Freedom Revisited

4 Jul

After having read my last blog post, an old family friend recently emailed me the following question:

So, with all the freedom in your school, how do kids adjust to the fact that in real life they can’t just be “free” and do whatever they want whenever they want?

I get this question all the time, but I didn’t expect it to come from this person. Having always been supportive of me and my school, I knew that she wasn’t trying to be critical. She was really trying to understand. But the fact that she, of all people, didn’t already understand was confusing to me. I’ve always seen her as free – an independent, adventurous, and confident woman who traveled the world and was always eager to learn new things. Even now that she is retired and travel isn’t so appealing, she hikes in the wilderness, teaches Spanish, and volunteers as an EMT. For me, she is the epitome of a person who is free, responsible, and empowered – what Sudbury schools are all about.

So after receiving her email, I spent most of the day thinking about what her question really meant. Obviously, her picture of what “freedom” looks like in my school was skewed. It finally dawned on me that she was defining “freedom” through her lens of traditional schooling, an authoritarian system in which “freedom” means something totally different – mostly centered on evading control and surveillance. Below is my attempt to refocus that lens.

Freedom does not mean license.

Freedom at our school doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want. The message, “Your freedom ends where the next person’s begins,” is constantly reinforced via the judicial system and the lawbook. One of the most common rules that new students break is:

No one may infringe on anyone’s right to exist peaceably at school, free of verbal, physical or any other type of harassment.

Students who come to us from more traditional schools are often surprised by how fiercely our students, even the youngest ones, protect their own right and respect others’ right to exist peaceably. There is no need for a teacher (or any other adult) to watch over them.

Freedom comes with responsibility.Running staff election

Because adults don’t watch them, our students know that freedom is a gift that they have to protect and use wisely. This is reinforced by another important rule at our school:

Everyone is responsible for the general welfare of the school, through actions that contribute to preserving the atmosphere of freedom, respect, fairness, trust, personal responsibility, and order that is the essence of the school’s existence.

And we actually hold students (and adults) accountable for not living up to this rule! For example… Leave a mess in the art room, you get written up. Fail to intervene when you see a little kid doing something dangerous or when you see someone being bullied, you get written up. Misuse school property, you get written up. Act inappropriately when out on a field trip, you get written up. Although this may seem harsh to some people, students begin to clearly see the connection between freedom and responsibility and they begin to take pride in behaving responsibly. And some value their freedom so much that they choose to take on increasingly important roles in the running of the school.

Freedom does not mean entitlement.Cleaning up

Finally, freedom doesn’t mean that you always get what you want or that things always come easy. One student said it perfectly:

“If you want something to happen, you have to be willing to do it yourself. You can’t just put an agenda item on school meeting and expect someone else to take care of it.”

Another student’s school sleepover had just been cancelled because she refused to follow through on all the steps required. You can imagine how disappointed everyone was, but what a huge lesson! New students will often try to get a field trip organized or try to purchase something with school funds (after all, you can do ANYTHING at this school!) and they are surprised when they fail. Most of them pick themselves back up and keep trying. When they finally succeed, they start to walk a little taller with their chin slightly higher. I love seeing that transformation in them.

To some people, all of the above might seem overwhelming or intimidating, especially to a young child, but my experience is the exact opposite. Even though they are held accountable for their actions and the adults aren’t necessarily holding their hands or entertaining them, students love being at school. They feel safe and powerful and responsible for their community and their environment. Imagine if more adults in our society felt this way.

One Response to “Freedom Revisited”

  1. mrgfactoftheday August 9, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    Great post! I am so curious about the operation of schools like Sudbury and every little bit of info is helpful. Traditional schools fail in helping teach students responsibility because they don’t design natural responsibility, they try and force it.

    Looking forward to more discussions about the Sudbury model and how our public schools can learn from it!!

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