Cultivating Courage Series

We are proud to unveil a new blog feature this week called Cultivating Courage, 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.

Today’s question is: How do Alpine Valley School students learn the basics when they’re allowed to do whatever they want?

We often hear this question from new families who are trying to understand how their child will acquire foundational skills such as mathematics or literacy when they aren’t necessarily taught these subjects in a formal classroom. In reality, there are better places to learn these things than classrooms.

Not only do we find that acquiring the “basics” happens naturally, without any additional pressure from outside forces (parents, teachers, etc.), students actually learn better in the natural learning environment we provide at Alpine Valley School. In particular, they spend their time focusing on things they actually enjoy rather than subjects they are compelled to study, and they’re faced with a variety of real-life scenarios on a regular basis which provide excellent educational opportunities.

We asked AVS alum Joshua Mann about his experience, and here’s what he had to say: “AVS offers all of [the major] subjects, so long as the student is willing to put the effort and time into organizing and attending the classes. This is a method of curriculum that requires the student to be in charge of his or her own education in every sense. However, I believe there is so much more to learning than just that. Every conversation, every interaction, every moment we spend doing the things we want to do is an opportunity to learn. The reason I was able to learn so much at AVS is because that unstructured environment allowed me the freedom to do so.”

We also asked this question to a group of graduates at a recent panel interview. Watch a video clip below: we think you’ll find their answers fascinating and persuasive.

Dr. Peter Gray has written extensively about the subject of unstructured learning on his blog Freedom to Learn. Here are some brief examples of his insights:

So, what do you think? Does this match with your own child’s experience at Alpine Valley School? Contact us directly at or via phone at 303-271-0525 – we’d love to hear your feedback!

We Need Your Help: September 2014

Volunteer Opportunities | September 2014 

Many people have asked us how they can get involved in helping the school on a regular basis. Here are some things you can do to help out this month:

If you are interested in helping out with any of these opportunities, please contact the appropriate person or group (indicated beside each item).

  • Check out the fundraising opportunities on our website: Support AVS
  • Write a guest blog or provide a testimonial for our website. Consider submitting a few paragraphs about what you did on your summer vacation! (Contact Missa)
  • Assist the Building Maintenance Clerk with some upcoming improvements to the campus (Contact Larry)
  • Use Amazon Smile so AVS gets a small percentage (at no extra cost to you!) when shopping online: Amazon Smile (Contact Connie)

Honored Students

I think most of us would agree: there are some students for whom conventional schools simply don’t work. Fewer, I suspect, would support my claim that these schools also do a disservice to those students who appear to thrive in them. Yet extensive experience as both a student and educator has convinced me that this is, in fact, the case.

Attending conventional schools throughout my childhood, I had just the sort of abilities and attitudes that system favors. Not only did I exhibit strong verbal and quantitative skills, I was also raised to comply with authority figures. I did what I was told, I did it well, and the straight As and praise flowed in a profuse, steady stream.

At the time I didn’t think too much about this. Even when I started college and it became apparent I wasn’t quite ready for its challenges, my self-image as a smart, successful student didn’t waver much. I simply bore down, continuing to rely on the direction and evaluation of teachers for a sense both of what I ought to do and how well I was doing it.

Only with the full onset of adulthood did it become undeniable that something was lacking—quite a lot, as it turned out. Continue reading

We Need Your Help: August 2014

Volunteer Opportunities | August 2014 

Many people have asked us how they can get involved in helping the school on a regular basis. Here are some things you can do to help out this month:

If you are interested in helping out with any of these opportunities, please contact the appropriate person or group (indicated beside each item).

  • Sign up to help clean the school on September 16th (Contact Connie)
  • Provide a testimonial or quote on your family’s experience with the school for use in AVS marketing material (Contact Missa)
  • Help FoAVS organize the annual trip to Snow Mountain Ranch (Contact FoAVS)
  • Donate / solicit donations of refreshments for the Get to Know AVS Event (Contact Missa)
  • Spread the word about upcoming events within your own family / social network!

Get to Know Alpine Valley School


You’ve heard of us—now get to know us a little better! On Saturday, September 13 at 10am, come enjoy our campus and meet Alpine Valley School parents, alumni, and staff. This special event will feature self-guided tours and a short presentation (followed by Q&A), as well as opportunities to chat informally with members of the AVS Community on topics important to you. We’ll have a slide show of scenes from daily school life, plus materials about the Sudbury Model of education that you can take with you. Refreshments and childcare will be provided.

Register for this event here!


Winging It

[Today's blog post comes from Alpine Valley School student Alexander Alford]

Late in May, as the school year was ending, I found an article titled “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time”. That is to say, even though most everyone likes to pretend that they know what they’re doing, they often don’t—not on a deep level. If you’re skilled in the art of improvisation and acting like you know exactly enough, you are seen as competent. If you aren’t so skilled, or downright bad at those things, then you’re seen as average, or incompetent. There are other forces at play, of course, but being able to improvise solutions without perfect information or planning is essential. Put simply, winging your way through life is the norm, and a deciding factor in one’s success in a wide range of situations.

If you believe there are mythical competent people in charge, think about every professional position you’ve held throughout your life. Was anyone around you magically competent? Probably not. Everyone thinks someone else knows something they themselves do not, and oddly enough, the supposed knowledge-bearers don’t know either. Most people have something they’ve learned to do, and they stick to it. But there are a few people who are ready and willing (or even eager) to venture outside their immediate area of knowledge. These are the people who are comfortable with improvising. These are the people who are considered competent, and thus valued highly.

Saying that conventional schooling doesn’t instill any improvisational ability in its students would be incorrect. It would be accurate, however, to say that educational models like Sudbury schooling instill much more ability to ‘wing it’ effectively through life. Imagine a ‘normal’ student of conventional schooling. They go through a curriculum that presents rigid deadlines at every turn, with deviation discouraged by both their authority figures and (albeit to a lesser extent) their peers. Now imagine a Sudbury student: deciding what they want to do for themselves at every turn, rather than being pushed to the ‘correct’ way. Learning how to navigate and improvise for themselves for the majority of their childhood, rather than being constantly guided by an outside process until they’re ‘old enough.’

Which group do you think will be more likely to excel at improvising their way through the complications and challenges of the world?

Why Video Games Are So Important

When I was a student at Alpine Valley School (over a decade ago!) a number of my friends were gamers. They would gather around an Xbox or Playstation and do battle for hours and hours. This is one of the great benefits of enrolling at Alpine Valley School: students have the freedom to pursue those activities that they value and enjoy. However, in those days, I did not find the same thrill in liberating alien compounds as my friends did. I’d sit with them for a little while and attempt to get the hang of it, but would inevitably tire of running my character off a cliff or crashing my race car and head off to do something I found enjoyable.

Now that I’m a staff member and a soon-to-be mom, I have been contemplating video gaming from a different perspective. They may not be my cup of tea, but is there inherent value in spending so much time in front of a screen, whether you’re solving puzzles or assembling a fantasy football team? Do video games actually do anything, or are they just an entertaining waste of time?

To answer my question, I turned to gaming expert and entrepreneur Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. While I cracked the cover of this book a skeptic, I must say that by the end, it won me over. Not only does McGonigal make compelling points about the future of gaming as a source of social interaction, emotional activation, and positivity: she also points out how the current gaming culture provides all those benefits (and more) to gamers.

It turns out that games do provide a valuable service to each and every player, even ones who kind of suck at it (like me). They provide a quick and easy way to light up the pleasure centers in our brain, activating the positive chemical mixtures typically produced only when we do something really outstanding. Amazingly, whether you climb a mountain or bowl a perfect 300 on Wii Bowling, your brain reacts the same. The thrill of completing a challenge or, better yet, helping your friend achieve a goal boosts your mental state whether or not the whole activity took place in a virtual world. In summary? Games make us happy.

Not only that, but they also act as a conduit for our human instinct to play. As with all forms of play, video games are initiated by the players and have a set of rules that everyone agrees on. Whether solitary or collaborative, gaming involves the mind in an active way.

There isn’t enough room here to go into all the benefits of play and the huge difference it makes to both children and adults (check out Peter Gray’s amazing blog if you want to learn more about this subject), but suffice it to say that play is just about the most important thing we can do to enrich our minds, engage one another socially, and cultivate joy and meaning in our lives. No other activity provides so much bang for the buck.

What I’ve recently come to understand is that so-called “productive” or “educational” activities such as looking at flash cards or reading textbooks are actually less effective than video games at teaching people the skills they need to learn. And while not everyone may want to sit down and play a few hours of Halo every weekend, nearly everyone’s lives are enriched by the benefits of even just a few minutes of playing a game. So, to answer my earlier question- yes, video games provide enormous value, both to the players who are getting the mental and emotional payoff and to the larger community. Games can actually teach us how to be more productive, satisfied, and connected, none of which I would have expected before reading Reality is Broken.

I have since downloaded several games on my iPad, including Candy Crush, Piano Tiles, and others recommended by Alpine Valley School students. Even though I’ve only been playing for a few weeks, I already feel the benefits of gaming just a few minutes per day. I find that I have greater focus for tasks throughout the day, better hand-eye coordination, and, best of all, I feel like I am part of a community – both online and at school. And even though I will probably never come close to the high score set by any of the students, I can always ask for their help if I get stuck and, hopefully, gain even more knowledge in the process.