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.


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.

An Alpine Valley School Resume

The summer after I graduated from Alpine Valley School I had my first job interview. The position was a representative in a small call center, scheduling maintenance for electronic equipment. I can still remember sitting in the lobby of the enormous office building, sweating through my ill-fitting borrowed suit and re-reading the notes I’d prepared. These notes consisted of phrases like:

Leadership experience:

  • School Meeting Chairman: running meetings, handling disruptions, undertaking responsibility

  • Judicial Committee Chairman: organizing important paperwork, holding others accountable, use of good listening skills, conflict management

Project Management Experience:

  • Party planning: managing resources, budgeting

Because I hadn’t yet had a “real” job, I compiled aspects of my career as an Alpine Valley School student to draw upon for work experience. After all, I’d already been the chairman of four school corporations and I wasn’t even twenty years old! I felt that by sharing the roles I had undertaken as a student, I would be sure to convey all the responsibility and meaningful experience at my command.

When the panel asked me to describe a time when I’d dealt with an irate customer and turned things around, I told them about when I was organizing a talent show at school and my performers turned on each other. As the organizer, I intervened and resolved the conflict before everyone quit the show. I was nervous that this example wouldn’t count as real-world experience, but the panel said they were impressed. Afterward, when I shared with them all the examples I’d included in my notes, the woman leading the interview said to me, “You’ve done a lot of things for someone so young.”

I ended up working in that enormous office building for ten years: first, in the job I’d applied for; then as a manager for the call center; and finally as a project manager on a variety of international and high-stakes assignments. My experience as a student at Alpine Valley School prepared me uniquely for each of these roles. The ability to manage difficult conversations in Judicial Committee transferred readily to difficult conversations over an employee’s performance. Keeping things organized requires very similar skills whether it’s a talent show at school or a multi-million-dollar call center upgrade.

These days my life has come full circle. I’m back at Alpine Valley School, now as a staff member. Recently a student approached me and asked for help with her own resume. She was applying for her first job and wanted help communicating the value of her experiences. Together we sat down and looked through all the jobs she’s held within School Meeting, along with her outside experiences (babysitting, pet sitting, etc.), turning them into a document sure to impress any recruiter under the sun. After all, like all our students, she’s “done a lot of things for someone so young.”

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.