Education 101 

Celebrating the Missoula Free School

Everyone has bright ideas, but not everyone has the gumption to bring them to life. The Missoula Free School, founded in November 2004, is one such bright idea brought to fruition—and its mission is to create a forum in which everyone can share their own ideas, and learn from others’, free of charge.

“The Free School is a way to celebrate [Missoula’s] local creativity, and to use the resources we already have as a community,” says Madeline Ffitch, who facilitates a Free School writing workshop called Mane and Tail Wordsmiths. “The community themselves can decide what they want to learn and what they want to teach.”

UM junior Nick Stocks planted the Free School’s first seed after attending the Democratic National Convention last summer, where a friend spoke of wanting to open a free college. Back in Missoula, Stocks shared his newfound interest with fellow UM students Max Granger and Chelsey Robison in what became the Free School’s first organizational meeting. The trio advertised via fliers and word of mouth, and within a few weeks had garnered enough response from potential students and teachers to produce an initial calendar of classes. Today, the Free School offers about 12 classes, some of which attract up to 20 people.

“There are people in town who know a lot, and they may not necessarily work at the University or be an educator in a formalized way, but they still have a lot to teach,” Stocks says. Free School teachers range from former professors and high-school teachers to members of the community who just have an interest in addressing a particular local topic; Ffitch says the school is interested in getting senior citizens involved in teaching as well.

“[The Free School’s] not really anti-expert,” Granger says, “but it doesn’t really [matter] if you know everything about a certain topic, or if you know just a little bit and want to have a discussion about it. Whereas with institutionalized education, you have to have the degrees—the things that explain who you are and how much of an expert you are—to teach a class.”

At the same time, Granger says, “It’s not like we’re necessarily fighting an absolute battle, like it’s either institutionalized education or the Free School, but we also feel that there does need to be the other opportunity there for people who either can’t afford institutionalized education or don’t want institutionalized education.”

UM philosophy graduate student Jason Wiener responded to a Free School flier and now teaches a monthly Philosophy for Kids class to children age 5 to 12. He says that “one of the things I think that makes [the Free School] work is that we have a shared set of ideals for the most part, so we trust each other.”

Collectively, the Free School group is interested in individuality. Each person, they believe, learns differently, and each has something valuable to teach. While institutions may have engrained that citizens aren’t qualified to teach without a Ph.D., the Free School wants to say, “You don’t have to hide your light under a bushel. You can shine. You don’t have to dumb yourself down for a group process. You don’t have to compromise yourself. You don’t even have to come to organized meetings. You can just do what you’re good at, and we’ll support you,” Ffitch says.

As free-form as that may sound, the group does impose some organization. Each Friday at 6:30 p.m. the Free School conducts an organizational meeting at Break Espresso, and one Free School organizer attends each new teacher’s first class. They also, Ffitch says, spend hours and hours on the phone, talking to interested teachers and then finding them teaching space. Right now, Free School classes take place in donated rooms at the Missoula Public Library, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and the Gold Dust Building; as the calendar grows, the group is eager for more donated spaces and hopes to someday have a permanent building.

This month’s classes include “A Curious Look at the Teachings of the Koran,” “How to Build a Bicycle,” “Theory into Practice: Anarcho-feminism, Revolution, and Social Change,” “Intro to Slacklining,” “Introduction to Beer Brewing,” and Wiener’s “Philosophy For Kids.”

At the Missoula Public Library through March, Bob Giordano, director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, facilitates a sustainability discussion and action group. The class is an outgrowth of the first class he taught for the Free School in November—a sustainable transportation class.

Giordano says he’d always wanted to teach such a class, and so when the Free School came knocking, “I was ready and waiting.”

Eleven people showed up for last week’s discussion. After creating an agenda for the hour’s meeting, the group discussed how to maximize the potential of upcoming sustainable building projects in Missoula; how to best “knit together” the various sustainability organizations around town; and how to share their group’s thoughts in an interactive display at the Free School’s March 15 “extravaganza” benefit at Area 5.

Like the Free School itself, this week’s extravaganza is meant to be fun—and it’s also a time for Missoulians to learn about the Free School and support it with a few bucks if they can (while classrooms and time are donated, Free School founders—and teachers, if they want to—absorb the cost of supplies). In addition to a garage sale and small-press book sale, local bands Purrbot and Ass End Offend will perform, as will New York City-based absurdist performance musician Dan Deacon, solo indie rapper Height, and Seattle comic performance artist Davey Oil.

If the past four months are any indication, the extravaganza should draw an open-minded, nonexclusionary, locally invested crowd that wants to be there. That’s another bonus of creating a school full of non-obligatory classes, say Free School founders. As Wiener poses:

“How would you like to have a classroom full of people who are only there because they want to be there?” Weiner asks. Missoula’s professional teachers might have an answer for that one.

The Missoula Free School extravaganza takes place Tuesday, March 15, at Area 5, 732 S. First St. W., from 5 p.m. onward. See www.missoulafreeschool.org or call 543-2670 for details.

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