January 01, 1999 5 min read

MAKING IT UP AS WE GO ALONG: The Story of the Albany Free School, by Chris Mercogliano. (Heinemann, $25.) It’s hard to imagine many public school teachers caring much about a quirky private school of 50 students started by hippies and anarchists out to radically transform education. Most teachers, after all, work within the routines of lesson plans, mandated testing, and classrooms bulging with students--everything the Albany Free School wants to assign to the dunghill of history. Still, this integrated school, founded 30 years ago in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of New York state’s capital, deserves our attention, for what makes it truly radical--and relevant--is not so much its rejection of the status quo but the sheer intensity with which its adults care for each child.

Written with a captivating lack of pretense by Free School co-director and teacher Mercogliano, Making It Up recounts the school’s rocky early years and the faculty’s struggle to find both funds and a philosophy. The first crucial decision, Mercogliano writes, was that “only those actually present in the building could determine the school’s day-to-day operating policy.” This means that students as well as adults are included in decisionmaking, free to call school council meetings to discuss and decide a host of issues.

Students find this opportunity to speak out liberating. It is all part of the school’s therapeutic philosophy, which draws from the work of the late psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, who believed that the repression of feelings causes a defensiveness in people, a kind of “armoring,” that leads to inner desolation. Consequently, the children at the Free School, who range in age from 3 to 14, are allowed, as Mercogliano puts it, to “rage it out.” For teachers, this sometimes means allowing a playground brawl between evenly matched opponents to run its course. Or it means holding kicking and screaming children on their laps until the rage is spent. Only then, Mercogliano writes, can “the tears of pain and grief that are so often trapped beneath the anger” emerge. Mercogliano admits that this approach can tax the faculty. He describes, for example, carrying a traumatized 3-year-old girl around for a number of days until she felt safe enough to explore the environment on her own.

As nurturing as the school is, it does not pamper children or allow them to run roughshod over others. “Few things are more frightening to young children than perceiving they have too much power,” Mercogliano notes. “They need to be met not with punishment nor its opposite, permissiveness, but with compassion and truthful directness.” How this is applied varies from child to child. The punishment for a 12-year-old boy who had destroyed his desk was to build a new one with a master craftsman. A depressed 13-year-old girl whose parents were divorcing was permitted to spend her days weaving until she regained her equilibrium. Frequently, peers call misbehaving students to task at council meetings, as when a bullying teenager was fined $5 each time he intimidated a smaller student.

Of course, the Albany Free School is not for everybody, as Mercogliano freely acknowledges. Many children do fine in a traditionally structured academic environment. But for those damaged by poverty, abuse, or neglect--the very children who are filling an increasing number of our public school classrooms--a school like this may be both a first and last chance.

WHAT EVERY GREAT TEACHER KNOWS: Practical Principles for Effective Teaching, by Richard Gibboney and Clark Webb. (Holistic Education Press, $18.95.) Few teachers associate much more with the name John Dewey than the tired phrase “learning by doing.” Gibboney and Webb attempt to rectify that here in what is both a Dewey primer and a practical guide for using his ideas in the classroom.

The authors begin by citing one of Dewey’s most famous statements: “No thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is just another fact, not an idea.” This precept underlies the progressive’s embrace of inquiry-based learning as opposed to rote memorization, and it is the basis for the authors’ 18 core principles that “every great teacher knows.” Take principle 15, for example: “Every great teacher selects problems for meaningful analysis that are within the experience of the learner at the start of learning. . . .” A teacher applying this principle might discuss an economics problem within the context of layoffs in the local economy.

The authors must be lauded for trying to show teachers how this great educational philosopher’s ideas can be applied to everyday practice. However, making use of Dewey’s ideas first demands an intellectual leap of faith--an abiding belief in the will and ability of students to think and work through complex issues. For many teachers struggling to survive with 120 or more students, that may be too much to ask.

QUEER 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall 7th Grade, edited by Clifford Chase. (Weisbach Morrow, $24.) Early adolescence, with its physical and emotional upheavals, is enough to make anyone feel freakish. But for most of these lesbian and gay writers, 7th grade was especially alienating, for it was at this tumultuous juncture that many of them became exiled from friends, from family, and from school. “This was the year I realized I was helpless, different, wholly alone, and defenseless,” Justin Chin writes. “This was the beginning of my worthlessness.”

Conventional schooling, with its rather rigid notions of “appropriate” boy and girl activities, didn’t do much to boost self- esteem. One writer, who as a boy liked to make muppets, was told by a math teacher that they were “like dolls, and a boy shouldn’t play with them.” A few contributors, though, had teachers who encouraged their atypical interests, giving them a thread of confidence that some managed to weave into careers.

In an odd way, outsider status paid some dividends. Bereft of the comforts of a peer group, some of the youngsters immersed themselves in books and studies, while others developed a keen sense of irony regarding the “normalcy” of others. Seventh grade did leave scars, but the fact that these writers can describe their pain with both poignancy and humor makes Queer 13 anything but a fable of victimization.

--David Ruenzel