books for creative kids
  • Changing School Models
  • Kyla Ryman
  • education
Changing School Models

Changing Schools Models

My son goes to a Democratic Free School, but only after years of hesitation. Now that we are there, I don’t know why I fought it for so long.

At his first elementary school, I talked with other parents in the yard. Have you heard of the Brooklyn Free School? No. It’s really interesting—the kids are involved in a democratically run school, but otherwise, they choose what to do all day. What!? No grades? Nope. No math? Yes. There is math, but only if they are interested in studying math, or if it comes up naturally in whatever they are working on (it does, btw). That’s crazy!

But it is not crazy. And the more I live this and research this and think about this, the more assured I am that what we do “normally” is actually crazy.

It is definitely a huge departure from what many folks think of as “school” and what needs to happen at school. We didn’t come to this decision lightly. But we love it! Our son is happy and thriving. After years of being a teacher in both public and private schools, my children attending both public and private schools, and homeschooling for a year in an “unschool-y” sort of way, I have come to some fundamental understandings about teaching and learning that I think can be outlined by the core differences between more traditional schools (even most progressive schools fall into this category) and free schools:

Traditional school

Free school

Role of the adult

Adult functions as teacher. The class works together on teacher/school/district decided content.

Adult functions as adviser. Children decide what they want to do, based on their interests, and the adviser facilitates, transitioning when their interests change.

Teaching “subjects”

All children learn same skills at same time, generally at same paceand are deemed below, at or above others’ expectations, depending on how they perform.

Children choose to take classes, can learn when they are interested or if it allows them to pursue a goal they want at any time. They address math or any other subject that comes up naturally in whatever they are working on.


Grades are standardized. Children are judged on all academic work that is laid out for them by the teacher/school/district, and are told whether they are performing below, at or above these arbitrary standards continually.

No grades. Children work on things that have inherent interest, the outcome of which is it’s own justification. They do not seek outside praise, although they may seek feedback.


Play at designated times. Children may get 10-20 minutes at lunch or after school.

Play not designated. Children may play at any time, for any length of time.

Report cards

Reports are quantified by number, letter or symbol on specific skill sets.

Reports are qualified. Advisor describes how the child is interacting socially with both kids and adults, what interests they are focused on and how they are developing individually.

Some kids thrive as homeschoolers and unschoolers, some in a traditional/progressive school, a montessori school or a reggio emilia school. In NYC, I am lucky to have so many choices. I realize that. But I know families in other communities who didn’t have the choice, so they created what they wanted. Check out this and this.

My 19 year old son loved desks in rows, football, and what people generally consider a more traditional school experience. It worked for him in the way we traditionally think about what “should” happen at school. He feels he developed his keen math sense from his progressive school. Interestingly though, now that he is in college, he struggles with his math focus. He doesn’t feel passionate or even that interested in what he is doing. I wonder, had he been allowed to pursue his interests in his way from the start, would he be having these questions now? He thinks he pursued math because he is naturally good at itit was easy. But now he desires different kinds of work and thinking. More reading and discussion. More language learningso he is adding French, while he is already studying German. As much as he liked the traditional idea of school at 12 years old, maybe he would have thrived in a different way at a school like The Brooklyn Free School. I know his little brother is.

For more info, look here:

and here:

  • Kyla Ryman
  • education

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