Recently I’ve noticed a trend as I take in my daily dose of media: the shows, commercials, and articles I stumble across have a recurring theme that a childhood in conventional school (the schools most of us experienced) is awful. An Onion article pokes fun of the high rate of ADHD diagnoses under the headline “More U.S. Children Being Diagnosed with Youthful Tendency Disorder”; the main character in New Girl talks about her hypothetical children, who “are going to be forced to go to school, just like everybody else, and they’re gonna hate it”; and a Jello commercial turns a kid’s first day of school into a trying day at the office that he’ll need pudding to cope with.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve had lots of conversations about the Sudbury model of education with parents, students, and teachers of all levels. Conventional educators have often said to me, “Larry, I can see some parts of your school’s philosophy, but others I can’t.” And I can appreciate that: reasonable people will sometimes disagree.
Hello, readers! I’m writing this post to share some of my experiences at Alpine Valley School (AVS). I enrolled at AVS when I was six years old and was a student there for twelve years before graduating in 2009. I learned a lot during that time, and it took me a while to narrow down the topic of this post so it wouldn’t end up being an entire novel on my childhood. I eventually decided on the subject of feeling important, which is something that stood out to me pretty strongly as I was thinking back on my time at AVS.
The past couple months, I’ve begun cultivating an active presence on Twitter. On the plus side, it’s proven surprisingly effective at connecting me with people outside my usual circles. Less surprising, and occasionally frustrating, has been the difficulty of conducting a robust yet reasonable argument. The reason, I think, lies not so much in the fact that Twitter’s defined by 140-character soundbites. Rather, my years at Sudbury schools have led me to expect more developed, widespread skill in arguing than I’m finding in the social media universe. Continue reading
As my youngest daughter pursues graduation from Alpine Valley School, and as plans unfold for our upcoming alumni panel event (“Ready for Anything: Fostering Resourceful, Happy, Successful Adults”—please join us!), I have been taking a deeper look at how AVS helps prepare our graduates to live happy and successful lives.
Over the past 15 years I’ve watched students engage in many activities. These include building with Legos, digging in the sandbox, playing with dolls and stuffed animals, reading books, making cakes, serving on the Judicial Committee (JC), chairing meetings, pretending to be superheros, consoling friends, drawing pictures, knitting socks, sharing lunches, proposing motions to School Meeting, writing stories, telling jokes, doing math, voting for and against motions, playing piano, teaching spelling, and countless other pursuits. When involved in an activity, they’re focused and engaged for as long as it interests them, and then they move on to something else.
AVS students know they have certain responsibilities (like chores, meetings, and JC), but the rest of the time is theirs to spend as they choose. Through participating in JC, our students learn that the choices they make affect themselves and others, and that nothing separates them from the consequences of those choices. They learn that making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re a bad person: while you are held accountable for your behavior, you aren’t shamed for your choices. Everybody learns to advocate for themselves and knows that their voice has value.
When I was growing up, each year was spent with different teachers. The beginning of the year was the time to get to know everyone, and then by June it was time to move on. Things are a little different here. One of the unique things staff and students at Alpine Valley School get to experience is the amount of time together. Because the school is available to children ages five to eighteen, and because there is no division of ages or specific “grades” that staff work with, a student could spend all thirteen years of their school experience with people who know them throughout that entire time.
This whole idea of time is on my mind at the moment because graduation is coming up. My first year as a staff member here, two students graduated, one of them a lifer (someone who started at age five). This year another lifer is preparing her thesis for graduation. Many of the staff members here have been at the school for a decade or longer. I frequently hear them talk about how they remember these students as little five- or six-year-olds afraid to go to JC or causing mischief and how much they have grown up.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had that kind of relationship with the staff at school growing up? The transitions for a student at Alpine Valley School are different because of this continuity. Instead of new teachers, new classes, and even new schools (going from elementary school to middle school or high school), each new school year brings students back to a familiar place, with staff that already know them. The first day of school at Alpine Valley School looks like almost any other day (except for the excitement to be back and that everyone is a little older).
As the years go by for the students here, they transition into different roles. At first they are the little kid looking up to the older students and using their time to play. Within a few years they are no longer the youngest students and begin taking on different roles of responsibility at the school. This transition happens earlier or later for different students, but it does happen. Then even more years pass and they become the oldest students. Where once they were looking up to the older students, now they are the role models of the school.
The final transition of a student’s career at Alpine Valley School is preparing to graduate. It is a year-long process where students reflect on their time at school and outside of school. Through this process the student works with a panel of parents, alumni, community members, and staff in writing a thesis on how they are preparing for life after Alpine Valley School and being an effective adult. The process culminates with an oral presentation to the AVS Community focused around their thesis, followed by a question-and-answer session. It is perhaps the most exciting process for students, bringing with it all the fears of moving on and the anticipation of what’s next.
One of the greatest things for students here is the consistency that exists through all of these transitions. Life isn’t segmented here, and there is a feeling of familiarity with the staff, the community, and how the school operates. Students can take the time needed to work through transitions, knowing that the end of one year and start of another won’t pull the rug out from under them. Having enough time to work through a transition as a younger person will help them become more confident in the future, especially as they transition into becoming independent. What a perfect way to grow up!
Written by Scott Goode – staff member at Alpine Valley School