How the Learning Happens: The Story of the Snow Ball

It was a cold February night, and the school was full of anticipation. Two 14-year old students had spearheaded the first ever dance at the Philly Free School, and, after months of planning, it was finally coming to fruition. Our 60s-era skating rink was festooned with silver and blue decorations, a DJ station was set up, and the food table was loaded up with snacks and treats. At 6:00, the doors opened, and the Snow Ball began!

While the story behind the Snow Ball is one of glitter and good times, the real story goes deeper. The students who created a school-wide event out of good ideas, hard work, and perseverance illustrate how the learning happens at schools like ours. As with most endeavors at PFS, the roaring success (or failure) of the end product doesn’t always allow the learning behind it to shine through. To try to bring some of that learning to light, I interviewed the Snow Ball architects and share their story with you here.

Dance Planning Planning with input from many stakeholders

It started with Snapchat. Nadja went to a dance at another school and reached out to Taja via Snapchat, saying, ‘We should do one at PFS!” Taja was on board right away. They began brainstorming all the possibilities. “We spent hours making lists of our ideas in the Glass Office. We had a lot of great ideas-- some of them worked and some of them didn’t,” said Taja. One of the early decisions that led to their success was the realization that they needed buy-in from a broad group of stakeholders. They held numerous focus groups to gather input. “We had people from each age group in the school come and tell us what music they listened to, what food they liked, what games they wanted to play,” said Nadja. “From their suggestions, we compiled what we would and wouldn’t do.” For example, they adopted the candy suggestions, but not the hot chocolate, because, “we didn’t want to deal with mugs.” They debated renting a smoke machine at first, but decided against it: “We vetoed it when we realized we’d rather spend the money on food,” said Taja.

Listening to a lot of opinions was important, but it also became cumbersome. At one point, there were a dozen people involved in the planning. “Everyone loved the idea of being part of the team,” said Nadja. “Some people helped, and some people thought they helped! Some meetings got nothing done at all.” The process of putting all those good ideas into action was harder than they had expected. Like leaders the world over, Nadja and Taja learned that the input of stakeholders is crucial, but is only one piece of the puzzle to getting things done.

Img 7767 Bursting through into a winter wonderland!

As any entrepreneur can tell you, fundraising was important to making their dreams a reality. The Snow Ball relied upon a few individual donors, and some very active bake sales. Taja and Nadja knew that cupcakes and brownies would sell like hotcakes (hot cupcakes?) within the school, so they planned to bake some at school. But they ran into some practical obstacles. “We were stressing because we weren’t certified for the kitchen and didn’t have the ingredients,” explained Nadja. They struck a deal with some of those who had earned their kitchen certification, and before they knew it, “other people were already selling baked goods when we got upstairs one day!” They raised their targeted dollar amount in just a few days and used the funds for a variety of decorations and food.

Img 0050 Cleaning to make the venue sparkle

Another powerful lesson was in the volunteer management department. While Nadja and Taja were definitely the leaders of the project, they learned about the power of many hands. “There were a lot of amazing volunteers,” they said. Even cleaning the school, before and after the event, was enthusiastically taken on by them and their peers. At the end of the night, Nadja said, “More people stayed to help than we expected, including our guests. Some things didn’t get put back where they should have been, but we figured it out.” At the same time, they experienced some disappointments.  Taja explained: “People liked the idea of helping, but didn’t like to do the work. Once we were doing budgeting, the more people in the room, the harder it was to get it done.” This lead to some important take-aways: “Just because people want to help doesn’t mean you should let them!” said Nadja.  They also learned some key elements of leadership. Taja realized that orchestrating a big project like this requires segmenting the work, “You should have a committee for each thing: food, decorations, School Meeting approval, etc.” As Nadja put it, “The key is… delegating! If you know what you want to get done, you can’t do it all yourself. You have to put people in charge of getting it done for you.” For more on the importance of women in leadership, and of the development of young women, specifically, as leaders, take a look at this research.

Managing others is one aspect of leadership, but collaboration within the leadership team is another. “Communication was one of the things we did wrong,” said Taja. Nadja agreed, adding,  “We needed to be on the same page with each other 100% of the time.  Sometimes we planned separately and sometimes together, so we didn’t know what the other was doing.” The result was some moments of great frustration, where each thought the other had handled things when they hadn’t, as well as some duplication of effort.

Img 7759 Fancy hairdo for a fancy occasion

Attention to detail, and meeting the expectations of those in authority, were also challenges. One of the hardest parts of the process was getting School Meeting’s approval. The information sheet and permission slip went through many versions before School Meeting agreed that they met the school's standard. Nadja explained, “We thought we had it all figured out, but School Meeting said no. We messed up so much. Every single piece of paper that represents the school has to be completely correct, and I wasn’t used to that.” Taja elaborated, “We sent out the wrong flyer several times. We had to go to JC and explain that we were going to correct it.” There were times when they thought about dropping the whole idea. “I don’t know why we kept going-- maybe it was our friends or the little kids telling us how excited they were-- but we learned don’t give up,” said Nadja.

This lesson in perseverance paid off, because School Meeting did approve the final version of the plan, and the night was absolutely magical. Nadja and Taja shared some highlights, rapid fire: “It looked really beautiful. The little kids loved it. We all brought guests. There were games. We created more at the last minute, too, like limbo!” There was also some drama with the music, mid-event: “Our DJ, a student, got overwhelmed because people were suggesting music that wasn’t on the approved list. We almost fired him, but he ended up being a great DJ. It all worked out. Now people expect it to be a yearly thing!”

Img 7743 Happy dance participants

Their final take-aways were variations on a theme. Nadja said, “Try your best to make things work, because often they will!” Taja’s reflection on the experience was, “It takes a lot of work, stress, and communication. But you can’t succeed if you don’t try!” The determination to push through difficulties is a quality that will serve them well in many future endeavors, as articulated here and elsewhere. Calvin Coolidge expressed it thus,

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

The Snow Ball is a testament to the many skills being developed here, including perseverance, leadership, volunteer management, entrepreneurship, attention to detail, and coalition building. The night of fun and the hours of work behind it bode well for good things to come from our unstoppable PFS students!

Reflections on 3 Years at PFS
by Margie Sanderson, PFS Staff

Reflections on 3 Years at PFS

In the winter, I decided I would not run for re-election to PFS staff for next year. While I love this school, I’m restless in my personal life and ready to try other things. It was a bittersweet decision to make, as I am excited for what’s ahead but quite sad to say goodbye to this place. As the year wraps up, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot about this unique work environment. I think that the struggles and joys of being a staff person here run parallel to the struggles and joys of being a student. It feels nearly impossible to summarize what I’ve done here, or to translate it onto a resume, or elevator pitch it to a stranger. I’ve struggled to write this blog post reflecting on my staff job all spring. Then, as I began writing a year summary letter as Fundraising Clerk, it clicked for me that just reflecting on this past year gives a richer and more meaningful insight into my work here as anything else I was trying to write.

Each individual member of our school community will likely have their own account of the highlights from the past year, almost certainly including happenings that aren’t even on my radar. Below you’ll find my personal reflections on the year.

In September we began our 6th year with 67 young people and 5 full-time staff members. The year got off to a running start, with highlights including many pretend weddings, kids studying hard to get certified for independent kitchen use, cupcake baking, and nearly 100 people attending our Back to School Night! We also piloted our new aftercare program this year. Staffed by parent Justin Becker and alumnus Desmond Lee, the program has been a great success for the school. 

Aftercare 2017 34562070435 O Our 2016-17 Aftercare Staff

Later in the fall, we enjoyed a fabulous Homecoming skating party with current families as well as past students and alumni in attendance. The presidential election provided plentiful opportunities for political discussion and debate in our community, which was a real highlight for me personally. On one day in particular, I got to witness a discussion between a 6-year-old Clinton supporter and 13-year-old Trump supporter that was respectful, engaging, and ended with both parties feeling good. If only more adults could communicate like this

As it happened, the student-organized school sleepover took place the night after the election, which gave it a unique energy of togetherness and mutual support. Discussions that night led to the creation of the “We the People” seminar series, which ran for a few months. In this series, a new presenter prepared a seminar on a different social-justice related topic every other week. Topics included Native American history, youth rights, and nonviolent activism. It was moving to see the number of people who elected to attend these discussions, bringing to the table a wide range of perspectives but a universal openness to conversation.

30534621564 2A8D04Db31 K Political variety at PFS!

Later in November, Blake Boles paid us a visit to speak about The Art of Self-Directed Education. His talk was part of a continued effort from the Outreach and Fundraising committees to make high-quality programming related to our model available to the public at no cost. Blake is a friend of mine, so I was particularly excited to show off our school to him and have our people learn from his work as well.

31453511052 Bf1Ab5614B Z Blake Boles speaks at PFS, November 2016

One final highlight from the fall was the construction of our Gaga pit (click here for a video of Gaga if you’re unfamiliar.) The idea for this came from students who attended Camp Stomping Ground last summer (which continues to draw lots of our students!) and wanted to play Gaga all year long. With great support from David O’Connor, one of our in-school volunteers, students were able to plan, purchase supplies for, and construct the Gaga pit. It continues to be enjoyed by community members of all ages today!

31562793676 1409A04E5C K Gaga pit constructors at work

In January we passed a budget to expand our staff from 5 to 5.5 FTE for the upcoming school year. With the announcement that I am leaving after this year, we began our search to fill 1.5 FTE spots for next year's staff. Our Staff Hiring Subcommittee has met weekly throughout the spring to facilitate the implementation of our hiring process, which has gone better than many of us imagined it could! New staff elections were held in late May, and we’re now negotiating contracts with a number of talented, exciting candidates we hope to have on board next year.

Also in January, the group game “mafia” was a big trend, with many variations and twists played. I enjoyed being part of a number of these games and seeing students improve their logistics and crowd management skills as they tried to accommodate more and more players. A number of tween girls fell in love with singer songwriter Grace Vanderwaal, resulting in lots of ukulele playing and singing concerts

32092858854 E4C3Dd6F6D K Concert in the art room!

Warm days in February led to lots of outdoor play and a number of well attended staff-led park trips. One day while playing outside, a student mentioned to me that she’d like to organize a tea party at school, and I had the great pleasure of supporting her to hold a Valentine's Day tea party that was widely enjoyed. Later in the month, we also held elections for returning staff, all of whom earned more than 50% yes votes. The PFS Snow-Ball, our first school dance, took place in late-February as well. After months of planning from a Dance Committee (comprised solely of students!), it was a huge success!

For me, it’s always interesting to see how activities trend and go in and out of fashion at PFS. One spring trend I’ve really enjoyed watching evolve is “slime” making. I think it began with just one student making some at home and bringing it in, and has grown infinitely since then. Students of all ages have tried out countless different recipes, colors, and editions of the substance. Many recipes have gone awry--including too much glue, too much water, and the discovery that it doesn’t work with apple sauce! Businesses that make and sell slime have been created, dismantled, and created again. JC has ruled on whether or not you can play with slime on couches, and what to do when slime gets stuck to the ceiling. If you buy slime from a student business that is too sticky and makes a mess, is the business liable, or are you the one who needs to clean it up? Talk about #RealLifeRealLearning!

34607481351 51053A1F08 K Experiments in Slime making

The roleplaying game Pathfinder also took off as a trend this spring, with students organize intensive ongoing games that involved lengthy character development and extremely detailed map-making (a student working on a city plan for the game recently asked me for the average width of a canal so they could appropriately add it, to sale, in their draft.)

A group of teen girls visited Haverford College in early April to attend professor Adam Rosenblatt’s “Introduction to Peace, Justice, and Human Rights” class and talk with students about their school experience. While I wasn’t able to join this field trip, I enjoyed hearing reflections from our students afterwards. Later in April I was able to join in on a field trip to the Arden Theatre for a showing of “The Light Princess” with a number of students, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

34354628750 84C255Deb0 K PFS teens with Haverford College students

Mid-April gave way to our 6th annual Spring Fling, this year themed “Over the Rainbow.” The event incorporated hundreds of volunteer hours from about one hundred volunteers, including tireless event chairs Jean Finlay and Sarah Becker. Over 200 guests attended, and we raised $15,000 to benefit our sliding scale tuition program. What a huge success!

At the end of April our diploma candidate, Kate, defended her thesis and earned 3 yes votes from her panel. Kate’s graduation process has been yet another shining highlight from the spring for me. While her thesis was strong from the start, I was especially impressed with the way she integrated feedback and relentlessly revised to reach her final product. Her Motion to be granted a diploma was universally supported at our Assembly meeting in late May, and we celebrated her commencement with a powerful ceremony this past weekend. 

One of Kate’s thesis defense panelists was Hanna Greenberg, a founder of the Sudbury Valley School. Along with serving on Kate’s panel, she also visited our school and spoke to our community during her late-April visit. Many parents reported her talk as a highlight of the year in our Inreach event survey. It is certainly rare to meet someone with over 40 years of experience in our educational model, so I think all of us at school who got a chance to talk with Hanna benefitted.

34518061356 C769C897A8 K Kate and her thesis advisors (myself and Reb) after her successful defense!

As our year comes to a close, Nerf gun wars are in and Mafia is out. Last week many of us enjoyed Field Day at Bartram’s Garden, a chance to relax and play outside. I particularly enjoyed playing and watching games of Capture the Flag, and seeing people try to figure out how to use a boomerang.

Now, we have 77 students enrolled and about 20 more in process, not all of whom will be able to secure a spot with us for the fall. School Meeting is facing new, but joyful, problems, including how to manage our waiting list, and how to differentiate expectations between full and part time staff. Overall, I feel a sense of settling in our community as we transition from a start-up to a known quantity. This transition is certainly not without its own stresses, but they come with a sense of satisfaction and delight in knowing how much our community has already achieved.

I originally wrote this letter with fundraising and donor appreciation in mind, so I concluded it here with a note about thankfulness for their gifts enabling our school to thrive. Maybe you, reading now, are not a donor--and that’s ok. Most likely you are invested in our school in some way--maybe someone you love goes to school or works here, or you support our cause and the existence of these vital spaces for kids to be free. Regardless of how you are invested, I hope you feel the same sense of satisfaction in your investment that I know I do. When I  re-read this letter for editing purposes, I was literally teary eyed in awe of this school year and this community. Our school changes lives.  

In my time at PFS I’ve learned how to use Salesforce and how to play the Scary Game (and that it’s too scary for me.) I’ve seen amazing young people work hard through the graduation process and transition gracefully into their adult lives. I’ve spearheaded the creation, development, and implementation of a staff hiring process. I’ve scrubbed a lot of walls. It’s a weird job, and I’m going to miss it.