A Heckuva Way To Spend Your Days

Sometime in October, I read an article entitled, “How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools,” which introduced me to the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At first glance, the Sudbury Valley School sounded similar to the independent school where I work, meaning we each have no tests, no grades, and a deep belief in the idea that if a person isn’t intrinsically interested in something, then that person won’t be able to learn it in any meaningful way. But that’s where the similarities stopped.

Because while my school doesn’t have tests or grades, we do have assigned homework, compulsory classes, grade level expectations, required exhibitions, and narrative evaluations. Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, they have…well…democracy.

(A quick caveat: I have yet to visit the Sudbury Valley School. I have, however, read several books and essays about the school, and so while I don’t have any personal experience to draw from, I do have plenty of book lernin. Fair nuff? Good.)

It all starts with the School Meeting. Every student (and at Sudbury, students range from four years old to nineteen years old) has a vote in the School Meeting, as does every staff member (who are far outnumbered by the students). This means that, when it comes to the School Meeting, a four-year-old child has just as much power to decide as a staff member.

And everything is decided at the School Meeting. It creates all the rules for the school, manages the budget (including the hiring and firing of staff members), negotiates contracts with outside vendors, and more.

But here’s the kicker: except for those things explicitly discussed, voted on, and enshrined in the school handbook, there are no other rules at the Sudbury Valley School. And if you peruse the handbook, you won’t find anything about having to take math, science, English, social studies, or anything else. In fact, you won’t find anything about academics whatsoever.

Which means at the Sudbury Valley School, if you want to go to school and just play video games, you are completely free to do so; if you want to focus all of your time on playing music, you are free to do so; if you want to build an entire metropolis out of LEGOS, or go out and explore nature, or bake cookies, or read science fiction until your eyes bleed, or sit on a couch with your friends talking about whatever, or build a tree fort, or play basketball, or hike through town to the pizza shop, or go fishing…well, you are completely free to do so.

And of course, if you want to learn math, science, English, or social studies, you are also completely free to do so.

Because at Sudbury Valley, school is not something you do; it’s the place where you are. It’s the idea of the school as a village, where young people come to practice and participate in real life.

In the adult world, our time is our own. It might not feel that way, with bills, relationships, families, and work (not to mention jury duty), but (excluding the cogent arguments of Marxism and the three waves of Feminism) we choose to live the lives we lead, and hence, we choose to take on the obligations required to support that life. In the adult world, if our time is not our own, it is because we have given it away.

The same goes for life at Sudbury Valley. When the students come to school each morning, they know that their time is their own, and it’s up to them to choose what to do with it (excluding jury duty, which exists at Sudbury Valley in the form of their Judicial Committee, a student-run group tasked with enforcing all of the school’s rules).

Both Sudbury Valley and my school believe that learning is a function of interest: if a person isn’t interested in a given topic or skill, then they probably won’t learn that topic or skill, no matter how hard or how often you drill it into them. The difference between our schools (at the moment) is that Sudbury Valley then builds their entire model without compromising that belief to the needs and desires of the outside world (including the students’ parents), which is a pretty radical decision.

My school, on the other hand, tries to negotiate a middle ground that will express our core belief while also satisfying the requirements for Vermont’s independent schools, the desires of the local supervisory union, the requests of parents, and what the staff members perceive as the academic needs of the specific students currently enrolled in our school.

But over the past few months, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we have strayed too far away from our core belief and that we are in danger of becoming a slightly more relaxed version of a traditional public school.

Thankfully, I work with some incredible and brave educators who have a real desire to constantly evaluate and improve the internal workings of our school, and over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaged in a serious (and sometimes contentious) debate about how to proceed.

Even more thankfully, while I’ve been greatly inspired by what I found at Sudbury Valley (not to mention my experiences with the progressive programs at Green Mountain College and Goddard College), my colleagues have come to the table with vast knowledge and experiences of their own, discussing models and educators who have inspired and excited them.

All of this conversation has led us to start making some important changes at the school. For example, we’ll no longer have compulsory classes (excluding Vermont History, Math, and Health, because those are required by the State), and students will now be given even more  freedom to choose how they spend their time. We’ll still retain learning plan meetings with parents, grade level expectations, public exhibitions, and narrative evaluations (i.e., our various modes of assessment), but it will be up to the students to decide how they want to satisfy those requirements.

Second, we’ve empowered the students to take real control of the school through a School Congress and Judicial Committee. This change has already been instituted and the students are currently in the process of developing the first set of rules for their handbook (the first proposal laid on the table was “No dying”). Personally, this is where I think the majority of their education is going to happen, and I’m incredibly excited to participate in and be witness to it.

I suspect there are other changes on the horizon as well, but if we do our jobs correctly, most of those changes will not be coming from me or my colleagues, but from the students.

That’s what’s so inspiring about the idea of a democratic school. It empowers the students to take real control of their lives, and in the process, gives them real practice as they strive to become successful individuals. It will be scary at times, especially for us adults, but it will be incredibly powerful for these kids.

All of which is to say…man, do I love my job.