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