[Discuss-sudbury-model] Great article from Ode magazine, pass it on!

From: Dilyara Breyer <dilyara_at_bigrock.org>
Date: Mon Mar 28 02:10:01 2005

A nice article from one of the fast growing alternative magazine:


It is also pasted below for your convenience,

Dilyara Breyer
Big Rock Sudbury School, California

     In kids we trust

      Kim Ridley
      This article appeared in Ode issue: 21

      A new movement is increasingly grabbing attention: democratic schools. What happens
when children get a say in their own education? Kim Ridley went in search of the answer
for Ode.

      While his peers at other schools were memorizing their multiplication tables, Ken
Pruitt was lying on his back watching clouds, building tree forts with friends, or poking
around in the woods. Pruitt was no juvenile delinquent. He was a student at the Sudbury
Valley School near Boston, where children get to decide for themselves how they want to
spend each day.

      Come again? What does cloud watching or fort building have to do with learning?
Everything, according to Sudbury Valley's founders. "Children don't know what they want to
learn, they know what they want to do," says Mimsy Sadofsky, one of several original
founders who still work at the school. What children typically want to do is play-which
cognitive scientists say is one of the main ways human beings learn.
       "Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be
learned," says David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, and most
recently author of The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Miseducation.
"There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play."

      Pruitt, who attended Sudbury Valley from ages six to seventeen, enjoyed a "Huck Finn
childhood". "I spent hours by myself climbing trees, walking on the trails, sitting and
observing," he says. He especially liked to perch on a tree leaning low over a swamp and
peer into the tea-colored water, watching fish and insects, frogs and turtles go about
their daily lives.

      He recalls sitting perfectly still on a stone wall in the woods to watch for
wildlife. A deer came so close he could almost touch it, and then a raccoon. Something
stirred in him that never would have happened had he been sitting behind a desk. "Human
beings, especially children before they' re programmed by society, are open to seeing
other living things in the world as equals instead of having the sense that we're their
masters. That's what set me on the course to want to preserve wild nature. By the time I
was fifteen, it was clear to me that I'd follow a career in wilderness protection."
      Today, at age thirty-five, Pruitt is Executive Director of the Massachusetts
Association of Conservation Commissions. In a state that loses forty acres a day to
sprawl, his organization helps people in more than three hundred communities protect the
kinds of wetlands he loved as a child.

      A new survey of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School shows that such idyllic school
experiences has not harmed or hampered them as adults. Eighty-two percent of graduates
interviewed pursued further study such as college or trade school after Sudbury Valley.
The others said they were ready to enter the fields they planned to pursue as adults.
Alumni have become ballet dancers and farmers, physicians and circus performers,
carpenters, teachers, lawyers, farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, clerks, you name it.

      But the most important measures of success seldom have much to do with college
admissions or job titles. And that's where Sudbury Valley graduates like Pruitt tend to
excel. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said their lives reflect their values. That's
what the founders had in mind when they started the school in 1968. Sadofsky and another
founder, Daniel Greenberg, along with Jason Lempka, have just published a new book, The
Pursuit of
Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Of the past thirty-seven years they write,
"We believe that the school provides an environment that trains each individual to think
for themself, and to lead an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fun."
       Sudbury Valley is the oldest existing democratic school in the U.S. and the most
widely imitated. It has no tests or grades and is run by a "school meeting" patterned
after New England town meetings in which all participants have an equal vote on important
matters. At a time when debates rage about education standards and testing, these schools
offer an intriguing and controversial alternative: putting children in charge of their own
      Although each of the more than 160 democratic schools around the world evolved
independently, they generally share the practices of allowing students to choose how to
spend their days, vote on important school matters, and participate in a community of
equals, regardless of age. These practices raise many eyebrows in education circles, but
advocates say democratic schools can teach more traditional schools a thing or two about
helping children grow into happy adults, learn to navigate a complex world-and participate
in a free society.

      In mid-December, the Victorian mansion that houses the Sudbury Valley School in
Framingham, Massachusetts, bustles with activity. Some students rehearse music and dance
performances for an upcoming show at the school. Others make gingerbread houses, play
video games, read, argue, sew, study, or just hang out. There's nothing here that even
remotely resembles a classroom. Just lots of rooms filled with comfy chairs and books,
plus music studios, an art room, a woodshop, performance space, a darkroom, and kitchen.

      Learning flows from the daily life of the school, which includes 160 or so students
and 10 staff members. Students know each staff person's areas of expertise, and ask for
help when they need it. "Although kids may never be in a formal class," says Sadofsky,
      "the adults here are models for them."
       Classes are occasionally offered-but only when students initiate them or ask for
them. And older students often "teach" the younger ones. During his teenage years, Pruitt
took a few optional classes given by staff. "The classes didn't feel like classes, they
felt like entertainment, " says Pruitt, who especially enjoyed Daniel Greenberg's European
history class. Instead of droning on with boring facts, Greenberg sometimes dramatized his
       One strength of Sudbury Valley's approach is in some of the things these schools
don't do says Alfie Kohn, one of America's leading authorities on alternative education.
"The excessive control of children, the use of grades and tests and textbooks, and a
factory-like curriculum are all wonderfully absent," says Kohn, author of The Schools Our
Children Deserve and What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated. Kohn adds that learning at
these schools "often takes place outside of what most adults think of as a structured
classroom environment."

      Indeed. Just ask Dayna Kimball, who was on the verge of quitting school a few years
ago. "I was bored," Kimball says of her junior year at a public high school in suburban
Denver, Colorado. "I didn't like the time constraints, and the assignments seemed tedious
and redundant."
      Luckily, her mother, Jane, discovered Alpine Valley School (AVS) in nearby Wheat
Ridge. Modeled after Sudbury Valley, the Colorado school offered Dayna Kimball the freedom
she craved-no tests, grades, or constraints. So what did she do when she got there? "I
went to school every day and slept on the couch," she says.
      No one bothered her. No one told her to wake up or asked what she thought she was
doing. "They accepted every minute of it," Kimball says. "The slang there for it is
      After about a year, though, Kimball got really bored-and that's when she began to
wake up. She started learning a little Japanese, a bit of history, and dabbled in
metalsmithing. As part of her studies, she decided to try out a few jobs in the "real
world," including a stint at a toy store and another as a bank teller.
      Meanwhile, subtle changes were unfolding in the time Kimball spent at Alpine Valley.
Her fellow students, especially the younger ones, touched something in her. "I was
standoffish at first, but they opened me up because they wanted to get to know who I was,"
Kimball says. As she continued exploring at Alpine Valley, she tried out another job as a
para-educator in a public school. And that's when Dayna Kimball discovered her passion:
working with autistic children. She says she wouldn't have found it without the freedom
and flexibility of Alpine Valley. "Without AVS, I would have dropped out of school," she

      Today, Kimball works as an intervention support staff person with autistic children
at Creative Perspectives, a therapeutic center outside Denver. She also is earning her
bachelor's degree in speech and language pathology. "AVS has a philosophy of people first,
not grades or accomplishments," says Kimball, who's now twenty-three. "I now look at my
kids that way-kids first. It's not about their disability or their ability to accomplish
anything. It's about who they are."

      While Sudbury Valley gives children plenty of freedom to play and develop as
individuals, it also requires them to participate in the community through school
meetings, in which everyone votes on all decisions made at the school. The weekly meeting,
says graduate Anna Rossetti, shows that, "democracy can be painful. You've got to listen
to a lot of different crap before you get to a consensus." Students and staff sometimes
spend hours hashing out every single issue.

      Yet Rossetti acknowledges that the experience has often come in handy.
"Participating in democracy at Sudbury Valley instills in you an incredible sense of
empowerment," says Rossetti, who now works at a Whole Foods Market in San Diego,
California, while finishing her bachelor's degree in social sciences. "That's something I
take with me all the time."
      And perhaps that's one of the most important lessons from democratic schools like
Sudbury Valley. "I think it's hard to learn democracy when we make children prisoners
until they're nineteen years old," says Sadofsky.

      Freedom is all well and good, but even progressive educators say kids need more
pushing and guidance than they typically get at schools like Sudbury Valley. These
educators say children also need structure and sometimes more, rather than less, adult
       "I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an
inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the
worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal
autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many
of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to
make good decisions."

      One opportunity for decision-making comes in the school's judicial committee, in
which all students participate on a rotating basis, along with staff. This committee makes
and enforces school rules. All grievances are settled here, with students meting out the
sentences. And that process can go awry, says Kohn, in an environment that practices what
he calls "an extremely individualistic sensibility." Kohn says kids can misuse the
well-intentioned judicial committee by threatening to "bring up" other kids who are
annoying them. "It's striking, and frankly a little refreshing, that kids sit on this
committee and have the power to make decisions," Kohn says. "What is equally striking to
me is this . there isn't a sense of a community solving problems together, rather there's
punishment for aberrant individuals."

      Academically, Kohn says progressive education should emphasize not only following
children's interests, but also challenging them to consider topics and problems that may
not have occurred to them.
      "Leaving kids on their own tends to flatten the slope of their improvement," concurs
schools reformer Ted Sizer, whose latest book, The Red Pencil, offers a powerful critique
of American education. Sizer, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says
educators need to "shove great questions in front of kids" that challenge them to learn.

      On the far end of the educational spectrum from Sudbury Valley, there are growing
legions of people, including the Bush Administration, who firmly argue that schools need
standards-and standardized testing-to make sure all students learn at least the basics
like reading and math. In the U.S., each state sets these standards based on
recommendations from educators and lawmakers, along with public input. Advocates say
standards are essential to allocating money to public schools and the students who need
the most help. According to this argument, education standards enable equity.

      Ross Wiener, Policy Director of The Education Trust in Washington D.C. sees a
general public consensus around certain core skills children need to know in order to
become successful adults and find secure jobs that pay a living wage. But he adds that
setting standards to ensure that kids learn the basics is about more than just getting a
job. "To participate in a democracy, you certainly need advanced reading skills, critical
thinking, logic, and reason."
      But Sudbury Valley graduates like Christian Cederlund would argue that these are the
kinds of skills he acquired, plus many more-without suffering through rigid standards,
testing, or cookie-cutter curricula. Cederlund says one of the most important lessons from
his years at Sudbury Valley was not covered in any textbook: adapting to change.

      An athletic kid interested in science, Cederlund started Sudbury Valley in 1969 when
he was six years old and graduated when he was seventeen. When he was a teenager, a staff
person showed him pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and encouraged him to try ballet.

      Cederlund went on to dance professionally with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in
Seattle. But eventually his knees started giving out and he found himself a college
freshman at age twenty-seven. He completed a degree, and went on to teach dance and
neuroanatomy at the University of Washington. When he burned out on teaching, Cederlund
took time off to play golf and discovered his next career-running a golf touring business
in Seattle.
      At forty-one, Cederlund now has a family to support, which is prompting another
career change. He hopes to blend his love of helping people and his fascination with
anatomy and science into creating a new job, perhaps selling medical equipment or becoming
an MRI technician. He credits his creative ability to shift from one career to another as
a continuation of the life-long learning adventure he started at Sudbury Valley. "I still
feel like I'm playing in my life," he says.

      Over the past few decades, Sudbury Valley has directly inspired the creation of
thirty-nine similar but independent schools in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Israel, and
Australia. Students come from many backgrounds-rich, poor, liberal, conservative, black,
white, you name it. Each school offers students an alternative that can help them discover
paths they might not have otherwise found.
      Among those students are Adu and Ben Sheppard, whose father, Derek, co-founded the
Booroobin Sudbury Democratic Centre for Learning in the Australian state of Queensland in
1996. Both brothers say traditional schools didn't serve their learning or interests-which
have turned out to be quite divergent. But at Booroobin, located in the lush, rolling
hills north of Brisbane, both brothers found freedom to discover and pursue their
passions. While Ben set about rebuilding Land Rovers, raising chickens, and growing
organic vegetables and flowers in the rich, volcanic soils surrounding the school, Adu
spent much of his time indoors, happily playing computer games and learning simple
computer graphics programs.

      Since then, Ben has rebuilt two Land Rovers "from scratch," and he's starting on a
third (a 1951 model). At age 18, he is also cultivating a reputation as an outstanding
gardener. Adu taught himself computer animation and graphics programs and won a government
scholarship to attend a games development course to study animation and graphics.

      Today, Adu, who's 20, designs web site templates and computer animation graphics for
businesses. He's also working on an independent computer game that he and his
collaborators hope to publish worldwide. "My aim is to never end up in a repetitious,
boring, and mindless day job, and I seem to be doing pretty well so far," he says.
"Booroobin taught me that individuality and free-thinking aren't impediments. I've stuck
to who I am and what I want to be in life, and I'm loving it!"
       One wonders, is there any better measure of a good education?
       The Queensland government apparently thinks so. In 2003, the Queensland Minister
for Education revoked Booroobin's accreditation because it did not meet state
requirements. But Booroobin, which now calls itself a centre for learning, is still
accepting students, and Derek Sheppard and others are determined to see it through, in
spite of the challenges.

      How can parents determine whether or not their children will thrive at schools like
Sudbury Valley? "What makes a child a good fit is a desire to be in control of his or her
time, and parents who can trust their child to behave with intelligence," Sadofsky says.
"What makes some children a poor fit is an unwillingness, or inability, to control their
      These schools don't work for children who need a lot of structure, or lack parental
support. Beyond these basic issues, sometimes the school simply isn't a fit for a
particular child. Both Rossetti and Cederlund have siblings who started at Sudbury Valley
and later left.

      Paying more than $5,000 a year to send a child to school to climb trees, nap, or
wander in the woods demands a big leap of faith from parents. They can feel isolated, even
ostracized. Ken Pruitt recalls family friends worrying that his parents were committing
child abuse by sending him to a school with such an unstructured environment.
      Mimsy Sadofsky acknowledges the challenges faced by Sudbury parents. "People are
very worried that there will be some big gaps in their children' s lives, which is the
opposite of what happens here," she says. "It's a really hard thing when everybody in
society is telling you that you have to measure your children all the time to say, 'I
don't want to do that. I just want my kids to be free and have fun and grow up in their
own way to be responsible.'"
       Dayna Kimball's mother, Jane, is glad she took the chance. "Dayna had struggled for
several years. I knew that she was wanting freedom more than anything and that she would
resist anything less," Jane says. "I sensed that I had to let life be her teacher. Paying
tuition for a place that required her to show up was much better than having her drop out
of school. I am extremely grateful to AVS for Dayna's successes. I believe that the
philosophy of these schools is in alignment with the way nature operates."

      Even with their problems, Sudbury and schools like it are slowly catching on, and
every year staff and students gather at the International Democratic Education Conference,
which was held in India last December. Jerry Mintz, Director of the Alternative Education
Resource Organization, says each democratic school offers something valuable. He explains,
"There is a spectrum of approaches within the idea of non-compulsory classes: some schools
set a timetable, such as Summerhill School in England." Some, he notes offer classes every
day, others only when students ask for them, as is the case at Sudbury Valley. "The bottom
line is that these schools respect students' rights and the right to take control of their
own education."
      Ken Pruitt is now a father himself. He wants his two young children to have the same
freedom he enjoyed as a boy. His daughter, Emma, starts school next year. The Pruitts
would love to send her to Sudbury Valley, but it's a long drive. At a minimum, he says,
the couple will keep a careful eye their children's education-but not in the traditional
sense "If we have them go through a traditional school system," Pruitt says, " we will
observe whether or not their natural spark, curiosity, and desire to learn are being
driven out of them. If that did start to happen, we'd take drastic measures and get them

      Human beings are born to learn. Democratic schools, which like every school have
their flaws, raise provocative questions about the best way to allow our children to find
their authentic paths, a sense of personal responsibility, and contribute to a free and
thriving world.
       The solutions might be simpler than we think: long afternoons of cloud watching.
Days upon days to play with friends, dance or nap, read a book or muck around in a swamp.
In a world where many kids' lives are overscheduled, micro-managed, and endlessly tested,
perhaps more freedom is exactly what they need.

      www.edrev.org (Alternative Education Resource Organization)

                  David Dickerson (Nacogdoche, TX)
                  I am a teacher in a public high school in Texas, deep in the birthplace
of Bush's "No child left behind" debacle. From inside, the education system, as it is
represented in my district, at least, is not working. The problems are myriad and there is
honestly no single solution, but I see students every day who push against authority
(however it is manifested). This system does not work--maybe a democratic approach would
better serve citizens of this democracy. As a parent, I am looking for some alternative
for my daughter. I will not allow her to be subjected to a situation like the one I see
before me.
                  maura buchman (atlanta, georgia)
                  The educational system in the U.S. is deeply flawed. We live in a time
where most children only receive 15 minutes of recess a day during school. It is
frightening that we are confining our future minds to four cinderblock walls and are too
afraid to let our children explore their own world and their own spirits and selves. How
are they ever supposed to get to know themselves and what they want from life if they are
never given the chance to experience it ?
                  A. Martinez (san diego, CA)
                  I agree with maura and David. Democratic schools sound very interesting.
They allow children to be themselves instead of what someone else wants them to be. We
always tell our children to be themselves and then we pack them up and send them to a
school who asks them to be standardized and generic. I wish I would have gone to one of
these schools!
                  Melissa Spenker (Long Beach)
                  This is so exciting. I wasnt aware these schools existed. I remember
questioning the benifits of memorizing useless information as early as the second grade. I
hope to find a democratic school for my future children.Thanks for the inspiration.
                  Lara Wild (Baltimore, MD)
                  I'm a High School senior, and while I agree that students need much more
free time than they are given and there should be less emphasis on grades and more on
actually learning, I don't see how anyone can learn history, math, science, language, or
any other subject without instruction. The schools offer great life experience, but
textbook knowledge is also important. When these students went on to college they had to
sit in a classroom. There needs to be a middle road between leisure learning and
traditional textbook learning.
                  Nina M. Lubin (Long Beach, CA)
                  As a mother of three, grandmother of five, earner of a Human Studies
B.A. and Educational Counseling M.A., and now retired school counselor, I hope I have some
grasp of what students experience, parents want, and what educators and government
officials are promoting. I also believe in testing. A well-designed and properly
administered assessment protocol is genuinely helpful and useful, and can tell much.
Neither justifying one's existence nor fear of losing face are ever good reasons to
maintain a point of view or design an educational system. Having said that, there are many
positive ways for education and learning to take place. What's sad is that some kids
aren't doing much of either one, despite motivated teachers and technology. Parents need
kids to be occupied and supervised so they can go about their own day's work (and
therefore don't really "Question Authority", as Einstein suggested). And our current
culture has now determined that keeping kids busy memorizing rote facts to pass "No Child
Left Behind"-type testing, and scheduling nonstop before-and-after school and weekend
activities which leave kids drained and sleep-deprived is the way to go. How can a school
provide the framework for not-strictly-academic concepts like critical thinking skills and
decision-making processes when teachers have to "teach to the tests" that students must
pass to progress to the next grade? Put aside educational standards for the moment:
without groundwork in place for creative thinking, understanding higher science and math
concepts is unlikely. It's like well-meaning parents doing their children's homework: the
assignments are done, but the material remains not fully learned by the student, along
with the confidence-bursting lesson to the child that s/he isn't good enough. Praising
kids to promote self-esteem will never overcome the anxiety-producing insecurity of not
being able to function successfully in one's life. And children grow up not knowing how to
make good decisions, or how to analyze or solve a problem. For these and other reasons, I
strongly agree that democratic learning environments, as well as extra-academic skills (of
course, congruent with children's abilities) need to be built into our standard
educational system. Author Kim Ridley has beautifully and thoroughly laid it out for us.
Now what? How can we convince parents who are demanding that their child WILL go to
Harvard that what will suit their child perfectly, as well as provide a living wage, is
community college coursework leading to certification in Airplane Engine Maintenance? Or
Culinary Arts? Or Medical Billing? Here in Long Beach, we have pioneered Seamless
Education, where kids move from elementary grades through higher education at our local
community and state colleges, and adult school programs as well. We have the best Parks
and Recreation System in the country, which also provides ongoing learning opportunities
and personal fulfillment classes, summer day camps, and many a place to lie in dense green
grass and study the clouds. The question brought to the table is optimally, "How can we
work together to help each student succeed?" Maybe we should follow that with, "What's
missing and needs to be added to potentially optimize each individual's life?" Thank you.
                  Roberta (Doylestown, PA)
                  My daughter goes to a wonderful school that seems to be a mix of
democratic and traditional. While they follow the state guidelines of what courses must be
taught, students still get to pick what they want to learn in addition to those obligatory
courses. They are not forced to go to class - everyone has a bad day now and then, and the
teachers realize that. They are as concerned about the emotional growth of these kids as
they are their academic growth. My daughter was drowning in the muck of the traditional
school. Now, she is thriving, and able to nuture the spirit I always knew was inside.
                  Jon Owens (Lemoyne)
                  My 10 year old daughter attends a Sudbury School, and I feel that
placing her there is one of the best things I will ever do for her. Although she excelled
in the public school, she was miserable. Now, she is happy and responsible. She
participates in few academics, yet I'm not concerned. She will find her niche in her own
time and way. In my experience, interpersonal skills and values are more important in
one's career than are academic knowledge anyway. She is a joy to be around and I am proud.
                  Blake Boles (Idyllwild, CA)
                  History, math, science, language, and the many other 'essential' classes
in high school hold no relevance to the lives of the majority of students. The simple rule
of learning that Sudbury & other democratic schools embrace and traditional schools
(public or private) deny is that people learn what they are interested in learning; if
there is no interest, than learning will not happen, no matter how many carrots you dangle
in front of a student's face or how many consequences with which you threaten them.
"Exposure" to new areas of life (academic or not) comes through community and interactions
with peers & adults, and that is exactly what SVS provides. A major fallacy of traditional
education is the idea that for a student to be "exposed" to biology, that they should take
a half-year or year-long course in biology. With such thinking, it is very easy to wisk
away the entire childhood & adolescence of an adult. Our society is complex, yes, and
there are many different subjects that can be learned, yes; but without the time to figure
out who *you* are and what really interests *you*, none of our complexity can be
                  Anna (Hayward, WI)
                  I am 26 years old and searching for my passion. have been for quite a
few years, and i feel that this only started once i graduated high school and struck out
on my own. i am finding this to be a difficult and drawn-out process. i wish that i could
have had the freedom and support to explore my interests as a child. i blended well with
the limits of traditional schooling and i think that i am feeling the repurcussions of
those limits now. i find it rather intimidating to explore beyond and break the mold of my
life and i think that an education like that offered at SVS and other such schools may
have taught me how to engage life, rather than watch it happen. i am teaching myself now.
Received on Mon Mar 28 2005 - 02:09:39 EST

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