Episode 42

Larry Welshon with his father, Don,

Episode 42: I Can Do What I Want

Students at self-directed democratic schools like Alpine Valley School and others, have significant freedom. In many ways they can “do what they want” all day long. However, that freedom must be balanced with responsibility - a concept that founder and staff member Larry Welshon discusses in this engaging talk. This speech was originally given at a sister school, Glacier Lake in Montana, as part of their recent fundraising efforts, and it covers a lot of ground. Find out by what age most kids have dropped out of school, how Larry first discovered the alternative schooling movement, and more on this episode of the Alpine Valley School podcast.

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Episode Transcript:

Marc Gallivan: (00:00)
Hello and welcome to the Alpine Valley school podcast. I'm your host Marc Gallivan. This is episode 42 of our show and you can find show notes for this episode at alpinevalleyschool.com/podcast/ep42 for episode 42. The show notes include details about today's episode including a full written transcript. Recently AVS staff member and founder Larry Welshon traveled to beautiful Montana to give a speech at one of our sister schools called Glacier Lake. He got to explore their lovely campus, speak to their staff members and end the day by giving a speech all about his experience at our school in an effort to help glacier Lake reach their fundraising goals. You can learn more about Glacier Lake by visiting the show notes page and I encourage you to contribute to their fundraising efforts even if only slightly to help them move forward. We're all in this together and we want to see all self-directed democratic schools continue to survive and thrive for many, many years to come. Today's show features audio from the talk that Larry gave at their fundraising dinner and includes a few never before featured tidbits from Larry's own journey to alternative education. I found this to be an excellent talk and it's one of my favorite things we've ever published on the show. I really hope you enjoy it. Without further ado, here's Larry.

Larry Welshon: (01:22)
Thank you. I have some prepared remarks, but I also want to comment, you know what, I, in the time that I've been involved with this, uh, movement of, we would call them Sudbury schools, right? But I'm not sure you use the term Sudbury in your model, but it's the same thing. So anytime I go to a school like this, I walk in and I, I can tell immediately that it's very similar to mine. And it's the same with this one. Even though I didn't get to be here yesterday when there were kids here, a walking in the building here, meeting with the staff, etc. It's very clearly a school very much like mine. And I think the, you know, what I've heard tonight in five years, what you guys have accomplished is tremendous. The stories that that have preceded my tale here tonight are, are wondrous and and after only five years, I think you've really made it. I mean, you guys have a real treasure here. This is a fantastic place.

So I go on with my prepared remarks. So in 1988 I graduated a degree in history and a powerful desire to teach. It didn't matter where. During that awkward phase between graduating and getting hired, my days were filled with working with kids in an open space program. One day I got home, I had on an answering machine, which some of us remember what answering machines are, right? Yeah, yeah. It has tape in it right. Anyway, there was this message says, hi Larry, this is Larry from less normal high school. Give me a call. I'd like to interview you. I thought, well, that's normal high school that I'm sure that's what I heard. So my then later to be my wife and mother of our children, we drove out to this very impoverished school district North of Denver from my interview with a man named Larry. It turned out the school was Les Arnold high school, not less normal. Nonetheless, it turned out to be less normal, but my 10 years there were formative and changed the course of of my life and laid the groundwork for Alpine Valley School. Then my wife and I started, so my students at that point were dropouts who to their credit, we're trying to get some kind of credential so that they could find employment and better their very tough lives in one of the most depressed areas of Denver. And for some reason I bonded strongly with them, I enjoyed working with them and I enjoyed talking with them. Keep in mind at that point I was 22 so many of my students were not much younger than me. The program allowed me a great deal of freedom of teachers I saw fit. It also allowed me the time just to sit and talk with them. The conversations would invariably turn to schooling. Our one common experience. I was a good student in my schooling career and had the good fortune of attending what was considered to be a great school. Yeah. Yet as I talk with my students were much different schooling situation. Much of what they said resonated with my own experiences. What I heard in conversations with hundreds of kids over the course of those years have fundamentally altered the way I viewed education and human beings over and over. I heard the same thing.

One, when a student has a real need to learn, when their need is theirs and theirs alone, they don't need me to teach them. They can do it themselves. Number two, nearly all of my students dropped out mentally in fourth grade, but physically at 15 and with very few exceptions, these dropouts were very intelligent. I'm going to touch briefly on each of these three points, my students had to master reading, writing, math in what is arguably a pretty high level. The GED test is not an easy test to pass and then later years we conducted some tests of the conventional school graduates in the district. We found that many of them couldn't pass the GED test. That study was quickly buried. We didn't talk about that. These kids were 17 through 21 and they'd returned to get some sort of credential. Most of them had their own kids. Most of them had jobs when they showed up in my classroom, they were tired. Just needed to get the work done. These kids came in, some having been gone from school for years with precious little teaching help from me. They taught themselves how to read, write, do math, basic geometry, algebra right? Extemporaneously. They had a need to learn and they learn what they need to know in that moment. Right?

I hesitate to dwell on too much teacher bashing or system bashing. It needs to be mentioned that if only briefly, I spent 10 years in the public school system, my wife even longer, and she and I were both products of the system and believed deeply in the importance of teaching and education. The burdens that were and are placed on classroom teachers are untenable. No matter how loving and kind of person is. The system forces teachers into roles that separate them from students. Our common humanity fades into the background, the obsessive focus on measurement and tests and rubrics, et cetera, leave a gaping chasm in what should be a very human experience. Older people hanging out with younger people teaching them how to live. I recall that I mentioned that the kids dropped out in fourth grade. Mentally, I find that still true today when I interview families and students who've been in there 12 or 13 years of age, sure enough, it's the same thing as true today. 30 years later, they're still dropping out in fourth grade. Mentally. It is very interesting to me because of the dehumanizing attributes of the conventional schooling system. Classroom teachers are not given the opportunity to see how intelligent children are in their natural state.

So here we are back in 1993 my wife and I are both public school teachers. We're newlywed and establishing ourselves in career. My wife's name was Tammy. And about this time I started working on a master's degree in administration. Convinced that I could become a principal and changed the work just by being a high school principal. Well, not long into the program. Tammy and I realized that we ourselves were going to be parents and it was great and exciting news. Tammy being more forward looking than I said, what are we going to do for our kids? And I'm like, that's five years away. What are you worried about? But she was thinking. So she started researching models of schooling throughout the pregnancy and about a month before our son was born, I found myself at an alternative ed conference. And there was a breakout session with the staff from Sudbury Valley school in Massachusetts, which is a school very similar to my school very similar to this school. And the description on the little handout was very brief. Something like student ages, students ages four to 19 in a democratically run school are in charge of their lives, something very short. And I thought that sounds good and interesting. So I went there and I listened to Mimsy Sadofsky who was a staff member at Sudbury Valley then and now and she said something more elegant. She said something like this. The Sudbury Valley school is a place where children are free. Their natural curiosity is the starting point for everything that happens at the school. Here, students initiate all their own activities. The staff, the building, the equipment are all there to answer their needs. Learning takes place in formal and informal settings in large and small groups or individually, all ages or free to mix at all times. The dynamics amongst students of different ages, helping each other learn everything from human relations to math is one of the greatest strengths of the school. Students share responsibility for their own environment and for the quality of life. At school. The school is managed by the weekly school meeting where every student staff member has a vote. An education at Sudbury Valley is also an education in hands on democracy.

That's exactly what I wanted as a teacher, as a parent, freedom for the students, freedom for the teachers, a small community age, mixing curiosity, barely able to contain myself. I said, Mimsy, I just met this person too, by the way, right? Just Mimsy. Is there a school like this in Colorado? And she said, no, why don't you start one? Right. So I went home and talked it over with Tam, where I got excited about the community and freedom and community decision making, age mixing and everything else.She saw something different. Children could do art, all they wanted without interruption. Tammy was an artist. Her whole being exuded art and creativity in her formative years. That creative impulse had to fit into the schedule of the school day at a school like Sudbury Valley or later Alpine Valley. She could have done art all day long year in and year out. So by this point, Tammy's very, very pregnant. So we put the research of school and on hold and the day she was to go into labor I, uh, had an important meeting with district, right? And so I called up the, uh, director of curriculum and I said, Hey, my wife's going into labor. I won't be at the meeting. And I kid you not. She said this to me. She said, well, I can see where your loyalties lie. [laughter] We didn't got along after that, which was all for the best and the handwriting was on the wall. So Ethan was born. I'm back at work three months later and I'm complaining to it, an elderly friend of mine about my teaching job having to do with the fact that I couldn't do what I want it to do. Right? So he said, seriously, Larry, when you take the King's coin, you sing the King's tune. I thought, Oh my gosh. I said, well, Ken, would you, would you help me start a Sudbury school? And he said, yes. So it's pithy phrase about taking the King's coin resonated with me so deeply that 26 years later I could still hear it in my head. It's about being independent. What is more than as an elder in my community, he was pointing out a fundamental truth about living free in a community and he was willing to back it up by supporting my wife and I in starting what would become Alpine Valley school. Many donated generously to the school even before we became a nonprofit entity. As Tammy and I started working toward creating an independent school where children could live their own lives. Other helped out too. We could not have done it without their financial, emotional, and other support. Even today, 22 years into running Alpine Valley School, relied on the generous contribution and the few members of our larger community without whose help we would have had to close many years ago. After a false start in 1995 we did finally open the doors, so the Alpine Valley school in a church rented church in 1997 and as I said, the rest is history, and it's that history I want to touch on the remainder of my comments.

I think that as immodest as it will sound, the kids that we've had have been very positively affected by Alpine Valley school, so I'll describe it. One of my favorite stories is about a girl who came to our school when she was six years old. She was passionate about horses. Owning a horse was not feasible for her family. So she devised a plan of volunteering at barns, with a little help from staff. She cracked open a phone book. You remember those big, thick, right. Especially in Metro Denver, right. They were like this big, right? So I actually went through the phone book to find barns to volunteer at, so she would call them, this is a young girl, eight years old. She's saying, would you accept a volunteer to help muck out the stalls or whatever, and they'd say, sure. Then they would ask the next question, how old are you? Right? As you might expect that we put the kibosh on it most of the time, but undeterred she kept at it and eventually found a barn to volunteer at and work at, and horses became a big part of her life and still still are today. Children at our school grow up believing, confident that they can do the things that are important to them. They learn how to overcome obstacles and develop tenacity in the face of rejection. That girl now, a young woman and her Alpine Valley school alum husband, have created a beautiful life that suits them together. It's deeply satisfying. And I attribute that to the fact if they were in charge of their lives from a very early age.

So earlier this week, a current student and I were chatting about a certain graduate who happened to be visiting that morning. By the way, once you get a few graduates under your belt, they do want to come back and say hi. Right. And so periodically we have graduates come by the school to say hi and they hang out for an hour or two. So this, uh, so I was sitting there with a student and the student says, why does everyone who goes to this school have such an interesting career path? Before I could even contemplate the question, he says, Oh yeah, it's because they can do what they want. So children growing up into our school, uh, constantly hear you can do what you want, but what does that really mean? You actually heard, I think some other speakers talk about this problem. I can do what I want in terms of cookies for dinner, right? So what's the long term impact of a kid who, who lives out their life thinking that they can do what they want? Right? That's so at first this, it's simple things, right? I can eat when I want, I can play what I want and all that. And uh, you know, in that particular conversation with this kid last week, I played devil's advocate and I said, surely you can't do anything you want here. And he immediately said, of course, that's right. There are limits. So the development of these limits is an interesting topic to me because being a freedom-minded person myself, I myself always want to do what I want too. So eventually all of us in the school run into a conflict with others. I can do what I want, runs into your, I can do what I want. I can play with the blocks. And so can William, it becomes a problem when both of us want to do it right now. Now the seemingly nonchalant attitude of I can do what I want has taken on new meaning in that moment too. Do I decide to play nicely? Do I negotiate? Do I just sit there? I don't know if I'm really young. It might take me a long time to figure this out. Over time you hone the idea of what of I can do what I want by understanding that my right to do what I want is tempered by everyone else's, right to do what they want. So we manage this balance of freedom and community in Sudbury schools with a the Lawbook, and I believe we've talked about that tonight, too, written by students and staff and enforced by students and staff through the judicial committee. This law abiding individual respecting culture is developed imperceptibly moment to moment, day to day in thousands of interactions. A young human being who's preparing to enter the society that holds individual Liberty as a cornerstone best served by practicing on a daily basis, how to live with others while doing what you want to do. Put another way. How do we live peacefully with each other in a society where everyone else's right to do what they want to do, runs into someone else's. Imagine how the world would be different if people learned early on that you can't encroach on other people's rights.

As the students at Alpine Valley school get older, they did different facets of the issue become evidence because the stakes become larger. Perhaps what I can do, what I want, it takes a bit of fundraising or permission from an official body in the school. A few years ago when a group of students wanted to go traveling, they raised money over two years to fully fund a trip around the state of Colorado. So I can do what I want, became, I can do, I want, but I have to earn it. Each one of these kids still talks about that experience even though there now relatively old and close to their thirties and but they talk about it still, it was a formative experience for them. Another experience example, it involves my son Ethan, so Ethan, of course, today's an old man. He's twenty-six, terribly old. So we have a huge sandbox and Ethan was always digging holes in the sand channels, digging holes, channels, worlds, making worlds, creating things, and always, always doing this. And not just when he was a little kid, he was playing in the sandbox when he was 18 right. Mostly he was digging sometimes with little kids, right? Cause it kind of works that way. In a school where there's all ages. So beginning about age 12 Ethan starts digging holes in each year the holes get deeper and deeper and naturally big holes in the sandbox affect others, especially those who were playing tag or groundies on the play structure. How do you manage that? As a person who's growing up in a school, he and his hole digging friends found a way to accommodate their wishes and their own wishes in the same place. Ethan's hole ambition became more serious or should I say deeper? Over the years around the time he was 16 he was set on finding gold that existed in the sandbox. This was not a whimsical notion. From the earliest of ages, Ethan studied geology. He knew a great deal about geology and when the school hired, uh, an adult staff member at one point who tangentially was a geologist, he said to me, Ethan knows more about geology than I do. So Alpine Valley sits in this flood plain from clear Creek, which is near Denver and Ethan and his friend's reasoned that when clear Creek was raging thousands of years ago, the gold was washing down from the river and deposited widely in the area. So he starts to dig and the hole got bigger and bigger. The piles around the hole became higher as the hole got deeper. The official warrior wart of the school also known as Larry and not a real position, made sure that there was shoring and the hole was covered when not in use. And the same worry wart was also the school's grounds clerk, which is an actual position. It was the grounds clerk's understanding that he had the authority to manage and allow this project and the whole thing. It was now 13 feet deep, seven feet across. It was so deep that the boys had to rent a hose and a pump to keep up of groundwater. It became a huge production. Many of the people, many people in the school were involved. Strangers drove by, slowed down watched some with alarm, some with curiosity. And as the project kept going, more and more of the sandbox became a mine dump. And the campus was beginning to look well in my mind it looked beautiful because it was an industry and they were productive and they were doing cool things. But in others' minds, not so much. So in the school, grumblings began to be heard through without the community. Why are they being allowed to monopolize the whole sandbox, it looks terrible. So from Ethan's perspective and the other miner's perspective, he checked with the right person, the grounds clerk grounds said it was okay. But other's started to challenge this. So to the law book we went, did the ground's clerk actually have the authority to allow this gigantic hole? Was there any legal recourse to stop them? Sure enough when we looked at the laws it appeared that responsibility actually with the Aesthetics & Use committee, not the grounds clerk. So as you can see, sometimes with I can do what I want, higher authorities get involved. So case in point Aesthetics & Use committee. It's a big committee in our school and it deals with everything that you can possibly do with the campus, whether it's putting things on the wall or apparently digging holes in the sandbox. It met, there were meetings, there was argument digging kept going. The committee made a decision, the hole would be closed by a date, certain so, and I have a comment from one of Ethan's friends who wrote about this whole experience. His name is Ian. So he says this about the hole:, this incredible long term project. It taught me many things. Most importantly, determination and patience. It also furthered my ability to cooperate and taught me good work ethics from having to stay focused on the mind hour after hour, day after day. This project will always be my favorite memory from Alpine Valley school. It constantly reminds me that working hard all the way to the end is worth it. Did they find gold? They did. They did. So they got down to the bottom and they dug out all the black sands at the bottom and the river rocks this big, it was huge. It was 13 feet down. So they're hauling out these river rocks, hauling out the black sand, and then they created a gravity separator and sure enough, they had a little vial of gold flecks.

For 22 years. I've seen how this model changes the lives of students, whether they enroll young or as tweens or as teens, students who learn the deeper meaning of I can do what I want, graduate from our schools knowing their own interests and how to achieve their goals. They have a much better sense about how to live life on their own. Okay. Yeah. Even if they make different choices from other people. Our graduates look back fondly on their years in Alpine Valley School because they learned crucial lessons about being effective adults. The simple idea of I can do what I want manifests in such powerful and unexpected ways. At Valley school, it's really not a simple idea at all because it plays out in a community of equals much like the society we live in, one of the biggest impacts our school has on children and the adults who live there. Just to help us understand the community is crucially important to any endeavor, whether it's the community of two five-year-olds playing with blocks, a group of preteens fundraising for a trip, teenagers digging for gold or a couple of starry-eyed young parents who wanted a different school for their children. All of us are living together at the school in a scaled down version of the larger community. We all need each other. Lots of different ones. You learn how to get along with each other. You learn how to get what we want without harming or taking advantage of others. These are pretty good traits in our graduates. All graduates from schools like this have them in abundance. Thank you.

Marc Gallivan: (24:50)
I hope you'll take a minute to visit the show notes page at alpinevalleyschool.com/podcast/ep42 and learn more about our sister school Glacier Lake in Montana. Ben and Lisa, the founders are treasures in the self directed learning movement and I really hope you'll all lend a hand to their fundraising efforts as well. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Marc Gallivan. This is the Alpine Valley School podcast, and we'll be back again soon with more stories of real learning for real life. .