You're in the park surrounded by swaying willows, or maybe knee deep in goldenrod in someone's backyard, or sunk into the couch in a small apartment on Cayuga Street.
Usually, one way or another, a circle is formed. What are you doing here with a professor from Maine, a few pink-haired chatty teenagers from town, a local diesel mechanic, and a retired couple who brought cookies? You're here to learn how to weave baskets out of the long limbs of willow trees. You're discussing how Thor got along with the giants in Norse Mythology. You are about to plant the first herb in your medicinal garden. You've been hearing about natural gas drilling, but want to get more information. Any one of these people might be your teacher today.
In Ithaca, New York, the Ithaca Freeskool offers you an alternative to traditional education. With classes like Mushroom Hunting, Bike Repair, Know Your Rights with Debtors, and D.I.Y. Movie Making, it's a refreshing variety of completely free classes for people of all ages. Started only a few years ago and run entirely by volunteers, the Freeskool gives the community an opportunity to share their skills and knowledge.
Anyone can teach for the Freeskool, so the semesters take on the flavor of whatever people are interested in at the time. We all have some sort of skill hidden up our sleeve, perhaps a hobby that's become something more. Often it is sharing that skill, that love for what you've learned, with others that brings about the most enjoyment. On the other hand, some classes arise out of a need. An issue becomes important in the community and there is a sudden hunger for information – the Freeskool becomes a vehicle for sharing, processing and problem-solving.
Anyone can bring a Freeskool to life in their town. In fact, there are Freeskools all over the country and in other parts of the world. If you're thinking of starting one, consider some of the following:
People: People make it possible. Get a group of interested folks together and talk about your visions for the Freeskool. Contact and collaborate with other organizations and local educators who might be able to help. Ultimately, you'll need teachers and organizers. Of course, you can be both. The Ithaca Freeskool has three to five organizers running most of the show – even such a small group can get a lot done. Teachers change from semester to semester, but it's good to have a core group of organizers.
Classes: Get the community involved by asking what skills and needs people have. What local issues need more attention? What kinds of education are people seeking? What kinds of classes would foster social interactions that will bring people together? In Ithaca we put up big posters with two columns labeled “What I can Teach” and “What I Want to Learn” at community events. People are encouraged to put check marks next to the subjects they would like to see as a class. Then we put out the call for classes far and wide. It's also likely that free classes are already being offered by other groups and can easily be incorporated into your calendar.
Communication: It's important for interested people and organizers to keep in touch. Set up an email account, a website, a Facebook page, and even a listserv. Establish some way that people can get in touch when they have ideas. Set a date and place for regular meetings of organizers and invite new people to get involved throughout the year.
Places: Scout out places for classes and meetings. Often people host gatherings in their homes and backyards. In warmer weather, classes can be held outside in parks. You can also ask local businesses and community centers if they mind having classes in their space. Usually these partnerships are mutually beneficial as participants feel inclined to buy something during or after class. In Ithaca, an independent book store called Buffalo Street Books has provided a space for literary classes while The Shop, a downtown cafe and music venue, hosts a weekly origami class. The community can be very supportive!
Guidelines: It can be really helpful for teachers and students if your Freeskool develops some guidelines. Ithaca Freeskool created a Tips for Teachers document and a consent policy that outlines ways that teachers should be sensitive to activities that include physicality and/or might push participants' emotional boundaries. These suggestions can help teachers get a sense of how to better run and publicize their classes. Currently, our Freeskool is going through a visioning process to better define our collective values and goals.
Get the Word Out: Most Freeskools have a calendar of classes that comes out several times a year. Come up with a name, get artsy and make tons of flyers. Send out a press release when a new semester begins. Table at local grocery stores, conferences, farmers' markets, etc. It's good to have a few locations that reliably carry your calendar. List those spots on your website. Tell everyone you know! Thanks to a small grant we received from Sustainable Tompkins we were even able to make a few Freeskool "Distance Learning" movies. We post them on our site, which helps people see what attending a class can be like.
With a new fall calendar coming soon, we're pretty excited and motivated. We're also getting ready to have our first ever Freeskool Prom – a night of celebration, dress-up and silliness that we plan to have at the end of each semester. We'll watch video footage and a photo slideshow of recent classes, drink punch and give out some awards. People will have a chance to socialize, collaborate and, of course, dance.
If education is going to be sustainable, it has to be flexible and up-to-date. Freeskools provide an alternative that enable people respond to the month-to-month needs and interests of their community. Classes can evolve as they need to. Remember, if you've got skills and knowledge, you've got a Freeskool.