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Seek and they shall learn
By Laura Pappano, Globe Staff, 2/17/2002
I t sounded so outrageous, that I had to see for myself: A school with
no grades, no tests, no homework, no curriculum, and no teachers.
There also is no schedule. As long as students spend five hours a day
at school, they can show up when they want. And while they're there,
they can do what they choose.
As I walked toward the mansard-roofed mansion that houses the main
building of the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham one recent
morning, one boy greeted another: ''Hey, I didn't think you were
coming today.'' Nearby, two students rode unicycles while a basketball
game broke out on a blacktop.
Inside the school, which serves 210 children ages 4 to 19, barefoot
little ones scurried by like fairies. Teens sunk into sofas in the
main lounge debated something about music. In a small room, five girls
arranged tiny clay figurines on a tabletop. Elsewhere, students bent
over Magic cards, a role-playing game, while other students who enjoy
writing were reading reading aloud.
So what are these children learning? ''Nobody knows what kids are
doing in this school on any day,'' said Mimsy Sadofsky, a member of
the staff since the school was founded in 1968. ''It's based on a
model of trust and the reason you have the trust is that you think
people are going to be doing things that have interest to them and
significance for their own personal growth.''
It may appear unusual for parents to pay $4,750 a year to send their
children to a private school where those in charge apparently have no
idea what's going on. But that is precisely the point: It is the
child's job - not the adult's - to initiate learning.
And even what constitutes worthwhile learning is up to the child,
based on the belief that children will seek out information they need.
Many children, Sadofsky observed, have learned to read by playing
Magic cards. One boy said he usually plays video games. Sadofsky said
she learned long ago not to judge how students spent their days. ''I
can't tell when other people are using their time well,'' she said.
Students must be self-directed, so the school does not accept those
with special needs. Sudbury Valley, Sadofsky said, may not be for
everyone, which is why prospective students must spend a week at the
school before enrolling.
Sudbury Valley feels like an anomaly at a time when education fashion
has schools carefully accounting for time, curriculum, and test
results. Education reform has brought much-needed order to a chaotic
educational landscape, particularly in urban areas where schools were
more holding tanks than sources of inspiration.
MCAS may make students pay attention, but can it make them learn?
''Ultimately, kids decide what they want to learn,'' said Ted Sizer,
founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a visiting professor
at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. ''Even as we adults think
we're controlling them, we're not, particularly when they're
Sizer, trustee of the Francis W. Parker Charter School in Devens,
supports the state standards, but sees the worth of schools such as
''One thing we really value in this country are people who can think
for themselves, who are entrepreneurial thinkers, who see things
people haven't seen before, who are imaginative,'' he said.
Suzanne Gaffney's 16-year-old son, Jason, came to Sudbury Valley in
the fall after spending his freshman year at Wayland High School.
Students and parents at the suburban high school were too focused
''not just getting into college, but getting into a name-brand
college,'' Gaffney said.
Her goals for Jason were more grounded. ''We just want him to be
happy,'' said Gaffney, who also was concerned about ''the whole
teenage mentality of conforming, of being exactly alike'' when her son
had always been a real individual.
An affable youth who is involved in theater, Jason recently sat in
Sudbury Valley's art room and painted glaze onto a fired clay ball, a
small globe with land masses of unfamiliar shape. It was, he said, his
And that is what students here do: They shape their own studies. Talk
to students and you hear a passion for learning. Hannah Katch, 14, of
East Woodstock, Conn., loves botany and Plato's dialogues. ''I just
couldn't stop reading them,'' she said.
Travis Weiner, 16, of Upton, who sat in the kitchen with a checked
cloth napkin tucked into his shirt as he ate a vegetarian burrito,
named his academic interests: writing, biology, math, history,
philosophy, theology, and psychology. Right now he's reading a
psychology text with a group of teens. ''It's analogous to a book
group,'' he explained.
Like many teens here, Weiner complains that many traditional schools
favor memorizing facts, not fostering intelligence. Peter Berard 16,
of Foxborough has spent much of his public school career ''stuck in
classes I either had no aptitude in or no interest in. It's not the
proper way to educate someone.''
Myla Green, 18, of Ashland, has been at Sudbury Valley since she was 4
and hopes to graduate this year. That requires her to defend a thesis
and win approval in a schoolwide vote. Green earned a combined score
of 1,220 on the SATs and plans to attend college. ''The most important
thing you have here is time and freedom to do what you want,'' said
Those are scarce commodities these days in education.
Education reform has brought positive change. But in the quest to
align schools to standards, are we pressing the belief that there is
one path, one type of essay that earns a top score on the
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, one ''right answer''?
That learning is not an exploration, but a search for the appropriate
In fifth grade, my teacher passed out paper with a large circle on it
and several lines beneath. The assignment was to draw a picture and
write something. I stared at the circle in the familiar shade of
mimeograph ink and made a daring decision: I drew nothing and wrote
about it. This was the 1970s. My teacher, 26 with longish hair and a
passion for the Beatles and ''The Hobbit,'' thought it was brilliant.
Would a teacher now appreciate such a response? Perhaps. What is more
troubling, though, is that I don't think a student today would try it.
What's refreshing - even moving - about the Sudbury Valley School is
the confidence with which they assert the belief that there is more
than one way to get an education.
Send feedback and story ideas to Laura Pappano by e-mail at
This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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