The story so far

Freiberg, Saxony, Germany. CC-BY Carsten Pätz.

Freiberg, Saxony, Germany. CC-BY Carsten Pätz.

I grew up in Freiberg, Germany and did not know what to do with my life. In 2005, I decided to study to become a teacher of two of my favorite subjects, English and Mathematics.

Dresden. GnuFdl by Nikater

Dresden. GnuFdl by Nikater.

I studied at TU Dresden, and especially liked the Psychology/Pedagogy part of it, but also the wide variety of subjects within both of my subjects — with English, one of my favorites was Cognitive Linguistics, and with Math, it was Algebra. But above all, I knew I wanted to change the traditional education system. At that point I did not know exactly what was bothering me. Sadly, we did not discuss much of alternative educational principles. Yes, I have heard the names Montessori, Steiner, and somebody even mentioned “Summerhill” once, but I never made it my focus. After finishing university I volunteered in Nicaragua for a year, worked with children on the street and gave juggling and theater courses — find the reports on my blog or flip through the 80 page reader with many pictures online.

European Democratic Education Community

European Democratic Education Community

Later, I worked for a year at the alternative school Freie Alternativschule Dresden and saw a lot of things I liked: The relationship between teachers and children was much more personal, the classrooms actually looked nice, with plants and sofas, and students had much more unstructured time. Luckily, FAS Dresden made it possible for me to go to the European Conference on Democratic Education (EUDEC) in the Netherlands in 2013. This was an absolute eye-opener. First of all, I met so many people that were starting their own schools and understood that this is a very effective way of changing the educational landscape. Secondly, I heard Peter Gray and many others talk about how unnatural it is to force children to learn, and how human beings are designed to learn exactly what they need to become responsible adults. It became clear to me that the responsibility for a student’s education needs to be 100% with the student.

(c) FAS Dresden.

FAS Dresden (c)

I understood that FAS Dresden did not go all the way, they gave their students more responsibility for their education than in traditional schools, but there were still some mandatory courses and a mandatory curriculum everybody had to follow. For example, students could choose not to attend classes — but if they did that a lot, teachers would try to make “agreements” with the students so they don’t “fall behind”.

St. Benno Gymnasium, a private catholic secondary school in Dresden. (c) Jonas & Matthias Frey

St. Benno Gymnasium, a private catholic secondary school in Dresden. (c) Jonas & Matthias Frey

To become a state-certified teacher, I had finished my five years of university but was lacking the practical two-year teacher training. I decided that the certification will be a useful asset for me when transforming education in Germany, so I threw myself into it. I don’t regret a minute of that training, although it makes me sad to think about what I had to do to my students. In this traditional system, it was 100% my responsibility that every student in my class knows XYZ in the end of the school year. And students did not have the right to say “no” to activities or to leave my class. Clearly, some of the students wanted to be somewhere else sometimes, but they were not free to go, so they made the time in my class harder for me and for the other students. Now as a teacher, they say, it is your job to keep them motivated, to keep them under control! Well, I am a teacher, not a magician.

We say there is no alternative, we say that we do it in the name of the child’s success, but I had a strong feeling that it is actually harming them. Nevertheless, I am very grateful for the training, I know I can do a solid course on any topic in English and Mathematics, and I have some general skills that can be transferred to courses in German, Spanish, Juggling, Theater.. You name it. Thank you everybody at my school St. Benno Gymnasium Dresden and at the government agency Sächsische Bildungsagentur – Regionalstelle Dresden.

In early 2015, still in my practical teacher training, I came up with a plan: To do a year-long internship at a democratic school in the USA. I had a feeling that this is the type of education that is in line with my values, but I wanted to be sure, and I wanted to have extensive experience to draw from when working at other schools in Germany later on. The same year,  I went to the European Democratic Education Conference again, this time in Poland, and asked literally everybody if they knew someone who had done that before. There were some that had done internships up to three months, but no one got paid. I decided to try it anyway…and here I am, a year later, and I have the visa for the 10-month internship, and it will be paid!!

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”    ~Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In spring 2016, I went on a tour around the USA to visit a lot of schools, two of them were prearranged possibilities for my year-long internship. One finally decided they did not have the money, and the only other possibility, Diablo Valley School in Concord, California, accepted me! Note that these are democratic schools, so any hiring and firing of staff members and trainees is decided by vote, and every student and every staff has one vote. I will explain more about the model in the next blog post. Here is an overview of my travels:

  1. Concord, California: Visited Diablo Valley School (a Sudbury school). Also went to Oakland and San Francisco, but never wore flowers in my hair.IMG_20160323_173400IMG_20160403_104026
  2. New York: Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Woodstock. Yes, that Woodstock, and no, the festival was not there but was moved 70km away because the people in Woodstock did not want to have hippies around. Well now there are a lot of old hippies. And not far, there is this awesome school, which maybe has some similarities in mindset, but there are certainly no long-haired hippies running the school:
  3. Washington, D.C.: No schools visited, but had great fun at the Lincoln Memorial with people from my hostel: IMG_20160428_210705
  4. Baltimore, Maryland: Arts & Ideas Sudbury school and Kinetic sculpture race (pictures). AIGraffiti
  5. New Jersey Coast: Jersey Shore Free School, also a nice view over the sea to NYC (which you can not see in this picture).IMG_20160510_091535
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Philly Free School, another crazy bike event (Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby — video), and I went to a soccer game with my couchsurfing host:IMG_20160520_205848
  7. New York City: Agile Learning Center NYC, Brooklyn Free School, play:ground NYC, and some sightseeing:
  8. Boston, Massachussetts: Kajaking and nerdy stuff (science museum).Boston Kajak IMG_20160528_194700_1
  9. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Working on two organic farms while waiting for my visa:
  10. Portland, Oregon: AERO conference for alternative education and skydiving!!! AERO conference allskydiving 1 skydiving 2
  11. Concord/Oakland/San Francisco again! I’ve come full circle!

Before school starts on September 7, I will go to… Burning Man Festival! I always wanted to go, now is the chance. It’s going to be amazing! Thank you for reading, hope to have you back for my next post. Oh, and I would love to hear from you (either comment here or see Contact for my email).

8 thoughts on “The story so far

  1. Ich bin sprachlos …….ich bin so stolz auf dich und bewundere dich für deinen Mut neues einfach anzugehen !!! Ich war gedanklich schon mehr als einmal bei dir und habe mich gefragt wie es dir wohl ergeht. ️Du schnupperst das Leben in vollen Zügen. Ich finde das Projekt unglaublich klasse. Ich muss zwar noch einmal das ein oder andere Wort nachschlagen aber i habe es für das erste überflogen und bin begeistert. Würde dich so gern wiedersehen und mir am liebsten alle Erlebnisse detailiert schildern lassen und stundenlang zuhören. Vielleicht habe ich ja eine Tagea noch einmal die Chance dazu;-))) ich knutsche dich!

  2. Hi Alex

    Wow! Thanks for the update! WWoofing lettuce outside (I presume) la belle ville de Montreal, my hometown 🙂 Hope you had some poutine, St.Viateur Bagels and smoked meat while there.A lot hotter on the Shore now.Asbury Park boardwalk and beach is where it is at!

    Have fun at the Burning Man Festival. And good luck in your teaching/learning experience in Oakland CA starting September!

    Keep us posted!

  3. Great first post! Congrats Alex on this new blog and new adventure. I appreciate seeing such a thorough approach to learning about and experiencing democratic schooling before contributing to changing the landscape in Germany. Good luck and look forward to reading more!

  4. “Yes, I have heard the names Montessori, Steiner, and somebody even mentioned “Summerhill” once, but I never made it my focus.”
    That is exactly what happens also in Estonia 🙁

    Thank you for this amazing blog post =)

    Katrin from EUDEC 2015

  5. Heyhey, sehr geile Sache. Aber wo bleibd das special zum Burning Man ? 😀

    Sind in einer Woche endlich auch in LA bei kuschelig warmen 30° o/ . Sehn dich bald in Oakland 😉

  6. Thank you so much for inspiring me, Alex. What an adventure!!! Love to read from you and being amazed about whatever ways open up,whenever there is a dream,focus, and courage to trust the unknown and go for it. Yeah!

  7. Wow, your journey from Freiberg, Germany to becoming a teacher with a mission is truly inspiring! It’s awesome to see how you explored different educational philosophies and took the leap to intern at a democratic school in the USA.

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