The Summerhill School, the Radical Educational Experiment That Let Students Learn What, When, and How They Want (1966)

Among the political and social revolutions of the 1960s, the movement to democratize education is of central historical importance. Parents and politicians were entrenched in battles over integrating local schools years after 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. Sit-ins and protests on college campuses made similar student unrest today seem mild by comparison. Meanwhile, quieter, though no less radical, educational movements proliferated in communes, homeschools, and communities that could pay for private schools.

Most of these experimental methods drew from older sources, such as the theories of Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, both of whom died before the Age of Aquarius. One movement that got its start decades earlier was popularized in the 60s when its founder A.S. Neill published the influential Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, a classic work of alternative pedagogy in which the Scottish writer and educator described the radical ideas developed in his Summerhill School in England, first founded in 1921.




Neill’s school “helped to pioneer the ‘free school’ philosophy,” writes Aeon, “in which lessons are never mandatory and nearly every aspect of student life can be put to a vote.” His methods “and a rising countercultural movement inspired similar institutions to open around the world.” When Neill first published his book, however, he was very much on the defensive, against “an increasing reaction against progressive education,” psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in the book’s foreword.

At the extreme end of this backlash Fromm situates “the remarkable success in teaching achieved in the Soviet Union,” where “the old-fashioned methods of authoritarianism are applied in full strength.” Fromm defended experiments like Neill’s, despite their “often disappointing” results, as a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment.

During the eighteenth century, the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination were proclaimed by progressive thinkers; and by the first half of the 1900's these ideas came to fruition in the field of education. The basic principle of such self-determination was the replacement of authority by freedom, to teach the child without the use of force by appealing to his curiosity and spontaneous needs, and thus to get him interested in the world around him. This attitude marked the beginning of progressive education and was an important step in human development.

What seemed anarchic to its detractors had its roots in the tradition of individual liberty against feudal traditions of unquestioned authority. But Neill was less like John Locke, who included children in his category of irrational beings (along with "idiots" and "Indians") than he was like Jean Jacques Rousseau. Fromm suggests this too: "A.S. Neill’s system is a radical approach to child rearing because it represents the true principle of education without fear. In Summerhill School authority does not mask a system of manipulation.”

Students decide what they want to learn, and what they don’t, with no curriculum, requirements, or testing to speak of and no structured time or mandatory attendance. Is such a thing even possible in practice? How could educators manage and measure student progress, or ensure their students learn anything at all? What might this look like? Find out in the 1966 National Film Board of Canada documentary Summerhill, above, full of “candid moments and scenes,” Aeon writes, “that evoke the rhythms of daily life at the school and give a sense of the children’s lived experience.”

Disorganized, but not chaotic, classroom bustle contrasts with idyllic, sunlit moments on Summerhill’s verdant grounds and honest criticism, some from the students themselves. One girl admits that the free play wears thin after a while and that “there probably aren’t such good facilities for learning here, after a certain level. But you can always go somewhere else afterwards" (though many would have difficulty with entrance exams). Another student talks about the struggle to study without structure to help minimize distractions. Despite Neill’s philosophical aversion to fear, she says “you’re always afraid of missing something.”

We also meet the man himself, A.S. Neill, a rumpled, avuncular figure at 83 years old, who proclaims freedom as the answer for students who struggle in school, and for students who don’t. If we’re honest, we might all admit we felt this strongly as children ourselves. It may never be an impulse that’s compatible with contemporary goals for education, which is often geared toward workplace training at the expense of creative thinking. But for many students, the opportunity to pursue their own course on their own terms can become the impetus for a lifetime of independent thought and action. I can’t think of a loftier educational goal.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cooking with Wool: Watch Mouthwatering Tiny Woolen Food Animations

Our fascination with tiny food can be traced to the mouthwatering illustrations in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

Just like the dollhouse-sized comestibles that so confounded the titular rodents, Tom Thumb and Huncamunca, animator Andrea Love’s miniature pasta with red sauce is as inedible as it is appetizing.




The self-taught stop motion specialist’s medium of choice is wool.

In an interview with Dragon Frame stop motion software’s company blog, when they featured Cooking with Wool: Breakfast, above, Love explained:

I like to make short personal projects experimenting with the different ways to animate wool. The technique is called needle felting and it involves shaping wool with a barbed needle. I love the fuzzy aesthetic, and feel like the possibilities are endless. Everything in this video is made out of wool or felt, and is built over rigid insulation foam. This was a weekend/evening project, done over the course of three days… It is very challenging working with tiny bits of wool, but also amazing how much detail can be achieved on a small scale when you consider that it is just tiny clumps of fur.

Forget the showstoppers—the melting butter, the fried eggs flipping in the pan, the steam rising from cup and kettle…

Let’s take a moment to admire the attention to detail that went into the background aspects—the rubber spatula, the bananas, the cheery flecked wallpaper…

The only thing missing is a potholder to handle that piping hot cast iron skillet.

Perhaps she ran out of wool?

The Port Townsend, Washington resident, who graduated from Hampshire College with a concentration in film studies and sustainable agriculture, whips up her teeny weeny wooly meals in the same basement studio where she crafts promotional videos for local businesses, including the yarn shop where she sources her wool rovings.

View more of Andrea Love’s fiber-art stop motion animations, including a “digital” banana painting created with a woolen tablet and stylus, on her website and Instagram page.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 for New York: The Nation's Metropolis the 21st installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The New York Public Library Announces the Top 10 Checked-Out Books of All Time

Public libraries are unsung heroes of their communities. Many a busy working adult can take their importance for granted. But parents of young children know—the library is a quiet haven, place of wonder and discovery, and free resource for all sorts of educational experiences. Given the importance of libraries in kids’ lives, it’s no wonder that six of the top ten most-checked-out books—according to the New York Public Library—are children’s books.

The NYPL calculated the most checked out books in its history in honor of its 125th anniversary. Given that it houses the second largest collection in the U.S., after the Library of Congress, and serves millions in the most linguistically diverse city in the country, its circulation numbers give us a reasonable sampling of near-universal tastes.




These include timeless classics of children’s literature: Ezra Jack Keats’ Caldecott-winning The Snowy Day tops the list, “in print and in the Library’s catalog continuously since 1962”; The Cat in the Hat comes in at a close second. Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar round out the list of books for the very young.

Where is the stalwart Goodnight Moon, you may ask? Here we have a juicy bit of lore:

By all measures, this book should be a top checkout (in fact, it might be the top checkout) if not for an odd piece of history: extremely influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore hated Goodnight Moon when it first came out. As a result, the Library didn’t carry it until 1972. That lost time bumped the book off the top 10 list for now. But give it time.

For now, Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 classic receives honorable mention. Classic kids’ books circulate a lot because they’re widely read, but also because they’re short, which leads to more turnover, the Library points out. Length of time in print is also a factor, which makes the presence of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, published in 1998, particularly impressive.

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: 485,583 checkouts
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss: 469,650 checkouts
  3. 1984 by George Orwell: 441,770 checkouts
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 436,016 checkouts
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 422,912 checkouts
  6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White: 337,948 checkouts
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 316,404 checkouts
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: 284,524 checkouts
  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: 231,022 checkouts
  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle: 189,550 checkouts

Like J.K. Rowling’s modern classic, all of the remaining books on the list are novels—save outlier How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie—and all are novels read extensively by middle and high school students, a further sign of the significance of public libraries.

Some students may only be required to read a small handful of novels in their school career, and whether they follow through, and maybe go on to read more and more books, and maybe write a few books of their own, may depend upon those novels constantly circulating for everyone through institutions like the New York Public Library.

See the full list above and learn more about the project at NPR and the NYPL.

via Metafilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The First & Last Time Mister Rogers Sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (1968-2001)

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the iconic television series that ran from 1968 to 2001, is a major childhood touchstone for so many.

Raise your hand if you have a Pavlovian response to the familiar opening segment, in which Fred Rogers opens the front door to his humble living room set, heads to the closet, singing, to exchange his jacket for a comfy cardigan sweater, and then sits on a wooden deacon’s bench to swap out his street shoes for a pair of canvas sneakers.

As per the show's website, this routine was a promise of sorts to viewers:

I care about you, no matter who you are and no matter what you can or cannot do... Let’s spend this time together. We’ll build a relationship and talk and imagine and sing about things that matter to you.

Fans of all ages—some too young to have caught the show in its original run—have posted over 28,000 grateful, emotional comments on the video, above, which teams the opening segment of the first episode, February 19, 1968, with that of the last episode, August 31, 2001.




The biggest change seems to be the move from black-and-white to color.

Otherwise, the tweaks are decidedly minor.

The wooden doors are replaced with similar models sporting cast iron hinges.

The window seat gets some pillows.

The shutters give way to cafe curtains, open to reveal a bit of studio foliage.

A fish tank is installed near the traffic light that signaled the start of every episode.

The closet fills with bright sweaters, many hand knit by Mr. Rogers’ mom—at some point, these transitioned from buttons to zippers, which were easier to manipulate and were quieter near his body mic.

(Once, Mr. Rogers buttoned his sweater wrong, but opted not to reshoot. Cast member David “Mr. McFeely” Newell recalled that his friend saw the on-camera boo boo as an opportunity “to show children that people make mistakes.”)

There are the framed trolley prints and Picture Picture, as constant and unfashionable as the braided rug and Bicentennial rocking chairs that were a feature of my grandparents' house.

It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, to see how loyal Rogers and his producers were to these familiar elements throughout the decades.

Brace yourself, friends.

Mr. Rogers was kind of over these openers.

As his wife, Joanne Rogers, told The New York Times in 2001, a few months before the final episode aired:

He doesn't miss the show. I think he misses the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because he enjoyed working with people around him. He really loves all of them, and he'll keep in touch. But he did not enjoy what he called 'interiors,' the beginning and endings of the programs. He had gotten where he had really dreaded it so.

It wasn’t so much the repetitive nature of the greeting as the need to put on makeup and contact lenses, a telegenic consideration that didn’t factor in to the old black-and-white days. Mr Rogers said that he would have preferred presenting himself to the camera—and to the neighbors watching at home—exactly as he did to his friends and neighbors in real life.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” & Other Bob Dylan Classics, Sung Beautifully by Kids

New Zealander David Antony Clark grew up with the music of Bob Dylan, and, like many his age, felt sad that the youngun’s had no idea who that was. Instead of moaning, he decided to produce Kids Sing Bob Dylan, an 11-track CD of covers sung by the Starbugs, Clark’s children’s group.

Before you flinch, check the YouTube clip above. These kids can actually sing, right? The harmonies are there...I mean possibly cleaned up a bit with technology, I can’t say for sure.

Here’s “Forever Young,” from Dylan’s 1974 Planet Waves. An appropriate song for this quintet: Jessie Hillel, Rebecca Jenkins, Sarah Whitaker, Ben Anderson, and Roisin Anderson, all from Wellington, NZ, and raging in age from 7 to 15.




According to a Stuff.nz article on the release, Jessie Hillel said about the recording: "Hearing and listening to him was really fun. But you can do whatever you want to the songs, but at the same time I really wanted to have his standard because he did such a good job. I feel proud of myself, it's just so good."

Ben Anderson, age 12, was the only one with previous knowledge of Dylan: “"I'd heard about him a few times before, I was really excited. He's a really good singer, just the emotion that he puts into his songs, I was really excited to sing them. I was really nervous that I wouldn't live up to it, and do it right, but it got easier as the song went on."

Now, you might have noticed two things from a quick listen. One of the younger kids, Jessie Hillel, might be small, but she packs a voice from someone twice her age. (She handles the lower range in the harmonies.) The other thing: these videos are from 2011.

Where is Jessie now? Funny you ask:

In 2012 she made her way onto the finals of New Zealand’s Got Talent, and in 2016 she sang Puccini in Melbourne. She’s currently studying music in Melbourne and is in a jazz-fusion band called Jakal.

Sarah Whitaker also has her own music channel on YouTube.

Funny about kids--they grow up right in front of your eyes.

via Boing Boing

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The Magic of Chess: Kids Share Their Uninhibited, Philosophical Insights about the Benefits of Chess

From the US Chess Federation and director Jenny Schweitzer comes the short documentary, The Magic of Chess. "Filmed at the 2019 Elementary Chess Championships at the Nashville Opryland resort, a group of children share their uninhibited, philosophical insights about the benefits of chess." Jenny Schweitzer added: “For me, as a mother of a child who simply loves the game, it was my intention to focus not on the competitive aspects of the chess world, but rather what a deep commitment to chess can potentially offer someone, young or old.” If this whets your appetite, explore some of our chess resources below.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Itzhak Perlman Appears on Sesame Street and Poignantly Shows Kids How to Play the Violin and Push Through Life’s Limits (1981)

I always champion anything that will improve the lives of people with disabilities and put it on the front burner. - Itzhak Perlman

At its best, the Internet expands our horizons, introducing us to new interests and perspectives, forging connections and creating empathy.

The educational children's series Sesame Street was doing all that decades earlier.

Witness this brief clip from 1981, starring violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and a six-year-old student from the Manhattan School of Music.

For many child—and perhaps adult—viewers, this excerpt presented their first significant encounter with classical musical and/or disability.




The little girl scampers up the steps to the stage as Perlman, who relies on crutches and a motorized scooter to get around, follows behind, heaving a sigh of relief as he lowers himself into his seat.

Already the point has been made that what is easy to the point of unconsciousness for some presents a challenge for others.

Then each takes a turn on their violin.

Perlman’s skills are, of course, unparalleled, and the young girl’s seem pretty exceptional, too, particularly to those of us who never managed to get the hang of an instrument. (She began lessons at 3, and told the Suzuki Association of the Americas that her Sesame Street appearance with Perlman was the “highlight of [her] professional career.”)

In the nearly 40 years since this episode first aired, public awareness of disability and accessibility has become more nuanced, a development Perlman discussed in a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, below.

Having resented the way early features about him invariably showcased his disability, he found that he missed the opportunity to advocate for others when mentions dropped off.

Transparency coupled with celebrity provides him with a mighty platform. Here he is speaking in the East Room of the White House in 2015, on the day that President Obama honored him with the Medal of Freedom:

And his collaborations with Sesame Street have continued throughout the decadesincluding performances of "You Can Clean Almost Anything" (to the tune of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin), "Put Down the Duckie," Pagliacci's Vesti la giubba (backing up Placido Flamingo), and Beethoven's Minuet in G, below.

Read more of Perlman’s thoughts on disability, and enroll in his Master Class here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities by Roger Livingston Scaife (1920). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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