Archive for May, 2014

You Say You Want a Revolution

How many times a day are we confronted with some catchy slogan that says, in one sentence or less, “Changing your life is as easy as X.” The X is often some pithy philosophical idea that questions our perception of reality. Often these messages are accompanied by images from a movie or a link to a TED Talk.

These philosophy-packed one-liners show up in our inboxes and Facebook pages because our friends agree that “thinking differently is good.” What is interesting to me is that, even though we all see these, we end up not living up to their injunctions. Our busy adult reality is too often dominated by a day-to-day routine that is monotonous and overwhelming. If we were to think differently, life might in fact be different. Is this too scary an idea?

Here are some examples:

  • “This is Water”. “An old fish swims by two younger fish and says, ‘How’s the water, boys?’ to which the younger fish say, ‘What’s water?’” From the video: “The most obvious important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”
  • Morpheus offering Neo the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix. How many of us are aware of the “constructs” around us? How many of us choose to go back to sleep when confronted with uncomfortable realities by taking the blue pill instead of the red pill?
  • Various images about how we grownups once played dangerously (e.g., big slides, running around at recess, holding toy guns or sticks that look like them), and how those opportunities are gone (though no one seems to do anything about it, apart from post a picture).


  • Simple quotes that leave you wondering. “We ask 18-year-olds to make huge decisions about their career and financial future, when a month ago they had to ask to go to the bathroom.” (Adam Kotsko, via Facebook)

Think Different

“We all want to change your head.” (Lennon/McCartney)

Most of us want to see the school system changed (some of us in a revolutionary way), but the fact of the matter is that nothing much has changed since this song was written (and Sudbury Valley School opened) in 1968 — even with the recent proliferation of these catchy phrases and pictures. Why? I ask myself that all the time.

I assert that the reason for the constant reminders in these slogans and images is that too many of us grew up in a conventional schooling system explicitly designed to make us fit into a monotonous reality and feel good about it, because everyone else did it too. Now, however, with the Internet constantly screaming a different message, many suffer from cognitive and psychological dissonance. We live one way and see/hear another. Confronted with this dissonance, we tend to default and stay with the status quo–because that’s what we were trained to do in school.

When my friends John and Paul sang “Revolution” , one thing they came right out and said was that “you better free your mind…” If we want a better world, we all have to be able to see reality, and that means liberating your mind from the constructs around you (as Morpheus might say). You may end up choosing to adopt the dominant paradigm, but for the sake of the children, at least understand why conventional schools exist today. For children, the biggest construct is the idea that they cannot be free until they have submitted to an arbitrary master for 12 years of their lives. Most of us grew up this way too — okay, so how did it affect you? Are you more likely to act on your dreams or play it safe?

Children who grow up in Sudbury schools learn to see reality very early in their lives. They learn that their choices are theirs and that their actions have consequences. When our Sudbury alumni go out into the world, they may find monotony and boredom, but I think they are uniquely prepared to listen to all the platitudes we get in our inbox and on social media. Chances are they will not even need to see them: they will have the ability and desire to actually make the change that some of us from a previous generation only wish that we could.

Written by Larry Welshon – staff at Alpine Valley School

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This Week at AVS – 5/23/14

Smiles 2 Puddle Jumping 2 Puddle Jumping 1 Cooking Birthday Birthday King Trebuchet Construction 1 Trebuchet Construction 2 Smiles 1 Sandbox 6

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Evidence of Play

As I write this, it’s Saturday and I’m at school. I’m here to protect the Hardy Kiwi plants that we planted on Friday. On Sunday the forecast is for a freeze and snow, and we want our fledglings to thrive!

I brought in cloth to cover the plants and added another layer of protection with cardboard boxes weighed down with bricks from our sandbox.

Covered Plants

When walking back and forth picking out bricks, I noticed subtle signs of life in the sandbox that I hadn’t noticed before.

There were holes dug here and there, perhaps the beginning of a moat.

Sandbox 4

“X” marked the spot in a number of places.

X marks the spot

An elaborate drawing appears to say “RIP” and may mark a fallen imaginary friend.

Sandbox 5

My favorite, though, was what looks to me like a beach scene. The top of a plant that we pruned on Friday was buried in the sand, looking like a palm tree.

Sandbox 2

All of these pieces are open to interpretation, from us, the viewer. But we may never know their real reason for being. This contains the mystery and the beauty of play. It means something slightly different to each participant (whether child or adult), and we each gain something different from it. We may never know what someone gains from their play, but through play we are always learning and growing – and sometimes we leave breadcrumbs for others to wonder about.

Sandbox 6

Sandbox 3

Sandbox 4

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Lessons in “No”

The Kitchen Corporation at Fairhaven School had organized its annual trip to serve sandwiches to the needy clients of the Lighthouse Shelter in Annapolis. With money they had raised by selling meals and cookies to fellow School Meeting members throughout the year, they had made thirty lunches, and their youngest, most enthusiastic member was chomping at the bit to go outside the office.  Then the staff member organizing the trip realized that the student had been recently referred to School Meeting and was, therefore,  not allowed to go on field trips. Tempted to stave off his disappointment, my colleague considered writing herself up for violating the “no field trips when referred” policy and taking the consequences in JC ( Judicial Committee) afterwards. The student, all of seven years old, took the setback in stride, tears welling in his eyes, only asking for mint chocolate chip ice cream from their traditional post-service celebration, and here was another lesson in “no” for a Fairhaven School student.

As Megan McArdle wisely spoke about last month on campus, failure, in all its guises, is often the key to learning and success. One of the misconceptions about Fairhaven School is that students “always get to do whatever they want to do.” On the contrary, much like life, a student’s experience here encounters many nos. Every six weeks, we elect clerks for the JC, and we almost always have more candidates than positions. Candidates make speeches to School Meeting, and both staff and students ask honest questions about each person vying for the position. Many times, students who want to become clerks lose elections over and over before finally winning, most memorably one boy who literally took years before finally getting to serve. As is often the case, he became an excellent clerk after all of his unsuccessful bids.

“No” takes many shapes at school: your friends won’t play with you if you are unpleasant. The Diploma Committee will not graduate you if you do not adequately defend your thesis. You will not continue getting paid to clean the school by the Aesthetics Committee if you do not do your job well. You may not be able to join the basketball game if you would make the teams uneven. School Meeting will suspend you if the JC finds that you have violated a serious rule. After the early years of cringing and wanting to shelter students from these and countless other disappointments, I now recognize them as crucially beneficial. No means yes: a failure is an opportunity for growth, as mistakes offset and create achievements.

Talk at school last week centered on our graduation candidate. In an anomaly year with only one student seeking graduation, would he succeed? Two colleagues are serving this year on Diploma Committees at sister schools (Hudson Valley Sudbury School and Sudbury Valley School), and we were discussing the graduation process in the kitchen when the young man joyfully ate his ice cream, leaving a green mustache in the process. After his disappointment, his day had unfolded with many other activities, some successful and some not. Of course, parents enroll their children here also because a Fairhaven School student experiences countless yeses: you can direct the school play; you are elected JC Clerk; you do graduate; you can sit in the waterfall at the stream; you can play Hunters and Prey with your friends; you can do math when you are ready. The list is as lengthy and as varied as the students roaming the campus, and the bottom line is that you can live your life on your terms and assume responsibility for all of it. Nevertheless, the constant possibility and existence of “no” make the remarkable process complete.


Mark McCaig

May, 2014

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This Week at AVS – 5/16/14

Catapult practice Catapult practice Main Room 1 Main Room 2 Art 1 Further work on the James Bach computer Sandbox 1 Main Room 2 Toys 1 How many states have you been to? Main Room 4 Art 2 Toys 2 Main Room 5

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Time For Something Different

For five years, it was a gold-plated shackle strapped to my wrist. Its wall-mounted cousins chirped stridently a dozen times a day.

This is the story of why I stopped wearing a watch.

When I taught in conventional schools, I had to know nearly to the minute, every minute, what time it was. When’s the next bell going to ring? How much time do I have before I have to move on to the next portion of the lesson? How quickly can I wolf down my lunch? Do I have enough time to run by the office or the work room before my next class?

Always some portion of my attention was diverted by this stressful hyper-consciousness of time. Often, just when I was settling into a rhythm that flow would be disrupted by an assembly or a late start or early release.

In her essay “Bells” Martha Hurwitz imagines their rings saying things like, “Are you where you should be now? Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing? Have you done what’s expected of you?” Imagine if your weekdays were sliced into fixed increments; if every 50 minutes or so you had to stop whatever you were doing—presumably, your assigned task for that period—then pack up, walk to another room, and repeat that process half a dozen times.

Perhaps, then, you can appreciate why I’m grateful that Alpine Valley School has a more reasonable sense of time.

It’s not as though we Sudbury types are temporal rebels chafing against the very idea of schedules. Rather, as Daniel Greenberg writes in Free At Last, we recognize two sorts of time, public and private. In his words, “public time at school is as punctual as private time is loose. It’s all a matter of respect.” Classes and meetings start at particular times in order not to waste people’s time. Cleaning chores and Judicial Committee sentences typically have deadlines so that we can coordinate group activity and ensure the fairness of consequences. Similarly, computer access is made fair by requiring people to sign up for set lengths of time.

Meanwhile, “private time” is much more flexible, even timeless, “a measure of the inner rhythm of life in all its complexity.” Respect for private time means that lunch is whenever you’re hungry and, by and large, you move from one activity to another only when you’re ready. Private time allows people to process things; it lets them lose themselves in focused activity; and it gives them time to find themselves as well.

What a marvelous gift it is to grow up with vast expanses of time for exploring, simultaneously learning to align your personal sense of time with a more social version. At Alpine Valley Schools we expect even young students to abide by public time. Often they’ll need reminders or help setting an alarm, but they quickly grasp that this responsibility is theirs, even without frequent bells and the choreography of class periods.

In “Making Good Use of Time,” Greenberg defines the two times by function or purpose. “Creative time” is personal and irregular, while “technological time” aims at efficiently accomplishing concrete tasks. This distinction reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk in which he points out, rather humorously, that nowadays very few young people wear a “single-function device” on their arms. Instead of chopping time into arbitrary bits, as in the industrial schooling model, Robinson advocates a more agricultural approach that allows each individual to grow according to his or her own, inherent timetable.

Speaking of devices, one reason I no longer wear a watch is that, given the omnipresence of electronic gadgets, I can easily learn the time whenever I need; and thank goodness that isn’t very often. Fortunately, along with the students and staff at Alpine Valley School, I’m able to delight in the dance of the two times, adhering to schedules when that’s appropriate and letting my intuition guide me the rest of the time.

Written by Bruce Smith – staff at Alpine Valley School

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This Week at AVS – 5/9/14

Spring is Here! Working Together Control Panel Judicial Committee Working Together First hail storm of the year Playing Outside Main Room Rocking Out James Marcus Bach, author of The Buccaneer Scholar  visited AVS in the fall of 2013. Later, he donated the funds to purchase the parts for this very fancy computer. It was a very satisfying process for all of us to watch this week. Working on the Bach-puter Working on the Bach-puter Working on the Bach-puter Playing Magic Main Room Main Room Computer Time

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Can Lego Help Return Play to Children’s Lives and Education?

I was invited recently to speak at a worldwide conference on play and learning, sponsored by the Lego Foundation. Not surprisingly, I was pleased by some aspects of the conference, displeased by other aspects. Here's why, and here are my thoughts about how the Lego Foundation might make a real, vitally needed difference in the lives of children and families.

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Can Lego Help Return Play to Children’s Lives and Education?

I was invited recently to speak at a worldwide conference on play and learning, sponsored by the Lego Foundation. Not surprisingly, I was pleased by some aspects of the conference, displeased by other aspects. Here's why, and here are my thoughts about how the Lego Foundation might make a real, vitally needed difference in the lives of children and families.

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Can Lego Help Return Play to Children’s Lives and Education?

I was invited recently to speak at a worldwide conference on play and learning, sponsored by the Lego Foundation. Not surprisingly, I was pleased by some aspects of the conference, displeased by other aspects. Here's why, and here are my thoughts about how the Lego Foundation might make a real, vitally needed difference in the lives of children and families.

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