A few weeks ago I was sitting in a report card conference with one of my advisees discussing his classes, his school work and some struggles he’d been having. At one point he said, “I think I’m taking advantage of the freedom I have.” It was a powerful statement and a one that really stuck with me.
We give our students at SLA Beeber a lot of freedoms. They are allowed to have cell phones in school, they have their own  laptop that they take home, along with an email account, and they are allowed to use Google Chat, Hangouts and Google+ to communicate with their peers (and teachers). They don’t have a strict dress code to follow and there are no metal detectors at the entrance of the school. They are also assigned long term projects that tie into their personal interests & incorporate choice rather than end of unit tests and lunch is an hour long to accommodate the amount of time they may need to work on projects or meet with teachers.
This may sound like a dream to many high school students, but it is very hard to navigate for a young person. With no one breathing down your neck telling you what to wear, when your cell phone could be confiscated if seen, when your social interactions with peers are controlled by adults, when you only have one way to show what you have learned, and when you are forced to gobble down lunch in 20 minutes, you don’t have much to navigate.
Having freedom is hard.
Decisions must be made, new habits must be formed and, often, students must grapple with their poor decisions, like hanging out with friends instead of working on a project, or not using the tools at one’s fingertips to contact teachers when they need help. Students also need to manage the freedom of having the world’s best distraction tool at their fingertips throughout the school day, and they have the responsibility to care for that device. They also have the responsibility to navigate appropriate use of their cell phone throughout the school day (and not lose that either.)
Many students come from environments where it was easy to know what was due and when because it was a worksheet, or a reading in a text book, or all of the Math problems on page 125. With the freedom to work on a project that incorporates their own choice & interests comes the hard work of managing deadlines, planning and collaborating with peers.
It has been an amazing experience watching our 9th graders work through this freedom, sometimes succeeding beyond their own expectations and sometimes becoming paralyzed by managing it all.
The young man from the conference has made a huge shift in taking responsibility for his work & we meet regularly to check in on his assignments. It makes me, as his “school mom” very proud but it has also opened my eyes to why giving kids freedom matters. This student has made a huge shift in his mindset that could not have happened otherwise. I can’t help but think about the expansion of “no excuses” schools or urban charter networks that focus on managing & regulating every aspect of students’ lives at school. We are setting our students up for failure if they don’t have a chance to falter & rebound and to navigate the freedoms that life outside of school provides.


  1. Linda Pitt


    loved reading this and it is right on the mark! 1/2 of school and learning is learning the content the other half is being responsible and making good choices about time , time management, when do do what, how to ask questions and get help, how to prioritize, etc. etc. This is also important when in world of work also!

    • marybeth


      Thanks, Linda. I think we forget sometimes that we have more to do that prepare kids academically. I strongly believe that supporting kids with life skills will translate into academic success in the long run anyway!

  2. Reply

    Mary Beth,
    This is exactly what I have been dealing with! My middle school students don’t have the same freedoms that yours have, but the “grappling” is the same. I want them to create media projects in a “studio” environment, but the stereotypical classroom structure is so engrained in students as well as the school system. I feel confident that I am doing the right thing even though not everyone recognizes or values the power of choice and freedom in a creative environment. I call it 21st Century learning with old fashioned elbow grease.
    Thank you for articulating your thoughts so well and being a forward-thinking voice of reason!

    • marybeth


      Thanks, Kimball. It is hard to stay confident when what you are trying to do looks so different from what “school” looks like in other parts of the building. Keep it up! I believe you are doing the right thing.

  3. Reply

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  4. Yashu Mehta


    Children do require freedom.It encouraaaages their learning on their own sweet will. Indepeendently with the support of the adult they go a long way. There is no worry .

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