I’ve had this full transcript typed up for you to read because it is important for more adults to have what these kids have.
“Minor Authorities,” Act 3 of This American Life’s episode 424: “Kid Politics,” originally aired January 14, 2011. The audio is on This American Life’s website, where this section on democratic free schools starts at 38:50 in.
What if you ran a school and you had the kids vote and decide on all the rules? They decided on the discipline, they decided which classes should be taught, and what would happen if you don’t show up for class, can you nap in school? Not to be harsh, but what if the inmates ran the asylum?
Well, there’s a movement in education called the Free School movement. Typically there are no classes. Each kid studies what he or she wants, independently. At the Brooklyn Free School, for instance, a teacher can offer a class, or the kids can vote for some class they want created. There are no tests, no homework, there aren’t even grade levels — you know, first grade, second grade, all that — and the kids decide everything about how the school is run. If this sounds nuts, you should know that since the Brooklyn Free School was started seven years ago, nearly all its graduates have gone on to normal accredited colleges.
We wanted to see what happens when kids make all the decisions, so we headed over to the Brooklyn Free School.
First agenda item, is This American Life.
Naturally, to record at the school, we had to get permission from the authorities there. The kids themselves.
A Meeting Participant:
The proposal is that the This American Life project goes forward.
Another (very young kid):
All right, we got that six-year old on our side there.
We’re in the school gym. It’s about 50 kids, which is the whole school, aged 4 to 19. It’s a mix of kids who didn’t do well in other schools, some behavior-problem kids, some kids of professionals and crunchy parents… It’s actually very diverse.
There’s a short discussion about whether they want to have us in the school.
A Meeting Participant (girl):
I don’t mean to be a pain here, but I don’t know. I just don’t really see the whole point of being on the radio if nothing really exciting’s going to happen.
After a few minutes, there’s a vote.
Okay. All for? 38. All against? 1, 2… Okay, so that’s two against. And, all abstain? That’s three? Four? Okay, so that passes.
And because that passed, Jyllian Gunther has this story.
* * *
Meetings are so central to the Brooklyn Free School, that the only requirement at the school, besides showing up, is that once a week you attend what is known as the ‘all-school democratic meeting’.
But there are other meetings, too. Meetings for teens, meetings for younger kids, impromptu meetings. Meetings can be called by anyone, and they are. Sometimes as many as six a day. At times it can feel like a constant session of Congress. Which is by design.
Free Schools are modeled after our country’s approach to government: Give each person a vote, and the collective decisions will be what’s best for everyone.
So how’s it work when the voters are kids?
There was the meeting where the whole school decided that a boy, who was always acting out, should get constant supervision, so kids signed up for hourly shifts to watch him and keep him in line.
Or the one where the kids called a meeting on the school’s director, for eating in a no-food zone.
Or the time a student called a meeting — get this — on herself, for missing too many days of school. She was asked by her peers to present a case for why she shouldn’t be kicked out of school.
I happen to know all this because my close friend Katherine is a co-founder and social worker at the school.
The first thing you notice about the Brooklyn Free School is that it doesn’t look anything like a school. It’s a five-story brownstone. The gym used to be the living room. The dining room is a library. A former bathroom is the band room. There’s an art room and a handful of classrooms which all look like a cross between a preschool and a teenager’s rec room.
In the teen lounge, teenagers lie on the floor reading The Brother’s Karamazov out loud.
Teen Boy (reading aloud):
It is well known that there were frequent fights between husband and wife, but according to tradition –
Some other kids go to the store to buy Tic Tacs. Some kids are playing cards.
What are you doing?!
On the second floor, Kai was bothering Martin, and the younger kids are having a meeting to resolve it.
If you do it again, we’re going to call an all-school meeting.
So don’t do it again.
The first few meetings I watched were not impressive. One Wednesday, I went to an all-school meeting. The topic of the day was the art room.
Chair (a kid):
Art room. What’s the proposal?
Specifically, the age-old problem of kids making a mess and not cleaning up. There was a long debate about how to fix this, some proposals, and a lot of finger-pointing. The kids mostly seemed bored. An hour later, nothing was decided and the meeting was adjourned. To me, the whole thing just looked like a waste of time. I wondered, how much math and science and reading could these kids be doing instead of all these meetings? I needed to see more, and I did.
Over a month, I saw all kinds of meetings at the school, and the one that really tested the question, ‘If kids are in charge, do they make the best decisions?’ was the meeting about the ‘no-screens week’ rule.
OK, so Arya you’re the chair, and Laquoia you’re the co-chair.
To understand the no-screens rule, you should understand that for the staff it’s a badge of honor. A few years ago, the entire school outlawed using any electronic device with a screen. No computers, no cellphones, no videogames. The kids thought they were too distracting. The little ones were addicted. And so to break the addiction, every other week would be a ‘no screens’ week. And if you wanted to get on the computer to do some research on a no-screens week, you needed special permission from a staff member, which was a hassle.
At a teens-only meeting, a 15-year old named Maliya dropped this bomb.
Chair (a girl):
I was thinking, we take down no-screens week for like, I’m thinking people, like 13 and older? I just think that we need to be able to work and do what research we need to, so that’s like a proposal or whatever.
I second that.
I third that.
The no-screens rule has been challenged before, but never successfully. Those in favor were quick to speak up, like Eron, a 19-year old in an ‘Evolution’ t-shirt depicting a monkey, a human and a robot.
I think it’s pathetic basically that with the no-screens week, basically, when you do research, you’re breaking a rule. School is for learning and it’s so pathetic that when you’re do research — I mean, it should be encouraged, but it’s so pathetic that when you do research, you break a rule. So I think this should just be totally gone with.
The adults don’t agree. They want the restriction on the screens to stay. But they’re outnumbered by the kids by a 3-to-1 margin. Lily, a teacher at the school, tries to reign them in.
I was a teacher and an advisor of the high school when we made this rule, and there was a lot of conversation about the positive things that it would bring for high-schoolers. We also talked a lot about the effects that a lot of screen time has on sleep, which is a huge thing for people your age. We talked about that a lot in attendance meetings. So I wanted to bring that up some, and then also, I just wanted to say that of course, no-screens week doesn’t mean no research. And sometimes you can do better research without a screen.
Is that it? A-rhyme, Eron, whatever.
Um, yeah, first of all I have some things to say. In response to what Lily said, even though screens may not be the only way to research, it definitely is the easiest way to research. I mean, the internet you can get more information than a book. That is definitely the truth. A book, you have to look look look. The internet you can just search. So yeah –
I should say here, as the meeting is happening, two kids are texting and one is playing a game on his Nintendo DS. Which is fine. It is a screens week. Arom, 12, is Maliya’s younger brother. And he thinks his sister’s proposal is risky.
I don’t know how many of you were students here when — it was like two years ago? — that no-screens week was taken down for about a three-week time period, and it was really chaotic. No one did anything. The only thing anyone did was just sit there, using screens.
Then a student says that all this is besides the point, because the rule itself is completely inconsistent with the school’s philosophy. If you can trust someone to learn what they need to know without encouraging them, shouldn’t you trust them to know when to turn a computer off?
After twenty minutes of debate, a vote is taken. Six people abstain, three people vote against, eleven for.
The result of this meeting: all screens, all the time. Is this an example of kids knowing what’s best for them? Seems like a potential disaster, to me and every other adult in the room. And right after the meeting, when I ask Eron, the kid of was most vocal about needing his computer to do research, he confided: well, he’d also be playing some video games.
A few weeks later, I check in with Lily, a teacher who’d voted against the policy, to find out how things were going.
Everyone’s been really responsible. There are very few students who have changed how much they use screens since before that was passed.
I think it’s an interesting thing when you give them that permission or that responsibility: ’Okay, you’re voting this through, you’re all making this decision, you’re all saying, “We can handle this.” And like, I think that a lot of the teenagers have been very careful not to cause any problems since that rule got passed because they know, it’s like something that they put their stamp on.
Like, technically, there could be movies played all day long now, every single day –
– There’s not. –
– But they’re not.
Which means the system’s working. For now.
* * *
Late one Wednesday, near the end of school, everyone’s cleaning up and getting ready to leave and, suddenly, word goes up and down the stairs that someone’s calling an impromptu all-school meeting, a big deal in the arsenal of democratic meetings. Anyone can interrupt the whole school at any time and hold court.
Chair (a boy):
Who called this meeting, and why? Maliya?
I called this meeting cause someone said something that is not appropriate to me. Again.
Confusion sets in. A ten-year old says, ‘I don’t think you should waste our time on this. It’s crazy to call this meeting.’ And another student asks, ‘Why not call a smaller meeting with whoever did it?’
Despite the fact that I heard a lot from Maliya in the short time I was at school, she’s not known for calling meetings or crying wolf. Maliya says it’s about two brothers, Cruz and Sol.
Because I want to show Cruz and Sol that this is an important — that this is not something that they can just do! You cannot say a bad word to someone and just get away with it. So I’m making it an all-school thing now.
What did they say to you that was so bad?
Was that a direct question? They called me a whore. Both of them, like twice. I mean, I didn’t even do anything to them! I asked them to stop annoying me and Ben cause we were talking quietly in the library, and they came up and said, ‘Whatever, you’re a whore, whatever.’
Currin (little boy):
What the hell is a whore?
Laughter, giggling, whispering.
That’s Currin, seven. He and everyone else look over at Cruz and Sol, waiting for an answer. But Cruz is only 9 himself, and Sol is 10. And sitting in Katherine’s lap, the brothers appear even younger than they are, and they look a little lost. And embarrassed. Katherine breaks the silence.
I’d love for Sol and Cruz to talk right now, but they also don’t know what the word means, and it doesn’t matter what the word means, but it was offensive, very offensive, and upsetting to Maliya, and I’m glad you brought this up, Maliya.
Maliya offers a tasteful and purposefully vague explanation of the word ‘whore’. The kids get that the word is bad.
While it’s clear that Maliya’s angry, it’s not entirely clear what the purpose of the meeting is. Does she want them punished? Does she want an apology? Lily tries to gently steer Maliya to a conclusion.
I wondered, Maliya, what you were hoping to get out of this? If it would be helpful, do you think, to maybe talk in a smaller meeting with them after this, or if there’s something else that you’re looking for?
I didn’t really come with the idea of a proposal. I just — I think that when people do something wrong, they need to see that it’s something bigger than just them. But I just — I think — it needs to stop. People don’t know what they’re saying, and they say it all the time, and it’s just — that’s not, that’s not even a good way to use the word! It’s like, if you’re going to use the word, don’t just use it when you don’t know what it is randomly.
Then Maliya improvises something remarkable. She turns the focus of the meeting away from herself.
And I’d like to ask to see a raise of hands — I’d like to see how many people have been called something?
Nearly every hand in the room goes up.
Wow. See, it’s just so many people. And I think –
She asks people to talk about it.
Girl (very young):
I think that like a lot of kids do that to me also, and… I hate it.
Well, we understand that these words are derogatory so I think we should think of a consequence for proposal next time somebody curses at someone else.
Whoever the hell made up these curse words was really wrong.
Maliya proposes they meet again tomorrow to come up with consequences for calling someone a bad name. They all agree. But they didn’t do it. In the end, no new rules went into effect. They didn’t even meet.
When I found out, I was genuinely surprised. One day this was a big deal to everyone. The next day forgotten?
In the weeks I was at the school, a lot of meetings ended this way. One proposal about kids being too noisy outside and bothering the neighbors. A smaller meeting about the democratic meetings themselves and how to improve them. And a bigger meeting where those improvements were struck down altogether.
Another about kids in the kitchen not eating other kids’ food. That first meeting I attended about cleaning the art room.
A lot of talk with no conclusion. When I ask my friend Katherine about this, she says that’s part of the plan.
You know, so what if there’s no resolution. The point is they’re left with something to think about: ’What are you going to do about it?’ That’s more interesting to me than somebody deciding that, ‘This is the way it should be and then it’s all easier and it all goes nicer.’
When I see Maliya a few days later, I ask her what happened. Why no follow-up meeting? She explains: another meeting wasn’t necessary. She had said what she had to. Everyone listened. Other people spoke up too. And she feels better.
And it was kind of different from in a real school you’d say, ‘I have a problem,’ and then you get a teacher to deal with it.
Instead, everyone was getting together and saying, ‘This is a big problem and everyone should deal with it and we should, you know, work together to change it.’
I don’t know. I’ve gotten so used to deciding everything. I’ve had moments where I’ll think about something outside of school and think, ‘I should vote on it,’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t vote on it?!’
I feel bad that a lot of people don’t have the power in their environment like we do? Cause we get to change anything about this school that we want to.
When she came into this school five years ago, Maliya was scared to say what was on her mind. Over the years she’s learned to speak up, and she’s seen that need to change. She admits the meetings can be boring, and frustrating. But she takes the authority she’s given by the school very seriously. All the kids do.
Maliya feels bad for adults, she said. Because they can’t just call a meeting and take a vote at their jobs or wherever to fix something that bothers them. I get that.
Once you’re grown up, democracy’s not so pure.
[Transcriber's note: in democratic companies, democracy is exactly the way it's described here.
Most companies are not yet democratic.]
Jyllian Gunther. She’s a filmmaker currently finishing a film about a new public high school in Brooklyn.