“Creating Fertile Ground for Growth and Learning”: A student’s reflection on the Free Minds Free People Conference

In July, Detroit Future Schools participated in Free Minds Free People, a national conference that brings together teachers, students, researchers, parents and activists to explore how we can use education as a tool for liberation. Wayne Bussey II, Issra Killawi, and Alondra Casteñeda, participants in our Out-of-School Project (OSP), joined DFS’ director Nathaniel Mullen in presenting a session called “Humanizing Schooling in Detroit.”


Issra K, Alondra C, Wayne B and Nate M at Free Minds Free People in Oakland CA

Over the three days of the conference, we were able to connect with other educators and youth, attend sessions such as “Ethnic Studies for all the Youth” and “Consequences and Community in the Beautiful Struggle” and hear a powerful opening keynote address by Jeff Duncan Andrade, a teacher and educational scholar whose work has greatly influenced DFS’ pedagogy.

These experiences were especially meaningful for our OSP participants as they are exploring issues of structural education injustice in Detroit. We left the conference feeling inspired and re-energized to continue our work towards humanizing schooling!

Read Issra’s beautiful reflection on the FMFP conference below:

“Creating Fertile Ground for Growth and Learning”
by Issra Killawi

As I listened to the keynote speaker, Jeff Duncan Andrade, on the first day of the Free Minds Free People Conference, I knew that he was sharing something very powerful, but I couldn’t immediately grasp exactly what it was that resonated with me. Two days after that, I presented with Detroit Future Schools on humanizing schooling in Detroit. For me, humanizing school meant being able to exist in the classroom as a whole person, beyond the never-ending subject matter that had to be covered. However, even when I say this statement to myself, it sounds very elusive. So I will try to put these thoughts into perspective.

Everyone agrees that high school can be a tough time. I spent four years of school with a group of people who probably had their own, very personal struggles. We were all struggling to understand ourselves, our emotions, and who we wanted to be. As a student body of an Arab American majority, many of us were trying to balance our cultural roots with our American upbringing, whether we were aware of it or not. Then there was this incredible phenomenon called puberty and raging hormones! But there was no room for any of these things in my high school classes. Had we been able to exist as nuanced individuals in the classroom rather than just “students” we could have made much stronger connections to our learning and to our peers. We didn’t have the time, space, or direction needed to process anything that did not relate to the learning objectives in each lesson plan.

In piecing this reflection together, I can remember something that specifically impacted me from the keynote speaker’s address at the FMFP Conference. He played a short clip of “Children Full of Life,” a documentary about a classroom in Japan, where a child whose grandfather had recently passed away wrote about his experience with grief and loss and shared it with the whole class. More powerful than his writing was the reaction from his peers. Some students listened attentively, their faces drawn in empathy towards his pain. Others began to cry, and slowly some of them shared their own struggle of losing a loved one. Students physically comforted each other and expressed their concern for the pain they were witnessing in others around them.

I share that to say this: anything that we struggle with is fertile ground for growth and learning. High school, especially, is full of such opportunities. But when we segregate learning from our personal experiences, we ignore so much of what it means to think, feel, and change. When you don’t have room for self-discovery, self-awareness and developing emotional intelligence at one of the ripest times in an individual’s life and most ironically, in the spaces designated for people to learn, then what does it matter if you know about every subject except your own self?