “personal development path” and it is achieved through classes at school, individual work at home, and by connecting the student to a mentor who has already achieved the same, or a similar, life dream, and can help them on their path.

In Hadera, the entire city has become a school. Various areas of the town have become learning centers, each with its own specific topic. For example, an area may be a farming and agriculture center, which is where students go if they would like to learn about those topics. There are many learning centers with various topics and themes, and the students pick where they would like to go each day.

In Natanya, the Education City movement is just beginning. They have started by implementing a program in every school, where one teacher, parent, community member, or student comes in to teach a new topic. For example, they could teach guitar lessons, gardening, or a form of dance. Each school will offer an area of study that the students had not previously had access to, and as it grows the schools will offer more diverse areas of study, giving the students access to a wide range of skills.

As I heard about these cities, I was struck by how different each one is. I am continually surprised and inspired by the many educational methods and philosophies, and the number keeps on growing. Each of us learns differently, and each of us has the capability to design our own education, or design a method that will benefit a child, a parent, a school, a community, or more. There are as many ways to learn as there are people, and Yacoov Hecht has taken that knowledge and ran with it.

If you would like to learn more, I have provided the link to Yacoov Hecht’s website. On this website you will find more information about his  accomplishes, history, and continued work.


Learning to Read, the Child’s Way.

My parents have told me the story of how my brother learned to read many times. At around the age of five, my parents had read his Calvin and Hobbes books to him so many times that he had memorized them. He began to read them out loud, connecting words to pictures from memory. My dad isn’t sure when he stopped reading just from memory, and when he started to be able to actually read, but soon after reading his Calvin and Hobbes books out loud, he started reading Jurassic Park (which was not a book he had memorized). It was then that they knew he could read.

I can picture this sequence vividly. A child memorizes a book, or several, then while reading it to themselves they connect the words they are saying to the words they are seeing, and start to understand the complex patterns of how letter combinations make sounds. It seems incredible that a child could learn this on their own, without any direct instruction, right? Well, not if you consider that they learn to speak in the same way. No one sits in front of a baby, pointing to objects and saying the objects’ names repeatedly until the baby can repeat them itself; and no one continues to do this for several hours a day until the baby is able to memorize and repeat all the objects that the person is pointing at. At least, I hope no one does this.

So, in the words of John Holt, why do we need to “teach” reading, when we don’t “teach” speaking?

I believe that we don’t, and that this story about my brother is proof that we don’t. Although I have heard this story so many times, and it has become a part of my philosophy on learning to read, I had never witnessed it happening until this week. Sometime mid week, I noticed two kids sitting next to each other, reading the book “There’s a Wocket in my Pocket” together. They were flipping through the pages, and accurately saying the sentence that was on each page. But I don’t think they were reading the words, I think that they were reciting them from memory. With the help of Dr. Seuss’s clear pictures, and his rhyming technique that so interests the children in our classroom, they were able to connect sentences from memory to the pages they were looking at. These are the first steps towards learning to read in the way that my brother did. I am so excited to be able to witness this beginning, and to be able to follow these children as they learn to read.

What Children Teach Us

The one-year-old plays constantly. Navigating the world in the way they know how, most everything they do involves play: eating, exploring, interacting. There is an interesting pattern among one-to-two year olds. They will choose an object, examine it for awhile, and then find as many uses for it as possible, using it as a hat, a plane, something to balance on, something to throw or kick, something to make noise with, and something to show to adults. By doing this, the toddler is conducting a series of experiments with every object they encounter. How can one say that this play is not beneficial?

The three-year-old has a wild and vivid imagination. Running around with a blanket tied around their neck like a cape, they battle monsters, climb mountains, escape from prisons, and ultimately defeat the bad guys. Young preschoolers can create worlds on their own, or in groups. They collaborate to create rules, use props, and make pathways in their fantasy world games. Or they may use toys (stuffed animals, plastic figures, or dolls) to be a part of their invented world. Three year olds do not need the help of adults, story books, or pre-written ideas to create worlds, games, and adventures.

The four-year-old continues to imagine, but they have entered a world of building and inventing, making something tangible, something material. Pre-kindergarteners use toys, blocks, legos, and any resources they can get their hands on to create, create, create. Making plans, houses, zoos, and eventually acting out the worlds in which these things exist.

The adult looks to this play, recognizing their children’s happiness, their imagination, their immaturity. Many adults do not recognize what children are learning through their play, what skills they are developing, and how impressive their imaginative worlds are. Most of us have lost this approach to learning by the time we hit puberty. As we move further and further away from our once imaginative, playful selves, we lose the knowledge of the value of play.

 Children help me to step into their worlds of imagination and play. They show me how to create and imagine again. I am able to let go of my day-to-day stresses and get lost in their world. Moments of clarity come while I am with children. I realize how insignificant some of my worries are, how magical and bright the world can be when viewed from a child’s eyes, and how much there is to explore and learn. I am able to let go of my adult brain riddled with deadlines and worry, and play and experience life, touch and feel what is right in front of me, learn in a pure and simple way, free of complications. I am grateful for the children’s accidental reminders of what is important, what is wondrous, and what I still have to learn.

Respect for Parents

I have new respect for parents. They see the best and worst of their kids, they see them when they are little ones trying to figure the world out, they watch them grow into adults… and then the kids grow up and don’t understand what that means, or what it is like. How strange to not understand what your parents have experienced with you.

Challenge Accepted

You wouldn’t think that getting the wind knocked out of you by a perfectly timed reverse punch would make you proud… would you?

If you are a teacher, you are probably familiar with the jolt of happiness you get when one of your students accomplishes something. This jolt, some would argue, is the reason we do such a taxing job for so little compensation. This jolt, this happiness, is our compensation.

But what if we take it a step further? Parents, especially, experience the fear of what may happen when your child surpasses you in something, or suddenly realizes that they know something that you don’t. Some teachers, I would argue, work very hard to make sure that this doesn’t happen; they work hard to make sure that the teacher is always regarded with the utmost respect, and that their answer is always the right one. Other teachers (and parents, for that matter) teach their children and students  to always question the answer, to challenge ideas, and come up with their own ways of thinking. This can be dangerous, especially when your teenager starts arguing with you about their “unreasonable” curfew. Beyond that small danger, however, this way of raising your child, or teaching your students, can prepare them for a world in which almost no questions have straight answers, a lot of information has little evidence, and answers are constantly being researched and rewritten. This constant questioning and challenging may be difficult (for them, and for you when you have to explain that pesky curfew) but it gives them the tools to live in this world. Because, honestly, this world isn’t always going to take care of them with black and white answers.

Yesterday, I happened to get hit with a perfectly timed, perfectly aimed, reverse punch that literally knocked the wind out of me. And besides the gut wrenching pain and lack of air that I felt, I felt something else, something more important. I felt pride. Pride that this student got such a good shot on me, his mentor. And you know what else? I didn’t let him hit me again. His hit taught me something—to block.

Finding Your Allies: Where Passion, Talent, and Collaboration Meet.

Ken Robinson describes “being in your element” as the point where passion meets talent. Once you find that place, you never work another day in your life. I have never had a problem finding my own element. However, what about finding people with the same, or a similar, element? What about finding people with similar passions who want to work together towards a common goal? I have always had a problem with that.

My element is teaching. But more than simply teaching, it is teaching in, and advocating for, an alternative system of education. A system that is learner-centered, personalized, encourages creativity, curiosity, and passion, and, in essence, trusts children. When I was 20 years old, I decided that in addition to opening my own school, I wanted to get involved in the alternative education movement. I wanted to help drive the education revolution, and bring the knowledge of alternatives to a wider audience. I went to my university’s volunteer office searching for a connection, in the hopes that they could point me towards a group that was involved in this movement. They had nothing. The most they could do was to point me back to a professor that I had already asked. My element, as I learned, was not widespread, common, or well known. I had work to do.

A few months later, I found AERO, the Alternative Education Resource Organization. Now, for the past few days, I have been lucky enough to attend the annual AERO conference, network with countless educators, activists, and administrators, brainstorm with like-minded people, see Ken Robinson speak, and have been hit with a flurry of my own ideas. For the past three days, I have been blissfully (although exhaustingly) immersed in a group of people striving for, and believing in, the same things as I. But what happens when this ends? Will my active mind be deactivated? Will my ideas perish without moral support? Will I once again feel alone in my mission, with no clue as to how to move forward? The main questions are these: Is it necessary for us to be together, working side by side, in order to accomplish our goal? Or can we do it with the known, although not physical, support from one another? How necessary is a physical support group, in any situation?

I guess I will find out.