A few days ago a Sudbury parent posed a question on a message board for families involved in alternative schooling. One of our own alumni, Jesse Alford, responded with the following insightful message.
Here is a shortened version of the question posed on the message board:
How does the Sudbury model encourage learning, which is based on focused repetition? And how do children learn when they aren’t intrinsically motivated to do so? Good teachers often inspire motivation to learn, but how to children learn to do this on their own?
Here is Jesse’s response:
I’m not a sudbury parent, but I am a sudbury alum. For context, I’m a deeply satisfied (apparently effective) adult with a lucrative tech job. I didn’t go to college, and I didn’t do anything that was too repetitious to seem like a good idea – a rule that has continued to serve me well into adulthood and professional life. I played a lot of video games, spent a lot of time with building toys (to include blocks, the sandbox, and the minds of my friends), and wandered around outside with tiny toy spaceships making spaceship noises. (Actually, I still do all of these things to some extent.) I will admit I require a robot to do my vacuuming, because there is no other way it is going to get done to the extent necessary to keep up with the three cats and a dog I live with. But, I have such a robot, and so, pass as an effective adult.
In a talk on education, one of my heroines used the image of someone being “bled to death by a thousand small scratches.” This image sticks with me, because in 25 years of teaching I have seen firsthand many such scratches inflicted on both children and adults—many people who have been, essentially, bled to death by the system.
What have I actually seen? I’ve seen children who shut down because they were called names in front of the class. I’ve seen kids who dropped out of school because they couldn’t submit to giving public speeches. I’ve seen kids stop asking questions because one too many teachers used the “teachable moment” to force their ideas onto students. In all these cases, children are powerless to defend themselves from small (or not so small) scratches.
With our foundation of freedom and responsibility, little scratches don’t lead to long-term harm at Alpine Valley School: on the contrary, we allow young people to grow into the strong and independently minded adults you can see in our graduates. Given the amount of active, physical play AVS students enjoy (in stark contrast to most other schools), nearly every day one kid or another bumps up against life, either literally or figuratively.
Let me be clear, though: our emphasis on responsibility means it’s not a free-for-all. For example, the School Meeting Lawbook includes the following:
Activities that present a danger to anyone’s personal safety are prohibited.
No one may knowingly infringe on anyone’s right to exist peaceably at school, free of verbal or
Running, moving recklessly and/or roughhousing are not permitted in the building.
Nonetheless, kids at AVS get to experience life’s inevitable scratches. What do they learn from these? With the literal variety, they learn things like:
I am fully capable of handling this.
Cold packs are good to have around.
Wasp stings hurt – but the pain eventually goes away.
How to know when to get someone’s help.
When someone’s hurt, the game is put on hold.
Then there are the figurative scratches—hurt feelings, no one to play with, realizing you signed up for four chores and there’s five minutes left to do them, or learning that you’re responsible for your own feelings, actions, and life. What do AVS students learn from these?
Friendships are a process of give and take.
Being lonely is often only temporary.
Asking for help or for more time can make an overwhelming task manageable.
In closing, I want to dwell on the special case of those lucky souls who’ve grown up as AVS “lifers”—that is, all (or nearly all) of their educational life has been spent with us. In their last year at Alpine Valley School, as these young adults embark on our intensive graduation process, an interesting thing happens. All the little things they’ve gone through in their lives—what might be viewed as scratches—suddenly coalesce into a feeling of calm confidence. “Yes, I can take on the world. Yes, I want to leave this loving environment for the great unknown, because I know that I can safely and successfully take it on.”
It’s by being allowed to experience life’s small scratches this way—naturally finding the line where freedom meets responsibility, where individual desires bump up against physical and social limits—that these students are able to grow up healthy, intact, and fully prepared for the larger world. Do you know any children who deserve this kind of opportunity? Contact us today and schedule a tour!
Larry Welshon is a founder and staff member at Alpine Valley School. He is also the proud parent of two AVS graduates.