Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sticks and Stones and...Support Beams?

What do SVS kids do all day?  Well, yesterday I was shown around a small village of "homes."  Created by sticks, rocks, and leaves; woven together strategically according to one young boy (about 9 years old maybe?). The three buildings of various shapes were almost four feet in height.  They extended several feet back, the longest may have been five feet long.  Inside the kids had created seats made from rocks, and they were collecting "valuable slate."

Alli was intrigued.  Clubs are her new favorite thing, like many children her age.  "Can I join?" she asked one of the boys who was continuing to improve his structure. "Sure," he said, "just come to a council meeting tomorrow."  With a smile Alli asked, "what time?"  "10:00am," the boy answered.

Meetings?  These boys created their own village and were conducting meetings.  Not for the purpose of being exclusive.  He welcomed her willingly to come learn more about what they were creating in the woods on campus.

Any teacher in a public school understands the coordination and effort it seems to take in order to get children to get along and to construct something meaningful.  Here they were, these elementary aged children, creating their own village and their own community of participants in their village.

What did they learn from this experience?

These kids learned about construction.  They learned about base support and angles.  They wove the branches together to improve the strength of their structures.  They explored density.  Most importantly, they learned how to negotiate with each other around their ideas, to collaborate in order to create something together that alone would have seemed impossible.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"I'm Seven, Mom."

Alli's first day of her third year at SVS began yesterday.  She could not wait to get there.  This child who prefers to stay up all night and sleep until noon, rose at the crack of dawn, rushed into my bedroom, and with a grin on her face asked, "Is it time to go yet?"

Backpack in hand filled with her favorite stuffed animals, a gift she had made for her friend, and her very own dollar bill, she told me she was ready to go.  Unlike previous years, she was strikingly independent in her preparation for school.  Her father met us in the parking lot to see her off on her first day back, but she was impatient with us as we snapped our photos.  I turned off the car and started walking with her down the long road to the main building.

"Where are you going?" she asked me.

"I'm walking you into school," I replied assuming she would be overjoyed by this unusual act of hospitality on my part.  She shook her head.

"I'm seven, Mom." She lisped from her new wiggly teeth.

I stood frozen in my tracks.  Just the year before she would have begged me to walk her into the building  claiming she wasn't able to sign herself in, a task which required she locate her name on a list of all students and record the time of her arrival to school.

My heart jumped at this new pang of loss.  We discussed how she would be sure to sign herself into school on this morning, by herself for the very first time.  I went back to my car, watching her lug her bags down the road to the school.  Her confidence astounded me.  The campus seemed to be buzzing around her with possibilities.  Her stride picked up as she saw someone she recognized, and off she went.

Arriving home in the evening she reported to me how she found her name and recorded the time upon her arrival inside the building.  Then she said, "tomorrow I want to wake up at 8:30 so I can get to school earlier, don't forget Mom."  It's going to be a very different school year.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Telling Time

I have two daughters.  Casi is fifteen years old and has attended public school since kindergarten. Alli, well she is an SVS kid...

Today I had to pick up my highschooler early from school.  I arrived at 1:40 pm.  The very pleasant woman behind the counter, the same one who has been greeting me for the past three years sweetly asked me to sign out my daughter in a notebook before I left.  

"These kids don't know how to tell time," she lamented to me as she pointed to the book.  "I watch them as they sign in and out, they look up at the clock then at me, waiting for me to tell them what time it is," she sighs.  

I'm immediately struck by a flurry of images of Alli...telling time.  

"Really?" I ask her.

"Of yah," she goes on, "I guess we are showing our age by knowing how to tell time because they sure can't."

I wonder for a moment.  Why does Alli know how to tell time?  How did she learn to do this?  She wasn't taught how to read a clock.  She never completed any worksheets to practice telling time.  No.  She just learned.  On her own.  

Alli wanted to know how to tell time so she knew when school was starting...and ending.  She wanted to be able to read a clock so she knew how many minutes until her favorite television show came on.  She asked what I meant when I said "quarter after," because she cared to know.  She is fascinated by the difference between "am" and "pm."  She inquires about it all the time...almost every day she says something about the difference between the two, and what the clock says...often many times a day.  Time is meaningful to her at seven years old.

How is it that these teenagers cannot tell time?  They have jobs.  They too go to school, they live by a bell...they live by bells and adults telling them what to do and when to do it.  Alli does not.

Alli makes her own time.  She decides what she wants to do and when she wants to do it, and as such, time is critical.  Days, weeks, hours, and minutes...they all matter to her.  Time is relevant.

Thank you SVS.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"I'll Do it When I'm Ten" - Music at SVS

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
            - Plato 

It was the spring of 2011 and we received in the mail an invitation to a picnic lunch and music show at SVS.  We were eager to see and hear more, and Allison insisted on attending.  "Will you be singing in the show?" I asked her as I listened to her adorable voice booming in the back seat of the car on the way to school one morning.  "I could," she told me, "one of the big kids heard me singing to my ipod and told me I should sing that song about fireflies, but I'm scared, I don't want to."  Then she thought for a moment, "I'll do it when I'm ten," she added certainly.  Okay then, I thought, I'll have to wait. Too bad.

On the day of the picnic I quickly settled down in front of the deck off the music barn.  The students had already begun their talent show.  The crowd of parents and alumni were all smiles that day, and it felt nice to be a part of the larger community of SVS.  Munching on my pasta salad and chicken prepared by the "food corps" I listened and watched something that truly took my breath away...

This boy, about fifteen or sixteen years old.  He played at least three or four different instruments, and sang.  He did not do this in just one band, no, he played in several different bands made up of many different students.  That was when it dawned on me that he was not the only one doing this.  An older teenage girl got up to sing, it was clearly her performance, but behind her was this boy, and several others who had played in many different formations on the stage.  Then two young students, friends of Alli's, about seven years old at the time, got up to sing as well.  The girls sang their song a capella.  The show moved smoothly, students of all ages rotating around the stage, most playing more than just one instrument.  I was awe struck.

I was inspired that day, hopeful about what the future would bring.  Here were these kids, all different age ranges, supporting each other.  I listened to them as they would walk by, discussing their performance on stage.  Their natural dialogue was full of self-critique and surrounded by voices of thoughtful peer support.  I had never seen, or heard, anything like it before.

A year passed and I asked Alli again if she was ready to perform.  "No," she answered me as her singing echoed through the car, "I told you last year, I'll do it when I'm ten." 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"The Teenagers at My School, Don't Use Their Phones All Day"

Alli made an interesting observation recently.  While watching her sister type away on her cell phone in the middle of a movie theater, she turned to me and said "the teenagers at my school don't use their phones all day."  She went on to explain in her typical way of explaining everything she is thinking about in great detail, "sometimes they use their phones to order pizza, or to ask their parents if they can leave campus, but that's it."  She then reminded me, "at my school the older kids can leave campus if they want to."

This mini-conversation, whispered in the movie theater, was fascinating to me.  First, that she even noticed that there was a difference between her sister and her sister's teen-aged friends, and the teens she saw at SVS.  But then I started thinking more about it.  Why was it that the students at SVS were less likely to be on their phones than the teens she was seeing in our home?

Regretfully, I missed the opportunity to ask her, so what do the teens do if they aren't on their phones?...that would have been interesting to hear more about.  If you know what teenagers do at SVS - please post here!

Alli Gets Suspended

It was late fall, Alli had only been attending SVS for a few months when we heard that she had been "brought up" for one of the most serious offenses at her school - walking out on the frozen pond before it was deemed safe to do so.

When a student at SVS makes a mistake by violating one of the school rules, another child who witnesses the error will fill out a form to report it, this is known around the school as "bringing someone up."  When someone is brought up the report is read before a committee of students known as the JC.  Members of the JC are elected students as well as randomly selected students who serve as a jury of peers.  Because of the nature of Alli's mistake and because of her young age (5 years old), she was assigned a staff member to support and guide her through the process.  Her offense was deemed extremely serious because in the worst case scenario it could have literally taken her life, and as such the JC decided her case needed to be presented at Community Meeting before a decision about how to handle it could be made.

As any parent new to SVS would most likely feel, I was terrified.  I was of course upset with Alli for walking on the pond when it was dangerous, but I was also very worried about how she would handle being the focus of such an important meeting.  My experience with public education swirled around in my mind as I tried to make sense of what would happen to her at those meetings and afterwards.  Would she be picked on?  Bullied by other students?  Would she feel hurt or put down for her mistake?  My defenses crept into my mind, she was after all only five years old...who would look out for her?

Unable to be there myself because I was traveling that week, I insisted my husband attend the Community Meeting despite the staff at SVS strongly suggesting that we not do so.  I was so moved by what transpired that my appreciation for the model of schooling at SVS deepened tenfold.

At the Community Meeting, which is open to any and all students who would like to attend, it was voted on and decided that Alli would be suspended for one day from school, and that Alli and her parents must meet with the student leader of the committee and Alli's support staff member before she could return.  They also assigned the most thoughtful consequence I have ever heard in the two decades I have worked in education.  It was explained to us that Alli would not be allowed behind the school where the pond was located until after February's school vacation, which was three months away.  After discussing what had happened the Community of students who attended the meeting that day felt that Alli needed a long enough penalty to ensure that she would never make this mistake again, but also that she needed to be able to get onto the frozen pond with the other students once it was safe and before the winter was over.  The Community was concerned that if Alli was denied the opportunity to skate on the pond with the other students all winter long that she could develop a fear of the pond, and they did  not want that to happen.

I was so amazed by these young students and their careful deliberation.  Any concerns I had about the student run JC, or how mistaken behavior would be handled were washed from my mind that day.  I have known very few adults who would have taken the time and steps to be so reflective. Certainly in the numerous public schools where I have worked no such process would have been followed or even considered.

While my interest in and appreciation for the student body at SVS started on that first visit to the school, my respect for the student body at SVS began that day.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Journey Begins...

In September of 2010, my daughter began attending school at Sudbury Valley in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Alli was five years old.

Sudbury Valley is not at all like public schools.  Some call it a "democratic school," but what that meant exactly was something I had to find out for myself, through sending Alli to attend.  In fact, today as she prepares to enter her third year of schooling in the Sudbury Valley Way, my eyes are still being opened to precisely what that means.  Alli, on the other hand, knows and understands what it means to be an "SVS kid."  She loves it, proudly proclaiming she never wants to leave the school.  In her two years at SVS, there has never been a single day when Alli asked to go anywhere else for school.  During vacations she looks forward to returning, on the weekends she counts the days and sometimes even the hours, minutes, and seconds before she can get back to her school.

At SVS the students run the school.  That's right.  They make all of the decisions about their school.  They manage the budget, make decisions about fund raising and tuition costs, and even hire and the fire staff.  "How do they do it?" I am asked repeatedly by my own peers working in public education, teachers and principals alike.  "It doesn't seem possible for our students to have that kind of responsibility," they say. "Imagine what they would do?" they ask me with a look of horror on their face.  Then, they giggle...nervously perhaps?

I attended public school.  I am a licensed public school teacher and principal.  I have been a leader in "reforming" schools, k-12.  Public education  has been my life and my livelihood.  When I walked onto the campus of SVS for the first time, I was aware; aware of the students, the adults, the environment.

That very first visit to SVS stands out in my mind.  The students, ages 5-18 years old, had organized a cook out.  I am not sure what the occasion was that called for such an event, but I saw them there, on the school lawn, waiting in a line of more than fifty kids all different ages one behind the other.  There were no adults that I could readily see, although I suspect one or two were around somewhere.  The kids were cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on a large grill, a table was set up and some students were working the table passing out food to the others that were lined up before them.  All of the students waited patiently, chatting among each other, the oldest and the youngest spread out within the line.  There they were, the SVS kids. I turned to my husband and said, "look at that," in total awe of what I was observing.  No pushing, no yelling, no "acting out" in any way.  No adults monitoring or telling students what they could and couldn't do.  It was obvious that it wasn't necessary to do so. I stood and watched for a few minutes, taking in the sight with deep appreciation.  This was where my daughter would go to school.