Approaching the elephant: reflections on school culture

I recently watched the film Approaching the elephant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdGIkBSkEdc

I walked away from the film feeling exhausted. Not because of the length of the film but rather I had been consumed by the lives of the teachers and children whose lives were embroiled in a school environment that is unfamiliar to me. The film explores the experience of being in a free school. Until recently I knew nothing about free schools. According to the prologue of the films, the idea of free schools goes back to the early 1900s. The film shows us a structure that is unfamiliar to many of us who have gone through traditional systems of education. In a free school there are no structured lessons. Students and teachers make decisions democratically through council meetings that can also be chaired by the students. By students I mean children: most of the students at the free school featured in the movie appear to be younger than 13. The only rules in place when the school begins are rules related to the safety of the children. The rest of the school culture is determined as the life of the school unfolds.

While watching with the film the following thoughts came to mind:

  • Schools are age-old institutions intricately linked to what society and the power structures determine as a good school. The free school in the film seeks to undermine he idea of what a school should be. This is seen as an alternative view to what schooling should be. This is valuable but many questions can be posed in response to the value of this aproach: to what end? What is the end of creating a school that does not match up with the standards of what society thinks should be a "good school"? And there are many response to this question; one being that, well, the idea of what is a "good school" is determined by many factors: being in a capitalist society, getting kids in certain universities, getting kids to think in a particular way etc.

  • Is it possible to undermine power dynamics which schools require in order to make sense? By power dynamics I am referring to the relationship between teachers and students. The children in the film seem to have equal power with the adults who supervise in the school. For example, they call them by name and the children feel that they are allowed to tell the adults exactly how they feel about issues. The children's voices matter: often more than the adults' voices. My students would love to call me by name but the tradtional culture we have in my school dictates that they call me "Ms. Masola" (except the Drama department in our school subverts this culture and the kids call them by their names, even nicknames!). I have a lot of power as a teacher because I am the adult in the room and I have been given the power to have the dominant voice. Sometimes this makes me uncomfortable because my students are less likely to challenge me. 

  • How do we break the mold  in schools but keeping a sense of order? There's a lot of chaos in the free school. There's very little chaos in my school (even when it's break time: the perceived sense of freedom during our school time). My first year of teaching was chaotic. My classroom management skills were non-existent. And when I did start to develop some they were often ineffective. Schools thrive on order: we have bells and times indicating what kids should be doing at any given time. But do we (teachers/management) stop to consider what message we are giving children about their sense of freedom while they are in school?

  • On a more positive note, the film made me think about the messages we give them about how and when they can express themselves. The kids in the free school are very expressive. The use the words "feel" many times -- I feel like we should...-- which is unusual. One of the directors in the school, Alex, also gets very emotional when things don't seem to be working out the way he imagined. This is also unusual: expressing emotions can often be perceived as unprofessional. We rant and rave about our experiences as teachers behind closed doors and not in front of the children: unless it's anger and it is directed towards them. But the children in the free school understand emotion and respond to it appropriately often prefacing their response with "I don't mean to be mean but I'm just be truthful". I've only ever seen this kind of expression when I worked in a primary school as a stooge (a live-in teacher at a hostel). The experience taught me many things about children, especially the fact that children have a sense of justice when something is unfair and when something is right. Somehow we silence that sense of justice and by the time kids are in high school we have to have explicit "upstander campaign" encouraging teenagers to stand up when they see someone being bullied. This isn't a problem per se, however, I I find it interesting that the older we get the more blurred lines become about when we should express ourselves with a sense of justice for ourselves as individuals and for others.

  • During the film one of the kids gets expelled. The decision is made through a vote by the adults and the children: this is unheard of in any school. Expulsion is a decision left to the head of the school and the governing body (and if it's a public school) the department of education. The fact that the children have a voice in the decision-making of the school highlights that children's voices matter. However, watching the kids decide that Giovanni should leave also felt like a different version of The Lord of the flies where children stuck on an island become their own law-makers. So this leaves me with another question: to what extent do we need adults to guide children to make decisions about their experiences and the world around them.
Finally, the film made me think about school culture: the big and small questions we ask ourselves about what we are doing in schools. And more importantly, the film requires us to think about the unanswerable and much disputed questions about the purpose of education. After watching the film I had more questions than a formed idea. I was also left with questions about what I do in my classroom as a teacher and more importantly, what I think still needs to happen in my classroom.


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