Archive | October, 2015

Finding the Middle

21 Oct

“All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~John Holt

It’s been my experience over the past seven years of speaking with parents about our school that they either think it is too permissive, with all the freedom students are given, or they think it is too strict, with all of its rules and responsibilities. It seems that half the parents lean towards telling their kids what to do all the time and half lean towards being completely hands-off and letting their kids run wild. I know that all of these parents are well-meaning and just want what’s best for their children. After all, why else would they be seeking an alternative education model? But I often think to myself, “Where’s the middle?”


Supporting a new student in JC.

I tried to address the first of these extremes in my blog post Freedom Revisited, where I explained how letting kids do what they want all day doesn’t necessarily produce entitled, little slackers. This time I’d like to address the other extreme – the parent who thinks our school is too harsh with its huge law book and its big, mean judicial system that metes out sentences.

I get it. My husband and I have always practiced positive discipline at home. Although we set high standards of behavior, we have never punished our kids. When my daughters act out at home, something that happens less and less as they get older, we seek to connect with them first and then talk it out. They usually just need some quiet time alone with with one of us, help communicating with each other, or something to eat.

At school, on the other hand, things are different. They’re practicing being independent and learning to live within a diverse community. This means understanding and respecting other peoples’ boundaries and learning to express their own without Mom or Dad being there to ease the way. Of course, they will make mistakes and that’s when they might encounter the school’s judicial system, which may involve some form of a sentence, called a “consequence” at our school.

Now, given many people’s own experiences of being sent to the principal’s office or being punished by their parents, I can see how they might imagine our judicial system to be a shameful, heartless process. Punishment in an authoritarian model, which is often arbitrary, can indeed be quite damaging. Consequences determined by peers in an egalitarian environment, on the other hand, is a completely different ballgame.

First of all, students are an active part of the rule-making. Each of them has the power to create, abolish, or modify any existing rule at the weekly school meeting. Second, although there is always an adult on the judicial committee (JC) panel, the students themselves run it and have the most input. And they do so with incredibly sweet amounts of compassion, patience, and support. Third, all school members, students AND staff, are expected to follow the same rules. That right there says to the child, “No one is above you. We are all equal.”

All of this makes JC one of the most fair, respectful, and empowering ways to deal with discipline and conflict that I have ever encountered. So why do some parents still find JC so uncomfortable? I think it all comes down to the fact that they still view children as authoritarian adults do. Yes, they are kinder and gentler, but they still don’t really trust kids. It’s hard to let go completely. And it’s even harder to trust kids when we ourselves were never trusted. But trust is at the heart of everything that happens at our school and maybe that’s why some things feel uncomfortable.

Children are trusted at our school because everyone believes they are competent. Imagine what it feels like for a child to be trusted in this way? To feel so competent? They are competent in knowing the rules. They are competent in weighing the risks when choosing to break them. And they are competent in dealing with the consequences of their actions and learning from them. They are also competent at gathering information, determining whether a rule was broken, and then handing out a fair consequence based on the experience and age of the rule-breaker.

A child who is treated as competent eventually becomes so. They also become incredibly responsible and mature. I love seeing the five and six-year-olds confidently skipping about the school and unhesitatingly speaking their mind even among older students. I know that they feel competent, they feel safe, and they feel powerful. And I’m willing to trust that feeling.

It’s All About the Process

2 Oct

“Children are not our own art products to be turned out well, but their own life work in continual process.” ~ Jan Fortune Wood

A few weeks ago, I ran into a mom I had met back when our kids were toddlers. She asked about the school and said, “I have been following you all on Facebook and I just want you to know that I LOVE Sudbury!” Then she paused and with concern in her eyes, “So, have your daughters found any interests yet?” I cringed inwardly, but smiled and replied, “My 9-year-old is taking piano lessons and my 6-year-old is into horses right now.” Her eyes relaxed and, as if trying to reassure me despite my choice of schooling, she exclaimed, “Oh, that’s great! They might end up working in those fields. You never know.” Because I like to pretend I am “normal” sometimes, I changed the subject.

To be fair, this mom is more enlightened than most. At least she didn’t say, “Well, that’s nice but when will they ever learn calculus?” I’m sure she would have listened to me had I had the energy to explain more at the time and I think she would have deepened her understanding of the Sudbury model. Since then, however, it has been on my mind. Had this mom asked me about my daughters’ interests a few months ago, my response would have been “dancing and Minecraft.” A few months before that, it would have been “dolls and fancy handwriting.” I wonder if she would have been worried.

And this brings me to the point of my blog post. I’m not worried about what my daughters pursue, or what they don’t pursue, because I know it’s all about the process.

HorseMy youngest daughter will probably move on from her current horse phase. (And my bank account would certainly appreciate that!) When she does, I won’t feel bad that she gave it up or feel like it was a waste of time, because I know how much she has learned. The learning that I am talking about has nothing to do with horses. Again, it’s all about the process. She had to find and choose a horse ranch that would give lessons to such a young student. Of course, I helped her with searching on the internet, making appointments, and taking her to each place, but she drove the entire process and made the final decisions. After her second lesson, she decided that she wanted to learn more about taking care of horses, so she spoke with her instructor. Now she uses some of her riding time to brush the horse down and clean out its hooves. Lately, she has been talking about finding another ranch where she can do more care-taking like feeding and washing. It will be interesting to see where that will lead her, but for me, the most valuable part is how she is learning to determine her own goals and learning how to express them to get what she wants out of her lessons, whatever those lessons or experiences may be.

The same goes for my oldest daughter. After playing around with her keyboard at home for years, she recently decided to take formal lessons. She meets with her piano teacher once per week at school and is really enjoying it. I try to stay out of her way, but every once in a while her piano teacher catches me and can’t wait to tell me how well my daughter is doing and how fast she is learning. It doesn’t surprise me nor does it make me particularly proud. I know my daughter does well in whatever she puts her mind to. That’s her process. She dives into something completely without any pushing or prodding. And she always has her own motivation for doing things, which she may or may not share with others. I have seen her teaching piano to other students at school and even writing her own songs, which she meticulously keeps in her manuscript book. I know that once she has achieved her goal, whatever that might be, and has gotten what she needs from the experience, she will move on to the next thing and she will completely devote herself to that.

Whether they are playing with dolls, building a house in Minecraft, making up dance moves to the latest Gwen Stefani song, or inventing new ways to write their name, the content doesn’t really matter. They are learning so much in the process of pursuing their own interests. As they get older, their interests will change and their goals will become bigger, and they will continue to learn what they need to achieve those goals. This is hard for most people to wrap their heads around. Traditional schooling is all about content, pre-determined by someone else, and how to stuff as much of it as possible into the minds of children. But that content, which changes constantly, can be learned anytime, especially when it’s actually meaningful to the learner. The process, on the other hand, gets hard-wired into us fairly young and becomes the filter through which we learn anything new.

My daughters’ Sudbury school is the perfect place for them to refine their process. It does that by giving them the freedom to choose their own content all day long and the time and space to figure out how to get things done. I think this, and not necessarily a focus on specific, adult-approved content, is what will most help them achieve success in the future. After all, success is a process too!