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

Indifference, the Anti-Love

batman-be-coolI have lunch with a friend whenever he shows up in Denver. An electrical engineer by trade, he has supported Alpine Valley School from the day it opened. We share a love of personal liberty, all things free, and the peace of a non-coercive world.

One day my friend suggested that the deeper meaning of the word “cool” is not excellence or popularity but indifference. This indifference he sees as “anti-love,” and he asserts that the indifference of young people in conventional schools may be a condition developed by schooling itself. His thoughts have been percolating in my mind the past couple years, as I’ve struggled with how to connect them with our unconventional approach at Alpine Valley School.

Before drawing those connections, here’s the gist of what my friend said:

Popular culture lives on many lies, one of which is that the opposite of love is hate. Consider these admonitions: “Hate is bad; don’t do that” or “I don’t hate, therefore I’m good.”

Hate is not the opposite of love; the opposite of love is actually indifference. Love starts with caring and ends with a positive action—even if that action is to allow another to go down a questionable path. Hate also begins with caring, but ends in a negative action—causing somebody pain, for example.

Indifference, however, never cares; it is the pure expression of anti-love.

How is this relevant to education? In nearly every educational setting in America, there exists a phenomenon loosely referred to as “cool.” Cool is a slippery term—often just meaning “I like that,” as in “That car is cool!” Cool has another meaning, though: a cool kid is one who is above everyone else. Cool kids ignore the plight of others; to be cool is to be indifferent.

Those who are indifferent have little curiosity, little empathy, and little investment in cultivating relationships. Despite appearances, the indifferent eventually lose their happiness because of their lack of personal connection to others (such connection surely being an aspect of love).

In conventional schools, 5- and 6-year-olds are pretty much powerless, so they tend to do one of two things. First, they find friends who provide protection. Those friends are their peers, who will demand loyalty to provide protection; that loyalty becomes peer pressure down the road. Second, they build a wall of indifference about themselves so that attacks by others can’t penetrate. Unfortunately, the wall of indifference eventually extends to every other aspect of life: parents, subject learning, adults in general and, finally, oneself.

Conventional school is an anti-love machine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow many of the most gut-wrenching problems we face as a society actually stem from indifference, from anti-love? I can tell you from my experience that the longer kids stay in conventional school, the more indifferent many become: think, for example, of the so-called fourth-grade slump or the stereotypical moody teenager.

Consider just one key element of conventional schooling: the huge power differential between adults and children, or between the popular and the unpopular. Power in conventional schooling is used with some threat of punishment, forcing others’ actions regardless of their will. This has the consequence of leaving the powerless with fewer reasons to care.

The more teachers become instruments of curriculum delivery, the more indifferent they will become to students who are constantly measured and evaluated. I’ve written before that many professional educators see the problem but are powerless to challenge it and show they care. Indeed, I am in no way condemning teachers who are forced to do things against their professional judgment.

Sudbury schools, on the other hand, are as close to institutions based on love as is possible. At a Sudbury school the amount of power over the individual has shrunk to a minimum, and that power is easily (and often successfully) challenged by even the youngest students. Simply put, the self-governing nature of Alpine Valley School allows love to exist by allowing people to care, by giving their desires and opinions equal weight—by giving them power.

One of the greatest gifts of a Sudbury education is the comparative absence of indifference. Consider our school’s judicial system. Our first and foremost goal is find the truth of a given situation. This requires us to maintain bonds of trust and compassion fostered as a matter of course, because no one has the power to coerce and the power of School Meeting to do so is very limited.

The greater society, like our scaled-down version here at Alpine Valley School, requires a mix of love and power, qualities one might see as incompatible. Sudbury schools, in my experience, come closest to finding an effective and potent balance between love and power, effectively banishing indifference through the personal liberty granted to students of all ages.

Training is Off Track

As a new grandmother, I have become much more aware of all things baby-related, and as a result I’ve noticed many blogs and articles about “training” babies to do things like sleep all night in their own bed, use a toilet, and master language. Parents are given some leeway to decide the best timing and guidelines, while the baby is simply expected to comply. fPBQ4UbxIMRM0csThis kind of early intervention has become an accepted aspect of parenting, but I have to wonder about the long-term effects. In particular, the use of the word “training” is unsettling, as if sleeping all night and using the toilet are behaviors that must be taught rather than natural processes that will happen in their own time. In our busy lives, as we hurry from one thing to the next, are we rushing our youngsters to do things long before they’re ready?

It’s pretty clear that this sort of approach doesn’t end with toddlerhood. A school supplies catalog recently appeared in the school’s mailbox, its first few pages featuring toys spanning a wide range of early childhood activities, including language, cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, social, and emotional skills. All the descriptions explained how these toys would help little ones jumpstart their development in all these areas. While the word “training” was not used, there was an implied sense that if you surround your child with these things, you will be offering a well-balanced, developmentally appropriate program. It sure seems like a lot of pressure on parents who are already stressed to also have the responsibility of maximizing their young child’s growth in all these areas.

Alfie Kohn wrote an article about the momentum for universal pre-K and his concern that tots barely out of diapers will be trained to sit still and listen; memorize lists of letters, numbers and colors; and have their every action monitored and quantified. This is hardly an environment that respects children’s ability to discover and follow through on what interests them, or one that nurtures their curious, playful nature.

On the other side of this argument that children can’t develop properly without training or structured toys are early childhood educators like Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury, who advocate for letting children accomplish milestones in their own ways and on their own schedule. For example, Magda Gerber introduced to the U.S. “the revolutionary concept of respect for the infant as a complete, if immature, human being with a self-initiating agenda to discover the world (and us) with an almost scientific approach…to see infants as active participants in their own development from the very first moment of life.”

Alpine Valley School is an embodiment of this philosophy for school-age children. We believe they’re fully capable of directing their own learning. In the multi-age setting at AVS, children watch, listen, and question all that goes on around them. Their curious nature leads them to explore and engage whatever catches their interest, and the opportunity to freely play hones their skills in developing physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially. Just as each baby’s development is unique and personal, so is each child’s way of learning about himself and the world.

If this unique way of relating with our children intrigues you, please contact us. We would be very happy to set up a time to visit and introduce you to our model of education.

Why Sudbury Kids Rock: an SVS Alum Visits AVS, Part Two

About six weeks ago we were pleased to spend a day hosting Mariel Meltzer, a graduate of Sudbury Valley School currently living in Denver. When Mariel followed up with posts to her personal blog,* we were even more pleased. (You can read Part One of Mariel’s AVS post here.) Many thanks to Mariel for visiting and for allowing us to reprint an abridged version of her thoughts on visiting Alpine Valley School.

I visited Alpine Valley on a Thursday so that I could sit in on their School Meeting. I love School Meeting, I really do. My college has forums where students can come and discuss things with the faculty, but it’s really just the faculty coming up with excuses for why our issues can’t be solved, then walking away feeling like they were open and receptive even if they really weren’t. I miss School Meeting, where my opinion matters as much as a four-year-old’s or a staff member’s. Even if somebody brings up something people think is unimportant, we’ll still discuss it and decide if something needs to be done. I remember once at Sudbury Valley someone made a motion that we close on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and there was an uproar because most of us think there aren’t enough school days as is. We eventually agreed that if this one kid wanted to stay home on that day, that was his prerogative.

Open and honest discussion was something I saw at Alpine Valley that reminded me how much I love Sudbury schools. To treat another human being with consideration is incredibly difficult, and it blows my mind when you see a four-year-old thoughtfully arguing as to why concession is something that must happen at SVS. I saw a lot of consideration at the School Meeting at Alpine Valley. They allow students to make a suggestion for their sentence, and I think it adds an interesting element of responsibility. Is the kid going to suggest a warning and take the easy way out? Or will they accept that they left a mess and ask for a couple days of trash duty?

I witnessed a younger kid referred to School Meeting for possible suspension. I find it funny how it’s almost a universal thing that kids at SVS don’t sit still during School Meeting. Kids are capable of sitting still—public schools show that it’s technically possible. But because it’s not mandatory at Sudbury schools, it takes kids time to learn when it is necessary and appropriate to sit still and behave. You often see younger children at Sudbury schools struggling with that, especially in School Meeting and JC. And they get bored, so they flop around on their chairs, lie on the ground and kick their feet about, or chew on their socks. It’s pretty funny in some ways, but it can be pretty distracting. Not like a lot of us don’t empathize: School Meeting can be long. I knit, and my friends and I would pass notes. Anyway, this kid whose sentence was being considered was lying on the ground, with his feet over his head or kicking at the stage. Occasionally he would react to something being said about him with an argument full of big words. It also came up a few times that maybe he didn’t care all that much because of the fact that he was just rolling around on the ground.

Finally, after a lengthy debate about his sentence and his behavior in School Meeting, one of the staff raised his hand and said something amazing: they could only sentence him in a way they saw best, and it was really up to him to help himself. So what if he’s rolling around or not? They can’t force him to care, just the way they can’t make him change his behavior… Whoa. There you have it folks. The Sudbury school attitude in a nutshell. We can’t teach you how to behave, how to act, whether or not you should take math, if you should go to college, and whether or not spending all day painting is a waste of time. At Sudbury schools we can’t and won’t force anything on you. We are given tools, like JC sentences, a library, community, Internet access. But how we use those tools is up to us.

And there are so many interpretations to be found at Sudbury schools. I remember the rule that you can’t bring sticks inside at SVS. Once a friend of mine stopped a little kid who was trying to bring a huge stick into the building. She reminded him that sticks have to stay outside, and the kid replied, “Oh this isn’t a stick, it’s a grenade.” I think it’s why we have successful graduates: because throughout our time at Sudbury we learn how to take tools and make them our own, we learn to use them however we want. So when we go out into the big-kid world, we are presented with more tools. At college we have classes, a different community, different resources. I think non-Sudbury kids struggle a little bit with suddenly being presented with so many choices and tools and opportunities, but it’s no sweat for a Sudbury graduate, because we’ve been learning our whole lives to make decisions, to seize opportunities, and to find the lesson in everything. And just because life hands you a stick doesn’t mean you have to use it as a stick. It’s brilliant: we are the epitome of making lemonade out of lemons.

Leaving Alpine Valley to find my way back to Denver, where I had class that evening, gave me plenty of time to mull over my thoughts,  and I was grateful for this day. Many thanks to the staff and students who welcomed me, a stranger, into their community.

Note: Viewpoints expressed on all external links are those of the individuals involved in those sites and do not necessarily reflect those of Alpine Valley School or its students, staff, and families.

Giving the Gift of Life-Changing Learning

As another holiday season winds down—with its decorations, shopping frenzies, and pleas for donations from all sorts of worthy causes—it’s time to start making 2015 a happy New Year. Hopefully you already know a little bit about Alpine Valley School and what a magical place it can be for children—and hopefully you can help us meet our fundraising goal and get a tax deduction in the process!

Our total goal this year is $22,750, and so far we have brought in $12,750! While this is a great start, we need to make up the difference of $10,000 by the end of the school year. We would love your help through donations (of course! You can donate directly at the school or by credit card here), but we understand not everyone is able to donate.

What else can you do?

Spread the word! It’s easy to like and share our online materials. In addition to the webpage of our new campaign, $10K By April Fools’ Day, the following short videos showcase why supporting Alpine Valley School is a great way to make a difference in kids’ lives:

After checking out these resources, consider asking friends and family to donate, and encourage everyone you know to check out the school. Not only would more students help our bottom line, but each new student also helps us create a more thriving, vibrant community.

Get involved with the Friends of AVS! This group was created to help build community as well as fundraise for the school. They will be working on helping us raise the additional $10,000 throughout the school year, so look for their emails and lend a hand when you can.

All of us at Alpine Valley School are very passionate about the school, and we want it to keep supporting young people as they grow and learn in a Natural Learning Environment. Help us give more and more families this opportunity for years to come.

Why Sudbury Kids Rock: an SVS Alum Visits AVS, Part One

About six weeks ago we were pleased to spend a day hosting Mariel Meltzer, a graduate of Sudbury Valley School currently living in Denver. When Mariel followed up with posts to her personal blog,* we were even more pleased. Many thanks to Mariel for visiting and for allowing us to reprint an abridged version of her thoughts on visiting Alpine Valley School.

I recently visited a school in Colorado based on SVS called Alpine Valley School. It was an incredible experience and reminded me of everything I love about the Sudbury model. When I got off the bus I found myself in a residential neighborhood and thought, “How am I going to figure out which one’s the school?” I then saw what looked like an old church, with a swing set (which seemed like a promising sign). As I got closer I knew I was at a Sudbury school. How? There were kids on the roof. One of them yelled, “Hey, it’s a person,” so I’m standing there on the ground, peering up into the sky, having a casual conversation with a staff member and several kids on a roof. I remember as an SVS kid, when someone new walks into the building everyone will stare—not in a rude way, but in a small community, new-people-are-exciting way. I’d size them up, wondering what their story was and what they would bring to the community. So to be on the receiving end of the scrutiny was certainly interesting, but not in a bad way!

When I go visit other Sudbury schools, I try not to compare it to SVS, but I couldn’t help noticing how familiar it all felt. I’m 3,000 miles away from home, in a totally different community, but there are still piles of kids with their gameboys on a couch, several grouped around a table talking, a couple working in the kitchen, some sitting quietly with a book, a pack of small kids causing chaos, and the staff sitting peacefully amongst it all. They’ve got a pretty fantastic space: it’s a converted church, and they’ve actually got some space for a swing set and outdoor shenanigans.

I was paired up with a student who asked me what I wanted to do or see. I love that, because it’s such an SVS question. It is something I heard a lot throughout my time at SVS: “What do you want to do?” And I like it because it emphasizes me, what do I want? I think it is the first of several things I credit to becoming a successful adult in such an unorthodox environment. I learned from an early age to analyze my own wants and needs, instead of having them analyzed by an adult. “What do you want to do?” is a hard question, and I admit to sometimes still being like, “I want to be four and have my mom choose for me.” But I am capable of thinking and choosing for myself, even if it’s a tough process. So at Alpine Valley I chose to talk to people, because for me that’s the amazing part of going to any Sudbury school.

The conversation found its way to graduates, and one of the staff mentioned that Sudbury schools are like an episode of South Park where the bad guys are collecting socks, and when someone asked them what they were going to do with all those socks the villains showed a business plan that said “collect socks,” followed by a big question mark and then the word “profit!” This staff remarked that that’s almost what Sudbury must seem like to many, because if you ask anyone how the Sudbury model takes kids, gives them freedom, and consistently turns out functional adults, they will shrug. We don’t know 100% what we’re doing. But it works. SVS doesn’t document and record their kids’ SAT scores, but many of us take the SAT. And many of us go onto college and do incredibly well. But SVS has no way to prove it, so you just have to trust in the system.

I think about the kids I graduated with, and what I’m doing compared to my two best friends. One went to college to study music and doesn’t give a flying whit about her grades because she didn’t go for the grades. Another is a remarkably dedicated pre-med student. And then there’s me, the artist who has been alternating between college and traveling and working. Three incredibly different paths, yet I’d say we’re all remarkably successful because success isn’t one size fits all. Success is so personalized, and SVS allows us to find that personalized success. But how do you document success when it is not one size fits all? And how do you document the life experiences that contribute to that success? Because that’s what I think makes SVS students so successful, is our experiences. But how do you attribute certain experiences to certain wisdom? I can’t pin down the moment I learned to cook; it was a gradual process. But I do remember when I learned to balance a checkbook: in JC, after I had overdrawn my discretionary account for the fifth time and a staff member sat me down for a lesson on finance management. Almost eight years later I’ve not forgotten that lesson and have never once overdrawn my  checking account.

Later that morning I sat in on JC, which is obviously different in a small school. Students only serve a week at a time, and although they elect teams of clerks, only one clerk serves each day. They have a wooden church pew left over from when the building was a church, so that’s where I sat. The JC sits at a table facing the pew, and I actually felt like I was in a courthouse. It was awesome—I loved it.

JC let out just before School Meeting, so that I had time to eat lunch and talk to more people. One of my favorite things about Sudbury communities is that you can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything, and have it be completely normal. If you were to walk into the cafe at my college and ask to sit with someone, they’d look at you like you were crazy. So at Alpine Valley, to sit amongst so many people and eat lunch, to listen to the many conversations happening, to have the freedom to participate in any conversation—that sense of freedom and togetherness is incredible. I’m using the word incredible a lot, but I challenge you to find me a better synonym for a Sudbury experience.

to be continued…

Note: Viewpoints expressed on all external links are those of the individuals involved in those sites and do not necessarily reflect those of Alpine Valley School or its students, staff, and families.