Freedom Fighters

As a staff member at Alpine Valley School sometimes I find it challenging to explain to other people what I do for a living. I’ll meet someone at a party and be stymied by small talk, unable to put my job into the concise phrases others expect. A few weeks ago I met a woman who asked me what I did for a living, and rather than dodge the question or give her a half-truth (“I’m an administrator”) I went ahead and dove into the full-fledged explanation (“So, I work at this democratic school where kids get to choose everything they want to do all day, etc.). Afterwards I confessed my difficulty summing up what I do for a living, and she said, “Oh, that’s easy. Just tell people you’re a freedom fighter.”

And of course, that is what all staff members at all Sudbury schools are: freedom fighters. We advocate for a group so sorely underrepresented that the notion of their independence isn’t even considered—I’m referring, of course, to young people.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I am proud to work hard in service of Alpine Valley School, and in doing so I am proud to work with each and every staff member, many of whom I’ve known more than half my life (one of them significantly longer than that). I grew up here with the staff members as my models of effective adulthood—fair, steadfast, playful, and optimistic. They taught me what it means to stand up for what I believe, and working alongside them has been a consistent dream of mine since I was fifteen years old. What I didn’t realize when I was a student here was how much working at Alpine Valley School asks of the staff members. This work is soul-deep, and in addition to being meaningful and fulfilling, it’s also more demanding and challenging than I could have imagined.

These days everyone’s lives are changing so fast, sending us down different paths, and so I want to make sure I take the opportunity to say what an honor it is to do “work worth doing” alongside all of the other staff members here at Alpine Valley School. The school is my home, and the people there are my family,no matter where they go or what they do.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the AVS Community—not just my colleagues, but also all our students, parents, family members and friends. Thank you for being here, thank you for working so hard, and thank you for being freedom fighters.

Testing Madness

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What do all these people have in common? They’re either serving or facing twenty years in prison. What was the heinous offense of the woman in the upper left corner? Inflating test scores in a public school district in Atlanta. She and ten other educators have been found guilty of violating RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), a law typically used to fight organized crime and such acts as bribery, embezzlement, and fraud.

When I read about this, two questions occurred to me: why did these educators do what they did, and how could anyone justify putting them away for twenty years?

In a system gone mad with testing and quantifying learning, these people were concerned about their jobs, income, status, ego, etc.—so they chose to change wrong answers on standardized tests in order to boost student scores. Obviously, this kind of dishonesty should be punished: the Atlanta 11 should have been fired, and maybe even banned from being involved in schooling for the rest of their lives. But finding them guilty of RICO offenses and sentencing them to 20 years behind bars is incomprehensible.

It wasn’t always this way. Ask any teacher over the age of 40—those of us raised in a more sane time, schooled differently than kids today—and they will tell you privately that the system has gone crazy. Sadly, though, the underlying assumptions behind conventional schooling—that learning can be quantified and that adults must be in control—haven’t changed all that much. We’re just seeing the logical extreme of believing kids must be forced to learn and learning must be measured in order to be valid.

What the Atlanta 11 did was an attack on the whole concept of high-stakes testing, so of course the system came down on them like a ton of bricks. Already the rhetoric has reached outrageous levels. Consider, for example, the words of professor Ron Carlson: “This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever. It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business.” (“Playing with student test scores”! How about we stop looking at children as creatures to be manipulated, their every attempt at doing things measured?)

Testing madness is everywhere. Neil deGrasse Tyson, well known for hosting the rebooted “Cosmos” series, once said that “when students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” Or consider a school in India where parents were photographed climbing the exterior wall in order to give their students answers to the exam they were taking. Cram schools in Japan—same thing. This may sound extreme, but just like the Atlanta 11, this is what testing madness drives people to do. One cure for testing madness is encouraging parents to seek out alternatives like Alpine Valley School; another is taking time off from school during testing events.

I don’t know any of the Atlanta 11 personally. I have, however, known a lot of teachers and why they got into this profession, so I have a lot of sympathy for these people. What the Atlanta 11 did may not be legally defensible, but it is understandable. Demands for better test scores have perverted teaching into a system that has very little to do with learning: today, teachers are little more than “curriculum delivery tools.” Gone is the discretion a teacher once had to teach what he thought best. Gone is the opportunity to make meaningful connections at the cost of skipping over pieces of the prescribed curriculum. In its place is testing madness.

Thank goodness for places like Alpine Valley School, havens of sanity in a test-crazy world!

                        NdGT            india

A Gold Mine of Learning

Note: This week’s post is adapted from Ian Grasamkee-Beasley’s recent thesis defense. Many thanks to Ian for recounting and sharing with us this epic tale of the intensely focused, hard work that is learning at Alpine Valley School.

Before I came to Alpine Valley School, I never worked well with other people. By my fourth year I was participating in Asteroid games, getting into pottery, and gaming with my friends. I had never really been a part of a large, long-lasting project. (I’d had chances in the past, but  always turned them down.) But soon that would change…

One day a couple students dug a couch-like hole about two feet deep in the sandbox. Ethan and I took notice. He told me he’d been looking at some geological maps and had discovered that the school sat on an old riverbed, so the two of us decided to take over the hole. At first I thought this was just going to be a day or two of digging to see how far we could get. However, we kept going for several days. When we had dug down to about four feet, we hit heavy clay so dense we could break a 2×4 with it. I wanted to quit at this point, but with encouragement from Ethan we kept going.

It was another three feet of shovel-bending clay, but we made it through. This was the first major hurdle with what was becoming known as “the mine.” Soon days turned to weeks, and we kept getting closer to the riverbed. We had to get permission from School Meeting to keep this up, since we had been digging for about two weeks and our mine took up half the sandbox.

After about a month, on a foggy and very cold day, we hit river rocks at about seven feet. After moving yet more clay and rocks, we started hitting sand and gravel. We then did a little bit of gold panning. After coming up with some small flecks, we went into overdrive and pushed the hole to over nine feet deep.

After another few days we hit the water table, which looked like the end of our project. The water would fill in about as fast as we could bucket it out, and when we’d come back in the morning it would be over half full. Of course Ethan found a solution: a small electric pump he had borrowed from a friend. While it did fix our water problem, we spent nearly half our time repairing the stupid thing.

Finally we reached the deepest point possible, removing torso-sized rocks, with a holding pond that took up the entire back part of the sandbox and left no room for expansion. In the end, the hole turned out to be about thirteen feet deep, and we had several piles of dirt almost as tall as Ethan. Sadly, it was nearing the end of the year and we had to fill it in. After putting all the pay dirt through a sifter, we had a three-foot pile of sorted gravel that we put into sandbags to pan for gold at a later date.

At the beginning of the following school year, Ethan and I set up a large multi-stage sifting and wash-box water system for extracting the gold from the hundreds of pounds of pay dirt we had dug up the previous year. After about a month we had this little vial of gold. As small as it was, it made it all worth it. I still find it amazing that just a couple kids in their school sandbox were able to dig up a little pile of gold. We then sold the gold at the school auction for over $200.

This incredible long-term project taught me many things, most importantly determination and patience. It also furthered my ability to cooperate, and taught me good work ethics from having to stay focused on the mine hour after hour, day after day. This project will always be my favorite memory from Alpine Valley School. It constantly reminds me that working hard all the way to the end is worth it.

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A Community for a Reason

As many people in the AVS community know, I became a grandmother five months ago, and it has been a joy to share in my grandson’s life on a daily basis. My daughter, Missa, a graduate and staff member at Alpine Valley School, is back to work part-time, and my grandson, Reason, accompanies her. It has been illuminating to see how much enjoyment and fulfillment the students gain from interacting with him. ReasonThe first day that Missa returned with Reason in tow, several of the students were excitedly awaiting their arrival and rushed outside to greet them. Once inside, the students had a friendly dispute about who got to hold him first. Missa allowed those who wanted to hold Reason to do so with some basic instructions and guidelines. Those that had previously babysat were very comfortable holding him, and the others quickly learned.

I was sitting in the office a few days ago when one of our students walked down the hall exclaiming loudly, “It is my turn to hold the baby, so I get him next!” This week they set up a timer on one of their smart phones, allowing each one to have the baby for 15 minutes. And it’s not just the girls who interact with Reason. Several of the boys have their name in the queue and are just as nurturing and attentive as the girls. Reason gets fed, burped, changed, and soothed by many hands, and seldom do they request help or want Missa to take him, although she is always nearby and available. And when she does request mommy time, it isn’t long before someone comes by and politely scoops him up. These actions are a regular occurrence: students voluntarily and happily take on the role of Reason’s caretaker for hours at a time, and relish being trusted to do so.

Based on my observations of the benefits in the relationships being established between our students and Reason, I think the popular phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” could be altered to read “children thrive when raised by a community.” This is the theme of a July 2013 post on Dr. Peter Gray’s Psychology Today’s blog, where AVS parent Kaye Kamon posted the following comment:

We have found a stunning sense of community at a Sudbury model school in Colorado—Alpine Valley School. In the mixed age environment with students and staff, my son enjoys the company and benefit of people ranging in age from 5 to 80 on a regular basis. People in the community provide helping hands to each other, make personal sacrifices to benefit others in the school community and the school itself. This is an extended family which has made a huge difference to this single mom of an only child. It has been a huge change from past experiences in conventional schools. The fact that so many of the Alumni continue to be involved and supportive of the school proves to me that something huge is going on here—something that our wounded society and educational system screams for in order to heal.

Watching our students learn to be nurturing, patient, and resourceful, gently caring for an infant, is something I can’t imagine happening at any other kind of school. If you have not already done so, please consider Alpine Valley School for your child, where young people gain heartwarming and life-affirming experiences through interacting with people of all ages.

Ready to Grow Up

Have you ever known someone with Peter Pan tendencies (that is, someone who never wants to grow up)? I know quite a lot of people like this: right after high school they were not going to go to college, and they didn’t want to work. I had a conversation with one of these friends, during which he realized that this stemmed from not wanting to be like his dad, whom he saw as miserable, having nothing to look forward to but work for years to come, and eventually death. Because he saw this as the only way of being an adult, he didn’t want to grow up.

Contrast this with Alpine Valley School students. They decide when they are ready to graduate, so they aren’t pushed unwillingly into the larger world. Graduates do not talk about this as an easy process but as one they were ready for, that they pushed themselves to and through, and which helped them become ready for the larger world. Hopefully they look at the adults at school and see happy people they might want to be like one day.

As one of our students defended his thesis he was asked the following question: “As you consider your life post-AVS, what do you find to be most exciting and most intimidating?” Considering and answering this question, he seemed to have missed the word intimidating. He listed many things that I was very intimidated by at his age—moving out, getting a job, and paying bills—all as things he is excited about. He couldn’t think of something that really intimidated him in his future.

This always makes me wonder: what is it that people want for their children? What I’d want is a person who is not afraid of their future—someone who is ready to grow up, who knows that they are in control, and who looks forward to the challenges and change that will inevitably appear.