Sat, 23 Aug 1997 01:59:48 -0400

Report on the International Democratic Education
This was the fifth annual meeting of IDEC. The first
one was organized at Hadera School in Israel in 1993. It is
a gathering of teachers and students of democratic schools
from all around the world. What made this particular
conference unique was that it was entirely organized by
students. The key organizers were Jessica and Rachel, 17
and 16 years old, of the Sands School in Ashburton,
England, in Devon.
In the past, it had always seemed to me that even
though this was a very exciting conference, it was a little
flawed because the conference itself did not reflect the
democratic approaches of the schools involved, and had too
many "talking head" talking adults workshops. It seems
that Jessica and Rachel decided to try to rectify this by
organizing a conference entirely by students. The pair
attempted to keep the cost as low as possible so that as
many schools as wanted to could participate in it. They
were about to get a 10,000 pound grant to help them with
basic expenses! They used some of these funds to rent a
nearby camp site, a big tent as a central meeting place for
the conference, and minibuses for transportation and field
trips, as well as food. The cost to participants was 50
pounds for the ten day conference! It was decided that
instead of a two or three day conference, this would be a
ten day conference, and it would be during the summer so
that there could be a sort of living situation of the
participants, not only to discuss the democratic schools, but
also to create a temporary international democratic school
at Sands School. I had been in regular communication with
Jessica and Rachel through mail, fax, and telephone.
We brought three American students. One of them
was Mariah Moates. She is a 14 year old homeschooler
from Virginia and had been wanting to go on an AERO trip
for a long time. Her great interest is ballet and dance. In
anticipation of the trip, she had read the book Summerhill,
knowing we were planning to go to Summerhill after the
Sands Conference. A second participant was Jeff Donovan,
13, from Spokane, Washington. He is a homeschooler and
we met his family earlier this year at the NCACS
conference in Chicago. The third American was Stephen
Sandford from Missoula, Montana. He had participated in
the international summer camp in France last summer and
wanted to go on another adventure with AERO. He's 12.
Seven years ago, I helped his mother establish an
alternative school in Missoula. We were joined at Sands
School by the fourth participant in our group, Nicolas
Malaquin, who had also been a participant in the summer
camp in France. His parents had driven him over from
their home in France. He is 13. Other people whom we
had contacted to arrange for their participation in IDEC
included Albert Lamb, an American living in England who
is a former Summerhill student and teacher and whose
children also had gone to Summerhill. We had also
contacted Oleg Belin, a teacher at the Stork Family School
in the Ukraine.
Our group went by train from London's Heathrow
Airport, arriving in Totnes about three hours later. The
Sands School is right in the village of Ashburton and has
several acres of grounds which include several out
buildings, a basketball court, a tennis court, and they had
resurrected their table tennis table just for me so I could
teach table tennis to the conference participants. Most of
the people were camping out at the campgrounds. Our
group was able to stay in the school with our sleeping bags.
Groups began arriving from places such as Israel, Austria,
and representatives of schools in New Zealand, and Japan.
The students at the Sands School had the option of
whether to participate but it seemed that most of them
were participating. Nothing was really scheduled for the
first day and people just informally met and talked to each
other. The next day we had a meeting which was one of
the most extraordinary I've seen at any conference. The
girls had hired a parent of one of the Sands Students to
help them through a process in which the entire
curriculum of the conference/demonstration school was to
be co-created.
We met in the large tent. In front of the group were
placed three large bulletin boards. On one of them were
written the dates and times available for presentations
during the conference. The second one was blank except
for the days of the week. We were asked to write down
any ideas we had for workshops we could give or ones
which we would like to have given. Then one by one each
person explained what these presentations would be. Then
they were placed on the second bulletin board until the
entire space was filled up for the first five days of the
conference. In addition, on a third bulletin board, people
placed other activities which were not really time sensitive
but which they could offer or would like to see offered.
This then became our schedule. Incredibly, virtually all of
these events came to pass. They included such diverse
activities as rock climbing, David Gribble's workshop about
the schools he visited around the world, cave exploring, a
trip to the moors, swimming and cliff diving, pottery and
sculpture, a workshop I did on the decision making
processes at different schools, a trip to visit the Park
School, an elementary alternative in Totnes, as well as the
Open School which is a distance learning and
homeschooling center which uses the Internet and faxes,
and a visit to Schumacher College, all of which are on the
grounds of the former Dartington Hall School. Schumacher
is a seminar center which is environmentally oriented.
There was a also a workshop ongoing in a new sport
called Tamburelli which is similar to badminton and uses a
shuttlecock but the bats are made of modified
tambourines. The kids there absolutely loved this sport
and I think it would be worthwhile for us to bring it to
other places in the world. Right now there are only a few
hundred participants. Adam Cohen, one of the students at
Sands School, was promoting this sport. I also had an
ongoing workshop in table tennis and taught perhaps 25 or
30 people during the conference. We also had two
Mariah did a workshop on homeschooling which was
well attended and created great food for thought. She had
been taking college classes since she was 10 years old and
on her own had become interested in reading Shakespeare
and the Greek tragedies, as well as becoming a very good
and serious dancer. Some of the older Sands students who
attended her workshop wondered if they would have the
same self-discipline to do such a similar thing. Sean
Bellamy, the head teacher of Sands School and I also
discussed this and wondered if there was some aspect of
homeshcooling that might be missing or needed to be
incorporated into the process of democratic schools to
further empower learners to go off and really pursue their
own directions.
Two days into the conference, Albert Lamb arrived
and did a workshop on Summerhill which was very well
attended. Jessica and Rachel were quite disappointed that
no Summerhill students or staff had come to the
conference and also no representatives from Sudbury
Valley School in the United States which had been one of
the founders of IDEC. There were some organizational
problems with the conference, but I think these were far
outweighed by the form which the conference took.
Wonderful international friendships were created.
Mariah talked long hours into the night with students from
Israel and has been invited to come there and visit, for
example. Jeff organized one of the the table tennis
tournaments. I had first taught him table tennis at the
Chicago conference where, for lack of a table, we put a
couple of conference tables together and strung a
makeshift net across them. I love teaching table tennis
because in a very real way table tennis is an international
language and also cross-generational. Anyone can play
and it gets a variety of people together. And because my
teacher (Lim Ming Chui) was one of the best in the US, I
can often double somebody's ability to play in just a few
minutes, thus reinforcing their confidence in themselves as
During the conference we tried to make use of their
computer communications but their good computer had
been stolen a while back so the one we used was not very
good for e-mail. Nevertheless, we set up a discussion
coordinated through the Open School about democratic
education vs. homeschooling. On the other end were
students who were studying through the Open School,
including one young man who had Tourettes syndrome and
who was skeptical whether he could function in any school.
The Sands students who were participating in online
discussions invited him to come visit and felt that the
students there would be understanding of of his situation.
More that half the time we were having serious
problems with the computer and getting e-mail but one
day when we were setting up the follow-up discussion, on
the second day, we didn't have any technicians there at all
except for the youngest student at Sands School who was
10 years old. He proved himself to be quite fluent in this
new language, having grown up with it. He did a very
good job connecting us up with the Teliweb Network,
which is sort of an alternative to the internet being used in
England for students.
On another day a group of us went to Nathan
Gribble's house to connect on the internet to the MOO that
Puget Sound Community School has set up to see if people
would like to talk to us at the conference. We did have a
good discussion with Andy Smallman, the Director of PSCS.
At a general meeting we also discussed where next
year's conference would be. It seems they have put it
pretty squarely in my hands. Several ideas were thrown
out, including having it in the United States. We also
talked about having it in Russia or in the Ukraine. This is
something we need to start working on right away.
In quality, I think it would be really hard to top
what happened in this year's conference. It was a true
demonstration of an international democratic alternative
school and a tribute to the vision and organizational ability
of the students who helped create it. In the future, I think,
it is very important that this kind of level of student
involvement in the creation of the conference be