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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.

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.

When Students Have Real Power

24 Sep

“Who’s the principal here!? I’m the principal here!” ~ Six-year-old student

I was sitting in the computer lab at school the other day trying to fix one of the slower machines. A student (I’ll call him “Z”) sat at another computer playing a video game. A few of the boys gathered around to watch Z play and began joking with him and with each other. The mood seemed light, so I didn’t pay much attention. A few minutes later, the mood turned serious and I overheard the boys talking. “Oh, man. Now we’re going to have to go to JC (judicial committee).” “Do you think we’ll get ‘no screens’?” (“No screens” means no use of technology with any type of screen on it, a fairly serious sentence.) Curious as to why Z was no longer there, I asked, “What happened?”

One of the boys quickly responded, “We were chanting ‘loser’ and then Z lost the game and we all laughed. He got upset, so now he’s writing us up.”

“But we were just joking,” replied another.

A discussion ensued on how all people are different and how an appropriate joke to one person is not always appropriate to another. “Then what am I supposed to joke about?” came an earnest reply.

“Sounds like that’s something you need to think about,” I answered in my most non-preachy voice. Upon Z’s return, the mood was lightened again by the boys laughing over whose farts were smellier. Z went back to playing his game and I got back to my work. Then one of the boys came over to Z, looked over his shoulder, and enthusiastically said, “I hope you win this time!”

I witness these types of exchanges at our school all the time, but this one stood out for me because it provided such a clear contrast to what happens at most other schools. A few days earlier, my friend and I had had a conversation about her recent experience in middle school, including all of the drama. It brought up lots of images from my days of conventional schooling: kids taking verbal jabs at each other while the teacher isn’t paying attention, the on-going competition over who can do and say the most outrageous thing without getting caught, and the hours of boredom that are relieved by these few moments of “fun.”

As I listened to the stories of my young friend, I kept thinking, “Wow, that would never fly at my school.” Now, I wouldn’t say that our students are never mean, or rude, or annoying to each other, but I do know that this kind of behavior isn’t tolerated for very long, if at all. Sooner or later someone gets tired of it and writes it up. Students at our school have real power and they know it. I often struggle to explain how different this experience is for them compared with most other schools where the adults are in charge. I think it’s something one needs to experience for him or herself, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

Some students holding a mock JC.

Some students holding a mock JC.

1)      Students don’t feel the need to hide from the adults. Students at our school aren’t trying to evade adult control or supervision like at more traditional schools. The boys in the computer lab that day chanted “loser” with me sitting right there. Sure, I wasn’t really listening, but they unhesitatingly told me the whole story when I asked. Because they don’t see me as the “enemy,” we were able to have a genuine conversation with no fear around it. In this case, I was able to offer some advice and inject some perspective into their thinking.

2)      Students are empowered to set their own boundaries. At most other schools, there is a strong culture against “snitching,” so students often accept harassment and do their best to stay out of the line of fire. There really is no concept of “snitching” at our school. Z did not get up from the computer to go “tell” on the boys; he simply walked over to the write-up forms and filled one out. He doesn’t have to appeal to some authority figure to solve his problems. HE is powerful and he can trust that the Judicial Committee (JC) will handle things fairly.

3)      Students have time to work on relationships. Had the episode with Z taken place at a more traditional school, the teacher may have handled it by getting the boys to settle down and then getting them back to the lesson. There may not have been time for the boys to immediately begin smoothing things over by joking (especially not about farts!). At our school, students aren’t busy with adult-directed activities; they have lots of opportunities to make interpersonal mistakes and to learn from them.

4)      Students take responsibility for the school culture. With no one person claiming to be the authority at our school, students quickly realize that they are ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Z took care of himself that day in the computer lab, and I’ve often seen students taking care of each other. For example, a newer student was recently annoying another while she was trying to eat lunch. An older student stepped in, “Hey, that’s harassment. You have to stop when someone tells you to or you can get written up.”

5)      Students are really free to follow their own interests. Even at schools where the curriculum includes more choices, students are still vulnerable to peer pressure and adult coercion regarding those choices when the adults are in charge. After writing the boys up, Z went back to playing his game (and losing) without fear of the boys teasing him again. Students at our school feel safe to really pursue their own interests because they have real power and they can feel it.

That’s not fair!

18 Aug

On our way back from the beach the other day, my 4-year-old randomly asks, “Mom, what does it mean to be ‘sent to the office’?”

Me: “What office?”

4-year-old: “You know, when you get ‘sent to the office’ at public school.”

Me: “Oh, that usually means you’re in trouble so the teacher sends you to the principal’s office. Being ‘in trouble’ means the teacher decided that you did something bad.”

4-year-old: “When do they do JC?” (The Judicial Committee is the student-led justice system, which operates sort of like a mini-courtroom.)

Me: “They don’t have JC in public school. The teacher and principal usually decide what happens to you.”

Suddenly my 7-year-old, who had been quietly listening the whole time, chimes in, “What!? That’s not fair!”

Me: “I agree with you.”

7-year-old: “Why would a parent send their kids to a school like that?”

Me: “I don’t think most people really think about it so much. It’s easier to do whatever everybody else is doing.”

7-year-old: “Well, that’s just silly.”

Me: “It sure is…”

For more about how JC functions in Sudbury schools, check out this video from Sudbury Valley School.