Introduction from Bria
For over a year, Alexander Khost has been the Editor-in-Chief of Tipping Points Magazine. Over this time the magazine has flourished in many ways, including in its diversity of voices, topics, and authors. I decided to interview Alex in order to share more about his work, his vision, his passion, and how he came to be involved in the Self-Directed Education movement.
Bria: How did you first get into Self-Directed Education? What inspired you, and what was that path to SDE like for you?
Alex: When I was about 15 or 16 years old, my father gave me a copy of Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. He was the type of parent that would give me a list of books, of recommended readings — and it wasn’t a list of books that I was required to read, it was books he thought I would be interested in — and that was on the list. And I was a conventional school/public school kid, and basically after reading that book the rest of high school was a challenge. I immediately started drawing pictures of what my school was going to be like, and had these dreams of opening my own school, and I also contacted Summerhill to find out if they were still open — this is in the days before the Internet — and so I wrote them a letter. I wrote them a letter and they wrote me a letter back saying, yes, they still exist and so on. Then that same year I actually started teaching, I started teaching English as a second language in the summer. I went through college teaching English as a second language in the summers, and then I got my teaching certification and traveled the world a little bit teaching English as a second language. When I got my teaching certification, the Director of the program was familiar with democratic free schools (this was prior to there being the term Self-Directed Education) and she cut out a clipping of the Hudson Valley Sudbury School that was in the New York Times, and that was my first realization that there was more than just Summerhill– there were actually other schools.
I immediately googled– or no there wasn’t even Google back then– but whatever, I did a search for Summerhill/free schools/Sudbury schools, something like that, and actually found AERO and Jerry Mintz through that. Brooklyn Free School was just opening at that point in time, so I started visiting there. Then when my first son was born about twelve and a half years ago I dedicated myself to opening my own school which I ran for a while, The Teddy McArdle Free School. So that was the initial path and then from there it kept building and building. So for twenty-five, over twenty-five years I’ve been on this journey, and keep learning more and more about it, and have been passionate about it that whole time.
Bria: So what do you do in SDE now? What does your life look like?
Alex: Well first and foremost I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Tipping Points, the online magazine for the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. I also work full time as a facilitator at Brooklyn Apple Academy, which is a homeschooling co-op in New York City. I work with children ages four to fourteen, roughly. My two oldest children unschool with me here [at Brooklyn Apple Academy]. They previously were at the Brooklyn Free School, and at the Agile Learning Center in New York City. Both of those centers I volunteered at regularly. And I run my own small program called Voice of the Children mostly working with young people outside of a school or playground setting, trying to integrate children into the world at large, specifically looking at urban spaces and defining space for children outside of what convention states is the spaces that children should be in — which is essentially schools and playgrounds — and looking to help them integrate themselves into society at large. Previously I co-founded play:groundNYC which is the junk playground (or “adventure playground”) on Governors Island in New York City.
I’m editing a book on the work of Alexis Ferm, who was an anarchistic educator at the turn of the 20th century up until 1948. He spent about 30 years at the Stelton Modern School in New Jersey. He and his wife co-founded the first self-directed school in New York City in 1901. And he wrote hundreds, if not thousands of pages of work but never published any of his own work, so I’m looking to try and get his work published. I am in the research phase of that... I feel like I’m forgetting some things that I do...
Bria: Do you want to talk about rooted us?
Alex: Sure. I am a Board member and organizer for Friends of the Modern School, a 45-year-old organization that maintains the history and advocates for contemporary models of anarchistic education. Our organization is co-organizing rooted us, an unconference (a non-hierarchical flat conference) at the end of June. It’s specifically on youth liberation and anti-oppression. We are co-organizing that with the Agile Learning Center in New York City and their Co-Director, Abby Oulton. And we’re bringing in lots of different people working mostly locally, some people outside of New York City, trying to create more of a community and a collective of so many awesome people doing really wonderful grassroots things in New York City, and trying to help create a little bit more of a connection between them, and really focusing on practical, hands-on application — how can we do more together? What are different people doing, and what are the skills that they can share with others so that we can do more of this, and help disseminate it to a larger community.
Bria: Cool. Is there anything you don’t do?
Alex: I don’t sleep.
Bria: [laughs] So what, in your opinion and in your life, what are the most important aspects of Self-Directed Education? What are you really passionate about within Self-Directed Education, and how do you want to see that movement kind of have an effect on the world?
Alex: Yeah. For me, it’s really–as it is for really the Alliance for Self-Directed Education at large, this is about a civil rights movement–it’s about children’s rights, it’s about helping children become autonomous, and to be respected throughout society and by adults. So it’s a lot of helping parents and educators and people who work with young people recognize when they’re being oppressive to children, and help them — oftentimes it’s done just because it’s convention and not done intentionally — and so helping people recognize that, and giving them the tools to no longer be oppressive to children. And so a lot of that is working with adults and pointing those types of things out to them. A lot of that is working with young people and helping them realize when adults are being oppressive, and giving them the tools and skills to speak up and defend themselves and their civil rights.
The most important aspects of Self-Directed Education? I’d say if I had to pick one, if I could only have one piece of it it would probably be age mixing. That seems to be the key component for me in working in self-directed spaces. I’d much prefer to hold on to the age-mixing than any other part of it, even if it meant oppression in other ways. When I watch older and younger people interacting with each other — I guess this isn’t even just true of children it’s true of adults as well — something magical happens where people throughout different ages are able to benefit so much from one another. The older ones through nurturing and having meaning, being able to pass on their wisdom, and the younger ones having role models to look up to, and rather than being force fed information being able to want it naturally, just because people who they admire and look up to are doing such things. I hope that answers it.
Bria: Yeah. Would you hold on to coercive classes and education in exchange for age-mixing?
Alex: I find hypothetical questions like that to be challenging. If it meant a non-coercive environment but only being with people your own age I guess I would take that, but that seems unnatural to me– I don’t understand how that could be. So it’s a hard question to answer. I just see that as the one part... I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve seen self-directed spaces, or places that call themselves self-directed, that have locked down age groups and don’t allow age-mixing or limit it, and I see that as being extremely unhealthy. The first step towards being self-directed I think is allowing age-mixing. I think that gives the first natural step for children being able to take charge of their own lives both in modeling, and being modeled after.
Bria: Yeah, that clarifies what you’re saying a lot. What do you think is some of your most important work in the movement? What are you doing that you think is the most important part of what you do in SDE?
Alex: For me maybe it’s paradoxically the two opposites — both looking wide and very focused. So on a day to day basis, I’m working with a very concentrated group of maybe a dozen kids a day, and really pouring a lot of my energy and life and purpose into just focusing on that small group of young people and the other staff around me. And that’s really really important to me, that gives me the hands-on...it gives me my own meaning and purpose and being able to wake up every day and feel like I have somewhere to be going and real meaning. But then paradoxically in contrast to that the work that I do especially in Tipping Points where it’s helping publish the voices of others doing this type of work, and really collectively trying to bend over backwards to help make sure that there’s a diversity of voices. There are so many people working in this in so many different ways, in different parts of the world, people have different stories, and being able to share those with one another and to normalize Self-Directed Education. If you look back historically the people who have made the impact are those that published their work. So those are the ones who have helped keep the momentum going for the hundreds of years within Self-Directed Education– at least Self-Directed Education during the period of time of compulsory schooling. So I think it’s really important that we record people’s stories and share them with one another and widen the movement. And so Tipping Points is sort of the opposite of what I do on a day to day basis, but it’s just as valuable.
Bria: You’ve been in this world a long time.
Bria: I didn’t mean it how it sounds! [laughs] What are you most excited about? Is there anything coming up recently that you’re excited about?
Alex: Do you mean like a particular event?
Bria: No... what within the movement, do you see any momentum shifting, do you see anything new popping up that’s exciting, like what are you most excited about within this movement for the present and even like ten years down the road?
Alex: Ohhh. Well I think very recently I’ve seen a lot more awareness around associating other forms of oppression and anti-oppression work, work with Black, Indigenous, People of Color; the Queer and LGBTQ movement; even the MeToo movement; there has been some association with the anti-oppression work of working with children. And I’ve seen a lot more diversity, and a lot more recognition of that diversity, and a lot more credit being given to those that have been doing this type of work for a long long time, which tend to be People of Color who were doing this long long before white people were. And I’ve been seeing a lot more recognition of that, and a lot more people realizing that the loudest voices in the movement which tend to be the sort of middle class white schooling people realizing that that needs to change, both in publishing, and finding unschooling communities that are doing this sort of work, and really understanding that it can’t just be some utopic school in the woods, and that we need to be more inclusive. I don’t know if I’m wording that well, but...
Bria: No, you are.
Alex: I’ve seen a lot more of that [diversity and recognition] happen lately, and that’s really so so so so crucial if this is going to actually mean anything, other than just a bunch of white privileged people in the woods doing this sort of work... is I guess what I’m trying to say.
Bria: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I want to go back a little bit and talk about your work with the Alliance. Can you talk a little bit more about your work with Tipping Points Magazine? Like, what does your daily life as the Editor-in-Chief of Tipping Points look like.
Alex: Yeah, so Tipping Points is a big part of my life, but also a part-time job. But to be clear it’s meant to be a one day a week sort of job, which I probably spend three times that actually working on, but it’s a real passion of mine; it’s something that I care deeply about.
So, there are people that submit stories, there’s also a group of wonderful volunteers who are editing articles, as well as all of the writers who are volunteering their time writing articles. The editorial team of Tipping Points, we meet about quarterly and sort of steer where we’re going to go with the magazine. And that does mean reaching out to writers, reaching out to voices that we feel maybe aren’t being heard, and finding people who are willing to donate their time and their ideas. We seem to have a general stream of articles coming in now, and reading over them, making sure they’re appropriate for the magazine. I tend to do that work and then if it’s in question I ask the other editors to review it as well. Usually it’s pretty clear. And then we edit the articles. It’s a lot of back and forth with editors on comments and thoughts, and then a lot of back and forth with the authors [while] making sure that they’re happy with the changes, and then it’s staging the articles, which means putting it into our system– we use Wordpress.
Maybe one of the most challenging parts is finding images. (This is a call to everybody out there who’s taking pictures of their children, please send us your wonderful photos of them doing adventurous, wonderful, beautiful things, and their artwork!) Then editing those images, making them web-friendly, hosting them, and then publishing the article, and then mostly just sort of handing that over actually to you, to Bria, who then is sharing those articles through social media and the newsletter.
So it’s a weekly cycle. We try to publish on Thursday, which typically means the Thursday before I’m thinking about what’s in the queue for the next week, and trying to look two or three weeks in advance, and having editors looking at those articles.
Bria: Thank you. Let’s just pretend for a second that time isn’t an issue. If you had all the time in the world to work on Tipping Points is there a bigger vision you have for it? What would it look like if you had more time and resources for it?
Alex: If I had more time and resources it would definitely be... I’d love to open up different forms of media. I’d love to have more podcasts. I’d really actually love, something I’d like to do with this and maybe this is me soliciting this as well, I’d love to have more artwork. It could be cartoons. Sort of the New Yorker style cartoons or just artwork of young people doing things in the movement, or photographs. I’d like to open it up that way, and I’d like to have more informal, less academic writing. I like having the academic writing– I think that’s important for the movement, to be able to point to articles that go and reference big, long books and texts– but I think just having informal stories. Having people publish their blog posts, or the story of what happened today with their family unschooling, or in the center that they work at or that center that they’re a young person at. I would like to see little blurbs and snippets on a regular basis, and really have a bigger team. If we had more writers, and editors, and artists, and people recording sounds and stories and words, and publishing them, we could really have more of a collage and give a more colorful picture of what Self-Directed Education actually looks like. And in my vision that would mostly be young people doing... where it was young people’s words and work, and with maybe some old people (like me) helping them make sure that that gets out there, and that it’s neat and orderly in a way that it’s easily searchable. Having some sort of a taxonomy to make sure that not only is it being recorded but that it can be filtered and found easily.
Bria: Yeah. It’s a great vision, let’s get on it.
Alex: [laughs] Okay.
Bria: Two more questions. We’re almost done. How do you feel that ASDE is supporting this movement, and why is ASDE important for this movement?
Alex: I think that ASDE is doing a wonderful job at normalizing Self-Directed Education, at really showing that there are many many many people — this movement is actually large — as much as it’s small there are many many people doing this many many different ways. And ASDE is doing what I have never seen before done in Self-Directed Education in my twenty-five years involved which is connecting the dots as an Alliance. And I really do emphasize, I think it’s so important... There are grassroots people doing this on the ground hidden away where other people don’t even know about them. Some of them are doing it intentionally so that others don’t know about them because for them it might be dangerous, it might even be illegal. I’ve spoken with people in other countries where Self-Directed Education is illegal and they’re doing it underground, but those people need to be recognized and their work needs to be recognized. And then there’s also schools and centers doing this work, and there is a connection between the Libertarians, and the Socialists, and the Anarchists, and the people who aren’t claiming to be anything politically whatsoever. There is a connection between all of them and that is a beautiful connection, and the commonality, what we all have in common, is so important, and we need to really really celebrate that. And the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is celebrating that and that’s awesome. And that needs to be done. And there’s strength in unity, and if we can celebrate what we have in common, and respect one another, and gently go together collectively to support children’s rights. And set aside our differences, which is what the Alliance is doing, then we have a chance for this to actually grow and become not an alternative but actually be normalized, and actually be a choice for everyone... Not to get overly dramatic.
Bria: Will you be our spokesperson that tells everyone to love each other and get along?
Bria: [laughs] Well thank you for that beauty anyway. Is there anything else you want to share?
Alex: No I think that the sums it up. Just that everyone should keep doing what they’re doing and support one another, and fight the good fight as far as supporting children’s rights. And remember that it’s a civil rights movement and that that’s hard. It’s an uphill battle. All civil rights movements are fighting against the mainstream norm, and it’s worth it.