One Reporter: Two Articles
In November 2005 the journalist, Aaron Gell, visited the Brooklyn Free School in order to write a 6,500 word article about it for the New York Magazine.
The article was balanced, giving a fair description of the school and its merits, as well as listing problems and parental anxieties. Gell also compared the children's experiences at the Brooklyn Free School with those of his own daughter in a mainstream school, where the problems and parental anxieties were different, but just as significant.
The magazine decided not to use the article, so Gell shortened and revised it for 'The City', a section of the New York Times. The conditions imposed were that he cut the story down to 2,500 words, that he got rid of the first person, and that he kept the focus on the Brooklyn Free School rather than exploring more general trends in mainstream education. He was also asked to describe the weather and the classroom. This shorter version was published under the title, 'The Land of the Free.'
The small differences between the first few paragraphs of the first and second versions give an indication of what was to come. Where Gell had first written, 'On a Wednesday morning in November,' in the second version he said, 'It was a gray Wednesday morning.' Instead of 'in the big room,' he wrote, 'in a bare-bones classroom.' Instead of 'the school's thirty-five kids,' he wrote, 'two dozen students'. He altered the phrase 'on metal folding chairs' to 'on mismatched folding chairs.'
At the Brooklyn Free School children do not have to go to classes, and this, as Gell observed in his longer article, 'can occasionally make for some very long days, as kids try to figure out just what, exactly, they want to do.' In the second version he said, 'This can make for some long and tedious days as children figure out how to fill the hours.' The sentence in the original version was immediately followed by the words, 'Not that there's any shortage of options,' and a long list of activities, starting with work on a production of Macbeth. This list did not appear in the printed article until much further down, so the impression of empty hours was left unqualified. When the list finally made its appearance the introductory mention of Macbeth was omitted and soap-making, briefly mentioned in the original version, was promoted to the top.
When Gell visited the school one of the older students, when talking about the younger children, had commented: 'Here they can play and stuff, but what happens when they want a real education?' In the first version this was used as an introduction to the following thoughtful and thought-provoking response:
The question highlights what is so fundamentally revolutionary about the BFS philosophy, which essentially demands that students and their parents abandon the very notion of a 'real education,' on the theory that the less quantifiable benefits of the free-school approach – a love of learning, a sense of self-reliance, enhanced critical thinking skills, social awareness and so on – will offset what Berger [the founder of the school] readily acknowledges will be, for some graduates, a total inability to diagram a sentence or perform advanced calculus. While the more traditional skills are, of course, no guarantee whatsoever of a child's eventual success in life, this is still not a trade-off most parents are willing to make. Whatever one thinks of grades and test scores and GPAs, they do offer a level of comfort, a way to measure a child's knowledge, her progress relative to peers and her future prospects. BFS offers no such reassurance: to the extent that the school is conducting something of an experiment, it's one without any yardstick for success or failure. No test at the end will determine whether it worked.
This honest and even-handed opinion did not appear anywhere in the second version.
In the published version, as requested, all the comments about the shortcomings of Gell's daughter's education had also disappeared. The great majority of enthusiastic parental comments had been omitted, too. Of course the article had had to be cut by 4000 words. However, that does not explain why some passages had been added. These paragraphs, for instance, did not appear in the original:
In the eyes of others, the Brooklyn Free School represents, at the least, pedagogical pie in the sky.
'There's a certain kind of student and family that will thrive in the free-school environment,' said Victoria Goldman, who with Catherine Hausman wrote The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools. 'The right kid will do beautifully. But if you don't come from an intellectual home or a reading family where the parents are true professionals, this thing is not going to be good. I don't think every kid needs to be whipped, although, dare I say, most do.'
And the printed article ended with the following anecdote, which was also an addition:
But the Brooklyn Free School will never be just another place of learning, as was obvious one unseasonably warm day when Ms. Palmer tried to take the Dolphin group out to play.
In a free school, this is not exactly a simple matter.
'Who wants to go to the park?' she asked four little ones who were making car noises as they pushed big stuffed animals down the hall. 'Not me!' came the reply.
In response, Ms. Palmer clasped her hands and called a meeting. As the children flopped down on a pair of beanbag chairs, she tried again. 'How about we just go for a second, for a breath of fresh air?' she asked. 'We can run around, play tag. ...'
In a conventional school, they would have been hunting for their jackets and dutifully lining up in single file. Here, they simply shook their heads and with self-satisfied giggles rushed back to their game.
As they dashed off, Mr. Easton poked his head in from the corridor.
'What's up?' he asked.
'I have no idea,' Ms. Palmer replied. 'All I know is, I just got steamrolled.'
Randolph B. Johnston, a parent at the school and a faculty member at New York University, objected. His letter was published.
I must tell you that I feel that Aaron Gell's article 'The Land of the Free' in the city section of the Times 5/7/06 was totally unfair and biased against the Brooklyn Free School and free schools in general.
My son David who has attended the school since its inception was mentioned in the article. He was characterized as being bored and doing nothing all day in school. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact I have seen my son evolve from someone who really was bored and restless in a so called 'normal' school to a young person who loves school and loves learning.
I realize that brevity is important in situations like this so I will close by saying that in my over 25 years experience as an educator in a number of institutions that the most profound lesson I have learned is that one cannot teach anyone something that they do not wish to learn!
Perhaps he would not have been so angry if he had been able to read the original article. Or perhaps he would have been even angrier.