Imagine you’re attending a public school where you can determine what you will study based on your interests. Imagine planning a trip that you will take with your classmates, teachers, and parent volunteers half a world away. Now imagine that you are only six years old.
Students at the Brooklyn Free School in Clinton Hill (Brooklyn), New York, are experiencing a very different kind of education — one that teaches independence and responsibility, as well as academics, art, and all other subjects. In a few weeks, 11 students, ages 6 to 17, and 13 adults will be traveling to Tanzania on a remarkable service learning field trip — one that the students helped to plan and fund.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with teacher Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer, to learn more about both this remarkable school and the ambitious educational project they are planning. Alan Berger, director and one of the co-organizers of the trip. We asked Rae to begin by describing the school. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
WINSRYG-ULMER: Brooklyn Free School is a democratic free school, the only one in Brooklyn and one of the few in the New York metropolitan area.
BPGL: What does it mean to be a democratic free school?
WINSRYG-ULMER: The students create their own learning path. There are no required classes. There’s no required curriculum. There is no mandatory testing. If students choose a class, the teachers organize to make that class happen. If a student wants to do a particular individual activity, the teachers can organize with the student to make that happen. It’s also a democratic school, so decisions are made collectively in our Democratic Meeting or in smaller meetings that students or teachers call.
BPGL: Is the school accredited by the state of New York?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We are accredited by New York State. We have a provisional charter from the NY State Board of Regents to be an educational corporation and run a K-12 school.
BPGL: Are students selected to attend the school, or can anyone go there?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We have a very small, K-12 student body — only about 60 students in the school. When we have openings, students are allowed in based on where we have need. So if we have a shortage of eight-year-old girls, for example, we would fill those slots before the teen slots. It’s not quite a first-come-first-served basis.
BPGL: How did the Tanzania project start?
WINSRYG-ULMER: Last year, we took a bunch of students to Washington, DC to the Inauguration on a very intense trip. It was a full busload of parents, students, and staff. It was a powerful experience for everybody because of the political nature, but also because it was a community group, rather than just a student group with a teacher.
After that, in talking with some other staff members, we wondered, Why don’t we take a trip to Africa? So often, when we get out of our comfort zone, out of the places and situations that are familiar to us, we can really grow and expand as human beings.
So we decided to try a trip to Africa. Another staff member, Lily Mercogliano, and I brainstormed the different countries that we had some experience with. And we put it out to the school community that we wanted to try to make this trip happen, and anybody who was interested in participating in the decision-making as to where we go should come to these meetings. Alan Berger, the school director, is also heavily involved in the planning.
Over a period of months, we narrowed it down to Tanzania, because we had a wide range of ages of students interested in going. We put an emphasis on the infrastructure and ease of travel. And we thought there would be many different things to do in that particular country.
BPGL: What are the student demographics at the school?
WINSRYG-ULMER: It’s a very diverse school, socioeconomically. We have families with very low incomes as well as very wealthy families. And that is part of what makes doing this trip so interesting and challenging. In doing the fundraising for this trip, my idea was, since we are a democratic school, this trip should be run in the most democratic way possible.
We decided, if we’re going to Tanzania, we have to give an equal opportunity to all students — and family members — who want to go. The cost of the trip is about $2,435 per person. So we asked everybody going to first make a personal donation toward the cost of the trip. That donation could be whatever that family could afford. Some people paid the full price. Some people paid a small percentage of that full price. That is the first requirement.
The second requirement is that everyone get 15 sponsors. Again, how much the sponsors give is not as important as that everyone is going out and getting sponsors.
The third requirement is volunteer hours. Everyone is required to do 40 volunteer hours. We have many different fundraising areas. We have a direct mail campaign group that does work on our fundraising letter. We have a school store group that sells cookies and other things after school. And we have some people who are working on Internet fundraising. There are many different ways that people can do their volunteer hours.
BPGL: Do these requirements apply to the staff as well?
WINSRYG-ULMER: Yes. It’s been interesting to figure out how to be democratic and egalitarian in fundraising for this trip in knowing that some people will actually be contributing more money than others, but the hope is that the energy is equitable. And that we can offset those costs through our direct mail campaign, grant writing, and getting people to support everyone having an equal opportunity to do a trip like this.
BPGL: Have you submitted the grant applications? Do you know if you’re getting funding?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We haven’t heard back from any of our grants. But we’ve been very successful with sponsorships. Often, it’s individuals who are interested and excited by the idea and may or may not be participating in the trip. If you can tap into all of these resources and reach out to people who understand the vision and support it, you get $20, $50, $100 from those people. The money comes. And we did get a lot of money through sponsors that way.
I was really surprised, going home for Thanksgiving, and talking with people about the trip, how generous people were. It was very exciting.
BPGL: What percentage have you raised so far?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We’ve raised about half. Our goal is about $60,000, and we’ve raised about half of that through sponsorships and events — we did a holiday carnival and bazaar that was totally the kids’ idea. They ran games and different kinds of things that they created. We made over $1,000 through that two-day carnival. It was a really great fundraiser.
BPGL: When do you depart, assuming you have the money to do so?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We should depart on March 27. We have to have most of the money in by February 10 to pay for our plane tickets and the deposit for the hotels.
BPGL: What will you be doing in Tanzania?
WINSRYG-ULMER: We’re partnering with a group called NTC, the Newton-Tanzania Collaborative out of Newton, Massachusetts. Their whole mission is about cross-cultural exchange. They’ve organized a wonderful itinerary for us.
One of the main things we’ll do is to work on a mural for a school in Kwala, the village where the Newton-Tanzania Collaborative is based. We’ll do that under the guidance of Erik Parker, one of our parents, who is a visual artist. That’s our main community service project. We’ll also help build a computer center in Kwala.
We’ll paint the mural on the walls of the school. The school is built with gray cinder block. We came up with the idea of a mural because they asked that we do a beautification project for their school, something that we could all work together doing.
And I think that’s a cool thing to do, making art together. It’s more than just, “I’m buying books for your school,” or “I’m contributing money.” That’s wonderful, and needed, but actually making art together with somebody who’s from another culture, combining ideas and visual metaphors can be very powerful.
BPGL: Is this art work planned out ahead of time, or is there room for lots of improvisation?
WINSRYG-ULMER: There will be a lot of room for improvisation. The artist we will be working with is trying to organize bringing the art materials over there. He’s been doing some research on African artistic styles, but it’s not something that we design here and implement there. It’s a collaborative effort; we’re trying to have a lot of flexibility so that collaborative piece can grow.
BPGL: I understand you’re bringing packets of materials for the school.
WINSRYG-ULMER: Part of the contract before signing up for the trip is that everybody is allowed two bags, but one of those bags we will fill with school supplies, medical supplies, and any books that they need. So, after we do our fundraising piece, we’ll be holding a bunch of drives to get these supplies in. They have a small clinic that is not well stocked, so we’ll be bringing first aid supplies and that kind of thing.
BPGL: Have your students been corresponding with the students in Kwala?
WINSRYG-ULMER: That is in the process of being organized. The students in Kwala are working on their computer skills, so we’re going to be corresponding via email with the students and the teachers.
BPGL: Do the students speak English?
WINSRYG-ULMER: They are learning English. All of the teachers speak English. Secondary students, too, I think. They do have to learn Swahili, which is the national language, but not the first language of everyone in Tanzania. So, there will be a range of English proficiency.
BPGL: And your kids will learn a bit of Swahili. Are they learning it ahead of time, or not until they get to Tanzania?
WINSRYG-ULMER: Every meeting that I do, once a month, we start with a mini Swahili class. Older kids who are interested in doing something more in depth are doing weekly Swahili classes. And while we’re there, we will have a Swahili teacher with us, teaching us Swahili.
BPGL: How is the trip fitting into your curriculum?
WINSRYG-ULMER: The curriculum is decided by the kids. In traditional schools, the teacher comes up with the idea, or the school system has the curriculum they want to implement. The teachers do the research and the planning, and then they give their lessons and the kids do them.
Here, it’s kind of backwards from that. We feel out what the kids are interested in — but it’s not that the teachers don’t bring in new ideas. You go with what the kids are gravitating towards. They are really interested in travel and in doing service learning.
We put going to Tanzania out there, and the kids got really excited. So that’s part of what we’ve been doing ever since. With my group, we do a lot of virtual travel around the world. We’ve “traveled” to India, Morocco, now we’re in Japan. So it definitely fits in line with what I do with my students. But, as I said, it’s a different way of thinking about curriculum than one would traditionally think.
In Tanzania, we will be doing all kinds of cross-cultural exchange activities, from sporting events to Swahili classes. There’s the part that we do in the village, and then there’s the part that we will do for our personal exploration. We’ll go to Zanzibar to some islands off of Dar es Salaam. We’re also going to the Mikumi National Park.
It’s really exciting, as a teacher, to be in a school like this one.
BPGL: Are your students grouped by the traditional age groups?
WINSRYG-ULMER: No. We all have advisory groups. My advisory groups is the five-, six-, and seven-year-olds. There are three ages grouped together, and then the teens have two different groups, a girls’ group and a boys’ group.
Though our advisories are grouped like that, it doesn’t mean that they spend all their time with the people of their age. One of my 6-year-olds spends a lot of time with a 12-year-old. They just have that relationship, and it’s a cool thing to see kids cross age relationships, and the older teens being mentors to younger students, in a way that can’t often happen in a traditional school setting.
BPGL: How are your students doing academically?
WINSRYG-ULMER: They’re doing really well. Sometimes people are surprised. We have had a few students who have decided they wanted a different school setting, but most often they do really well in whatever school they continue on in.
Part of the reason is, because students choose what they do for most of the day, they get so much time to work out social/emotional issues and to learn how to be with other people and to be powerful in who they are as human beings. It’s those kinds of things that can take away from an academic experience, when you’re not developed fully as a social being.
I found, working in a traditional middle school [before this teaching assignment], that a lot of my energy was spent trying to get kids to sit down and stop talking to each other. If you let them talk to each other and figure out that piece, they want to get to know each other. They want to get to know how the world works, and how people work.
BPGL: Let’s talk a bit more about your fundraising.
WINSRYG-ULMER: Our fundraising strategy is diverse. Everyone is giving personal donations, and sometimes that means, for the teens, giving a portion of their baby-sitting money every week. We’ve talked about that as an option.
The sponsorship is another big piece. We have some students who have passed around the sponsorship sheet at their mosque, and are getting sponsors that way. Other people are sending out an Internet letter that has a “Donate Now” button on it, and people are getting sponsors in that way.
The kids are doing a lot of baking [to sell]. And we’ve partnered with Equal Exchange and are getting orders for coffee and chocolate. We actually have Equal Exchange coffee from Tanzania that we’re trying to sell through our school store.
Also, one of our parents, Anja Matthes, is a documentary filmmaker. She’ll be coming with us, and she’ll be working with students to make a documentary about our trip. That’s probably going to be another fundraising piece, as well as to document what we experience.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: To support this cross-cultural/inter-generational trip with a monetary contribution, please go to the school’s Tanzania donation page. The Brooklyn Free School is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Donations from US taxpayers are tax deductible. Donors of $50 or $100 contributions will receive a thank-you from the students. See the donation page for details.
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