Archive for December, 2014

Why Sudbury Kids Rock: an SVS Alum Visits AVS, Part One

About six weeks ago we were pleased to spend a day hosting Mariel Meltzer, a graduate of Sudbury Valley School currently living in Denver. When Mariel followed up with posts to her personal blog,* we were even more pleased. Many thanks to Mariel for visiting and for allowing us to reprint an abridged version of her thoughts on visiting Alpine Valley School.

I recently visited a school in Colorado based on SVS called Alpine Valley School. It was an incredible experience and reminded me of everything I love about the Sudbury model. When I got off the bus I found myself in a residential neighborhood and thought, “How am I going to figure out which one’s the school?” I then saw what looked like an old church, with a swing set (which seemed like a promising sign). As I got closer I knew I was at a Sudbury school. How? There were kids on the roof. One of them yelled, “Hey, it’s a person,” so I’m standing there on the ground, peering up into the sky, having a casual conversation with a staff member and several kids on a roof. I remember as an SVS kid, when someone new walks into the building everyone will stare—not in a rude way, but in a small community, new-people-are-exciting way. I’d size them up, wondering what their story was and what they would bring to the community. So to be on the receiving end of the scrutiny was certainly interesting, but not in a bad way!

When I go visit other Sudbury schools, I try not to compare it to SVS, but I couldn’t help noticing how familiar it all felt. I’m 3,000 miles away from home, in a totally different community, but there are still piles of kids with their gameboys on a couch, several grouped around a table talking, a couple working in the kitchen, some sitting quietly with a book, a pack of small kids causing chaos, and the staff sitting peacefully amongst it all. They’ve got a pretty fantastic space: it’s a converted church, and they’ve actually got some space for a swing set and outdoor shenanigans.

I was paired up with a student who asked me what I wanted to do or see. I love that, because it’s such an SVS question. It is something I heard a lot throughout my time at SVS: “What do you want to do?” And I like it because it emphasizes me, what do I want? I think it is the first of several things I credit to becoming a successful adult in such an unorthodox environment. I learned from an early age to analyze my own wants and needs, instead of having them analyzed by an adult. “What do you want to do?” is a hard question, and I admit to sometimes still being like, “I want to be four and have my mom choose for me.” But I am capable of thinking and choosing for myself, even if it’s a tough process. So at Alpine Valley I chose to talk to people, because for me that’s the amazing part of going to any Sudbury school.

The conversation found its way to graduates, and one of the staff mentioned that Sudbury schools are like an episode of South Park where the bad guys are collecting socks, and when someone asked them what they were going to do with all those socks the villains showed a business plan that said “collect socks,” followed by a big question mark and then the word “profit!” This staff remarked that that’s almost what Sudbury must seem like to many, because if you ask anyone how the Sudbury model takes kids, gives them freedom, and consistently turns out functional adults, they will shrug. We don’t know 100% what we’re doing. But it works. SVS doesn’t document and record their kids’ SAT scores, but many of us take the SAT. And many of us go onto college and do incredibly well. But SVS has no way to prove it, so you just have to trust in the system.

I think about the kids I graduated with, and what I’m doing compared to my two best friends. One went to college to study music and doesn’t give a flying whit about her grades because she didn’t go for the grades. Another is a remarkably dedicated pre-med student. And then there’s me, the artist who has been alternating between college and traveling and working. Three incredibly different paths, yet I’d say we’re all remarkably successful because success isn’t one size fits all. Success is so personalized, and SVS allows us to find that personalized success. But how do you document success when it is not one size fits all? And how do you document the life experiences that contribute to that success? Because that’s what I think makes SVS students so successful, is our experiences. But how do you attribute certain experiences to certain wisdom? I can’t pin down the moment I learned to cook; it was a gradual process. But I do remember when I learned to balance a checkbook: in JC, after I had overdrawn my discretionary account for the fifth time and a staff member sat me down for a lesson on finance management. Almost eight years later I’ve not forgotten that lesson and have never once overdrawn my  checking account.

Later that morning I sat in on JC, which is obviously different in a small school. Students only serve a week at a time, and although they elect teams of clerks, only one clerk serves each day. They have a wooden church pew left over from when the building was a church, so that’s where I sat. The JC sits at a table facing the pew, and I actually felt like I was in a courthouse. It was awesome—I loved it.

JC let out just before School Meeting, so that I had time to eat lunch and talk to more people. One of my favorite things about Sudbury communities is that you can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything, and have it be completely normal. If you were to walk into the cafe at my college and ask to sit with someone, they’d look at you like you were crazy. So at Alpine Valley, to sit amongst so many people and eat lunch, to listen to the many conversations happening, to have the freedom to participate in any conversation—that sense of freedom and togetherness is incredible. I’m using the word incredible a lot, but I challenge you to find me a better synonym for a Sudbury experience.

to be continued…

Note: Viewpoints expressed on all external links are those of the individuals involved in those sites and do not necessarily reflect those of Alpine Valley School or its students, staff, and families.

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Coming Back

(This post is written by Zoe Woodbridge, Fairhaven School class of 2009 and current substitute. Enjoy!)

Coming Back

Over the years, there have been many things I have come back to: places, relationships, poems. Fairhaven has always been and will be one of those places I come back to. Though I’ve accomplished a lot away from Fairhaven, I continue to think of it as my jumping off point for finding my place and voice in the world.

After graduating from Fairhaven, I attended Washington College in Chestertown, MD. I studied sociology and creative writing, among other things. I had no problem transitioning into the grading system of college, though I had also gone to public school through 9th grade. At Fairhaven, I had considered myself a leader by being a JC clerk several times and School Meeting Chair two years in a row, along with being involved in different corporations such as Music Corp and Theater Corp. It was partly because of this that I felt comfortable becoming president of the Dance Club at Washington College, as well as a Peer Mentor for incoming freshmen.

In my experience working with people and taking sociology classes, I became very interested in social work. After graduating, I decided to move to Massachusetts and pursue a job in the field. I ended up getting a job working with a non-profit company, doing outreach work with children and families. This experience solidified my decision to stay in the social work field. Even at Fairhaven, I knew I loved working with younger children and adolescents and that I wanted to have a career involving this in some capacity.

After a year of living in Massachusetts, I decided to come back home to Maryland. On a whim, I decided to email Mark and ask if they were looking for any substitute staff. Luckily, they were, and I’ve been subbing since November. Mark calls working at Fairhaven “the impossible job.” And truly, I can’t imagine working here unless I had also gone to school here. “It takes one to know one” as they say, and it takes a Fairhavener to understand the workings and quirks of Fairhaven.

My first day subbing, I helped two younger ones with an art project, learned a new card game, attended a Theater Corp meeting, and caught up with students from when I was a student (who are now taller than me), all in one day. It’s a strange thing to see kids who used to sit on my lap now preparing for graduation, applying to colleges, and driving their own cars. It makes me feel old, but proud of them.

I’m still fascinated with the Judicial Committee process after all these years. I’d almost forgotten how to write someone up, but I had to because of a mess she’d made. In JC, I was surprised at how quickly she pleaded “Guilty!” and proceeded to suggest a sentence of “must clean up mess immediately, and three days restricted from the art room.” I looked incredulously at this five year old, already taking accountability for her actions at such a young age and able to admit that she had broken a rule. I couldn’t help but think that this wouldn’t have happened at a “regular school.” After subbing at one, I can tell you that I enjoy subbing at Fairhaven much better. I was actually able to help this student clean up her mess, and she felt so proud of herself for the work she had done. I told her she was great at cleaning, she just needed a little practice. It was one of those “teachable moments” I’ve heard about but rarely experienced as an adult.

One of my favorite things about coming back to Fairhaven is the woods. On one day when I wasn’t sure what to do, I asked Becka, fellow staff member, if she had any suggestions. She said she had been meaning to sweep the steps down to the woods if I felt like doing that. I took the chance to put on an orange vest and venture into the woods on such a gorgeous fall day. There was a fresh batch of leaves that had fallen on top of already decaying leaves on the steps, so I took my time sweeping while enjoying the quietness of the woods. After sweeping, I took the liberty of walking the path through the woods to the tire swing. I’ve heard the phrases “flooded with memories” and “sensory overload” before, but nothing like when I started walking into the woods. I remembered when I would come here to write, or have a picnic, or just get away from everyone after running a stressful school meeting. Having a place like that to come back to is priceless.

So for now, I’m working at Fairhaven and providing childcare while still applying to jobs in the social work field. Working with children with mental health diagnoses has become my passion and I hope to someday be a therapist or school counselor. I’ve applied early decision to the University of Maryland School of Social Work for Fall 2015 and hope to continue my education there. Because of Fairhaven, I value education more than I did when I was in public school. I believe that we continue to educate ourselves, whether in a formal classroom setting or by talking with friends, throughout our whole lives. Places like Fairhaven help to foster both forms of education, along with many others. Honestly, I don’t know what I or my family would’ve done without it.

I have to confess, I did swing on the tire swing that day. I pushed it up to the top of the hill and jumped onto it without falling off and closed my eyes. And for a few seconds I was a student at Fairhaven again. After all, it is one of my favorite places to come back to.

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This Week at AVS 12/15/2014

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Unsought Learning

The Sudbury literature is full of assertions like the following: “Here, young people learn only what they choose to learn, what they’re most passionate about.” On the one hand, this is certainly true, in that no one imposes—directly or subtly—the expectation that our students should study particular things at particular times. Yet this “learn what you want” principle could lead one to conclude that students at Alpine Valley School have it easy, that they’re enabled in avoiding life’s hard lessons or confronting things they find unpleasant.

As they say, nothing could be further from the truth.

AVS students own a unique and full responsibility for ensuring their lives are, or become, what they want. Indeed, what more awesome responsibility can young people have than setting their own goals and then deciding for themselves what has to happen if they’re to achieve them? Within a supportive and respectful school community, they know that, ultimately, their happiness and success—as well as whether they’re making adequate progress toward those ends—are up to them. And they learn early and often that in order to get what you want, you have to do plenty of things you’d rather not.

How does this work? Unlike most places, at Alpine Valley School students make important decisions all the time. They don’t have their days scheduled down to the minute, with adults entertaining or distracting them, nor are they given empty promises and guarantees (Do what we tell you, and everything will turn out okay. Study these things, perform well on those tests, and life will be good). On the contrary: at Alpine Valley School, students have to grapple with the daunting realities of boredom and uncertainty; they have to judge for themselves what constitutes a good use of their time. And if there’s something they don’t like, they’re expected to take the initiative in doing something about it.

I can’t imagine this is always so enjoyable. After all, blaming others can be so satisfying—you get to complain, but you’re off the hook for doing anything about it; you don’t have to accept responsibility for your confusion, dissatisfaction, or mistakes. While being told what to do and how may be irritating, it’s certainly easier than having to make your own decisions. On the other hand, learning how to set goals and get things done, how to sort through infinite possibilities and chart a course for yourself—and on top of that, deciding how well you’re doing—these things are really, really hard! And so the term “unsought learning” occurred to me recently as a way to describe this important backdrop to pursuing one’s passions.

For example, I don’t believe many students who get attendance fines for not signing in; who are charged and sentenced for leaving things out; or who are caught in an intense, angry argument would say that they sought out these learning opportunities. I doubt they’d happily proclaim that their passion involves being held accountable or having cherished beliefs challenged. (Imagine a student in the throes of boredom proclaim, “This is exactly what I want to be learning right now!”) In my experience, though, unsought learning is just as much a part of a Sudbury education as spending hours plumbing the depths of the subjects nearest and dearest to one’s heart.

More importantly, it’s also a very authentic kind of difficulty. I think we can all agree that growing up (really, life) is full of challenges, and that the role of school is, to a large degree, to support students as they prepare to meet these challenges. Yet in most schools, most challenges that students encounter are either artificial or imposed—or downright unnecessary. Too many people seem to confuse inflicting unpleasant things on students with preparing them for life’s difficulties.

Authentic struggles, on the other hand, emerge out of the fabric of daily life, from the difficulties of the unknown as well as life in a community full of personalities and standards different from, even inconsistent with, your own. But these are the relevant, meaningful struggles; these are the ones that most frequently result in the sort of learning that sticks with you and helps you achieve your dreams.

Whether it’s discovering that your chosen career requires you to confront your math anxiety;  learning that you can, in fact, speak up for yourself; figuring out how to defuse tense situations; or learning how to let go of a pursuit or a connection that’s no longer working for you—just to cite a few examples—Alpine Valley School students learn the things that matter most. Some of these they seek, while others seek them. In the end, this combination of freedom, trust, and responsibility enables people to find their way to some very powerful learning and growth.

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This Week at AVS 12/8/2014

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Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Nearly eighteen years at Sudbury schools has, for me, removed any trace of doubt that this model facilitates the most powerful, transformative learning. Yet explaining why and how this is so remains a bit of a challenge. Somehow, by letting kids do whatever they want—in mixed-age communities driven by respect and responsibility, where everyone has an equal say—they grow up as incredibly mature, self-directed, self-assured, and otherwise capable young adults. But how?

I’ve found a couple different things especially helpful in reinforcing my firsthand observations of places like Alpine Valley School. First and foremost, half a century’s worth of alumni represent vibrant, living proof of this model. (I highly recommend the many videos and books documenting alumni experiences, some of which are linked from this page.) Second, a growing body of evidence independent of the Sudbury experience also supports the principles on which our schools rest. Prominent in this realm is the work of people like Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy (Peter spoke at Alpine Valley School in 2014; we’re pleased to be hosting Lenore this coming May).

It’s in this context that, watching an RSA Animate talk by Daniel Pink, I was shocked by how well his argument meshes with what Sudbury supporters have been saying for decades.

The author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink has studied findings in psychology and economics, as well as practices in the business world, and identifies three factors as particularly conducive to performance and personal satisfaction:

  • autonomy, which he defines as “our desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives”;
  • mastery, or “our urge to get better at stuff”; and
  • purpose, the drive to contribute to making something better.

Pink zeroes in on autonomy, mastery, and purpose about five minutes into this eleven-minute talk (illustrated by animated notes and sketches that really bring Pink’s words to life).

As I said, what struck me was how amazingly consistent his argument is with the Sudbury Model: people of all ages prefer choosing their own activities, and tend to choose things because they’re fun, because they’re challenging, and because they help make a difference. Perhaps most importantly, this is only possible when people are given sufficient respect. In Pink’s words:

The science shows that we care about mastery very, very deeply, and it shows that we want to be self-directed. I think the big takeaway here is that if we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they’re simply horses—you know, slower, smaller, better-smelling horses—if we get past this ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science, I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off.

Conventional thinking assumes that children are more or less incapable of directing their own learning—a view that, while prevalent, flies in the face of what Daniel Pink has found. In contrast, Alpine Valley School and similar schools tell our students, “You probably want to do something interesting. Let me get outta your way.” That’s why letting young people control their time and activities in democratic, mixed-age communities leads to incredible results: because it’s consistent with how we’ve evolved as a species, and because it fosters the qualities we most need going forward.

How can we maximize learning? By respecting individuals, by letting their innate curiosity and intense drive to explore and master things do its job. As Sir Ken Robinson and James Marcus Bach have both argued, human development is incompatible with industrial, assembly-line thinking. A far more accurate and helpful metaphor comes from traditional agriculture, where success follows from supporting natural growth processes without attempting to control them.

Under these conditions, children will throw themselves fiercely and happily into the very sort of playful challenges that enhance both their lives and the world as a whole. But it all depends on our choosing and sticking with the fundamental resolve to respect them and trust their natural drives toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose.




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This Week at AVS 12/5/2014

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Sonnet to a Playful God

One of my secret pleasures (well, it was secret up until now) is writing sonnets. I love to play within the boundaries of the classic Shakespearian sonnet. Here's one I wrote about the value of play.

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Sonnet to a Playful God

One of my secret pleasures (well, it was secret up until now) is writing sonnets. I love to play within the boundaries of the classic Shakespearian sonnet. Here's one I wrote about the value of play.

Comments off

Sonnet to a Playful God

One of my secret pleasures (well, it was secret up until now) is writing sonnets. I love to play within the boundaries of the classic Shakespearian sonnet. Here's one I wrote about the value of play.

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