Directed by: Amanda Wilder.
On one hand, I agree that the traditional model of schooling doesn’t work for everyone. We have certainly seen cases of geniuses who simply cannot function in the type of “one size fits all” approach to education we typically have in North America, and perhaps we need to explore different ways of educating different children. On the other hand, the “Free School” concept that I saw in Approaching the Elephant seems like an absolute nightmare – especially for the adults who are trying to teach. I walked away from the film feeling that in order for this kind of concept to work, you need to have the right kids involved – or else the whole thing descends into chaos, and is what often seems to be going in the film. At times, I couldn’t help but think of Lord of the Flies, as children run around, sometimes without their shirts on (presumably because they don’t “feel” like wearing them). Perhaps this concept could work – there is, according the documentary, a long history stretching back more than 80 years (perhaps longer). But the school documented in this film, which is going through their first year, seems to be pure chaos – not the organized chaos they may have envisioned.
The film follows the first year of the Teddy McArdle Free School, in New Jersey – a school in the basement and surrounding areas of a church. There are not set classes in the school, and kids are free to do what they want. They want to learn woodworking, they can do that, they want to go outside and play all day, and they can do that as well. If they learn any of the “three r’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic – we certainly don’t see it during the course of the movie, although one suspects they do, even if it’s not included here. The kids are young – probably 5-8 thereabouts – and are involved in every aspect of how the school functions. There are some basic rules – basically for safety reasons – but everything else is up for debate. Any one – student or teacher – can call a meeting to discuss anything else, and the rules are made at these meetings. The theory being, I suppose, that if children feel they are given a voice in how a school runs, they will enjoy it more – and if they enjoy it more, they will learn more.
In theory, this doesn’t sound quite so bad. In practice, it is somewhat of a nightmare at times. I was surprised however, by how well it could work at different points. Lucy – a blonde, happy little girl who likes freedom, but does want some limits, is angry that Alex, the head teacher, stopped the children from jumping off storage bins into a mattress – something Lucy things he should not be allowed to do, since they didn’t vote on it – and if they don’t vote on everything, then she’s leaving (or so she says – she threatens this a lot). But Alex explains his side – first, two children are absent right now because they hurt themselves previously doing the exact same thing, so it is a safety issue. Second, the bins belong to the Church, and they have an existing rule that says that Church property can only be used for its intended purpose (and jumping off storage bins is not there purpose). Surprisingly, the panel who gets to decide (which are not the people involved) – side with Alex, even though most of them are children, and therefore you may think they would vote for their right to behave like idiots and hurt themselves. But no, they don’t. They vote for the good of their fellow students. It’s here where you can see how the school could conceivably function.
In Jiovanni however, you see how the school could go terribly wrong. Jiovanni looks like a dark haired Hanson brother (people still remember MMMbop right, or I am really daring myself here), with his long, mop of hair. He’s the one who is often going shirtless (and I think at one point, pantless). Jiovanni is a nightmare of a kid – who has been put into the exact wrong school by his parents. If ever there was a child who needed structure and guidelines, it is Jiovanni. Instead, without them, Jiovanni basically runs wild. He uses the freedom of the school to do whatever the hell he wants to do. He listens to no one, can be downright cruel to others. The staff is well meaning, but has no idea how to deal with a kid like Jiovanni. His mother, seen in just one scene, reminded me of Ned Flanders’ parents from The Simpsons – “We’ve tried nothing doc, and we’re all out of ideas”. Nothing the staff tries works – and when late in the film Alex lists the reasons why they eventually suspended him for two weeks, it takes a hell of a long time. And yet, on his first day back, he pulls the same crap. Jiovanni doesn’t care if he ruins the Free School for everyone else – he is a little narcissist, who doesn’t care what kind of attention he gets, as long as it gets some.
The movie was directed and shot by Amanda Wilder (and edited by Robert Greene – whose own film Actress, is one of docs from 2014 that I’m still waiting to see). There is no narration in the film, and no direct interviews with the people involved. Instead, like Frederick Wiseman (an obvious inspiration), she sits back and observes how this institution works. No, it isn’t an “objective” film – such a thing doesn’t really exist – but it is one that lets each audience member decide what the movie is saying about Free Schools – if anything – and what they think of them.
As a child, I never could have gone to a school like this. Throughout my primary school years I did much better in grades 3, 4 and 6 then I did in grades 2 and 5 – and I think that quite clearly I did so because by teachers in those first three grades mentioned had structured and disciplined classrooms, and ran them as such. My teachers in grade 2 and 5 were more free flowing – and loosey goosey – and I downright hated those years. I needed that structure, and thrived on it. And yet, I know full well that not everyone is the same as me – and some whose class I was in all those years had precisely the opposite feelings about their years there.
Which is what brings me back to the beginning – and the movie itself – in which I still believe that our one size fits all approach to teaching doesn’t help all kids – maybe a lot of them, perhaps even most of them, but not all, and we should be open to new models. Will they work? I don’t know – and neither does Alex, who runs the school, who says when asks this question “We’ll know in 20 years”.