Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

An Unstructured School Setting, Is It Possible?

shainarobin's picture

Our discussions in class on Tuesday and Thursday have had me thinking all week about whether or not an unstructured school setting employing the use of queer time could succeed in the heteronormative time frame that mainstream society functions on. A lot of the thoughts that have in response to this question have been drawn from experiences of my own. I have decided to share my story with with the hopes that it might help some of you when forming an opinion of your own.

When I was in first grade, my best friend and I were outside playing on the jungle gym.  We had become so engrossed in seeing who could hang onto the ladder the longest that we hadn't even realized that it was too quiet for a supposed bunch of kids to be messing around on the playground. After noticing that no one else was around, we ran frantically around the back of the building trying to find our gym class and felt completely bewildered when it wasn’t bring held in its usual spot.  Eventually we gave up trying to find them and went back to one of the five or so expanded rooms that our regular class occupied.  The movie Matilda was playing on the TV that hung from the corner of the wall so we silently sat down on one of the couches and decided to watch it for the rest of the hour.  After the hour ended, my sister came back from gym class and asked me where we had been? tI told her that my friend and I had lost track of time, gotten lost, and had finally decided to come back to our homeroom.  My sister simply shrugged and accepted that as the truth.  None of the teachers came up to us to ask us what had happened and the incident never came up again.  Now, does that experience sound bizarre and farfetched? When I think about it now it kind of does, but at that moment it seemed like a perfectly rational situation. That was my life at Mach Open School, a place for adventures and independence. Incidents like these were everyday occurrences. 

Mach Open is a Kindergarten-8th grade public school in Ann Arbor with an alternative education (a lot of people refer to it as the ‘hippie school’).  My sister and I were drawn from a lottery to go there in the late summer of 2000.  For two years we were in an experimental classroom where they combined kids from Kindergarten through Fourth grade and were able to call our two teachers by their first names.  There was no set curriculum beside extracurricular activities involving other classes and we were often left to do whatever we wanted.  They would have us do some things involving geography, math, and reading but often times they were in ‘alternative’ ways.  For example, we had older reading buddies from a different class who would spend time with us reading for about an hour every other day.  We could pick anything we wanted to read out of the pile of books we had in the classroom. It was fun being able to look at and ask the older kids for help (not to mention the constant piggyback rides I was able to score). As individuals we got to choose from a list of field trips that we could go on, and during the fall/spring we would go to Zingerman’s Bakehouse (a food enterprise with a cult status in Ann Arbor) or out to Bird Park on a nature walk or fishing expedition. 

As I look back at my time at Mach School, I fondly remember meeting my first friend on the first day of school and the first time I was ever away from home to go camping.  It was fun going to school every day and being able to do whatever I wanted. I loved that I was given the freedom to choose what activities I wanted to spend my day doing. But when I look back at my time at Mach, I can also see why my parents pulled me out after two years.  With all of the independence I was given, I didn’t have a core curriculum for classes and therefore wasn’t learning the same things other kids my age in different schools were.  I had to spend many frustrating hours every Saturday learning the basic skills of English and math from my mother. I was lucky that as a professor my mother knew how to work with young people and had a flexible schedule to tutor my sister and me around. Others didn't have the same privilege. When talking with my mom, she recounted to me that many of the fourth graders that she knew my sister and I liked to hang out with could barely read past a 1st grade reading level and had a hard time with writing. I remember how she wondered how many of them would actually make it to college.

The experimental classroom that I had been in ended the year I left Mach because kids weren’t getting the individual attention they needed for academics.  When I look back at my time at there, I wouldn’t trade those two years for any other school. Though my time there has set me back academically in ways that I'm still trying to overcome, Mach gave me responsibility and allowed me to make my own decisions. It gave me the opportunity to forge friendships that still exist today, and fueled my love of reading.  There was this freedom of expression and imagination at Mach that I've never quite seen anywhere else. I mean I was able to run free through the library and had computer classes in classroom with a paper mache dinosaur gobbling up a life-size doll. How out of this world is that? The sense of freedom and individuality I experienced there still makes me beam and laugh today.  Mach was probably one of the most carefree parts of my childhood but it showed me that sometimes you have to make a choice between what you want and what you need.  I wanted to stay there longer and continue the fun I was having but I needed to get an education that I wasn’t able to achieve in Mach’s environment.

In class on Thursday, someone brought up that while operating on normative time could be a bad thing, so could operating on queer time. I believe that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing and I think that that train of thought can be applied to the ideas of queer time and an unstructured school setting. I don't question as to whether or not we can operate on queer time, I have done so in the past and know others who have done it as well. I do think however, that there is a balance that we should be aware of. While the field trips, extracurriculars, freedom of choice, and independence I was given at Mach are all good examples of how using queer time can be advantageous, the fact that my class had only two teachers to look over a mixed-grade classroom as well as a lenient time frame and structure when it came to teaching us, contributed to the downfall of the experimental program and the pulling of my sister and me from the school. I think that an unstructured school setting is possible and beneficial when done right. I continue to look for schools who have succeeded in doing this and never fail to be awed by the results I am given.