Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 12:35:28 -0800 (PST)
From: Peter Christopher
Subject: Moscow Alternative Schools, Intercultural Relations, and Leadership
Russia was incredible. Indeed, this three months of traveling have been my best ever. I am higher than a kite (does that mean I will fall from here when the wind stops?). I am almost finished reading War & Peace, which I started at the beginning of the trip. It is the greatest book I have ever read. Four months ago when I decided to read this masterpiece by Tolstoy, I didn't even know what the book was about or that I would be heading to Russia. As I flew to Moscow, I read of Napoleon entering the city 190 years ago. As I left Moscow, I read of Napoleon leaving the city. He stayed several weeks longer than I did, but I think I had a better time there. It certainly seems I had better relations with the locals. Perhaps it is because I had no intention of taking captives? (POWs can be a drain, I've heard. I am more interested in a mutual alliance of equals.) Hopefully I will be greeted by a warmer welcome back in the USA than Napoleon met in France...
I arrived in Moscow at 3am one Sunday morning. I was already the luckiest man in the world. My friend Nina whom I'd met on my previous trip to Russia two years ago greeted me at the airport at this outrageous hour. She handed me a warm jacket, and we took a cab to the apartment of a friend of hers who welcomed us as if it was quite normal for him to have friends over at that hour. We all chatted and ate snacks and then finally went to sleep.
I was in Russia for two weeks. I spent three days each week at the School for Self-Determination, a public school in the Moscow system with about 800 students, K-12. I also visited two other schools with progressive programs and one traditional school. And I made the pilgrimage I had been dreaming of for the past ten years to Yasnaya Polyana, the birthplace and home of Leo Tolstoy.
At the school, I visited classes, speaking in English, teaching American Dancing (swing dancing and circle dancing), singing and teaching songs, answering questions, learning Russian, conducting interviews, talking about philosophy and life. I developed friendships with teachers, former teachers, students, former students... somehow all within two weeks. I was warmly welcomed into the school, and into the homes of many people who wanted to be part of my trip. Yes, it does take some planning to get in touch with a school and to get a Visa and to think about how to share oneself with others - but it is very possible to do. Even the selfish, anxious, security-obsessed, unpopular thing called an American is welcomed in what was so recently enemy territory, Moscow, Russia.
What goals motivated this trip to Europe, and Russia in particular? Here are some questions I had and my current answers after three days of digestion:
Q: Is it be possible for a public school in Moscow with almost 1000 students to have a "constitutional right" to leave any class at any time for any reason? Is there an example of a state - or anything - that gives funding without ropes attached?
A: I don't know. I suspect probably no. I had heard that the School for Self-Determination fits this description. I think, however, that it does not. The students may leave class for any *legitimate* reason. There are some programs within the school that do allow students to leave at any time with less importance on the reason. And there are some students who feel that since they are good students the definition of "legitimate" is interpreted flexibly. But it is interpreted by teachers and administrators and school courts (which include major student membership). What I found was that choosing anything within reason (one's teacher, one's subject, one's pace, one's method, etc) were all welcomed and encouraged. But there were expectations of learning, both due to state requirements and teacher/parent values. I think some people at the school, including leaders, would be willing to let down some or all of the remaining formal expectations, but in that public school system it is not possible to do so.
Q: Do I understand education and leadership well enough so that I can confidently start my own school or teach in another school at will?
Q: Can a school of over 500 students be a place where students and teachers love to go, where learning really happens, where people care about each other?
A: A resounding YES. They do love their school. They love learning there and living there and the combination of these. In addition to having formal classes, the school really is a "city" of its own with its own governance and laws and culture and festivals and businesses, and this provides important and deep learning. The graduates maintain friendships with each other, with the school, with the teachers - all of this is rare in typical Moscow schools.
Q: What is the importance of leadership in alternative institutions?
A: One day, the following three types of leadership came to mind. One, the caricatured dictatorial leader with good or bad intentions; two, the leader who draws out each follower to improve and play a role that is appropriate and possible but hard; three, the leader who sets up a situation then takes a rest from the leadership role while the rest play out their scripts. I think leadership is vital, and I was pleasantly exposed to seeing that these effective leaders employing a balance of the three styles of leadership. At several schools, the principals expressed an interest in working with students as sub-leaders (one said he wished the students were more up to the task). The principals were also fully aware of the importance of being politicians and lawyers and accountants and teachers and parents when it was important. And finally, they were interested in setting up an environment where everyone saw would take part in moving forward together in reinventing the institution.
On this point, I disagree with Tolstoy (who espouses less importance to leadership - though he is talking about leaders who run wars when he claims that leaders are generally the tools of their constituencies). Groups are a two-way street, both requiring leaders and requiring constituencies; I suspect that Tolstoy must have had some personal issue that got in the way of him seeing this more clearly as he was writing the book.
Q: How possible and valuable is educational exchange, within a country & internationally?
A: I have held for some time that informal and formal educational exchange are very important to the increased peacefulness and harmony of the planet. Suppose that Stalin and Hitler and Bin Laden and the Bushes and many of the Russians, Germans, and Germans, Americans, and Arabs who support them had developed friendships with people from each other's countries. Suppose they had at least MET some people from each other's countries who visited them and sang songs with them and listened to them and said, "What is your favorite fruit?" Well, this path IS before us. The wars that are fought today are fought today and we can't stop them, but we can stop the ones that may be fought in 30 and 50 years. I can do it, and you can do it. Compared to the ridiculous cars and houses and luxuries so many of us spend our money on, it doesn't even cost very much to make a big difference. For less than a thousand dollars, you can do a trip like mine including plane tickets, visas, all expenses in Moscow for a month (assuming you are doing a homestay - hotels would be outrageous!). It was a tremendous experience for me and also for the people I spent time with. Perhaps you think, "Well that may be true for Peter Christopher, but could I do that? Would they welcome me? Would they benefit from meeting me?" Yes, yes, yes. It's true, your trip will be different from mine. But it is important, for you and them and for your children and everyone's children's children. Go for it.
With just a few days left in Moscow, I went to visit another amazing place, The Moscow International Film School. I will just give you a few highlights. The school, for 9th-11th graders (high school ends after 11th grade in Russia), is about a dozen years old in its current incarnation (like the School for Self-Determination it started with perestroika) but also has a history before that (again like the School for Self-Determination). Less than 100 students attend the film school. When I walked into their building, I entered a churning sea of excited and optimistic eyes moving in many directions. My guide, a recent graduate named Anton, shared stories with me of his amazing trips with the school to America, South Korea, Japan, and more. The international trips are forums for performing and also for taking footage that will later be brought back to the school and edited. The learning is integrated in with true engagement with the world in every sense I could come up with. Many aspects (almost all aspects) of the trips are organized by students, including fundraising, visas, itineraries. They also try to meet amazing people around the world when they travel, as Anton explained, to see what humans can become, what to work towards.
Although there seemed to be no sharing between these two schools, each of them struggling independently against the tide of government and society fear, the parallels were remarkable. At the School for Self-Determination, there are special festivals organized by students and faculty, sometimes part of a week, sometimes a whole week (sometimes for the organizers, requiring a marathon of many weeks or months). These special weeks include a "Business Week" when the school is converted to a city, with government, shops, a bank, theaters, and its own currency (Tublers, named after the head of the school, Tubelsky). Another week is "Lyceum Week" celebrating the most famous of Russian writers and Educators - Pushkin - and the Russia of his day. Here, students and staff and faculty wear time-appropriate clothing (often made by students), put on period plays, learn and participate in traditional dance, decorate the school, and reportedly the gentlemen act like true gentleman and the ladies act like true ladies. During these festivals, the students aren't going to their usual classes; they are fully engaged in the experiences. I suggested to the School for Self-Determination that they invite the Film School to their next Lyceum Week celebration.
These schools are not perfect. Russian culture is not perfect, and some aspects of it that I do not like exist in these schools. I felt that almost no students were considering deeply what they wanted their lives to be like, their country to be like, their school to be like, their world to be like. They thought just a few steps ahead. They accepted most of what was presented. They were willing to accept "whatever happened" - whatever their teachers suggested as the educational experiments, whatever the world determined to be their destiny as a people. "But that's what teenagers are like," protested one friend. "That's not what I was like; and that's not what my friends were like," I replied. True, in their school the strategy tended to be pretty good for those students! But I think they also have enough exposure to other schools and to problems of the world that they should be seriously thinking, "How can I make this world a better place?" I think that some assumptions of culture regarding childraising and human development are related to this lack of students who are deeply considering the world and becoming proactive leaders. The widespread opinion of parents and children there is that children are not ready for significant choices until some magical maturing happens at 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 years old. (This contrasts with my opinion, that the development of the maturity in question happens because children are given choices as soon as possible.) For instance, I interviewed two students who had been at the School for Self-Determination and had to "choose" between two experimental programs that started in the 5th grade. For both of them, their mothers went to a presentation at the school and made the choice for the kids. Maybe I'm in a dream world, but at American alternative schools the chance of the parents of fifth grade students making a choice like this without even consulting the children, and the kids assuming it makes sense, is around zero.
When I explained this concern to one of my friends, who had several years ago founded a new experimental program at the School for Self-Determination, she said it is very Russian to be willing to accept certain things, to not need to be so logical like Americans. The Russian, she said, can be totally spontaneous and illogical. The Russian, she continued, lives partly in a dream-world, and needs the comfort of that dream world, the familiarity and fun of not needing to be so serious and responsible. (I think this is partly true for people everywhere - but in this case I was talking with someone who considered it part of her cultural identity, so that is how I responded to it.) I said, "Well, it is time for you to get over being a Russian then. We need to integrate thinking and action and being, not to separate them. You can have that Russianness as your main root, and it can be a part of you forever, but don't let it limit you. I'm over being an American. Now it's your turn." So, friends, what's your opinion on that comment?
Another example of the issues that were present was a lack of maturity in how to have conflict. There, conflict is something to be ashamed of; tension to be avoided - except for the Boss who can go create conflict anywhere. You can imagine this from the Soviet era and probably the entire history of Russia. Well, of course it is still there, probably becoming weaker year by year, but established patterns can be very strong. I know there was some conflict in the School over the last several years, but investigation of it was quite difficult because no one wanted to talk about it. But that doesn't stop me from speculating. When Tubelsky, the head of the school, invited me for one hour at the end of my visit with two students and a teacher, he gave me carte blanche to give feedback on everything in the school. Good man.
Referring to the unnamed conflict, I said, "It seems to me quite clear that you know how to be a leader, and that you are able to do it in practice. But for whatever personal or cultural reasons, it seems that you have not been able to articulate to the rest of the school what that role is. So in some significant ways they don't respect some of your choices." They worship him in a general way yet disagree with him in specific ways.
How will the school deal with conflicts going forward? Will they become better at seeing each other's perspectives on increasingly important and touchy issues? Or will they never again allow themselves to have a major conflict because it was just too traumatic? Will the Boss be too scared to allow others to conflict with him on major issues and inadvertently nip conflicts in the bud from now on? Will the students and faculty be too scared to initiate a conflict with him or with each other because they have not resolved their previous conflict? Will the previous conflict be openly dealt with and "the stone that was rejected by the builders become the cornerstone?" Can they have a new conflict openly and maturely without reopening the old one? This is an important time for the school, although I do not think anyone there understands it, and therefore I think the result is still unknown. This is a problem that I think requires a leader. The worst way this could play out is not all that bad. In this worst-case scenario, the school experiences a delay of the development of the skills of openness and conflict. The best case scenario? The students at that school become some of the greatest conflict resolvers in the history of the world. Or can they dream even bigger than that? (They will read a copy of this letter, and I am also planning to send an additional letter of feedback specifically to the school.)
I left Russia with a strong sense that my future work in this world will have a significant intercultural component. And, stronger than I have felt in any other country, that these people, Russians, will be part of my future connection. As you know, I have long had the goals of combining intentional community, education, and agriculture in my life. It seems that international work will also be part of the mix. Many years these dreams and plans and investigations have been in the making. In one sense, I think I already am living the dreams now. Yet I think we are also getting close to some major new developmens. Through my life, I have had a long relationship with leadership - are leaders good or bad, am I a leader or not, etc. I come from a family of minor leaders in limited contexts, people who had some leadership responsibility in traditional institutions, in slightly unconventional ways. The current path seems to be towards my leadership along a less well-charted path.
But the amazing thing about spending time in schools like these isn't that they seem special when I'm there. When I'm there, it's totally obvious and natural - OF COURSE children and teachers at schools respect and care for each other; OF COURSE people at schools are excited about learning and excited about life; OF COURSE the school is its own city and has its own real governance system including students, faculty, and staff; OF COURSE alumni maintain connections to the school as teachers and friends and guests; OF COURSE students venture out individually and in groups to other schools, to many places in the city and country, to internships, to spend a week at the University of their choice before deciding to take that route. OF COURSE the students and faculty and especially the leaders of the school understand that many of the important parts of learning cannot be packaged or easily evaluated; OF COURSE the school will have ongoing experiments of many kinds and learn from its experiments. OF COURSE the school will be a unique creation of its members and will have its own culture and history. It's hardly even worth talking about it's so obvious.
The culture shock isn't in entering the door of a school like that; it's when we leave and then recollect the schools we attended, or visit a traditional school. But I won't describe that; would you even believe me? I think the only way you'll know is to go. See the other side, then return to your former spot and see whether your perspective has changed.
Now I am in a pleasant inbetween space, inbetween Russia and the USA, finishing up 3 days in Barcelona that appeared because of visa and travel irregularities. There was once a time when even one day alone in a foreign city sounded dangerous, extravagent, stressful, isolating. Now I buy a buck of fruit for breakfast, super-ripe and god-like, another buck worth for lunch, stay in a hotel or who knows what, toss twenty bucks for a two-day pass to ride around the city in the sun in one of those double-decker, open-topped tourist buses, sit in incredible parks reading Tolstoy and spitting chemimoya seeds, watching all the beautiful people making out all over each other all over the city. And sit at night in an internet shop spinning words for my friends around the world.
The usual dose of sermon follows.
Are you a teacher or a parent or a student, or do you intent to be a parent or a teacher? We send our children to schools for fifteen years, more or less, altogether at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each. I want to encourage you to devote an additional portion of money and time - say, five percent of the total educational cost, about $3000, and 2 months, - to examining some schools that are outside the bounds of what you consider traditional education. You can go to Moscow, you can go to Ukraine, you can go to Thailand, Nepal, England. Consider going on this trip. Many schools are open to having foreigners who want to come in and learn about their school and teach a bit of English. I can help you find the one for you and talk about how to organize it if you wish.
If you are not able to dedicate this money or time now, are you sure you really want to be a parent? But maybe you are sure, and want an easier way. Well, ok, take this option. At the least you may want to become a subscriber to the Education Revolution magazine, which has news and features about the wide variety of schools all around the world. To subscribe, go to http://www.educationrevolution.org/aeromagazine.html - and while you are there, buy a copy of Jerry's new book that descibes many of these schools at http://www.educationrevolution.org/nohomework.html
I will be in New York City for several days around Dec 8th including my birthday party in the city Dec 10th (email me if you want to come or if I can have it at your place). Then I'll probably be in Vermont in mid-December and back in New York City around the end of December before heading to Costa Rica in January and possibly Hawaii (scoping out communities and land for potential communities in pleasant climates). If you would like me to come visit your home, business, farm, school when I am in your 'hood, or would like to meet up with me for a leg of the travel, let me know. I will be out of email contact from Nov 27th/28th to Dec 7th/8th.
As a special treat, I put a few pictures online. I don't usually take pictures or find myself in them but two people managed to capture me - two pictures from a night at a folk-music jam at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and one from Falcon Blanco on Ibiza, Spain, one of the communities I wrote about last month. To see them, go here: http://f1.pg.photos.yahoo.com/peterchristopher
As always, I welcome any and all responses you have to this letter. And feel free to forward it to any people you think may be interested.
I am now thinking about the morality of investing - one dollar or a million dollars - and this will probably be the subject of my next letter, in December. If you have a favorite idea in this vein, let me know!
The personal goals and intentional community retreat is almost firmed to be Dec 27-30 in New York City. Contact me for more information.
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