The History of Summerhill Through 100 Objects

A personal exploration of the history, life and philosophy of Summerhill, connecting it to the field of childhood and schooling in general, using 100 objects. Each video episode will be 5 to 10 minutes long and cover one object. The episodes are from one take, and are not scripted, though I do create a thought list to help structure the presentation.

Episode 1: The Diary

The first episode made on 8th July 2020 looks at the diary, its relevance to our sense of morality and A.S.Neill’s first book, ‘A Dominie’s Log’ (1915) which attacks the institutional power of the official School Log.

Episode 2: The Mug

Episode 2, made on 12th July, tells of the importance of mugs, & two stories. The first ends in the execution of a mug… & the second is about a tea for the rights of women & girls.

Episode 3: The Gramophone

The third in my series on the history of Summerhill through 100 objects is about the Gramophone.

The school still has a Gram Committee, a Gram box and holds a Gram at least once a week…

The history of A.S.Neill running a school has the gramophone as a central part of learning and living by doing. Children organise discos, and all ages dance and request the music.

In Hellerau, where Neill created an International School, the beginnings of Summerhill, he and his students would dance to music in the evenings, much to the annoyance of the German discussion group in the classroom below, who would be talking about Nietzsche and Goethe…

Episode 4: My Staff Peg

The fourth episode explains my staff peg, how it is used, how Summerhill got a staff pegboard, and why my peg is an image of the hand of Frankenstein’s creature holding a book. It relates how the image of children constructing their own humanity and identity has been the foundation of schools like Summerhill and Robert Owen’s school at New Lanark (1817).

Episode 5: The Newspaper

Part 5 of my ‘History of Summerhill Through 100 Objects’ looks at the importance of the newspaper to schools and children.

The first national newspaper written by children for children was the weekly Polish ‘Little Review’ created by Janusz Korczak. He was known as the Polish A.S.Neill, and ran a democratic orphanage. Like Neill he believed that a student newspaper could be a vital part of creating a community based on rights, justice and creativity.

When newspapers failed to address the issue of starving German children after WW1 the settlement community of Kingsley Hall created a “walking newspaper” to inform London about the problem and to seek help. Their placards and banners showed the headlines the press had ignored.

Episode 6: Birds

Part 6 of my series on ‘The History of Summerhill Through 100 Objects’ looks at birds.

Learning by sharing your passion for birds, and one science teacher (at Dartington School) writes the most important book on Robins.

Finding out what birds live locally, how they behave, listening to their songs, seeing what they eat… being passionate about an online game.

Just sitting, lying or standing and listening to nature…

Letting the birds eat the farmer’s grain….

Object 7: The Door.

Object 7 of my series ‘The History of Summerhill Through 100 Objects’ is The Door. At Summerhill I see the door as an important concept of the boundary between the classroom and outside the classroom.

Once through the door into a classroom the children enter a space defined by teaching, in which they accept the role of a teacher, the purpose of a curriculum, assessment, a specific structuring of knowledge.

Outside these aspects of learning are not present, unless the teacher takes their class outside.

Outside is where the community at Summerhill, adults and children, learn by living, by discovering, by playing, by being idle, by sitting in a tree…

Outside is a space away from assessment, and imposing on the learning a framework that defines teaching, in which outcomes can be celebrated, shared or just enjoyed, without the need to record, measure and define.

But how can this be defended from teachers who want to teach, and inspectors who want us to provide continuous evidence of progress in learning?

Object 8: The 15 Bus

The eighth object, in my series ‘Summerhill History Through 100 Objects’, is the 15 Bus, for this is an icon in the film ‘To Sir, With Love’, based on the most democratic state school in England (1945-55) created and lead by Alexander Bloom. Find out how the children used the 15 bus route to explore and share their findings about the history of places in London. And how this mirrors the image of the state school that was meant to be created through the 1918 Education Act.

The image of the state elementary schools and the extended the age of schooling to 14 through the 1918 H.A.L. Fisher Education Act was meant to create schools as cultural and museum centres for their local communities. This is what Earl Lytton, who brought the Act to the House of Lords, and carried it through the chamber, for which he was complemented as a fine politician, listening to others and involving their ideas in the Act. This is what he wrote was meant to be the outcome for state schools as a result of the act. Children would learn through visits, interviews, objects, research and creating displays, that would tell the history and culture of their local area and communities.

Object 9: A Shopping Trolley

Object 9 to tell the history and life of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School is A Supermarket Trolley. Staff without cars and children would borrow the trolley from the local Co-op store, called Solar. They would buy food and refreshments for parties or for social events and child run shops in the school, wheeling the stock to the school. This has been a long tradition in the school, and such enterprise has been a part of the learning experiences in similar communities of young people.

Homer Lane’s ‘Little Commonwealth’ a residential community of children, whose teenagers were sent from the courtrooms of East London, had a children’s run shop built by Harry Selfridge, the famous businessman who created Selfridges in London. Harry also minted the coins used by the democratic community, whose democratic meeting, the Moot, inspired A.S. Neill.

In French state schools, where teachers and inspectors sought to liberate the children, they created student run co-ops to write, bind and sell books, the profits going back to the school. This was a case study shared with New Ideals in Education and the international movement, New Education Fellowship.

This inspirational history, and case studies, are used in East London state schools for peer training children in co-operative social enterprise, and using such businesses to change their schools and communities.

Object 10: The Scarecrow

The 10th episode in this series on ‘The History of Summerhill Through 100 Objects’ looks at ‘The Scarecrow’ from The Wizard of Oz. How does he get his brain?

Why is this a symbol of the reason for the failure of the teaching values and methods, developed in nursery, Kindergarten and Elementary schools mainly by suffragists and suffragettes, to effect major changes in our secondary schools.

Summerhill was one of the rare examples of a school for children up to the age of 16 or 17, that symbolised the values of ‘liberating the child in the school’. The values of New Ideals in Education.

Object 11: The Timetable

Object 11, ‘The Timetable’, in my series on ‘The History of Summerhill in 100 Objects’ looks at how exam subjects got into the timetable at Summerhill, how a new timetable is created each term from the choices of the children, and how the timetable has been changed by the community since 1995…

Object 12: Rain

Object 12 is ‘Rain’, with the episode starting and ending with 2 minutes from Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series, ‘Ascent of Man’, in which he explores the importance of the attitude to truth and the dangers of genocide. The first story about rain links to Bronowski’s words, which were unscripted, and his human response to visiting Auschwitz, where his family died.

The following stories are about playing in the rain, mud, puddles, hiking in the rain and challenging the values of Summerhill in responding to a water bomb.

Object 13: Stones

Object 13 is stones. Used for throwing, for breaking windows, for creating stone tools, for looking under and for painting…

Stories about immersive drama; a young boy collecting stones and how it affected his whole life and the history of how we see our origins; a case at the Summerhill meeting that led to an exploration of what it means to use a Law; and searching for orange spiders under stones…..

Object 14 Snow

Episode 14 tells stories about snow, a girl who gets so excited at seeing snow that she accidently wakes up other children and is brought-up at the meeting, two snow walls are built as a battle between the Carriage Kids and Shack Kids, kids make snowmen, one as big as over 10 feet tall, and A.S. Neill discusses power and rights with his state village school children over the local policeman salting their ice slide in the winter of 1914…

Object 15 The Boat

Episode 15 has Summerhill children learning to make boats; and a celebration of the imagination that takes us sailing to the North Pole to discover a magical underworld, or to have Peter Pan fighting for the survival of Summerhill School, or to battle a tornado that travels the seas turning ships into matchsticks…

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