Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Justification Labeling

I am so thankful to be starting the first year of Wichita Sudbury School with our amazing families! Coming from a traditional teaching background, I guess I still really believed that once the parents realized I actually wasn't making their children do any traditional "work," they'd pull out of the program. Even though my board had campaigned all year, I still couldn't believe we actually found families willing to try it. It took me these six school days we've been open to honestly trust that they trusted their children (and me, as the adult in the building). I've been sending little snippets of how their kids are doing every other day or so, and the parents have shared my excitement for the little things--their children's growing autonomy, creative problem solving, and expressing the unique character traits that make them individuals. It is beautiful watching the students learn authentically, and I'm delighted I have parents that agree.

But what am I really doing by sharing these small moments? There is such a fine line between what I've been thinking of as "justification labeling" and trust.

When I taught in traditional classrooms, I felt the need to justify everything my students did outside the curriculum. I suppose, to be fair, I WAS hired for the purpose of teaching curriculum, but it was more than that somehow. I felt as though every aspect of play and creativity were under attack. I had this hero fantasy outlook where I was the only adult that afforded children this "luxury" of play in a bad, evil world of adults that didn't understand what children truly needed. I was only able to do so by disguising it under names that parents and administrators took more seriously. Outside play became an opportunity for strengthening muscles and spacial awareness, reading educational magazines became a chance to teach current events and other subjects in an authentic manner, using a flexible seating classroom arrangement increases student engagement and participation, and so forth. For everything I wanted to "give" the students, there had to be a justification ready to present to skeptical adults, both to allow me to continue providing the experience and to make my look like I knew what I was doing. (Of course I was just making it up as I went along, but isn't everyone?)

I did so even as I started getting into the Sudbury culture, which was why I was so taken aback when I visited a Sudbury school for the first time and saw students just... existing. They weren't playing and hanging out under the guise of learning, they just WERE. There was no forced curriculum, but nor was there a hero fantasy of adults providing students with something illicit by tricking the higher ups. Everyone was allowed to just BE. No judgments, no pressure to look further into an activity in order to apply an educational label. It was liberating.

And difficult to fully comprehend. I'm still not completely there yet. I told my students on the first day that just as this is their first experience attending a Sudbury school, it is also my first experience teaching at a Sudbury school. We're all learning together, and we all have power to shape our shared experience.

I just know that without active communication, my anxiety gets the best of me. By keeping an open dialogue with all the parents, I am doing what I can to maintain transparency. It felt awful when I was teaching in traditional schools and didn't have regular communication with parents. It felt like a job. And I'm not trying to create a job for myself here. I'm creating an authentic life. I'm creating authentic relationships with real people. I'm modeling being the best version of myself I can be, and what makes me feel like the best, most honest and transparent version of myself is sharing with parents that I think their children are on the right track. The only way I know how to do so right now is to put my own justification labels on their activities. I know that these labels are shallow and don't take into consideration all the nuances and complexities encompassed by the human experience, but it's what I have right now. It helps me to see that the students and school are succeeding and to share that with others.

Maybe eventually I'll be able to just allow the students to be without the crutch of needing to apply my labels, but for now I'm just thankful I have a wonderful team of people supporting me as we all explore the path to get there. <3

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

WSS: Summer Session 2017

Because Sudbury schools are such a vast departure from "traditional" education, before a student enrolls officially, they typically spend what is called a "visiting week" as sort of a trial period to make sure it's a good fit. As a start-up, we don't have this option yet. On top of that, we're still trying to raise enough money for first month's rent! Thus, to tackle both problems, Wichita Sudbury School is offering summer sessions where a few students can get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere. Our first session was held last week in a board member's back yard.

Honestly, with it being the first school activity with students, with wanting so desperately for it to go well after having worked hard to make it happen, my brain kind of shut off  for a lot of the week. I was afraid of anything going wrong, and to avoid the discomfort, I went on auto-pilot. I auto-piloted my way through a lot of full-time teaching, too, so I wouldn't have to deal with teaching in a method I morally disagreed with, so I'm not concerned that I didn't "do my job." I can even connect with students on auto-pilot, just not to the fullest, most genuine extent I can while being mindfully present. As it turned out, though, and as I was finally able to start seeing on Friday, everything went really well, actually. What follows is some of my processing of the week.

We had four students with us, and I'm still trying to decide how I want to refer to them here. I think I've finally decided on a method that involves their age and gender, even though I dislike using either of those things as distinguishing features for people. It's the easiest for now, though, so it will have to do. Thus, I got to hang out with 4m and 8f (siblings), 10f, and 13f this past week. A few of the other board members also dropped in and out as they were available.

Monday was probably the most difficult, as to be expected with learning a new environment, set of people, and expectations. 4m was not used to staying outside for such an extended period of time, and I had to explain to him multiple times that we were only to be in the house to use the restroom, and then we needed to come right back out because this house belongs to someone else. After the first day, he mostly respected that boundary, though there were other issues of throwing fits, having others do things for him like putting on his own shoes, taking food from others, not respecting boundaries of when others tell him to stop a behavior or action that affects them, etc. Even though he will be 5 by September, that these persisted throughout the week with no discernible effort to change, despite being talked to about it every day, shows me that he's not ready for the school. That's the point of visiting week, after all, so success!

There were other times I felt uncomfortable, and after a couple of days I realized that it was because I was actively supervising the students! These students and their parents signed a waiver reminding them specifically that they wouldn't be supervised constantly. That's not how Sudbury works. They need to be left alone in a safe environment so they can learn from making their own choices and mistakes. After I realized that, I started trying to focus more on doing my own thing, which in this case was reading. It was difficult having everyone in one, large area, though. When I visited a Sudbury school, if a group of students came up to adults with "he said / she said" problems, the adult would send them away with, "You guys need to work this out on your own." The students would go to a different room and solve the problem themselves (or write up a complaint to JC if need be). Being all in one area, I had to pretend to not take any interest in my students' squabbles. Of course I could "solve" all of the problems by dictating what everyone needs to do, as I'm used to doing at traditional schools, but that doesn't give the children any chance to learn how to do it themselves. It doesn't prove to them that they are strong, capable, individuals with the capacity of problem solving. Instead, it teaches them that if they have a problem, they need someone else to solve it for them. So I tried very hard to focus on my book. I'll get better at this as time goes on.

One interesting time when this came up was while the students were playing in the shed, which had a latch that automatically locks from the inside when closed. They called for me to come let them out once, which I was fine with, but when it happened a second time, I decided I wasn't comfortable with them playing in a way that requires them to ask for help. As I walked across the yard, I contemplated what I was going to say. I didn't want to say, "I'm not going to let you out again," because I knew I wouldn't be able to follow through with that. If they got locked in and needed help, of course I would help them. What I finally came up with when I unlocked the shed for the second time was an honest, "I don't want to keep getting up to let you out. I'd like to sit and read my book, so don't keep getting yourselves locked in, alright?" Back at my blanket, I pulled up my book and noticed that the door was immediately shut again. I sighed, but since they weren't calling to me, I didn't head back over. It took them five or ten minutes, but they finally burst triumphantly from captivity. They were so very excited to let me know that they didn't need my help getting out anymore because they had figured out how to trigger the latch from the inside using a stick. "That sounds like some creative problem solving," I smiled.

Another thing we worked on this week was the democratic process. 8f got outvoted several times when the others wanted to walk to the park, and she had to come along with us even though she didn't want to. She came to sit by me a lot when she wasn't getting her way, and I straddled a thin line between discussing the ideology of the school and just being a calm, nonjudgemental body she could sit by when feeling uncertain. I'm still finding my comfort zone with that. It's also difficult for me not to side with the underdog. In politics, we have to stand up for the minority to make sure they have their voices heard. But that's a discussion for another time. 8f made it clear that she didn't want to be at the park, but she didn't present any arguments convincing enough to persuade the majority, so we went to the park. Each time, I made it clear that we were going because the majority wanted to go. Likewise, when on the second day, she started a motion to go to the store to buy ice cream with her own money, I made it clear that those arguments had convinced her friends, and she had the majority on this issue. I wanted her to know that democracy works both ways. We went to get ice cream because SHE made it happen.

Speaking of getting ice cream, that issue came up again on Thursday. All four students wanted to get ice cream, and they had their own money to pay for it again. They just needed me to drive. This time I wasn't so sure. I told them that it wasn't enough to just convince each other, they needed to come up with a way to make it happen. If I'm the one driving, I needed to be convinced, too. I just so happened to have an appointment that afternoon, so I left them, unconvinced, with the other board members. By Friday, they had strengthened their arguments. They reminded me that they had learned how to convince each other, and that learning about democracy was one of the main goals of this week. I agreed that was true, but I told them that I wasn't sure I wanted them spending all of their money on ice cream. 10f told me that it wasn't actually her money. It was given to her by her neighbor specifically FOR ice cream after she had told him about Tuesday's events. Oh really? Now that was a little more persuasive. Before I could respond, she presented her next argument, "And I can use some of it to buy you something. Would you like me to get you something?" I disliked the idea of taking money from children, but I could see that she was putting a lot of effort into coming up with tactics. I complied, drove them to the store, and allowed her to buy me a cherry limeade for $1.25 as compensation. They enjoyed their second ice cream day.

I think I was also successful at modeling effective communication language, as well. This is a separate issue from language in general. It didn't take long for 4m to realize that I wasn't going to scold him for cursing. The Sudbury-esque stance I've seen taken and have adopted myself for that goes something like, "If they are left to play with language as they please, cursing won't seem as powerful as if it were taboo. Let them get it out of their systems and don't pay them any heed." Thus, 4m cursed up a storm. The girls were skeptical. I doubt they'd ever seen an adult take this stance. I explained that he wasn't hurting anyone with his language. If it bothered them, they could move away from him or say something to the effect of, "I don't like that language. Please don't say those things to/around me." My modeling of I-statements caught on quick, and I was happy to see them being used more and more as the week went on, especially by 8f.

Everything culminated in a pool party on Friday afternoon. 10f brought an inflatable pool from her house, and 13f found a shop vac in the cellar with which to blow it up and a hose in the shed with which to fill it. They asked for help retrieving the shop vac because there were boxes on top of it and finding the water spigot because it was hidden under a cold-weather sealer. The rest they solved themselves. (Well, I also recommended 13f find an old shirt for 4m to wear because he didn't bring a swimming suit and wanted to just play in his underwear.) They used the shop vac themselves to blow up the pool. They filled it with water. They even worked together to move the pool into the sun when they realized it was too cold in the shade. I stayed off to the side reading my book. Like the instance with the shed, they knew I was there if they needed anything, but they had the confidence and independence to try it on their own first.

One of the games they played involved the older students picking up the younger ones and throwing them into the pool. I heard it as I read and ruminated on how a supervising adult would probably make them stop because "the little ones will get hurt." After having spent all week together, though, they knew each other well enough to play this way. The maternal instincts of the older girls kicked in and they were careful of how hard they threw the younger kids. There was one point where 4m sat down on the side of the pool and said, "No!" 13f replied, "Come on," and moved to pick him up again, but 10f stopped her. "No, he said, 'No,'" she spoke up. "We have to leave him alone now." 13f complied, and they kept playing until he was ready to join them again. The four of them played until they were finished and then sat out in the sun to air dry in a peaceful, happy daze until it parents started showing up. What a perfect end to a wonderful week of real learning.

What else is there to say? There were epic stick fights, climbing and standing on railings, sliding down the cellar door, eating lunch in the grass, hand turkeys made of construction paper, and plenty of being bored. I'm learning to let the kids have their play and not get too involved myself. They need their time to be kids, and my influence isn't necessary. I'm looking forward to our next summer session. <3

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Book Review: Free to Learn

Free to Learn
Peter Gray
Copyright 2013
235 pages

Taking a break from SVS Press books but still wanting to continue my Sudbury research, I picked up Free to Learn, an examination of what it means to play from an anthropologist (and also father of an SVS student)'s perspective. I'm not sure I really have much to say in review because I completely internalized the entire thing while reading it, enjoying it much more than I expected to. It's an easy read, apparently, as Gray's words leapt off the page and melded themselves immediately into my view of reality.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Free to Learn is the scale from which Gray speaks as an anthropologist. While exploring the world of alternative education, most every bit of literature I come across asks the Why question--"Why is our education system the way it is?" To which the unanimous response reads, "Well, the Industrial Revolution." But Gray, not accepting that as the complete answer, explores further, back to hunter-gatherers, the earliest humans, and plays with concepts he finds there.

In fact, play is exactly what he does, as he, himself, admits. "...I would estimate that my behavior in writing this book is about 80 percent play. That percentage varies from time to time as I go along; it decreases when I worry about deadlines or how critics will evaluate it, and it increases when I'm focused only on the current task of researching or writing. ... I am taking into account not just my sense of freedom about doing it, my enjoyment of the process, and the fact that I'm following rules (about writing) that I accept as my own, but also the fact that a considerable degree of imagination is involved. I'm not making up the facts, but I am making up the way of stringing them together. Furthermore, I am constantly imagining how they will fit into the whole structure I am trying to build, one that does not yet exist as concrete reality." (p. 140, 151) That play through which Gray writes is palpable throughout and makes for an entirely enjoyable experience.

Before reading Free to Learn, I knew, perhaps only through intuition, that play was an important part of learning, just not to this extent. Gray teaches us, through an examination of evolution, that play IS learning and that it is a powerful force, indeed. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


I cannot make children do anything.

I can keep them safe.
I can model behavior and communication.
I can listen.
I can be a sounding board.
I can explain.
I can provide logic.
I can comfort.
I can encourage.
I can love them.

But I cannot make children do anything.


Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago after a particularly difficult day with a 17-month-old I've been babysitting. It went through a series of purposes throughout its creation. First it was merely a reminder to myself in the moment of what I had control over. Then it was a disclaimer for parents of children I teach or have taught in the past and a sort of explanation about Sudbury education. Finally, I realized it was as true for myself as a future parent as it was for other parents. It rings true for all situations, but I may edit it a little more before attaching it to the school.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Books Included in the Sudbury Valley School Starter Kit

Summaries updated as I read them

Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School
by Daniel Greenberg
1987 (1995 reprint), 184 pages
If you are looking for somewhere to start delving in, this is it. I consider this the quintessential Sudbury book. It is the first book published by Sudbury Valley School Press, and covers, in quick, easy language, all of the introductory questions parents have.

The Sudbury Valley School Experience
by various authors
1985 (1987, 1992 reprints), 234 pages
This is the second-most turned to book about Sudbury education. In a series of short articles and vignettes, adults at SVS describe different aspects of school life. It ends with A School for Today, 25-page account of how Sudbury works and why it's perfectly fit for modern times, that would be great to share with parents.

Starting a Sudbury School: A Summary of the Experiences of Fifteen Start-Up Groups
by Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky
1998, 220 pages
Written specifically for potential founders, if the title didn't give that a way, this one is incredibly practical. It guides step-by-step through a lot of nitty-gritty and answers questions I didn't know I had. This is one to keep nearby and check every so often for recommendations on how to go about different situations. 

Legacy of Trust: Life after the Sudbury Valley School Experience
by Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky
1992, 332 pages
The first (SVS Press) study of SVS graduates, 188 individuals that graduated over the span of 21 years after SVS was established. Great to have on hand when speaking with parents who are new to the movement, as it answers such questions as, "Will my child be able to go to college without classes and grades?" It probably isn't something they would want to read in its entirety, but perfect to flip through for a little while. I keep mine highlighted for easy reference.

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni
By Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky, and Jason Lempka
2005, 364 pages
The second study of SVS graduates. I had hoped that it would be better, more informative, and more up to date than Legacy of Trust, but it's just different. It has more anecdotes and direct quotes from graduates, but fewer statistics and findings about them. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Sudbury as a Metaphor for America and Learning to Trust

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." - John F. Kennedy

Welcome, fellow humans, to the year 2017. This is, again, a reminder that social constructs are merely facades of barriers, and if you have a desire to break one down, the only thing stopping you is your own hesitancy.

I am afraid of starting a Sudbury school. It's a fear I keep not in the foreground of daily life, but one continuously simmering on the back burner of my mind.

It's akin to the fear I have of having children.

I know that once I birth this thing, it will no longer be in my control. I will have the illusion of control over it, but it, itself, will be its own, autonomous being. Making my way slowly through the books by Sudbury Valley Press reminds me of that over and over.

To create a platform for the democratic process to exist is to acknowledge the relinquishing of control, giving it, a gift, to the people. At times, that will hurt. It will seem as though it is destroying itself, this thing that was created with such great effort and sacrifice. The people will convince themselves to go in a direction entirely antithetical to what I believe to be right, and there will be no way for me to prevent it from happening. There will be nothing for me to do besides trust. Trust in the system. Trust in humanity.

How apt it is that I'm writing this at the dawn of 2017 when the American people at large are struggling with the same thing.

A friend and I once had the most open-minded discussion of politics I have ever experienced. We realized, together, that he is a libertarian because he trusts humanity, while I am a socialist because I think humanity needs to be protected from itself. It was an eye-opening realization, one I haven't known what to do with since. I felt guilty upon realizing it and tried to take it back at once, but I knew I never could. It was a truth I had learned about myself. It was a truth about myself that I disliked.

I want to be more trusting. I want to trust that there exists enough kindness and love in humanity to overcome the hatred, anger, and fear that keeps presenting itself throughout the world. It will be an ongoing struggle, one that I may fight my entire life. But every time I succeed in this way of thinking is a victory, and it will get easier, one small victory at a time.

I must trust in the children, the future of our planet.

(That is, at least, easier than trusting adults, those who have learned to lie and cheat and think only for themselves. Wait. There I go again. Breathe. Let it go. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Good. Continue.)

When I came back from my first visit to a Sudbury school, I told Joanna that the concept most concerning to me was Judicial Committee. In brief, because it's not my current goal to explain it in its entirety, the students agree on certain rules. If someone (adult or child) breaks a rule, it gets written up as a complaint to a jury of peers who investigate the matter and determine what should be done about it. I told Joanna that I could see it easily being something that I try to enact while everyone else rolls their eyes. Something that I, alone, fight for. Something like nearly everything in the classroom I attempted while I taught high school.

"Then drop it," Joanna replied. If it gets to that point, we don't do it. It is only for them, after all. When they complain that someone keeps doing something they don't like, we remind them that we had a process for what to do when rules were broken. Ask them if they want help setting that system up again or if they want to create something entirely new.

Trust. Trust in the system. Trust in humanity.