Re: DSM: Subtle Coercion?

Michelle Patzke (
Sun, 07 Jan 2001 10:00:02 -0600

Michelle here from Liberty Valley School outside Chicago

A lot has been said, mainly in the abstract, about the topic of "coercion".
 I thought I'd chime in with a few more concrete examples.

LVS is in it's 4th year. Currently we have 9 students. I am the only
staff member (a bad thing primarily a result of money, more adults would be
much better). We are lucky, however, in that we have a broad range of
student diversity: 5 yr old boy, 7 yr old girl, 8 yr old boy, 9 yr old
girl, 11 year old girl, 13 year old boy, 16 year old girl, 17 year old boy
and girl. All students have been in the school at least one year.

The "exposure" question comes up often especially in parent's minds. I
struggle with this issue. In larger schools, I think it is easier for
students to take the initiative for making things happen. Often a student
does not have to do everything alone and often things are happening that
they can join instead of inventing the wheel.
Some examples on this topic from this year:

I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago where I live this
August. There was what I thought was this cool exhibit by a guy who made
things with everyday materials (a gell cap with the medicine removed and
replaced with playdough balls, a spider from hair, a construction paper
accident victim, many very small playdough items: rakes, cameras,
baseballs, etc.) Art is a big thing at the school. I brought in a
brochure about the exhibit and put it on the bulletin board. I talked to a
student in our day to day conversation about life about going to the
exhibit and how cool I thought it was. A field trip was arranged and we went.

I did the same thing with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. It died. People
thought it was boring. No one wanted to go. We didn't go.

Last year, someone asked about sewing. I brought in my sewing machine. I
mentioned that I had done so and offered to help with a project and told
the person to let me know if they wanted to get together to plan the
project and needed materials. They never did. At the end of last year I
took the sewing machine home. This year a student was learning to sew at
home with her aunt. Her brother said he wanted to make something. I
brought in my machine. He and I made a purse/book bag. People thought it
was cool. The next day another student made a bag with me with items she
brought from home. The student who was learning to sew from her aunt told
me she wanted to make one, but never followed through. The activity has
died for now.

Two kids said they wanted to learn math. I asked what they wanted to do.
One wanted to work on addition; the other on multiplication. The activity
mushroomed to 4 young students. I asked questions. Do you want only
single numbers to add or numbers above ten. "carrying" came up. So did
the layout of the problems vertically on the page, as opposed to
horizontally, to make the concept of carrying easier to work into. A
multiplication table was created so that the idea of "reciprocity?" was
more visible (5 x 3 = 3 x 5). For two days, all the little kids in school
did math. Mainly they wanted me to write problems for them. During that
endeavor I "taught" them math, but so did their friends. A 7 year old
taught us a math trick her dad taught her about addition. A nine year old
taught us another trick her dad taught her using your fingers to answer
problems when multiplying by 9s. After 2 days, math died for awhile. Then
recently it came up again with one girl. I asked near the end of our work
time together if she wanted to continue working on it in the future. She
said yes. We then agreed to work on it on Monday, Wednesday and Friday as
soon as she got to school as that was what she wanted. I gave her the
homework she requested. She got sick. Was not at school for awhile. The
holidays came. I mentioned it after winter break that we had talked about
working on math. She never followed through about re initiating the
activity. So far, it has not been taken up again.

At the end of the year before last we put a kitchen together. Last year it
was insane at the school and it was not used. This year in the summer it
became clear the parents really wanted the kitchen up and running. None of
the teens wanted to get involved. (In a small school, especially one
having trouble continuing, teens often feel responsible, because they love
the school, to do alot.) I made the kitchen happen. I drafted the
certification processes. I had a meeting, which our 11 year old chaired
and for which I did the agenda and minutes and all the talking other than
the chair calling the vote. The content at the meeting, although not the
process, was very directed by me. I was not willing to open the kitchen
without certification for general use (clean up rules & scheduling as the
kitchen and darkroom are in the same building space), stove & knife. I got
my way. The kitchen cannot be used for individual to make lunch, nor can
the kitchen materials. It can only be used for projects by cooking corp,
school meeting or PR. People moaned, but no one has wanted to do the work
to change that reality.

We did our first cooking project, selling french fries and chocolate chip
cookies. It went ok. I learned. The next project, those cooking had to
commit to do the whole project (start through clean up). You could not quit
in the middle. Our next project, a month later, was to cook gingerbread
components for people to assemble into gingerbread houses. I worked with
one student to make 1/3 of the components we needed for all the house;
another student to make the other 1/3; because of illness of a student, I
alone finished the final 1/3. Putting them together was enjoyed by all
involved. Since then, the kitchen has been silent.

In a bigger school, I would hold back more. I did more for the kitchen
than I thought appropriate under the Sudbury model because we are a smaller
school having trouble growing and the parents wanted it. But, I stopped
there. The ball is now in the student's court as there are students
certified who can make projects happen if they want.

A teen and I were talking about LVS at the end of the day, because we do
that, and the topic of our concerns about our difficulties in growing the
school and the school existing next year came up. Last summer she had
looked into other schools in the U.S. for the same reason. When we were
able to continue this year she came to LVS. The issues have rearisen. I
mentioned having heard that Boorobin in Australia talk about a boarding
reality. She e mailed them. She was really excited and asked me to help
work through the logistics of exploring this option. The next morning she
came in and I mentioned to her my concern that if she got a high school
diploma in Australia (a diploma being one of her expressed goals) that it
might not automatically transfer to U.S. colleges. She said she had
thought of that too. The matter dropped. Later in the day, she mentioned
she wanted to work on the issue with me. I said I was in the middle of
something and could do it in a little while. When I finished what I was
working on, I said did she want to work now. She said yes. We
brainstormed about questions for Boorobin, contacting U.S. universities she
was thinking of (an ivy league school, some state schools and an arts
college) about an Australian high school diploma, contacting the Australian
embassy and I gave her a Youth Exchange Organization mailing that had come
to the school. She had a notebook. Made her notes and went off to work

Some of the kids wanted to learn handwriting. A teen agreed to teach them.
 They all worked together for about 1 1/2 months on handwriting and loved
it. I was not involved at all.

The American Girl Club was created by the younger students. It is a shadow
image of School Meeting and JC. They have their own meetings, their own
lawbook, clerkships and JC. No adults are involved although we are invited
to meetings (me, visiting adults thinking about starting Sudbury schools,
reporters) to visit, but not vote. It is not a school corporation. It is
their place to run their activity.

The above are just some examples of how I've done things as a staff and how
things have worked at a small Sudbury School on the issue of "coercion". I
think I would be less proactive - take less initiative, if there were more
students and a more established culture. We had a student who had
relocated to Sudbury Valley come back to visit. Her family talked to one
of the families still at LVS. The family here wanted their children to
have the same kinds of opportunities for yoga, putting on a play, taking
pottery, etc.. What I often think is hard for parents to understand
generally, but perhaps even more so at a small school where those types of
"activities" are less available is that it is the process of learning
something, not the content of what is learned, that matters. Playing
house/school/store, etc. is just as valuable as going to an art museum or
cooking or pottery.

As a staff member at a small school, you do your best. Sometimes you don't
follow your gut about what is "pure" from a theoretical stance for
political reasons. You are always questioning yourself and your motives.
One thing I frequently do, is questions my actions with students. I feel
really uncomfortable about _____. Was I too pushy, too willing to help,
not responsive enough?

Sorry to go on so long. Hopefully the above helps somewhat in this
discussion for those not involved in the running of a Sudbury school yet.


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