Informed Leaps of Faith

In some long-ago conversation, my colleague Connie raised a question that’s stayed with me for years: Why is it easier for us to see that Sudbury schooling works? What made it possible for us—the staff and parents of Alpine Valley School—to make this leap of faith?

I’ve learned time and again the difficulty of communicating between educational paradigms. Differing assumptions about human nature, about what children need and how they learn, can make it seem not so much a gap as a perceptual Grand Canyon. Even the vocabulary of conventional education and Sudbury schooling—teacher, classroom, curriculum; staff, School Meeting, Judicial Committee—can lead to conversations reminiscent of traveling in a land with a curious dialect: even where there’s mutual goodwill and openness to new perspectives, the simplest conversations can be tricky.

This makes it all the more mysterious that many of us somehow knew, immediately and deeply, that self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities makes enormous sense. In my own case, it started with my initial career as a teacher in a conventional high school. As early as my first year, I knew that much of my frustration had nothing to do with being new, but consisted of things unlikely to improve over time. Before long I found that I could no longer push people to learn things of questionable relevance in a rigid, authoritarian environment.

Soon after leaving that world I stumbled upon Sudbury Valley School (at the suggestion of a former student, interestingly enough), and immediately I just knew that this was right; that it was better than any school I’d ever imagined; that it works. In a sense, I suppose it wasn’t a big leap of faith for me, given what I’d seen and lived through. And thankfully, my seventeen years of Sudbury experience have only reinforced that initial intuition.

Of course, everyone who’s embraced the Sudbury Model has had their own blend of reasons for doing so. For many, it was the suffering of their children in conventional schools. Others experienced various life detours and disruptions, such as job loss or the ending of relationships, that underscored the superiority of adaptability and resilience over any particular set of information or academic abilities. This, I would speculate, makes these people more likely to appreciate the fact that a Sudbury education develops this sort of personal strength.

It’s not too surprising that unpleasant past experiences can make us more open to new ways of thinking and doing things.  But as I implied above, when it comes to Sudbury schooling, the term “leap of faith” doesn’t quite fit. Those of us who made this leap might have been predisposed to see Sudbury for what it is, but in fact it’s the rich abundance of evidence that really seals the deal. After nearly fifty years, the living example of Sudbury students and alumni provides many vivid illustrations of how and why this model works so well.

Consider for yourself how many of the things you studied in school you actually use today. Consider how, when you have to learn something now, you find a way to do it—because you see a need, because it helps you achieve some goal of yours. 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.

Then do yourself a favor and watch videos of alumni from Alpine Valley School and elsewhere. Read their stories, gathered in such books as Kingdom of Childhood, Legacy of Trust, and Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t simply take my word for it, but see for yourself why it is that so many of us happily took the Sudbury plunge and consider it one of the best decisions we ever made.

Guest Blog Post: AVS Parent Stacey Bloomfield

[Today's blog post comes to us from Stacey Bloomfield, a parent at Alpine Valley School. This post about her experience enrolling her son in our school was originally shared on her blog Trees in the Sidewalk.]

You never really know where you are going to find happiness. I can count the amount of times I was sure that I was about to do something amazing only to find myself feeling let down by the ordinariness of the day. Conversely some of the greatest points of my life have happened out of nowhere, or during moments of doom (my son’s new favorite word). From the look of the world out there everyone seems to be looking for the happiness formula, as if it is something that you can create through science, or worse, mimicking someone else’s experience.

I was so sure I knew what would make me happy, make my family happy. We have spent eight years fighting for the creation of a life that never fit quite right. We never quite got a handle on all the important details that seemed to keep the contentment and happiness away. Then a few weeks ago there were some changes that had to happen and suddenly (I do not use that word lightly), as the changes happened, I found a sense of peace that I haven’t felt since I was a child. No, my life isn’t all sorted out. But there is a certain feeling in my inhaling that has never been there.

As for the Interstate, it is on these morning trips west along the interstate, while my son counts the lamp posts or cars with roof racks, that I feel that joy distilled.

After two years of trying to force my child to fit into traditional school, as well as attempts to learn with him at home, he has found his place.

Every morning he gets up and asks when we can leave, and in the afternoons he is often sad when we go. As a mother, feeling the calm and happiness that has come to my child infects me. When I let go of how I was going to give my child what he needed, and explored how he could get what he needs without depending entirely on me to support, I found there was a place where he can have more freedom than I could ever give him.

Now it is up to me to find how I can reignite my passion and find how I can grow in this new happiness we are cultivating.

Cultivating Courage: Part 4

In this week’s Cultivating Courage post we answer the question: How do I best describe Alpine Valley School to my friends and family?

Sometimes after enrolling at a school like ours, families struggle finding the right words to describe the Sudbury Model of education to the people in their lives. We want to convey our excitement about the school and all the great things it has done for our children, but the words just don’t come easily. Well, never fear: here are three steps you can follow to become more confident in speaking about your experience.

  1. See for Yourself

Reading up on the Sudbury Model can help you assemble some facts and figures to keep in your back pocket for future conversations. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources out there for increasing your knowledge of the school.

First, here is how we at Alpine Valley School describe ourselves (on our website):

“At Alpine Valley School, students explore the world freely at their own pace and in their own unique ways. Our school creates a learning environment free of grades and grade levels, tests, and required classes. Instead, the students set their own educational paths, making their education meaningful and relevant.”

This passage is one of several from the About Us page on http://alpinevalleyschool.com. That entire section of the website is full of valuable information about Alpine Valley School, our history, and how we operate.

Not only that, but AVS staff members generate at least one new blog post per week. While the individual subjects vary, these posts typically contain interesting anecdotes and real-life experiences from the people who live this stuff every day. You can catch up on all our past posts by visiting the Alpine Valley School blog.

If you’re curious about the research and historical basis behind the Sudbury Model of education, we highly recommend the book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray (who spoke at our campus last year).

 

  1. Listen to Testimonials

Sometimes it’s comforting to know that you aren’t treading into uncharted territory completely on your own. There are in fact people who’ve come before you with their own success stories to tell about Alpine Valley School. Here are some of our favorite resources from AVS graduates and parents—perhaps their stories will inspire you in telling your own!


 

 

  1. Use Your Own Words

While both written and audio presentations can be great resources, it’s also important that you feel comfortable and confident in your own knowledge about Alpine Valley School. We recommend taking notes throughout the research process and compiling your thoughts into a thirty-second elevator speech. Keeping your talk short and sweet will help you distill your message into its essential elements and communicate only the most important aspects of your experience.

What do you think? Were these resources helpful? Do you have any other favorite videos or books that really helped you describe your experience at Alpine Valley School or another organization like it? Contact us at info@alpinevalleyschool.com or 303-271-0525 to chat further!

Cultivating Courage is an ongoing series of posts (text, video, etc.) intended to help Alpine Valley School families feel confident in their choices. Supporting our students means becoming more informed and helping each other along this road less traveled. These posts will address common questions (e.g. “how will my child learn”) and provide a variety of useful resources.

A School for Entrepreneurs

Back in 1997 Apple unveiled its “Think Different” campaign, generating a huge stir in the tech world with the “here’s to the crazy ones” manifesto (see above). In fact, it was referred to so often it became stale, words divorced from their meaning—a real shame, because the entire point of that advertising campaign was to inspire (along with selling computers, of course). However, looking at it now, I can think of few things that better describe what it means to be a student at Alpine Valley School.

People talk a lot these days about the “entrepreneurial spirit,” individuals who fearlessly blaze their own trail and don’t take “no” for an answer. On the cutting edge, entrepreneurs see the future and go after it rather than waiting for it to happen to them. These are the sorts of behaviors that Alpine Valley School students learn firsthand.

Growing up in an environment where they are routinely empowered to vote in important proceedings—such as hiring and firing of staff, budgeting, and election of corporate officers—helps students know they have a voice. They get used to speaking up and sharing their opinion: after all, they’ve been doing so on a regular basis since they were small. In addition, Alpine Valley School students are routinely well-informed and show up prepared to speak on the issues at hand. They are used to being asked tough questions and providing thoughtful answers.

As for taking risks (another hallmark of entrepreneurial behavior), students have the freedom in our natural learning environment to take all the risks, large and small, that their hearts desire. Whether they spend their days assembling a supercomputer or trying to turn a profit on homemade cookies, AVS students are always asking, “Will this work?” And like all good business people they know there is only one real way to find out—try it! Whether they succeed or fail in a particular venture is of little importance, as AVS students quickly realize that what really matters is what they learn from the experience. And so, by the time they have been enrolled for a few years, they already have a wealth of experience under their belts and know what works and doesn’t.

One of the other traits I’ve noticed in most entrepreneurs is a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. They live by the maxim: If it’s to be, it’s up to me. So, too, do Alpine Valley School students. Upon starting the graduation process, students are called upon to account for how they spent their time while enrolled. Did they make good use of the freedom allowed them by the Sudbury model, and did they place the necessary emphasis on preparing themselves for whatever comes next? Not only that, but day-to-day life at school requires a high level of personal accountability, whether it means speaking up for a motion that you have sponsored in School Meeting, advocating for yourself in Judicial Committee, or simply making your opinion heard in discussion around the Main Room table.

Alpine Valley School is a home for people who make their own way in the world, the individuals who see things differently. We provide them the safety and civic framework in which they can do their best work, and become their best selves. Best of all, the lessons they learn here last them for the rest of their lives.

Jim Rietmulder Speaking Event | January 15th

Why are so many schools so out of touch? How might we make them relevant again? As a founder and 30-year staff member at The Circle School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jim Rietmulder has had many opportunities to explore these questions.

As it turns out, self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities helps people master what they most need in the ways that work best for them. On Thursday, January 15 at 6pm, come hear Jim describe what we at Alpine Valley School we call “real learning for real life.” After all, it’s hard to get a lot more relevant than this.

Cultivating Courage: Part 3

In this week’s Cultivating Courage post we answer the question: How will my child get accepted into college after attending Alpine Valley School?

Future-looking parents often come to us with this question, expressing concern that their child will not be able to get into the college of their choice after attending a school like ours. In particular, they often express concern over the lack of GPAs, extracurricular activities, and standard-looking transcripts.

While it’s true that Alpine Valley School doesn’t place the same emphasis on grades as other institutions, our graduates do create their own unique transcripts. As personalized as an AVS education itself, this transcript often includes details regarding school positions the student held while enrolled (such as School Meeting Chair), as well as any involvement in school Corporations and Committees (such as Public Relations & Marketing). Authentic leadership positions such as these can really help a Sudbury college applicant stand out from the crowd.

Dr. Peter Gray (author of Free to Learn) has conducted a research study on grown unschoolers, much of which applies to students at Alpine Valley and other Sudbury schools. One part of his study, focusing on college admissions, can be found here: Survey of Grown Unschoolers: Going on to College. Of particular interest is his observation that “unlike so many others in the general population, most unschoolers do not consider college admission, or college graduation, or high grades in college, to be in any general sense a measure of life success.”

Along these same lines Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, wrote an article called Why Entrepreneurs Sometimes Struggle With Formal Education. Branson makes the point that many individuals who see things differently and are self-directed often struggle in a more traditional educational environment where mistakes (in other words, critically important learning tools) are not generally welcome. On the positive side, the passion and intensity of this kind of learner drive them to overcome obstacles standing between them and their dreams, such as getting into college.

Many individuals do choose to pursue a college education after graduating from Alpine Valley School, and many of them find the freedom they experience in their last few years at school gives them a leg up. AVS students can spend 100% of their time at school focused on studying for the SATs, working on challenging areas of study (such as calculus or English), and preparing all the necessary materials they will need to get accepted into the college of their choice. We’ve found that this kind of focused attention typically gives them a significant advantage over the traditional high school graduate, who does not have that kind of time to dedicate exclusively to college applications.

What are your thoughts? Did we spark any additional questions for you around college admissions? Give us a call at 303-271-0525 or email info@alpinevalleyschool.com to discuss this subject further.

Couldn’t attend the Get to Know AVS event last weekend? Check out the full video of the panel Q&A here:

Cultivating Courage is an ongoing series of posts (text, video, etc.) intended to help Alpine Valley School families feel confident in their choices. Supporting our students means becoming more informed and helping each other along this road less traveled. These posts will address common questions and provide a variety of useful resources.

The “Lazy” Teenager

Earlier this summer an op-ed titled “The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Psychologist Adam Price focuses his piece on the “perennial despair of the ‘lazy’ or mysteriously and obstinately unmotivated” teenage boy. In his practice, Dr. Price sees young men whose parents are concerned about what he calls the “failure to launch” syndrome.

Their parents, fearing that their sons will never successfully launch into adulthood, have tried everything. They’ve begged, pleaded and bribed. But nothing seems to light the fire of motivation.

At Alpine Valley School we’ve observed the growth and development of many young people, so I’d like to bring some of our experience to bear on Dr. Price’s four instructions to parents. (The op-ed speaks of males only, but I think this is sound advice for young women too.)

  • Stop telling him how smart he is.

  • Stop doing the dishes for him.

  • Don’t let him off easy.

  • Don’t make him shine for you.

 

Stop telling him how smart he is

What? As parents shouldn’t we praise our children—and isn’t “being smart” a good thing to praise? In fact, Dr. Price suggests that “telling them how smart they are gives them an expectation that they must live up to. Being considered smart becomes their prized identity, one they are loath to lose by taking risks and failing.” At Alpine Valley School, intelligence is based on a much broader understanding of ability. We also prioritize self-evaluation and learning from mistakes. After all, failure is one of the best teachers, and who can judge better than you whether you’re “smart”?

 

Stop doing the dishes for him

According to Dr. Price, “Successful people tend to be those who are willing and able to do things that they really don’t want to do.” When parents do the dishes, for example, their kids may develop an attitude of “I am above all of that drudgery.” Alpine Valley School students have many, many opportunities to share in the “drudgery” of running a school. From mundane cleaning chores to administrative tasks, students dive in and help out in doing things that need to be done but aren’t so much fun.

 

Don’t let him off easy

At our school, everyone has the responsibility to follow the rules, to face the consequences of their actions, and to decide how to deal with things that don’t go the way they’d like. If someone’s rude to me, for example, I can file a Judicial Committee complaint, or I can address that person directly and say, “What you said to me yesterday hurt my feelings. Please don’t do that again.” If I think a rule is unfair or doesn’t make sense, I can start the process of changing that rule. Each person is expected to be respectful and responsible, to look out for the general welfare of the school. While Alpine Valley School offers a supportive community, no one here is “let off easy.”

 

Don’t make him shine for you

Dr. Price ends his last instruction with this: “A college counselor I know likes to say that a good college is the one that fits your kid, not one whose name adds class to your car’s rear window.” This is a little touchy, as every parent’s heart swells with pride when their child does something noteworthy. The point is that we parents need to understand that if our kids do something completely different from what we did or what was expected of us, we can still feel pride. We as a school certainly take pride in our graduates and current students for the fantastic people they are—because they’re pursuing their own lives in a peaceful, responsible manner—not because they “shine for us.”

The “Lazy Teenager” is an interesting concept. While Dr. Price sees no cure, I think he’s right to speculate that it has something to do with a sense of autonomy. Step back for a minute and wonder with me: How is it that at just the time children naturally want to be more adultlike, they become lazy? I looked at a couple of dictionaries for context, and found roots for “lazy” that mean “weak” and “corrupt.” Could it be that these teens are displaying a natural reaction to excessive adult direction? Could it be that we as a society have had a hand in creating the Lazy Teenager? All the more reason to be glad that places like Alpine Valley School emphasize empowerment and responsibility.