Pinball Without the Glass

I recently experienced something that helped me appreciate once again what it’s like to be a parent at this school—how tempting it can sometimes be to jump in, not realizing that what seems perfectly harmless can have significant effects.

A friend of mine showed me his vintage pinball machine. I played (and sucked), and right away I had the desire to know what it’s like under the glass. The competitive part of the game has never interested me, but I’ve always found the magic of the machinery very intriguing. The glass separated me from something I wanted to know and be part of. What would it be like to bounce from one bumper to another? How about going through this shoot or that spinny thing? What makes the bumpers click and propel balls away?

Then something unexpected happened: my friend removed the glass. All of a sudden I could touch, interact with, and really examine the bumpers. Below the table are all the mechanisms, the circuit boards, solenoids, lights, wires, etc., all working together to make a magical experience for me, the player.

When my son started playing a game with the glass off, my desire to fiddle was instantaneous. I reached in and flicked this lever…that bumper…this door…that sensor. It seemed innocent enough, but then I grabbed the pinball itself, exclaiming, “God mode!” (a poor attempt at relating to my gamer son, who would know that “god mode” is when a player is invincible).

My interventions seemed harmless at first—in fact, they jacked his scores way up! But the magic was over. I had crossed a line and my son’s playing was altered, to his irritation. This reminds me of when my son has reflected on growing up at school with his dad, and how he wished he’d had what he calls a “pure” Sudbury experience (that is to say, without his dad always around). Even as an elected staff member, my mere presence affected him in ways he saw as inhibiting.

Young people at schools like ours are living their lives in “forge mode” (to use another gamer term), creating their world on a daily basis. Playing pinball with the glass on is like Alpine Valley School: there is a magic there, one that we adults want to observe and experience. However, as soon as you remove that transparent barrier, you risk the inevitability of “god mode.” As hard as it can be, it’s so important to keep that glass in place and trust in the magic we see happening beneath the surface.

A Family of Apprentices

For nearly twenty years I’ve been striving to articulate why Sudbury schooling appeals so powerfully to me. Why, after all this time, does it remain so difficult to explain? One answer is that Sudbury represents a new paradigm, and communicating across paradigm gaps is elusive and frustrating, when not actually impossible.

But it isn’t impossible, and some of the best bridges to understanding are the individual stories of alumni and their families. The more of these you take in, the harder it is to deny the incredible growth and transformation we almost take for granted at Alpine Valley School, so I strongly recommend books and videos like those linked here.

Underlying these personal stories are some common, fundamental dynamics, and it’s these I want to explore today. Very recently I made a connection between an attitude of many Alpine Valley School students and a form of learning far older than organized schooling. Briefly, I believe the Sudbury Model draws much of its power from the fact that our schools are families in which young people apprentice to become adults.

I’ve often described Alpine Valley School as an extended family, comparable to the church community where I grew up, where the adults were like surplus aunts, uncles, and grandparents, the other kids extra siblings and cousins. Indeed, our school is so close-knit we know each other sometimes a little too well, enough to get on each other’s nerves—but also enough to support each other, to feel a connection that runs far deeper than likes and dislikes. Here young people learn they’re part of something bigger, that they have to (and can) find a way to be who they are in community with others.

This is absolutely crucial, in a Maslow’s Hierarchy sort of way. When people feel connected and supported, a valued part of a community, they’re far more likely to learn whatever they need, to take responsibility and to grow into mature, confident, and capable adults. I keep coming back to the story of one of our older students who, in telling her peers it was time to return from a trip, said “we have to go home”—not school, home. Think about that for a second: Alpine Valley School students feel so secure that at a subconscious level the school is like a second home to them.

There is so much more to this than creating an environment where kids feel safe. It is vital, yes, that young people have access to family-like peers and adults to broaden their horizons and help them learn, people they can turn to when life becomes unsettling or overwhelming. But what’s truly central is the age-mixing and respect that drives this: that’s what enables Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley to offer what is, essentially, an apprenticeship for responsible, effective adulthood.

Now, I know the analogy of an apprentice has some holes when it comes to Sudbury schooling. For example, staff members are not “masters” in the sense of having authority and putting their young charges through the paces of menial, repetitive tasks. But staff do serve as models of adulthood, and students do learn from us various ways of being in the world and getting things done. (They learn not only from staff, of course, but the power of the staff-student relationship is considerable, given that these relationships have time and space to grow solid roots.)

So the key difference between Alpine Valley School and a conventional apprenticeship is the power the students hold. For one thing, they hire staff and have the same rights in the daily running of the school. This means students can take on real responsibilities for school management as they are willing and able. And we do rely on them, very much so: students play valuable roles in running things like the chore system and the Judicial Committee. This isn’t mere leadership training: a thriving school needs students to grow into responsibilities like these.

And that’s why the apprenticeship model works as an analogy for the deep, lasting learning at Alpine Valley School: our young people learn gradually, over a long period, what it takes to build, maintain, and hold their own in a human community. These lessons aren’t carefully scheduled and managed simulations, but instead emerge from the fabric of daily life itself. And when they’re done being apprentices, many AVS students choose to prepare a sort of masterpiece—which is to say, our thesis or graduation process—by which they demonstrate their readiness for the unique demands of adulthood (though our seal of approval hardly makes a difference, given their deep training and confidence).

That’s my current best explanation for the power of Sudbury schooling: we offer young people a second family in which they master, via a long apprenticeship, the skills and traits of highly effective adults. They figure out how to make their own way in the world, how to find happiness and success, by growing up in a close-knit, supportive community; not necessarily in classes, but more so in a thousand small (and not-so-small) lessons. It’s a unique blend of freedom and respect, on the one hand, and a vibrant, day-to-day community on the other: that’s the power, so hard to explain, of a family of apprentices.


Minimizing Guilt and Shame

After participating in a recent Judicial Committee (JC) meeting, I reflected on how the process helps minimize feelings of guilt and shame, even when the person written up admits he broke a rule and receives a sentence. I think this stems partly from the fact that the JC, which decides whether to bring charges in a case, is made up of one staff member and three students, so a student’s peers form the majority of the panel that investigates and makes the final decision. This creates a safe environment, and the student comes to understand he has a voice and his side of the story will be heard.

In my mind, the more important (but not so obvious) reason there is less guilt and shame is because the JC’s decisions are based on the behavior of the person and not the person herself. This eliminates an authority figure who pronounces a student guilty of a transgression, with the underlying message that she is a bad person, a disappointment, and/or somehow inadequate. At AVS, and during JC in particular, a student is encouraged to advocate for herself and share what happened. She comes to realize that everyone makes mistakes, but those mistakes don’t define her; instead, they offer the opportunity to change. JC’s purpose is not just telling someone she made a mistake but letting her come to her own realization that her behavior is not serving her and choose to behave differently. This is not necessarily a comfortable process, but with support and a sense of belonging and connection to the community, it does happen.

Our graduates have said it was this familial sense of belonging at AVS that allowed them to really look at who they were and who they wanted to be. It gave them the courage and tenacity to feel vulnerable, face the consequences of their choices, and subsequently learn to navigate their lives in the larger community with courage and connection.

One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, has dealt extensively with shame and guilt and their impact on our well-being. She writes that vulnerability is a key ingredient to overcoming shame and daring greatly in life. Here is one of my favorite quotes about vulnerability:

As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. We put on armor; we used our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection—to be the person whom we long to be—we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.

Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

At Alpine Valley School we provide a place where students feel connected and safe to be themselves, where they have a sense of belonging to a supportive community as they walk through the vulnerable times of growing up and becoming responsible adults. If you have a child or know of a child who might benefit from such an environment, please contact us to find out more.

Not-So-Hidden Curricula

Wikipedia calls it “a side effect of education,” lessons “learned but not openly intended.” The Glossary of Education Reform cites “unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives,” the unspoken messages communicated to students.

I’m referring of course to the term hidden curriculum—which seems a glaring misnomer, as I don’t believe anyone could deny that it’s “hidden” in plain sight. When it comes to school, the so-called hidden curriculum contains the rules of the game: it’s how things work in reality, as opposed to theory; whatever is said aloud, this is how things are done.

Indeed, the hidden curriculum is the clearest indicator of what a given school values most.  And even a quick glance at the “unspoken messages communicated to students” in conventional and Sudbury schools reveals starkly different sets of assumptions and priorities.

What are some of the “unintended lessons” students receive in conventional schools? Here are the messages I recall from my years as a student and teacher in that system:

  • You can’t be trusted to take charge of your own learning: you’re not ready for, or capable of, autonomy.
  • You have to wait until you’re older and out of school to gain control over how you spend your waking hours.
  • You can’t learn what you need to know without adults (chosen for you) telling you what to do and when, then rewarding you (or not) for how well they think you’re doing.
  • You’re too immature to be given responsibility or allowed to help manage your learning environment.
  • Learning is most effective when it’s conducted in groups; led and closely managed by experts; and focused on discrete fields of content.

In contrast, at Alpine Valley School (and others following the Sudbury Model), young people absorb very different messages:

  • No one is in a better position than you to know what, when, and how you should learn or what constitutes a good use of your time.
  • It’s your life: what becomes of it—starting right now—is up to you. You just need to take initiative, ask for any help needed, and follow through in order to make things happen.Your voice matters every bit as much as anyone else’s, regardless of age.
  • You are expected to make responsible decisions, and capable of handling the results of all your choices.
  • The most effective learning is found in real life, not situations removed from life.

I said earlier that the “hidden” curriculum really isn’t—but this is spectacularly so at Alpine Valley School. Far from being unofficial or unspoken, the messages in that second set of bullet points are stated explicitly, and often, in both our official materials and in daily conversations. Rather than “can’t, can’t, can’t,” AVS students are told that they can—provided, of course, that they want to; that they’re willing to work at it; and that they do so in ways that respect others.

Whether our children hear more distrustful or empowering messages throughout their years of schooling profoundly influences how they come to view the world and themselves. Consider which of these not-so-hidden curricula you want for the children you know and love, which one’s more likely to prepare them for lives of happiness and success.




Can I Help?

A few days ago I was catching up with a former Alpine Valley School staff member named Martha. We were reminiscing about my time as a student and all of the different activities that I was part of. I reminded her about one particular memory which may not seem like much to other people, but it really meant a lot to me.

Martha was putting together a schedule of working hours for the other staff. She was sitting at one of the tables in the Main Room and working out all of the various logistics when I came up, a student of fourteen, and asked if I could help. “Sure,” she said, inviting me to take a seat. Together we worked out this word problem: “If Bruce works from nine till five and Larry works from eight till four, how many additional staff members do we need to cover the remaining hours?” It was the first time I remember having fun with numbers, and I think that was largely because we were solving a real-world problem and not some abstract quandary involving trains.

After we had worked out an appropriate schedule we started color-coding all the different staff’s time blocks so that they were easily visible from a distance (it’s worth noting that this was before computers were heavily utilized at school—and yes, I am that old). I don’t know what brand of markers we were using for the job, but they had names like “brushfire” and “meadow.” We made a game out of it, giving each staff member a nickname corresponding to their marker color, which left us with monikers like Sunkist Connie and Moonbeam Bruce. By the time we finished, we were both in tears from laughing so hard.

This moment sticks out in my memory for a couple of reasons: above all, it was the first time an adult (other than my parents) had treated me like a contributing member of a team. Martha acted like I knew what I was doing; she didn’t talk down to me or try to use the experience as a “teachable moment.” She treated me like a competent individual and I rose to the occasion. I contributed to this small project in a meaningful way and actually had fun while I was doing it—an experience without precedent in my young life.

This experience also kicked off a higher level of involvement in the school community for me. I started using those three magical words more and more often, asking everyone, “Can I help?” And every time I was able to contribute I not only learned some fraction of a useful skill, I learned that I was capable and that my help was valuable. Those lessons have stuck with me to this day, and I strive to follow the example that Martha and the other staff members set for me in my youth now that I’m a staff member here myself. There’s nothing like being empowered, and I’m so glad that students at Alpine Valley School have the opportunity to experience that feeling every single day.

Missa circa 2000

Missa circa 2000