Archive for November, 2009

Fairhaven School Slideshow

A slideshow of Fairhaven School presented at the Greenfest during October 2009.

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Announcing ‘Reach Sudbury School of Toronto!’

The planning group for Toronto’s future Sudbury-model school (opening in 2011) is proud to have chosen a name. ‘Reach’ was picked to represent the active journey our students will make to discover their passions, pursue goals, and develop community. We look forward to creating a rigourous, democratic environment in which young people strive to take responsibility for their learning. For more information on the school’s philosophy, see About.

The current group of school founders were all part of ‘The Beach School‘–a previous Sudbury school in Toronto–for many years. We include former founder and staff member Kristin Simpson, parent and part-time staff member Tane Akamatsu, parent and supporter Rika Alvo, and student and advocate Sarah Alvo. Our experience has shown us the power of the Sudbury philosophy and taught us how to apply it successfully. After one year of preliminary work on this project, we are now actively seeking other interested participants. To learn more about joining us, see Get Involved.

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The Play’s The Thing

Like any good theater project, Fairhaven’s recent outdoor production of MacBeth proclaimed its merits on many levels.  Student actors, crew, and sound all executed their jobs with distinction. Fulfilling the doomed Scottish king’s prophecy–Blood…there will be blood–oh, yes, there emily macbethwas blood.

The autumn trees made a perfectly gloomy backdrop. The witches bewitched and the swordplay thrilled. Befitting the curse of the “Scottish play,” numerous leads fell ill a week before show time (see previous post “What Are We Teaching These Kids”), yet all but one cast member trod the boards. An enthusiastic audience came both days, and the familiar feeling for those of us who participated or watched was, indeed, the feeling of witnessing a small miracle.

This piece, however, is not meant as a review. Both my cameo as the Porter and my longstanding membership in the Theatre Corporation here at school taint my objectivity. Watch our website for more photos.  If still intrigued, re-read the play itself! Thinking about the production has refreshed my understanding of the educational milieu here, and has led me once again to the most common activity on campus: play.  Paraphrasing something Sudbury Valley staff member and writer Daniel Greenberg once wrote, “play” is any activity where the activity’s outcome is not pre-determined. It can take shape at school as dress-ups, make-believe, knitting, sports, cards, video games, hide-and-seek, and acting in a Shakespearean tragedy. Or maybe it is more nebulous: playing with ideas, joking with your friends, planning a fort, doodling, fooling around on the piano. A paradox is that play looks trivial, but is also a serious activity for our students, a crucial accelerant for growth and development.

One image from Greenberg’s piece that stuck with me was the idea of “play” in a rope. A rope with play has a little slack, right? Watching my colleague Ruth direct MacBeth reminded me of how this notion of play, well, plays out here at Fairhaven. I ran lines one day when the director was absent. Goodness, it seemed to me nobody knew their parts! Fighting my urge to control, I gave gentle reminders and prompts. Later, in classic theater fashion, the dress rehearsal was a mess. Ruth was almost pleased: “Bad dress, good performance.” When the adage proved right-on, I realized that directing theater is so much like working at Fairhaven School. In any good example of work or play, doesn’t the art lie in the lovely line between controlling and letting go?

Staff members draw this line and re-draw it every day on campus. In School Meeting or JC, how much should we dominate the discussion? How much should we hold back? A student needs some support putting on the Talent Show: how much is too much? Somebody has stopped coming to Writing Class: do I encourage her once to keep coming or just let it go?

Students also ask and answer these questions about their lives at school. Some have elaborate schedules and plans; others flow from day to day, capricious. Some free-flowers become planners over time, and some planners learn to go with the flow. The art lies in the lovely line between controlling and letting go. He wrote truth, when Shakespeare wrote, the play’s the thing. Maybe this synchronicity between school dynamic and theater dynamic explains Fairhaven’s incredible run of successful plays through the years. We Theatre Corp members hope thMacbeth witchesey continue, knowing one day they may cease.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

Mark McCaig

November, 2009

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I’ve never written publicly about this. I was bullied in school. After a number of years homeschooling, I returned to high school in the 10th grade, as naïve as could be. No one told me not to flinch. This is a painful lesson, and you don’t get a second chance to learn it. Once you’ve flinched, it’s too late. They’ll just keep coming back for more.

Before I go on, if you’re about to enter high school, particularly if you’re coming from an alternative background, such as homeschooling, or if you’re an exchange student from another country, my one piece of advice for you is this: Don’t flinch. They’re not actually going to hit you (the first time). They’re just seeing if they can bug you, if they can put you on their short list of pathetic wimps they can have fun with. If you flinch, it’s all over. Got it? Don’t flinch.

Okay, got that off my chest. I entered 10th grade, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was hopelessly introverted and nerdy, wearing a black, suede leather jacket every day regardless of the weather. I had looked forward to school. I felt pretty grown up (I was 14). But I didn’t expect people to be so mean. So I was blindsided. Fortunately, I had enough self-respect to stand up for myself and seek help with my school’s vice principal, the person traditionally in charge of student behavior problems, a.k.a. discipline. Not so fortunately, she was completely unhelpful. First of all, she tried to talk me out of doing anything about it. She made me feel like I was blowing things out of proportion. She actually tried to shame me out of bothering her. Eventually, she did something nominal, but it didn’t help. It probably made things worse.

I know that some kids had it much worse than me. And sadly, we all know how tragic the ultimate consequences can be, with incidents like Columbine. Thankfully, I was nowhere near that distraught over it. But it still wasn’t fun. This one guy used to corner me in the gym, during PE class, in that little hidden space between the corner of the room and the bleachers. Then he’d jab me in the stomach. Repeatedly. Eventually, I’d be able to find my way out and rejoin the safety of the class.

That’s the kind of thing that bullies do: inflict physical and psychological pain on people weaker than themselves. Bullies also have a strangely powerful effect on the kids being bullied. I found myself wanting to be his friend, wanting to seek approval. Ugh, it’s sick now that I think about it. But that’s the kind of effect bullies can have.

The truth of course is that I had it better off than the bullies. Think how the world must be treating someone for them to treat others so meanly. Bullies have lost whatever sense of self-respect they had. Hopefully, they’ll grow up and rediscover that self-respect, making a better life for themselves.

If you’ve been reading this blog already, you know that I blame problems like these (such as lack of respect) on school’s institutional lack of respect for its “clients”. But I don’t feel like preaching right now. I ask you to just reflect on it. When I was a kid, I actually thought that bullying was something you just had to go through, a necessary part of growing up. Now I realize that it has very little to do with my life as an adult. Sure, there are bullies in the adult world, but there’s a disproportionately high number in school. I fully reject the notion that being bullied is a necessary part of growing up. If I can help it, I’ll do whatever I can to ensure that no one else has to go through that experience, including my own children.

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Hula Hoops and Captain Underpants

Captain Underpants books have been very popular for a while now. Someone will ask to read one, and all of a sudden there will be a pile of kids on the couch, all wanting to have the best seat.
This Saturday we will have a table at the St. John’s Christmas Fair. We’ll be selling these lovely handmade Hula Hoops, and giving tours of our school.

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Open House & New Posters!

Our December Open House is happening on Sunday the 6th at 1:30pm. We also have our new posters going up around town, stay tuned for more!

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The Unschooling Thought Police

I’ve seen an ironic phenomenon among unschoolers (in books, blog articles, and at unschooling conferences) that I can only describe as the “unschooling thought police”. People react when certain terms aren’t used in particular, predefined ways.


I’ve noticed that a lot of unschoolers have an aversion to the word “education” (largely due to how John Holt chose to use the word in Instead of Education). On the one hand, this is to be expected, since “education” represents so much of what unschoolers reject (compulsory, teacher-led curricula, etc.). On the other hand, it’s just a word, and traditional schools don’t have a monopoly on it. It can and does mean much more than traditional schooling. Rather than reject the word, why not reclaim it? If you’re an unschooler, wouldn’t you agree with someone who said that unschooling is a legitimate educational choice? (Or would you derail the conversation by telling your story about how you dislike the word “education”?)


There’s also an aversion among unschoolers to the term “teach”, but what the aversion really represents is an underlying insight that learning does not necessarily require teaching. (In fact, it almost always doesn’t require teaching.) So rejection of the term “teach” is a crude reaction to the generally held belief in our society, whether conscious or not, that learning requires teaching.

But notice that the insight is not that there is no such thing as teaching or that teaching is bad. It’s true, we probably don’t need nearly as much of it as we thought, but if I wanted to learn a specialized skill and I knew someone who could teach me it, then I’d be glad to have that option. Wouldn’t you? (Or would you continue to shun “teaching” and pick a different hobby?)

Of course, experience can be a “teacher” too, as in, “that experience taught me that…”. In that particular sense, teaching happens all the time. Either way, the word “teach” is, like any other English word, perfectly useful and can mean many different things. I give you permission to use it.

“Unschooling” vs. “Radical unschooling”

“Radical unschooling” is a useful term, in that it designates a specific flavor of unschooling. More than an educational philosophy, it describes a philosophy of parenting or even a philosophy of life. Among other things, radical unschoolers eschew the idea of parental authority. The fact that “school” is part of its title is a historical accident. Radical unschoolers see their philosophy of life as a natural extension of their educational philosophy (though, again, they may choose not to use the term “educational”).

“Unschooling” without the “radical” part is also a useful term. A broader group of people self-identify as unschoolers than as radical unschoolers. They represent a wider variety of parenting styles (including approaches to discipline). Moreover, the fact that “school” is in the title is very useful, as it designates an approach to education. It provides an answer to the question: what do you do for (or how do you approach the question of) education and school and stuff like that?

Some (notice I didn’t say “all”) radical unschoolers may take issue with the above distinction, perhaps even going so far as to say that someone who is not a radical unschooler is not a “true unschooler”. But language is more democratic than they realize. “Unschooling” can and does, for many people, mean the approach they take to education. It doesn’t necessarily denote their all-encompassing philosophy of life that trumps everything else. (That’s why adding “radical” was a useful thing to do.)

“Rules” vs. “Principles”

This, again, is a useful distinction. The idea here is that rules are situationally specific and extrinsically motivated. (“No hitting.”) Principles are broadly applicable and intrinsically motivated. (“Act lovingly.”) Read Sandra Dodd’s summary of the discourse among unschoolers on this point.

Now here’s my complaint. This distinction has become so overused that “We live by principles instead of rules” has itself become a rule! What was a helpful distinction has become ironclad dogma. It degenerates to: “We never use rules.” “Rules are bad.” “Rules are always bad.” “If it’s a rule, we don’t want it.” Thinking goes out the door.

Yes, please live a principled life. But what kind of principle is “rules are always bad”? Does that mean laws are always bad too? There’s really no need to paint with such broad strokes. You only end up painting yourself in a corner. There’s no need to make mental contortions like, “If we ever do anything that looks like a rule, we’ll be sure to call it something else.” Wouldn’t you rather be free to use whatever term you want? Access the inner rebel that led you to unschooling in the first place. Think and speak freely, and if some vocal unschoolers react in a knee-jerk fashion to your choice of words, call them on it. Tell them to follow their own principle and quit acting like it’s a rule.


Go beyond what words people are using and listen to what people are actually saying. Terminology is important, yes. If we don’t share a common language, then how can we understand each other? And how could a movement grow without a search-engine-friendly name (like “unschooling”)? But use words lightly. Don’t let them master you. Don’t let useful distinctions turn into dogma, helpful insights into ideology. Otherwise, we may as well stop talking to each other.

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Gabriel Intro

Hello to all the folks in the blogosphere!

My name is Gabriel, and for the purposes of this portion of the blogosphere I will be called CapitalG.

In case you haven’t noticed, I will be posting here now.

I’m also a member of the Computer Committee, an admin on the school’s Minecraft server (details in the next post.), and a participant in the writing of the Warrior Cats play. I’m also making Warcraft III maps in my spare time (which I don’t have a lot of.).

Things I like: computers, drama, the word “blogosphere” (blogosphere! Isn’t it fun?), long hair, books, nature, loooong walks (I am planning to walk/run a marathon next year), and Clearwater.

Next post coming soon!


End of post!

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Rain Garden Poetry

Last week, a ten-year-old Clearwater student composed a poem about Clearwater's new rain garden.

Without further ado, here's his poem.

The Swale
by Arlo

We have a swale on the side of our school.
Water runs in it and people run on it.
I think it’s cool and so do my friends
So we’ve managed to not hurt it—-not a dent.
Not a hit
Not a smack
Not a slap
Not a bang.
So I think it’s cool and so do my friends
So this is where my poem ends.

Arlo and the rain garden

End of post.

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Nina JeckerByrne recently commented on another website about her experience with sending her children to a Sudbury school (in New York). With her permission, I’ve decided to quote her comment in its entirety (emphasis added):

As a culture we have a death-grip on our belief that kids must be taught x, y, and z or we’re all doomed. Those industrialists did a good job of selling their agenda to the masses! I am sure more and more people will decide to give up on compulsory education, and Sudbury and unschooling will eventually meet with less objection, we just have to be patient and let the outcomes speak for themselves. My oldest is 16, has been at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School for 7 years, and was unschooled previously. He’s never had to study or take tests. He decided he wanted to be a lifeguard for summer employment, took the course and passed all the tests easily! He did it all without reminders or help. He just recently got a 100 on his driver’s permit test after studying on his own for that. No one has ever “taught” him how to read or do arithmetic or how to study for a test, and he is competent in all those things, and is a whiz on computers – especially with Photoshop. All this without formal instruction – entirely by his own motivation and effort. He has demonstrated that he can learn whatever he wants to learn, whether it is on his own or by seeking assistance. We have been underestimating our children in this society for so long that we no longer trust in what is, in fact, natural – kids naturally want to learn and to challenge themselves, unless it has been trained out of them.

What could be more valuable than being able to learn whatever you need to learn whenever you need to learn it? That’s a skill worth taking into adulthood and doesn’t correspond to any particular subject that can be taught. If kids can develop their innate ability to learn and carry it into whatever area interests them, they’ll develop self-efficacy. In other words, they’ll have the general knowledge about themselves that “I can do it”, or “I can figure out what help I need to get it done”. How can you teach that? It has to be learned by experience.

Nina’s story is so typical of kids that are allowed to go all the way through a Sudbury school experience. The school that started it all, Sudbury Valley School, has published extensive information about their alumni. Two books in particular are worth reading if you’re at all concerned about what becomes of students who spend their childhood at a Sudbury school. See the “What becomes of students” page on the SVS website if you’re interested in reading these. One is called The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni (2005), and the other is Legacy of Trust: Life After the Sudbury Valley School Experience (1992). If you like quantitative data, you’ll like Pursuit of Happiness, but if you’d rather hear more from the alumni themselves (in the form of essays), read Legacy of Trust, even though it’s a bit older.

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