Monday, October 12, 2015

Summerhill School, an Overview and a Short Book Review

Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill, Revised and Expanded, 1996 American edition, edited by Albert Lamb.

Summerhill is wildly popular in the realm of alternative education today, so let's start with a little general information about the school itself before we get into details on the book.

Summerhill was founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921, first in Germany. It soon moved to Austria, again to Dorset, England, and finally ended up in Suffolk, England in 1927, where it's remained ever since. It's a boarding school that houses around between 60 and 100 students (boys and girls) aged 5 to 18. It is known for being one of the first democratic schools, meaning that rules and general functioning (apart from, in this case, human resources and finances) are conducted by a popular vote in which each student and staff member counts as one voice. Lessons are held by about 10 teachers in traditional subjects, such as math, English, and science, and also in non-traditional things, such as gardening, making paper airplanes, and playing chess, though no lessons are compulsory. Play is seen as more important than academics, and students that come from other schools typically spend an entire year or two attending no classes at all. The selling point of this is that when students do decide to attend classes, it is at their own desire, and, with such intrinsic motivation, quickly excel.

The school has survived the death of its founder in 1973, against his own expectations, and is now run by Neill's daughter, Zoe Readhead. She has pulled the school through a number of inspections by the UK's Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills), one of which ended in an order to force compulsory of lessons. The school took the department to court and won a settlement. The whole ordeal must have been an anxious time for the community, and a BBC movie titled Summerhill was based on that event. It seems as though the government has gotten a better sense of how the school functions since then, and has given it space to exist without fear of being shut down. Their 2011 inspection indicates that they recognize the unique benefits Summerhill offers.

Also interesting to note, possibly to no one but me: as of 2011, Ofsted lists day school tuition as roughly £3,000 to £9,000 ($4,500 to $13,000) and boarding tuition as roughly £8,500 to £14,000 ($12,000 to $21,000). I'm assuming this is per term, which is roughly equivalent to an American semester. That's quite a bit, but then again, I've never looked at prices for boarding schools. The day school prices seem a little much, too, though.

As for the book itself, it's necessary read with some context in mind. Again, Summerhill was founded in 1921. Having been up and running strong for almost 100 years, it's no longer the experimental school it once was. It wasn't even really an experimental school when the book was written in 1960. The author, however, is the same man, and he carries with him some characteristics from his age. Reading his words, Neill certainly seems like someone's grandfather.

He certainly has some mannerisms that would be inexcusable in today's educational setting. The most notable is the way he speaks to the students. He claims that he is meeting them on their level and that that this startles them into realizing they don't have to view him as an authority figure. Sure. But literally cursing at the children? At one point, when a new enrollee refuses a cigarette, but Neill is positive that he's a smoker, Neill scolds him, "Take it, damn you." At points, he seems to bicker with the children as though he is one of them. I'm on board with the idea of treating students like you would treat adults, but this is just too far.

Additionally, he seems to show no regard for real laws outside of the school. He mentions fears of being shut down, say, if a student became pregnant at the school, but then clearly demonstrates a disregard for other laws, like indecency, smoking, and age of consent. The school makes rules democratically, but it's interesting how many things come up that I feel would be outside of the realm of consideration legally. No, children, we can't go sunbathing nude, no matter how many of you think we should, because it's against the law. The police will arrest us. Or maybe laws in Britain are different than the US laws I'm familiar with. Or maybe they were different in 1960. Neill fears different things will shut down the school than I would currently would.

And then there's the small point of him coming to education with an interest in psychology and thinking he needs to "cure" his students...

Apart from that, Summerhill School remains radical for positive reasons, even still. The book garnered a lot of attention when it was published, and it seems like it started quite a movement. I devoured my copy, covering it in highlighting, bullet points, and exclamation points. It was a wonderful read, but alas, for some reason I can't bring myself to go into any further detail here. My brain has processed the information and is ready to move on. I'll have to leave you with links to further research instead. More, undoubtedly, when I take up the concept again.

Summerhill's official website
Wikipedia's Summerhill entry
Zoe Readhead - Summerhill--That Dreadful School!
The Guardian article: Summerhill school and the do-as-yer-like kids
The Guardian article: Summerhill School: these days surprisingly strict
The Independent article: Summerhill alumni: 'What we learnt at the school for scandal'
The Independent article: Summerhill: Inside England's most controversial private school
Centre for Self Managed Learning - Report of an Inquiry into Summerhill School

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Dream (School) Reborn

A few years ago, I started thinking about creating a school of my own. Of taking everything I've been learning in my exploration of education and combining it into one beautiful amalgamation of a physical location where children and young adults can grow and thrive. The best pieces of every methodology combined into something wonderful. A place that cultivates 21st century citizens, peaceful, creative, and healthy. A place that is living and changing and growing right along with its students.

Unfortunately, as I began teaching in the "real world," I felt that dream slipping away.

Here's a story I've heard again and again: a curious, playful, life-loving, fun-creating, happiness-filled five-year-old enters school, vivacious and energized, excited because she knows it means learning, something she loves more than anything. And she's told to sit still in a hard, plastic chair for hours. She's told that she mustn't speak unless she raises her hand. That she must follow directions given to her by adults. That she isn't to ask why. Just do it because we tell you to. And slowly but firmly, all of the curiosity and energy and enthusiasm for learning is beaten out of her until she's just like the rest of the students, just another pawn in the game of modern society.

A similar thing happened to me. I, as well, entered school, but as the teacher. I was made to make the students sit still in hard, plastic chairs for hours. I was made to tell the students that they mustn't speak unless they raise their hands. That they must follow the directions I give them. That they aren't to ask why, just do it because I tell them to.

I've been fighting bout after bout of depression and work-related stress. I've tried to tell myself that it's silly, to get over it, because "I have a great job." I've worked in two different schools where I could "create my own curriculum" and design the classroom "however I like." Why should I feel depressed and stressed out about that? I've been able to innovate and try different methods of teaching, throwing out ideas that I couldn't get to work and supplementing them with new ones of my own creation. I've been getting more and more courageous--I'm currently working to design a deskless classroom!

But the thing is, it's still a classroom. It's still all within the structure of the traditional public school.

Since I've started actually teaching, I've been told that this is just the way real teaching really is. I've been surrounded by "educators" that have had their curiosity and energy and enthusiasm for teaching slowly but firmly beaten out of them until they're just like the rest of the teachers, just creating more pawns in the game of modern society.

I let them and everyone else around me kill the dream school idea. It was a silly idea. THIS is what it's like to REALLY be teaching.

And, just like the little girl, I became disillusioned by what everyone else decided was what "school" really meant, what "teaching" really meant.

Like her, I had hopes and dreams of what I could do once I really got to "school," once I really started "teaching," what it would mean and what it would be like.

And like her, I got crushed when I really got there, shoved into a role that wasn't meant for me, broken of spirit.

And yet, I haven't been able to shake this feeling that I'm meant for something else... Something I don't even know about yet... You know that statistic that says some such number of students will one day work in jobs that haven't even been created yet? I haven't been able to shake the thought of that...

This summer, in the midst of beating my head against a wall to develop a curriculum for my third year of teaching, I had to take a break. I had to step away from the nothing I was doing and the persistent screaming in my head. I took a walk and ended up at an elementary school near my house, one that was shut down to ship the students off to a bigger, more factory-like model of school, despite the protest of children and parents who loved the building and the community it housed. I peeked in every window, wondering what it was like, this place so many people once loved and fought so hard in vain to protect. I found myself dreaming of reopening it.

I dreamed all day, though my brain continued its screaming about the impending doom of the Upcoming School Year. I know why. My thoughts took refuge there to escape the actual work I needed to do. I know it was easier to live there in a fantasy-dream world where everything was perfect and happy-fun-times. It was an escape tactic.

But I've kept coming back. It's been three months, and I can't get the thoughts out of my mind.

I just can't fight it anymore--my dream of opening a school has been reborn.

Most of the time, because it happens very frequently, the story of the little girl has a dreary ending--she lives a sad, frustrated childhood and grows up to live much the same as an adult. But sometimes it has a happy ending--the child and her parents find a new, alternative school more fit to her learning style where she can thrive. Her passion is reignited.

I've been doing more research again on alternative schools and education. I've been reading Summerhill School, a book that's been on my To Read list for years. I'm glad I saved it for now because this is a time when it can really empower me. I'm only a little ways into it so far, but I've been as inspired by it as I was my first time through Children Who are Not Yet Peaceful. I've also been researching other democratic schools, including Sudbury. I have so much to learn and to think about and to explore. I have so much to write. So much to do! Like the little girl with the happy ending of the story, my passion has been reignited.

And that statistic I keep thinking about, with the students that will work in jobs that have yet to be invented? I think it does apply to me, after all, and my job hasn't been created yet because I haven't created it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book Review: Becoming a Critical Thinker

Every once in a while, the half-priced bookstore near my house has some incredible things. I was convinced I had stumbled upon one when I found the 4th edition of Houghton Mifflin's Becoming a Critical Thinker by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. I was very excited to plan a curriculum around this textbook, and I was already trying to decide if I should just photocopy pages as handouts or try to go the legitimate (-ly difficult?) route of trying to convince my school to order them.

Unfortunately, I dropped all such plans after my initial skim of the book.

Already in the 14 years since this 4th edition was published, some of the material and pictures have become very dated. 

Take an argument from page 83, "TV and movie apologists are forever telling us that we have no business criticizing them because they are only holding a mirror up to reality. ... It would be more accurate to say that the media hold a magnifying glass to carefully selected realities--namely, the most outrageous and sensational events of the day, such as O. J. Simpson's trial, Princess Diana's tragic death, and President Clinton's sexual activities and alleged obstruction of justice among them."

Or examples on page 75 of helpful search engines: "Many of these sources and innumerable others are available on the Internet (sic). Here are a few especially helpful websites:,,"

I went to find some updated versions online and discovered that they're already up to the 8th edition. Unfortunately, they're a bit pricey. Amazon currently lists new copies for $73 and used copies for $47. That's significantly more than the $4 I paid for my older edition at the half-priced bookstore.

But other than that, I still don't think that this would be the best option, at least for my current high schoolers. There are many controversial topics up for debate in my edition, including pornography, alcohol consumption, marijuana use, abortion, and prostitution. While these are excellent topics for debate, I definitely don't think I could encourage my current group of students to approach them with the seriousness they require. This is a college textbook, after all. I can think hypothetically all I want, but that doesn't change the reality of the situation.

And even more importantly, I don't think I could realistically get my students to understand some of the content. At least not cover to cover, in the manner they've laid out. I'd definitely need to simplify some of the text and add supplemental materials for comprehension. One example of this comes right at the beginning of the book on page 6, "Given the popularity of the false notion that truth is personal and subjective, you may have to remind yourself now and then that truth is impersonal and objective." I have a few students that would read that passage, even within the context of the rest of the chapter, and then look up at me with eyes glazed over in incomprehension. Unfortunately. (But at least I know my students enough to predict that!)

There are some good sections that I'm thinking of using, however. Chapter 5 is titled "Recognizing Errors in Thinking," and uses nice categorization and language. Chapter 6, too, gives some exercises in "Applying Critical Thinking," including analyzing commercials, print advertising, and television programming. If I use anything in my classroom this year, it should be those.

Overall, definitely not a bad textbook. I'm sure the right teacher could make an excellent college class out of it, and I think I may invest in a more current edition in the future to use with the right group of students. (Although I KNOW that the more I think something's not appropriate for particular students, the more they actually NEED it. I know.

For future reference, here's a sample of 7th ed. Chapter 1, and here's a link for the pdf version of the entirety of the 7th ed.