Philly Free School and the Exodus from Egypt

Philadelphia Free School and the Exodus from Egypt: A Slightly Late Passover Blog Entry

By Rory Katz, PFS Intern January 2012–April 2012

This Passover, I was asked to lead a seder, a family meal where we follow the tradition of retelling the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt into the desert. I read through a number of Haggadahs (a book containing commentary and interpretations of the Exodus) to think through how I wanted to present the story this year. I came across one description of the desert, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Philadelphia Free School:

There is no place more wide open, more full of possibility and more unstructured than the desert. Its directionless emptiness forces its inhabitants to make decisions with almost no guidance. They are confronted with a kind of moral agoraphobia— where to go, what to do and how to behave are all up-for grabs in a way that must have bred existential paralysis if not terror in these former slaves, people who had until very recently lived lives of total predictability, control and order. (p.17)

For many families coming to the Philadelphia Free School (PFS) from conventional schools, the most striking aspect is the incredible amount of freedom, and responsibility, given to students. Similarly to the Israelites, many of our students come from schools that depend on principles of routine, classroom management, and organization. Underneath the orderly appearance such structures create, conventional schools train students to depend on the guidelines and expectations of others for validation. Like the Israelites, many students (as well as their parents) transitioning from such institutions experience massive initial confusion when first encountering the lack of external authority that guides the decisions of daily life at the Philly Free School.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a few new students transition into the Philly Free School. Of course, each kid comes with a different background regarding previous schooling, family dynamics, and general personality, so each of them has a unique experience transitioning to PFS. But, no matter where students come from, the unique blend of freedom and responsibility always requires an adjustment period because there is nowhere quite like 2001 Christian Street.

S. was a perfect example. She came to visit the school this past January with her parents and her younger brother. In writing this article, I asked S. about her experience at her old school. She told me that she had had to “listen to teachers and sit down and be quiet, and when they would go to the park, you had to go whether you liked it or not.” She spent her first few weeks at PFS walking around, mostly observing the staff. I remember she came with me when I had to serve on the Judicial Committee, which deals with the consequences of any rule breaking and which most kids her age would be completely bored by. She sat quietly looking at me while I was there and for most of that day. Sometimes she would share a story about her family or her old school, but I kept getting the impression that she was trying to get my approval. I listened intently but I couldn’t offer the validation that she was looking for.

American society bombards its adults with a potentially overwhelming number of choices. Decision-making areas range from the kinds of work we do and how we spend our money, to the kinds of interpersonal relationships we seek and how we maintain them, and from the kind of food we want to eat and where we buy it (or grow it), to the kind of government we want to support and what we do to support it (or not). Like the newly-freed Israelites, it can be tempting to retreat away from these to, in the Haggadah’s words, “gravitate toward the decisionlessness of Egypt” (17).

Students at PFS have this experience too. They start to claim that there’s nothing to do at school, that school is boring. When I hear that, their voices start to blend in with the complaints of the Israelites, wishing to go back to Egypt for its leeks. Like the Israelites in the desert, it’s easy to confront freedom by looking for someone else to take responsibility for our wellbeing. We, too, might be tempted to see ourselves as victims of our circumstances, and avoid taking responsibility for difficult decisions. While they voice their complaints differently, both the students and Israelites are encountering profoundly existential moments of not knowing what to with themselves and their newfound freedom. This experience can be intensely painful. When given a chance, it becomes an opportunity for deep self-exploration and growth. At the Philly Free School, there is no guiding curriculum to distract students from their inner work of discovering their own values, passions, and skills. Without another authority to guide them, PFS students learn to listen to themselves and to make choices according to their ethics and evaluations. Because of this opportunity, I have no doubt that each of them will be more prepared to confidently navigate through the options of their adult lives, along with the successes and failures that they entail.

Having gone straight from conventional school to conventional college, I entered the “real world” poorly prepared to make my own decisions. Knowing that I was passionate about making a positive impact and was vaguely interested in education, I took the first job offered to me in that field, a position coordinating the volunteer tutors at a school. My tasks were independent in nature, so I looked to my supervisor to find out whether I was doing a good job or not. My supervisor was always available to listen but rarely offered any feedback and encouraged me to do whatever I thought best. Without a rubric and without much experience trusting my own decision-making capabilities, I grew confused and anxious. I did not trust my own values and skills in navigating my options and kept second guessing my choices. Without prior experience engaging in my own projects without external evaluation, I had never developed confidence in my capacity for self-evaluation. During those first few weeks of January this year, as I watched S. wander from room to room, I couldn’t help recalling my own experience in that job where I too would wander around the workplace trying to identify some hidden grading system.

In my own short time at the Philly Free School, I have stopped looking for someone else to validate my decisions and evaluate my work, and I have witnessed students go through the same process. I have begun to see each staff member, student, and parent as an individual on a unique path, making unique contributions to the school. At most times of day, there is not a “right” way for me to spend my time. At any moment, I may feel drawn to contribute to the school community in five or ten different ways—whether it is supervising someone using paints, trying to get donations for the school auction, eating lunch with one of the tween girls who wants to talk about a difficult friendship, walking with a smaller kid to the pharmacy so he can buy a pack of gum, or writing up a mess that I’ve just spotted. At another school, I would have an explicit lesson plan to deliver and I would not have to (or be able to) assess the needs of the community as a whole and evaluate the best way for me to respond at that moment. At PFS, I have learned to balance the needs of the school with my own needs, and I can trust that the other staff and students are doing the same. In a community where people are expected to take responsibility for each other, I can trust that someone else will take care of writing up the mess complaint if I decide to take M. and O. to the pharmacy.

Within a few months, S. has stopped looking to staff members to tell her what to do. She now walks confidently through the school and wholeheartedly immerses herself in her activities. She plays imaginative games, draws, beads, watches movies, runs around at the playground, plays on the computer, and listens to stories. Her mother has trouble coaxing her back home at the end of the day. She has found her place in this school and has made a life for herself here. Sometimes, she’ll spare a moment to tell me about it. Instead of looking for approval, she’s sharing out of excitement and connection. Often, she doesn’t even wait for a response before running off to her next activity.
Recently, S. served her first day on the Judicial Committee. She sat quietly, hesitant to express her opinion on the cases at hand. I immediately thought back to her first days at school, reluctant to engage too deeply in any one activity. I am confident that she will quickly find her place and be ready to take ownership of the school’s justice system. Within a week or two, she will be sharing her opinions with as much thought, care and inner knowledge as she puts into the rest of her activities at school.

Especially in a world overrun with so many environmental and social injustices, it is crucial for our kids to take responsibility for themselves and their community. We cannot afford to train our students to simply listen to directions. More than anything else, they need to be learning to do what they think is right. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites had to wander in the desert for a long time before becoming free people rather than freed people. With so many forces encouraging them to passively accept the injustices of our time, Philadelphia’s youth especially need time and space to find their own ways to a free mind.

Works Cited
“From Liberation To Freedom: A Passover Sourcebook.” American Jewish World Service. Published 2011. www.ajws.org. p. 17

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