On the one hand, Ann Arbor Free Skool
is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. On the other, so much about the concept belongs solidly in the realm of the unexpected.
"The first time I went to a [Free Skool] DIY Fest, I was just blown away," says William Reith, a volunteer and organizer for Ann Arbor Free Skool. "There were kids and elders and punks and grad students all in one place. I learned how to fix my bike, how to brew beer, how to build wire sculptures in one day.
"I just said, 'I can't believe this exists.'"
About twice a year, the loosely knit, non-hierarchical group of people associated with Ann Arbor Free Skool hosts a DIY Fest. As Reith experienced in July of last year, an amalgamation of workshops, classes and entertainment converge upon the event to create an entire day of learning and fun.
But DIY Fest is only one component of the Free Skool. On an ongoing basis, anyone who has a skill, craft or knowledge to share can offer a workshop, event or series of classes, and Ann Arbor Free Skool will publicize it and invite learners to come participate. For free.
"There is a wide variety of people who have stepped forward and become teachers in everything from hula hooping to teaching math," says Christina Guldi, who also volunteers as a Free Skool teacher and organizer. "We like that we have bizarre, creative things and traditional educational courses."
Some of those more traditional classes include weekly Spanish language and Vinyasa yoga courses. But the word "free" isn't taken lightly by the organization. The classes cost nothing, and the bounds of what can be taught there are equally non-existent. Guldi, for example, got involved in the Free Skool by teaching a non-pharmaceutical contraception course.
"The only approval process is the community," says Reith. "If someone wanted to put on a toenail clipping class, we'd help them do that. Then it's up to the world to decide if they want to go to it."
Lest one may fear the concept of offering classes for free is in some way taking advantage of, or undervaluing the talents of teachers, Guldi explains that for many people who have a skill to share find just as much benefit in the opportunity to teach it as other do to learn.
"It's a really good place for people who want to learn how to teach," she says. "People tend to get intimidated by the idea of teaching a class, but I believe that this is a platform for people to really develop as a teacher."
Sometimes, however, Free Skool classes aren't so much about a teacher instructing as they are about a group experience. An event in February called Film Dubadub Dub invited people to attend a screening of the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with musical instruments and other noisemakers to communally and spontaneously dub the film.
"It was amazing," says Reith. "People were giving voice to the characters on screen, with viola, ukulele, cello, ocarina, horn - people just clicked. It was it was kind of invigorating."
While the framework of the Ann Arbor Free Skool is fluid and its history mysterious - no one seems to know when the organization truly began, only that its momentum ebbs and flows - Guldi, Reith and their Free Skool partner Cidalene Henry believe the current direction of the group could take it to another level.
"With education being so expensive, we want to build this," says Reith. "We see this vision of Free Skool being a citywide thing, where people could learn all sorts of things."
As the group continues to grow its momentum, another DIY Fest is in the making, scheduled for May 19. The venue is still being determined, but the line-up of skill shares will follow a springtime theme, including DIY garden tools, spring foraging, hula-hoop building and juggling for beginners.
Reith and Guldi agree that while the future of Ann Arbor Free Skool is as unknown as its past and as indefinable as its present, it will always continue to exactly what people make of it.
"We're always open for innovation," says Guldi. "If someone wants to get involved and has a new vision, we're open to that."
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, Concentrate's development news editor, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Capital Gains in Lansing.
All photos by Doug Coombe