Melissa Palma knows what it’s like to feel powerless and voiceless.
Packed classroom taught with lesson plans focused in on standardized tests strangled her ability to reach youngsters.
“When I was teaching in the public schools, so many children had major problems in their life — they had AIDS or were homeless — that it really broke my heart. We couldn’t talk about it because I had 30 other children (in the class).”
Inflexible education methods added to her dissatisfaction.
“If students get excited about a project they still have to stop when the bell rings,” she said.
The pressure for students to get good grades squeezed out the joy and freedom of learning, said Palma.
Then her eldest child reached school age. Palma decided to create the school she had dreamed of for her child and others. She founded the
Little Lake Learning Community of Ann Arbor, a democratic free school for kids 5-13.
She designed Little Lake to allow boys and girls to have a voice in planning their own education. So far, nearly two dozen youngsters have enrolled at the private academy.
“We want to take their interestsand ideas about the world seriously,” she said. Proposing class topics and rules
At Little Lake, children and their teachers meet on a regular basis to discuss proposed new rules or potential classes. Students or adults may suggest changes.
“Anyone can block a proposal, adults or children. Adults and children have equal say,” she said.
Little ones learn that with freedom comes accountability, she said.
When one youngster proposed allowing video games at school, it wasn’t the adults who voted thumbs down.
“It was a student who blocked it,” she said. “He said if students bring video games they won’t play with me.”
An average day finds youths meeting in “affinity groups,” to decide what their schedules will include. They could choose to take a writing or politics class.
“They may go outside and decide to build a tree fort, or they may have bought a game or they may do something with art supplies,” she said.
Subjects cover traditional and alternative topics.
“We have math at a really individualized level,” she said. “We have cooking, Spanish, French and a Dungeons and Dragons class.”
One student teaches an airplane design class.
“They start out with paper airplanes and measure how far and high they go,” she said. “They talk about physics.”
Once a week, the school spends the day out in the community, engaged in activities ranging from from exploring nature areas or visiting museums to helping out at a senior center or animal sanctuary.
“We believe the whole world is our teacher,” she said.
Free schools aren’t a new idea, she said.
“Leo Tolstoy started a free school,” said Palma. “When they closed him down, he wrote, ‘War and Peace’.”
At Little Lake, academics aren’t the only subject.
“We teach emotional literacy – how to express their feelings in healthy ways,” she said.
Becoming a mom has made her a better teacher, she said.
Palma’s 6-year old daughter and 8-year-old son study at Little Lakes. What’s it like to go to a school where your mom is the principal?
“Surprisingly, they kind of ignore me. They interact with me like the other students,” she said. “The good part for me is I get to be with my children.”
For more information about enrollment and fees, visit their website www.littlelakelearningcommunity.org.