Daniel's Story

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An Educational Journey 
Written by one of our students

My Educational Journey
By Daniel Carr

I consider myself incredibly fortunate because of the educational experiences I have had growing up. Most of my academic life has been spent in small alternative schools which place emphasis on learning how to learn and have holistic approaches to education. I have been encouraged to self-reflect, think critically, use my creativity, support and care for my peers, respect my teachers, and push myself into exciting and challenging situations.
I spent kindergarten through eighth grade at an alternative school started by Quakers called Peninsula. Our classes were small, rarely more than twenty kids per grade. Each year was spent with one or two main teachers who passed on gifts of wisdom and love. They brought their personal passions into their teaching, and I have (hopefully!) absorbed much from them. We called our teachers by their first names and developed close relationships with them. Half the day, we were allowed to run and play, to climb trees, to hang out in the activity rooms, and to play sports. We were curious children and we were encouraged to use our curiosity and creativity.
After Peninsula, I attended a traditional public high school, and my world was turned upside down. I went from a small community school based on holistic learning, to a large impersonal school, which separated learning into disconnected subjects and treated kids as if we were machines whose main function was to absorb and regurgitate facts. I felt as if I'd been ripped away from my community, which was like my extended family, and transplanted into an institution which didn't even know I existed. I had a couple of good teachers, but the fundamental educational philosophy and structure of the public school system was the antithesis of my free-spirited upbringing.
In public school, I was separated from other kids by grades and ability, taught not to question, and made to do busy work to please the teacher. My passion for math quickly drained, because even if I understood a problem, I had to prove it by repeating the same information over and over again. At the time, I couldn't find the words to describe what was happening. I just started to hate school and hate myself.
After the end of my freshman year, I switched to a smaller private school. I didn't know what I was getting myself into; I just knew I wanted something else. But sophomore year proved to be the hardest year of my life. I discovered that this school was a haven for drug abusers, drug dealers, kids with violent records, and kids who had been kicked out of other schools. It was at this school that I started smoking, doing drugs, and not caring very much about life. I saw and experienced a sad and disturbing world which I will never forget.
Halfway through the school year, I left for a month to live in Switzerland with an old friend from Peninsula. He had chosen to home school and was traveling around the world as part of his studies. The trip was a major turning point in my life. As we moved around Switzerland staying with different people, I began to gain a new perspective on my life. It was in Switzerland that I began to question my public school experience, my use of drugs, the direction my life was headed, and where I started to become politically aware. It was also while I was in Switzerland, that I began to reconnect with the free-spirited soil in which I had grown up. When I returned, I began distance myself from the drug scene and my so-called friends. I started writing poetry and dreaming of a new life -- without drugs, materialism, and depression. That summer, I quit smoking cigarettes and doing drugs. I began to read books on spirituality and critiques of civilization. I questioned everything.
During this time, a book was given to me written by the students of a radical educational program at a local high school called The Learning Community. The program sounded like just what I needed, so I applied, was accepted, and started there in my junior year.
The Learning Community is an interdisciplinary studies program which focuses on the person, as well as the academic. Before entering The Learning Community, I was on the verge of dropping out of high school. Now, after being in the program for two years, I see the world as an integrated whole and have once again become deeply passionate about learning. All my classes are wonderfully interconnected, and because of this they build on each other, giving me a deep and broad sense of understanding. Through The Learning Community, I have been able to use the world as my classroom and combine my interests with my studies. Whether I am getting economics credit by studying economic inequality in the U.S., or gaining Environmental Studies credit for volunteering at a local environmental group, I find myself engaged and excited about learning.
In The Learning Community, we design our own our curriculum. Individually, we create study contracts in which we commit to fulfill a certain number of hours of course work for each of our classes. We are able to use a full spectrum of resources -- from books we choose ourselves , to finding mentors and tutors, to watching and making documentaries, to apprenticeships, and more. As a group we take charge of own educations by planning projects, bringing in speakers from the community, organizing debates and discussions, planning field trips, or teaching each other through seminars that the we initiate ourselves.
A good example of a student-initiated project was our trip to Cuba. In my junior year, we traveled to Cuba to study how US foreign policy has directly affected the Cuban people. We decided to make documentary films of our experiences. We prepared ourselves for our trip by splitting into small groups and teaching each other about Cuba's history, and studying the US Blockade imposed on Cuba. We also brought in professional filmmakers to speak to us about documentary filmmaking, and journalists and other speakers who had lived in Cuba.
We (twenty-five students) raised over $50,000 for the trip; the fundraising turned out to be an incredible learning experience in itself. We made over $25,000 by knocking on doors and offering contributors the chance to send messages of goodwill to Cuban citizens. The extra money we raised went to programs and causes in Cuba which we collectively decided to support.
While in Cuba, during an incredibly packed schedule, we managed to shoot over 60 hours of footage. When we returned, we produced three videos focusing on different aspects of our trip. I worked as an editor, videographer, and researcher on a film called "Life with the Blockade," which was an experience I will never forget. This was the first time any of us had made a documentary, and after three intense, hair-pulling months of editing, we finished the films an presented them to the public. We also made presentations to schools and were interviewed on our local National Public Radio station and television network news. It felt gratifying and worthwhile to share our experience and spread awareness by making use of our trip to benefit the larger community.
I learned many things before, during, and after my trip, but as I think about applying for college, one thing sticks out. It is the value of applying research and study to real world experiences, and of making use of those experiences to benefit not only myself the world.
Since I've joined the Learning Community, I've come to see no separation between school and life. I've become excited about learning again and have been able to integrate my interests into my studies. This year, for example, I am approaching economics through the viewpoint of ecology, Buddhism, and tribalism. I have designed my health class to integrate yoga, exercise, healthy cooking, and reading. For my "Investigating the Human Consciousness" class, I am combining meditation, listening to discourses from different spiritual teachers, reading about philosophy, and attending a weekly four-hour Psychological Systems seminar, which investigates different psychological models and spiritual traditions from both the East and the West. For an Environmental Studies and Sustainable Agriculture class that I created and presented to the class, I am starting a garden in my backyard, participating in weekend workshops at the local non-profit organic gardening store, watching documentaries and films on environmental problems and sustainable agriculture, and attending environmental and agricultural forums in the Bay Area. For my Communications class, I'm reading from a book list I assembled, writing poetry and essays, as well as producing a short film about The Learning Community. For US History, I am reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and comparing it to my school's history text. Also, I watched documentaries such as Berkeley in the 60's and Winter Soldier, a film which documents the testimonials of Vietnam vets protesting the war. (The film maker visited our class before our class went to Cuba).
Through The Learning Community, I've received credit for attending a weekend retreat on spirituality and social activism, as well as a five week long seminar called "Living on the Edge of Evolution." I could have never imagined the incredible experiences I've had through The Learning Community when I first started high school. I know that I have been blessed to have found such an amazing program.

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