Free to Be Me

At "free schools," kids decide what they want to learn. Teacher Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer honors their right to be themselves and the independent-thinking people they are meant to be. This is Gia's Story.


When you walk into Brooklyn Free School, you are first drawn to the “Big Room.”  Most mornings, you’ll see kids and staff serving themselves breakfast, reading the newspaper, having conversations about current events, movies, and books, and playing chess or card games. Twice a month, we gather here for our all-school democratic meeting.

Downstairs of the church building we lease, rooms are transformed into playhouses, fort villages, jam sessions, and dance parties. There’s also a snuggle corner with a feather bed and pillows for curling up to read, and a writing area known as “the office.” The sanctuary of the church is where many of the teen classes take place.  Morning classes include philosophy and math. Following our family style lunch, are afternoon classes, like Intro to Chinese, Black Studies, Art, Spanish, and Revolution. Welcome to our school.

“I believe that at its core, the free school movement is the struggle for children’s right to be themselves. Before anyone knows that they are black or white, rich or poor, man or woman, gay or straight, they are children.”

My work in education began ten years ago as a teaching artist in New York City. At the time, I was working with students who had been labeled as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed, but who were all highly intelligent and creative young people. Much of the energy of the schools I was exposed to was spent getting students to sit quietly. Later, as an 8th grade teacher in a Harlem charter school, I began to feel as a teacher, like a soldier in a war I didn’t want to fight, a war against kids.

While working towards my master’s degree, I visited Brooklyn Free School, a K-12 independent school of 60 students in the South Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. BFS is located in the midst of a working class neighborhood peppered with bakeries, 99-cent stores, hipster cafes, and laundromats. I knew after that first visit that this was a different kind of school, that this was the kind of school where I could work.

Brooklyn Free School is one of the most diverse communities I’ve encountered—not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but in terms of class, political views, and kids with different learning styles. There are students who in a conventional school might be labeled as school-phobic and kids who would be labeled as geniuses. There are families who come here because they love the philosophy. Others connect because their kid couldn’t imagine being in a school that makes them sit down all day. But all of our students and families have the sense that they are somehow not entirely part of the mainstream.


While studying India a BFS student decided she wanted to do some yoga so she brought in a book and conducted her own “class.”

Photo by Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer

The main thing that stands out about a free school is that kids move in a natural way. They aren’t following adult’s concepts of what’s organized and what’s appropriate. Here, you’re entering a world that, though it is not run by kids, reflects what’s natural to them. Our students are not forced to learn anything that they don’t want to learn—they take ownership over their learning, deciding what they want to learn and when they want to learn it.

I think it’s fair to say that many people, including teachers, either don’t know much about free schools, or hold some ignorant assumptions about this alternative approach to learning. When people hear some of the basic ideas behind free school education they think of themselves and what they would have done as a child if they were free to choose what they did all day. They think that they wouldn’t do anything but play all day.

Some kids do play most of the time, but there come a point when they decide that there are other things they want to do, a point where make-believe play turns in to play-writing, where tag turns into martial arts.

Free school students, like most students, are curious about the world and how things work. They take apart computers, they want to understand why a volcano spews lava or how to make puppets from string and cloth or puff pastry. Kids are always asking questions. They want to learn. It’s a normal, basic thing!


BFS student

Photo by Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer

Learning happens between student and teacher when there is mutual trust and understanding. For example, my students know that I love books and am working on a novel. I ask the kids,  “Do you want to create a book?  They trust me, knowing that this is something I love to do.

We start by sitting down together and they tell me their stories. I help write them down, and the kids illustrate their written pieces. and we read the book together. Shoulder to shoulder we read their books, decoding the words that they get stuck on, until they know them all, and then, it’s on to the next chapter or the next book.

When kids have doubts about trying something new, I say, “You know if you don’t like it you don’t have to keep at it, but taking a risk can be very powerful and make you stronger as a learner and as a person.” Ultimately, it’s an empowering conversation for the child. It’s not about saying I’m forcing you to do this. You’ll thank me later. It’s about them making the decision about what’s right for them. Sometimes I think about the hours that I wasted in school learning things I quickly forgot because I just wasn’t interested and it didn’t make sense. These kids won’t ever have to feel that.

Check out a typical day at BFS.

Many parents get nervous thinking about their child having full control over their learning.  If their child is not at the same reading level as other children in the class, they may worry about his or her learning abilities or question the school. But, that kid may eventually decide, You know what? I want to get this thing and I’m going to teach myself. Or, I’m going to figure out who can teach it to me and I’m going to learn it. I’ve seen my own students before and after they make this decision to learn something for their own benefit—that is true self-empowerment and initiative, and you can’t teach that. You have to let children find it themselves.

Our students have all of this time and space to work out social issues. The biggest rule we have is the “stop rule.” If someone’s doing something to you, to someone else, or to the planet that makes you feel uncomfortable, you tell him to stop.  If he doesn’t stop, you sit down with him and hash it out in a meeting. I’ve seen six year olds who last year would have had a tantrum if someone took their toy but who have since learned how they approach that same person and explain in a meeting how they feel about a situation. 

There is fluidity between Brooklyn Free School and the world beyond its walls. We have a weekly internship program for all teens, and every Friday is Field Trip Day. This past week I took the kids to look at Halloween decorations, and to the Museum of Natural History. When we’re on a field trip, there are different expectations for what is respectful and responsible. By regularly being out in the real world, students learn that they have freedom, but freedom is always in context with community.

“If we teach our children that to live is to do what other people tell you to do and to give up what you really want for yourself, your family and your community, then we will always live in a racist, sexist, classist and homophobic world. If we want a world free from injustice we cannot start by enslaving our children to an educational system that forces them to lay down their vision of themselves and of the world to the vision of others.”

If we can create a culture where people are working things out, doing the problem solving, holding democratic meetings, and following the stop rule, then we can better address broader issues that are going on in the world. But this does not mean that free schools are inherently socially just places. This year BFS has created a social justice committee to ensure that our school is a place where social justice is part of our culture, and a place where racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and oppression in general, are openly discussed and actively challenged inside and outside of school.

I believe that if we create a school culture that encourages difficult conversations, honest introspection, and action, then the young people who leave Brooklyn Free School will continue to demand justice in the world and in doing so they will transform it. That’s my hope for our free school.

Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer grew up primarily in New York City. She has studied Swahili in Tanzania, Spanish in Guatemala and Mexico, aromatherapy in Morocco, Ayurveda in India and Reiki in Manhattan. In addition to teaching the Dolphin Group (ages 5-7) at Brooklyn Free School, Gia is an amateur videographer, photographer, and a writer. Gia is currently working on a science fiction novel and planning a trip to Tanzania this spring with BFS students and families.


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