Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of frequently asked questions: I lost track long ago of how many times we’ve fielded concerns about exposure over the years.

In general, there are two different types of exposure, positive and negative. Many people ask how kids can learn all that they need, or even discover what they like, unless adults carefully manage the process. Others are concerned that kids will be exposed to the wrong things unless adults are sheltering them from what they’re not ready for.

What geniuses we must be to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! The truth is, at Alpine Valley School exposure naturally helps young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing children to subjects they need and might enjoy—the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools is not to be underestimated. Conventional schools group students by age and walk them through the same limited set of subjects at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but only allowed to encounter what the experts deem appropriate.

In contrast, Sudbury students are free to experience life in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, the sky’s the limit for what Sudbury students can encounter. Yet while the range of subjects is virtually limitless, time is obviously finite, and so one of the most critical lessons our students learn is how to sift through a flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful.

So the good news is, AVS students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things on their own in this vibrant school community than they would if adults imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important.

And yes, this can include things some would say they should not be exposed to. Whether the objectionable material is scary, “mature,” or violent, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, this doesn’t merely protect kids from accidental exposure: they’re denied the choice and practice of deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

In day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are permitted, in what parts of the campus and at what times of day, frequently become the subject of conversation and debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. We believe young people deserve to learn for themselves how to find what they need, how to sift through information, and how to prioritize their time in trusting, supportive communities. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they want to get better at, and what they don’t want to be exposed to (and how to deal with that).

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best. Here, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather becomes part of the process by which they develop their amazing potential.

Give Me Liberty

Twenty-one years ago, I went to the Colorado Libertarian convention to promote the then-nascent Alpine Valley School. Libertarians, I figured, would greatly appreciate the freedom of our school, and so I proudly displayed my cleverly titled flier, Democracy in Your Bones. Of the 50 fliers I made, however, exactly none was taken. Eventually, I began to understand why.

Democracy is confused with various things—freedom, cooperation, collaboration, influence, sunshine, and all things good. This happens, I think, when people feeling disenfranchised by our representational republic seek more influence over it. If they really knew what democracy was, they might stop focusing on democracy and start focusing on freedom instead. Democracy in and of itself is neither pro- or anti-freedom. (Consider Kim Jong Un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example.)

While freedom is the right of the individual to live unfettered by arbitrary authority, democracy simply means that power rests with the governed—and without checks and balances, this is an invitation to the tyranny of the majority. Consider the definition of democracy as two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Early in our country’s history, many opposed the new constitution because there were no specific limits on governmental power: this is the context for the opening words of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law.” The Bill of Rights is not an explicit listing of rights so much as an explicit limitation on the power of the majority.

At our school the smallest minority is one, and proposed School Meeting laws are debated with this in mind. We strive to restrict the arbitrary authority of School Meeting and school officials by circumscribing their powers. The students and staff, the daily residents of the school, are the sovereign power: they must balance the general welfare of the school against the personal freedom so central to its existence. For us, democratic processes are a means to an end—the end of self-governance.

One of our sister schools (The Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) describes succinctly the role of self-governance in an educational context (notice that nowhere in this eloquent statement does the word democracy appear):

The daily school program is self-governing, with authority and responsibility shared among the governed, students and staff alike.

  • Voice. All members of the daily school program—students and staff—enjoy equal rights of voice and vote in matters of governance and the common good.
  • Rule of law. All members of the daily school program are subject to the authority of school government according to duly adopted laws that are publicly disclosed in writing.
  • Responsibility. All members of the daily school program share responsibility for the common welfare.
  • Protection: All members of the daily school program enjoy equal protection and due process under school law.

In schools like ours, democracy is simply the principle that sovereignty over a day-to-day society rests with those who participate on a day-to-day basis. And this philosophical principle has crucial, practical implications. If our children are to develop into self-directed, responsible adults—if they are to realize their innate, unique potential—what they need isn’t so much democracy as freedom.

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Letting Nature Take Its Course

I have recently come across a couple of ReadingSudbury perspectives on how and when children start reading. This got me thinking about the difference between a child discovering they can read and a child being taught to read. This may seem like a subtle difference, but like the following Sudbury alum, I think a reading curriculum and learning on your own are worlds apart.

I don’t recall thinking of reading as something you learned. I never saw a kid in a reading class, but one by one my friends would be reading. I’m not sure reading is a significantly different process from learning how to talk. You don’t have talking lessons for babies, and they learn how to talk.

When my son was around 8 years old and attending Alpine Valley School, he was very engaged with computer games, along with many other students. He was not a proficient reader at the time and would often ask his older sister and, occasionally, the adults around him for help when there were messages or instructions related to his game. Eventually his sister, engaged in activities of her own, told him he needed to learn to read.

Several weeks later, my son asked me to watch a computer game he was playing. As I stood next to him, I saw several text boxes pop up and noticed that he seemed to be reading and had not asked for my help. When I asked him if he was reading the messages, he casually replied that he was. I then asked him when he had “learned” to read. His reply? “I don’t know, it just happened.” He had never had any formal reading instruction or been exposed to phonics. He just picked it up because it was useful to him and the timing was right.

I had not been concerned that my son was not reading by a particular time, but was quite excited to know he had become an excellent reader in his own way and on his own time. It is a story I share with other parents who are considering enrolling their children at Alpine Valley School, to help them trust in the process of self-education. My son is now pursuing a degree in business, works full-time at Target, and is living a full and happy life.

In his blog post “Children Teach Themselves to Read,” Dr. Peter Gray tells a similar story:

Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly. In some cases unschooled children progress from non-reading to reading in what seems to observers to be a flash. For example, Lisa W. wrote: “Our second child, who is a visual thinker, didn’t learn to read until he was 7. For years, he could either figure out what he needed to know from pictorial cues, or if stuck, would get his older brother to read to him. I remember the day he started reading. He had asked his older brother to read something to him on the computer and his brother replied, ‘I have better things to do than to read to you all day,’ and walked away. Within days he was reading quite well.”

It can be hard to wait for this sort of natural learning to take its course, but you can also trust that it will be unstoppable. The Sudbury parent I mentioned above has an excellent perspective on how learning happens in an environment like Alpine Valley School.

Three years of Sudbury schools have shown me that the learning process is like a drip of water against a rock. At a glance, it appears fragile and delicate, but uninterrupted over time, it is an unstoppable force of nature. The challenge of the Sudbury parent, then, is to leave the water alone and allow nature to take its course.

Contact us to learn more about Alpine Valley School, where children thrive while pursuing activities that interest and intrigue them—where we let nature take its course.

Divergent Thinking

In this blog post, my colleague Bruce asked us to “reflect on the rapid pace of change in today’s world, the veritable tsunami of information out there, and the need for our children to retain the powerful, insatiable curiosity with which they were born.”

This line stirs up a lot of fervor in me. I am privileged to be around Alpine Valley School students every day; they inspire me with their amazing curiosity and ingenuity. Working here, I am often reminded of a great talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in which he describes divergent thinking as “an essential capacity for creativity, the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question.” (You can watch the portion on divergent thinking here.)

The other day, some AVS students were playing a game in which a category is listed, and  the first person who cannot think of an item that fits the category loses the game.

For these students, this game was almost impossible to lose, because as soon as someone thought they were out of options they would change the context of the question. For example: one category was things one might call one’s mom, the answers started with mom, mother, mama, and maybe a few foreign versions of “mom”. But these divergent thinkers didn’t give up there. They could certainly call their mom “Sally”, or “George”, or even “Apple”. As you can see, this game could go on for a long time!

The divergent thinking demonstrated here is only a small example of something that is incredibly important. Sir Ken Robinson said that “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” We do just that here at Alpine Valley School.

Soundbite Wisdom

These days it’s getting so you can’t go online without being fairly bombarded by inspirational quotes, often dressed up in pretty images. But I’ll tell you, as sketchy as the wisdom of sound bites may be, I’ve come to appreciate the truth behind clichés and sentiment. Sometimes truth really can be captured and crystallized, however challenging it may be to tease out the nuances and apply the lessons.

For example, in my last blog post of this school year I’d like to share a couple quotes that speak to the heart of what we do at Alpine Valley School in surprisingly powerful ways.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
~ Frederick Douglass

While today Douglass might have said “adults” or “people” rather than “men,” the truth of his statement is timeless. One of the challenges of describing life at Alpine Valley School is conveying the piercing beauty of watching young people grow up whole and intact. I say “piercing” because this beauty stands in stark contrast to the struggles young people face in other kinds of schools, struggles that often linger well into adulthood. As one of our parents has said on more than one occasion, what if we never had to lose our youthful spark, never had to spend much of our adult lives trying to recover our curiosity, intuition, drive, and self-confidence?

Giving young people a head start on healthy, vibrant adult lives is one of the things that most drives me in my efforts to promote Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley. It’s hard to imagine something a lot more moving than allowing children to retain and actualize their breathtakingly beautiful passion for life.

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 “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

~ Howard Thurman

As long as there’s been mass schooling, people have adamantly asserted that schools exist to serve a larger purpose, that we have a moral obligation to ensure that children are trained to meet the needs of the economy, or social justice, or environmental preservation, or any number of external agendas. Trained as a conventional teacher, it came as a revelation to me that letting people connect with their passions is an infinitely more effective way to create positive change than any kind of pushing or orchestrating could accomplish.

Conventional schooling assumes a level of control that doesn’t exist, and so it sets out vainly to engineer a better world—or rather, differing camps of adults pull kids in various directions, trying to mold these young souls in the image of their own personal values. Well, Alpine Valley School takes a radically different approach: our only agenda for young people is that they be empowered to tap into their own potential, to realize their unique gifts in a culture of freedom and responsibility.  In other words, our only agenda for children is that they form their own agenda. Amazingly enough, nearly five decades of Sudbury schooling shows that these powerfully alive people are role models for all of us in how to live authentic, meaningful lives.

What do you think about “building strong children” (or rather, letting them build themselves)? How about the idea that “what the world needs is people who have come alive”? What are your favorite inspirational quotes, and how might they guide the way we raise children? Please leave a comment below, and if you have (or know people with) children, consider how Alpine Valley School might be the best place for them to grow into their best selves.

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