DSM: RE: A Few Questions from a Newish Mom

Joe Jackson (shoeless@jazztbone.com)
Wed, 15 Nov 2000 15:36:13 -0500

Hi, Heather!

I am very sorry that your school experiences were so painful for you.

We have experience with situations in which students come in damaged by
their conventional schooling experiences, and it is a very common symptom
that these students perceive the sudden absence of external curriculum as a
lack of support.

To your questions:

> 1. I understand that every child has a voice in a
> democratic school; however, how do you make sure that
> a shy or introverted child gets their voice heard, in
> an environment where everyone is saying what they need
> to say? I always had trouble finding an "in" in
> spoken situations; I waited so long for pauses in the
> conversation that I never got to voice my feelings.

First, I could not urge you more strongly not to evaluate how a student at a
Sudbury model school reacts to the model based on how you as a
conventionally-schooled student would have behaved in the environment; this
is a trap that many adults fall into when looking at the model.

Addressing your question, I'm sure you've seen from your readings that the
predominant "mode" of social interaction in the school is informal
student-to-student or student-to-staff conversation, so I interpret your
question to apply to School Meeting or J.C.

The way the schools ensure that people get the opportunity to speak in these
settings is by using various procedural techniques (such as Robert's Rules
and endless, less formal variations thereof).

At Fairhaven when a person raises their hand they get called upon in order
by the meeting chair. If the chair fails to do so, any meeting participant
can interrupt with a question of priveledge, and if the chair fails to
respond, the member can interrupt with an appeal from the decision of the
chair. If the chair habitually takes folks out of order, the Meeting can
elect a new chair.

This sounds complex, but once mastered is second nature.

> 2. How do you ensure that the kids have access to the
> information that will inspire them to know what they
> want to learn? I always felt a certain ability to
> learn anything, and as a consequence I never had much
> direction or thrust. I have struggled with that to
> this day, and wasted a lot of time feeling overwhelmed
> with the impossibility of finding out enough about the
> world for me to be able to make decisions about what
> would suit me to learn and do. (Does that make
> sense?)

Nobody can predict exactly what will inspire each individual to learn what
they need to learn; therefore we start by providing a building packed full
of as rich and diverse physical and human resources as possible (other
students and staff, books, computer network with internet from every
wkstation, tools, kitchen, art room, toys, large campus with variety of
natural features). We then simply allow School Meeting to respond to
requests by students for resources not found within the school.

I'm don't like to play around with analysis, but your statement about being
overwhelmed with learning enough about the world to make decisions about
what to do still sounds like a person who was told what to do for many
years, then suddenly set adrift.

SM schools produce students who I believe know that they don't need to know
mountains of trivia in order to find their passion. It's about not
pressing, being in the present, and letting their passion come to them.

By the end of the tenure, most of them know precisely what they want to do,
and those that don't still do, in a manner of speaking. (A hard concept to
explain in the abstract)

> 3. Is there any of the usual problems with girls not
> getting heard in your school? It is a deep and
> abiding cultural bias on our parts, and very hard to
> escape, especially in "normal" schools.

The problem you are talking about has its universal origins in
medium-to-large classroom settings. That setting has not taken place very
much at Fairhaven; most classes are very small, but it is certainly possible
that a bias could take place.

I will say that if students perceived that was occuring in our school,
there's a lot they could do about it.

> 4. In the vein of impossible tasks, I am deeply
> interested in starting a school in my area (I have a
> 20-month old daughter). I live in Oakland, in the San
> Francisco Bay Area. The other democratic schools are
> at LEAST an hour, probably more, away from my house.
> However, land here is prohibitively expensive. What
> I'm wondering is, how have other schools gotten around
> the issue of coming up with capital for creating a
> campus? I live in a tiny 2-bedroom (850 square feet)
> house in a very so-so area of crime-ridden Oakland,
> and it's still worth nearly $300,000 dollars. So you
> can imagine finding a place with enough space for a
> school... Any suggestions?

Assuming you want to stay in Oakland and begin a school in Oakland, and
assuming you don't have access to some really well-connected people ($$),
your best option is to find a place to lease. This path, however is frought
with problems.

There should be a legion of city, county, state and federal ordinances and
laws governing potentially every physical aspect of the school, and those
have to be satisfied before you can open. For us, in P.G. County, Maryland
that means fire alarms, sprinklers, door hardware, hall width, bathroom
lavatory height, fenced-in playground of a certain square footage (!), a
certain number of parking places, a certain number of toilets, and believe
me the list goes on and on and on.

For every place we found to rent or buy, the modifications proved, through
their extraordinary expense, to be out of the question.

Our response was to build. We bought seven acres and built the place for
about $350,000. We fundraised about $100k, reduced the cost about $50k by
building it ourself and using building materials scavenged from GreenHome
projects (Habitat for Humanity in reverse), and got a loan for the remaining

I can't imagine pulling off an urban-style school in Oakland for less than a
couple million bucks, so if you don't have access to people with that kind
of money or who can get it, it would be very difficult to go that route.

I think it is difficult to start a solid, sustainable school unless you get
some well-connected and highly energetic people who are really gung-ho about
the school on board.

I grieve with you for your chickens. Maybe the first dozen years of your
schooling set you up for failure with your birds? Maybe here's a chance to
make their death and your unhappy schooling mean something, but if by saying
this you feel like I'm going too far with my agenda I sincerely apologize -
it's definitely not my intention to guilt you into anything.

-Joe Jackson
Fairhaven School
Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Kids rule at Fairhaven School

> Hi,
> I read about the concept of Democratic Schools in this
> month's Mothering. After looking through the various
> readings on your Web site, I still have a few
> questions.
> First, a little background. I was raised by
> craftspeople out in the country. They had a pottery
> school where 35 people would come and stay with us for
> 6-8 weeks, so I was surrounded by adults. I did not
> have such a great time at school, but it was a small
> school (50 kids) so it wasn't as bad as it could have
> been. Junior high and high school were nightmares,
> and I finally got to go to a Quaker boarding school my
> last year of school, which was a blessing. They were
> very democratic.
> I was encouraged to follow my dreams and explore
> anything I was interested in. I read all the books I
> could get my hands on. I was free, when at home at
> least; but in junior high, I started to lose interest
> in school (and this after being at the top of my class
> in elementary school). Largely, it was because when I
> got to the bigger school, I became invisible. I did
> not find out about many things that would have helped
> me because the research felt just too overwhelming. I
> was left to myself at school and at home, to figure
> out what I needed to know, and to explore that in my
> own way.
> There were problems with this. Yes, I had freedom,
> but I also had some seriously traumatic experiences.
> I felt a certain lack of support, and found myself
> often at sea, because though I was interested in
> things, I didn't have the tools to know in which
> direction I should go to find out about them. I
> didn't know enough to know what was out there for me
> to learn. As a result, my knowledge even now is
> spotty, and I have a problem with invisibility issues.
> It was as if I got lost somewhere.
> An example of this inability to cope with too much
> freedom is this: I had a group of four pure-bred
> chickens that I wanted to groom for showing. I took
> them out of the main chicken coop and put them in the
> old coop, which didn't have an outside section. It
> was my plan to make a run for them connected to the
> chicken house where they were living on wire, but when
> it came down to it I felt overwhelmed by the project I
> had taken on. Meanwhile, the chickens developed a
> disease from being inside all the time and slowly
> became more and more deformed. Eventually I could not
> bear to see them anymore and I stopped going inside
> the chicken house, and they died. I carry the guilt
> of that around to this day.

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