The Public School is a free school whose curriculum is determined by participants. It was founded in 2007 in Los Angeles in the basement of Telic Arts Exchange and has branches in a number of cities around the world. It is not accredited, does not give out degrees, and has no affiliation with the public school system. It is a framework that supports autodidactic activities. In New York, we share a space with the online magazine and curatorial platform, Triple Canopy, and the experimental film venue, Light Industry. A volunteer committee manages the calendar, looks at new proposals and helps develop them into classes. Sometimes we talk with new class leaders about how long a class should be, or suggest readings or activities, and sometimes classes run quite independently of us. The committee also initiates our own classes, and when time is limited, we tend to support classes that most interest us. This means the School’s contours can change a lot depending on who is involved with the committee.
Apart from TPS’s broad goal of providing a space for people to teach and learn for free, I am personally quite interested in engaging people with really diverse reasons for being interested in a free school. We tend to get a lot of interest from people who want a humanities grad school-like experience (Foucault reading group, anyone?) which is great, and I would love to see those people in conversation with elementary school teachers, continuing-ed students, high school students, etc. We can sometimes be a platform for conversations about the meaning of the very basic terms “free” and “school,” and I hope we can do more of that in the future.
My reasons for joining TPSNY stem from my experiences as an educator in public schools which taught me a lot very quickly about the rewards, challenges and responsibilities of being in the classroom. I taught for about five years in elementary and middle schools. I then got more interested in artistic practices and earned a Master’s in Curatorial Studies. Curating is still such a new field that its academic parameters are still being defined. We talked a lot in classes about both what we were learning and why. The curriculum was often questioned. I found that fascinating. Perhaps surprisingly, my work as a teacher of young kids and my current work as a curator feel quite seamless to me.
The volunteer committee facilitates operations at TPSNY, and I met my TPS colleagues when I joined the committee. So I was not joining a group of friends. One of the nice things about TPS is that it is open-ended enough that people with many different interests can operate alongside each other on the committee. We see each other every two weeks or so to discuss new proposals, etc., and otherwise we divvy up the classes and lead them semi-independently.
The kind of learning that occurs at TPSNY changes from class to class. One of the things we talk about a lot is the two paths our classes often follow: either we are asking professionals/experts to teach for free (often these are academics who are severely underpaid to start with); or we are asking our students/audience to have patience with a teacher who is not an expert, is not confident or experienced in the way a paid teacher would be. Though both these situations might seem problematic, I actually think the latter is one of the most interesting elements that has become an institutionalized, built-in part of our program – patience. Repeat visitors to TPS have come to expect that they will have a collaborative relationship with the teacher that extends beyond social or professional boundaries. For this reason, I find the classes taught by nonprofessionals the most interesting and the ones that I most want to support. I enjoy the professionally taught courses and I probably learn more ‘content’ from them, but to be honest, most of the people who attend our classes have had ample opportunity to learn that content, and will have more opportunities in the future. However, I think it’s productive for us to do this from time to time – having classes taught by “real teachers” lends shape and coherence to what we do. But I would say that challenging the relationship between knowledge and expertise is closer to the core of what we can do.
I’m also interested in the ways the other seminar participants are looking at building curricula – something that we really don’t do, though other TPSes might do it. This leads to questions about how to balance sustainability and coherence against ossification.
Labor, compensation, funding, and time are all complicated issues. Everything we do is volunteer-based. This means that each of us has a limit to how much we can participate and for how long – it seems inevitable that, as with any labor of love, you eventually move on to something else. I’d venture to say this is a good thing because it keeps our committee rotating. However, volunteer economies are problematic for any number of reasons. On a personal note, I find that I enjoy working with TPS because, being no-cost, it lacks a kind of professional urgency. It acts as a playground for me, a place I can test ideas without monetary pressures. But I think it’s important to keep that playground feeling urgent as well.
Any organization that depends on free labor, by its teachers and its organizers, is not really an economic challenge to traditional school. In the class I am currently facilitating at TPS, which is meant to investigate the “contemporariness” of alternative pedagogy, one of my central questions is whether these alternative forms are changing the way we as a culture define learning and teaching more broadly. I’m interested in the fact that more and more people who are PARTICULARLY entrenched in traditional education are ALSO interested in teaching and learning at TPS (many of us have Masters degrees, if not PhDs.) What this says to me is that TPS is not an alternative in the sense that it could replace accredited education. But perhaps it can offer ways of thinking that can be applied to traditional school settings.
As to the supposed growth of pedagogical experiments, I’m not actually sure that there are more alternative pedagogy programs now than there used to be. They may just be more accessible because of their presence online. It would be interesting to compare the way the alternative education movement has evolved to the way that other grassroots organizing has changed in the last few decades.
Perhaps the Internet has had an even greater impact on free-ed than on other political or social projects. After all, we offer a definable service, namely, classes on particular topics, which people can decide whether or not to join based on a quick view on a webpage. That’s very different from being tweeted an invitation to a protest, where it’s harder to say in advance what the event will look like. There’s also, of course, a widespread outcry about avalanching student debt, so people are paying more attention to the notion of “alternatives” in education.