Parenting an SVS Kid

Editor’s note: This was published in our Janury 1998 Journal; a note from Jean and Rick Leif about what their daughter is up to now has been added.

Quite a lot has been written about what it is like to be a student at Sudbury Valley School, but I would like to share some thoughts on what it feels like to be a parent of a student at SVS. While I endorse the philosophy that children can and should be responsible for their own education, to actually give over that responsibility to my own child was not an easy thing to do, especially in a society that seems to hold parents directly responsible for every facet of their child’s life.

We first came to Sudbury Valley three years ago when my daughter was 14 and looking for an alternative to the pressures of public high school. Erin immediately found the philosophy of the school intriguing, but I really wasn’t sure just how this would work with my kid, who was shy and quiet, and not extremely self-motivated. My husband and I decided to let her make the final decision, since we felt it was time for her to take more control over her life. We probably didn’t realize at the time just how much control we were giving her (as far as her education was concerned) by sending her to SVS.

Erin’s first year was definitely an adjustment period for both of us. It takes a lot of courage for a teenager to voluntarily leave her friends and go to a new school where she not only doesn’t know anybody, but has to find her niche in a very unstructured environment. She spent a lot of time reading that first year; a good thing to do, but maybe it was easier to read than to become involved in what was going on at school. She said she liked school, but we had constant arguments about what time I was going to pick her up, because she didn’t want to spend more than the mandatory 5 hours there. (She’s now in her third year, drives herself, and spends as much time as possible at school.)

I can deal with giving up control of how my child spends her time at school (how many of us with kids in public school have any control there either). I’m learning to trust my child enough to feel comfortable giving that control to her rather than a teacher. The really hard part for me is not knowing how she spends her time. Although I’m interested, Erin’s not interested in telling me. A typical conversation goes something like this: “Did you do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “Did anybody do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “So all of the kids sat for 5 hours staring blankly into space?” “Yes.” End of conversation. I think this is Erin’s way of making sure I don’t meddle.

The other hard part is the occasional knowing, but not approving. Erin once came home from school and told me she has spent most of the day at the mall. I’ve given my daughter responsibility for her education, and this is how she chooses to educate herself?

I guess I had an idea about the school that the kids would each find something that really interested them which they would spend a lot of time doing or learning about. I’ve seen this in fits and starts with Erin, but for the most part I think she spends her time socializing (or engaging in meaningful dialogue, depending on your perspective). I once said I hoped she was taking advantage of the opportunities at school to learn different things, and not just hanging out with her friends all day. She answered me, rather indignantly, “Hanging out, as you call it, is probably the most beneficial use of my time; that’s where I’m forming my ideas and developing my self-confidence.” I am learning that this is very true, but something inside me still wishes she would someday choose to learn geometry (fat chance!).

I also sometimes wonder if the school doesn’t work better for kids who have been there since they were very young, than it does for kids who come as disgruntled teenagers. It seems like the younger kids in the car pool enthusiastically sign up for everything that comes along.

On the other hand, listening to Erin and her friends, it’s apparent that they can all think for themselves, and they come up with some exceptionally creative ideas. I am impressed by the compassion and understanding the kids have for each other. They are protective of each other and the school, because these are the things that are important to them. They are becoming thoughtful, caring adults.

At one of the school discussion groups I attended, Alan White commented that the hardest part about being a parent is staying out of our kids’ way. I’m trying to learn to do that, and at the same time provide support and guidance, as well as trying to figure out how to rein them back in when they push the limits. Erin once said about SVS, “It’s a school for non-conformists, and I fit right in.” These past couple of years have been an education for me too, and I’m continuing to learn to be a parent of one of these non-conformists.

April, 2016
An Update from Jean and Rick Leif

Erin relocated to Australia in September of 2014, when her two-year stint with the New England Center for Children in their Abu Dhabi operation ended. She had been in communication with a company called Lizard Autism Services, in Adelaide, Australia. They were looking for a clinical director in their autism program. She had the educational background and work experience that they were looking for, and the job was a great career advancement opportunity.

Since then, things have worked out well for her. The use of Applied Behavior Analysis for autism treatment is just beginning to catch on in Australia, so Erin is one of the few experts over there. She is involved with training the therapists who provide the treatment to the autistic children serviced by Lizard, and managing the supervisors for the therapists, as well as speaking at pubic forums about the benefits of the ABA method and working with a couple of universities to develop Masters and PhD level programs in the field. They recently promoted her to National Assistant Director!

As you would expect, we are very proud of what she has accomplished, and although we wish she was closer to us, we’re happy that she’s on a great career path. We appreciate very much the great impact that Sudbury Valley School had on her life. You all should also feel really satisfied about the job you did preparing her to head out into the “real world”.

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Whole Language, Phonics And Two Boys Learning To Read

This article is reprinted from The Field, the newsletter of Fairfield School.

There is a debate among educators regarding the best way to teach reading and writing. In one camp are the whole language proponents. They believe that reading and writing must be presented in context, working with content that has meaning. They teach children to read whole words from the beginning. To that end, in a whole language class of first graders, you could find them scribbling away, writing stories before they have learned anything else.
The other camp is populated by the phoneticians. This is the more traditional, back to basics approach. Phonics means ”of, or pertaining to, speech sounds”. So this camp stresses drills teaching the sounds letters make, such as “TH makes the sound thhh”. The next step is to work on short words that are similar like “cat, bat, sat, mat”. Most of us can probably remember learning to read this way.
I have heard tales of both disappointment and satisfaction from parents with children in the very same elementary school that has embraced the whole language technique. Why would one child learn well with it and another have a bad experience?
Could it be that the experts have missed a central truth about how children learn reading and everything else?
My oldest two children are beginning to read. They are at Fairfield School, a Sudbury Model School where self-directed learning is the core of the school experience. What motivated me to write about all of this is seeing these two children tackle the challenge of becoming literate so differently.
One of our children is interested in computer games designed for older kids and adults that are dependent on reading and some typing. From playing these games he has picked up the ability to read without “sounding out”. He read “cavalry archer” to me before I had any idea he could read a word. He obviously had been deploying lots of mounted bowmen in his games and had memorized the look of those words. When he started to read words like “Byzantine”, I really took note and started to think “what is going on here?”. Next, he started to write out whole fantasy “campaigns” with all sorts of scribbles, marks and cryptic diagrams but no actual words. Besides being unbearably adorable, this struck me as a classic whole language approach to literacy.
Now, after being able to read many words for almost a year he sometimes asks for a bit of help with phonics now and then. He is clearly well on his way to becoming fully literate.
Our other child is interested in the structure of language. He will fill pages and pages with letters and copied words. He wants to know about the rules of spelling, upper and lower case printing and so on. One of his favorite word games is to randomly print letters together and ask, “does this spell anything?” If it did, then he carefully studies the word and repeatedly prints it out. This is just beginning, but it seems clear that he will be learning to read by mastering phonics.
One thing that I love about Sudbury schools is that children not only have the freedom to chose when and what to learn, but also how to learn. While the experts debate, our children are lucky to be at a school that respects children’s innate wisdom and intelligence and supports them on the unique path it takes them on.

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Fifty Years, Front and Center!

Sudbury Valley has just begun the 2017-2018 school year – and an exciting one it is! This will be our 50th year of operation, the half century mark for what was once a “far-out” experiment. Born in the tumultuous 1960s, SVS was destined to outlive virtually every other attempt made at the time to radically change the concept of “school”.

It is worth pondering what differentiated our school from the others – why we survived when other well-intentioned people did not. More than that: to our ongoing astonishment, we have served as an inspiration to a great many others all over the world who have sought to establish similar institutions, and have become a byword among educators of all persuasions as a gold-standard model for the radical transformation of schooling.

Why did this happen?

The brief answer lies in a simple phrase: “Expect excellence”. From the beginning, the bar was set high throughout all the activities of the school. Here are some examples of the areas affected by that aim:

Clarity of the vision. We made sure to have a clear idea of our basic goals. We committed ourselves to the realization of a specific set of ideals, all quite familiar to everyone in the surrounding adult environment: that every person in the school community, regardless of age, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to governance through the consent of the governed for the purpose of protecting those rights. We felt that the clarity of the school’s vision had to match that of the country’s vision, and that this vision, limited to a small fraction of the general population when it was first announced, had to be expanded to embrace the last excluded group today: children.

Continuous efforts to elaborate the practical implications of that vision. All too often visions fail to be implemented due to the inability to translate them into day to day actions. History is replete with examples of lofty ideals dissolving under the pressure of the often unpredictable chaos of everyday existence. There have to be institutional mechanisms to continuously examine the practices in place, monitor their compatibility with the vision, and adapt them, where necessary, after careful consideration of all the attendant factors.

Ongoing articulation of the school’s philosophy and practices. The only way to assure the development of a sustainable culture across time is to articulate its content. Putting the complex issues that define the life of the school into words is an ongoing challenge, given the difficulty of communication and the elusive meanings of words. The only way to prevent a culture from melting into an inchoate form is to keep at this task, and involve as many members of the community as possible in it, so that there is a common understanding of its essence.

Insistence on all activities, without exception, being carried out at the highest possible level of expertise. This is not always possible to achieve, but it is always possible to hold up as an aim. Records are clean, financial matters are handled professionally, office administration is smooth and efficient, activities representing the school are carefully vetted, the school buildings are clean, the campus maintained aggressively. Since all of these can easily lapse into mediocrity and even negligence, it takes a great deal of work and resolve to keep them going as they should.

Throughout the 50 years, we have expected excellence. The expectation has guided us unfailingly, and is, I believe, what has brought us to this point. It, more than anything, has fostered a continuously supportive community, inspired by our vision and our efforts to make that vision real.

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