My First Glimpse of What SVS Is Really About

While I was reading Daniel Greenberg’s essay (“Are 1000 Pictures Worth One Word?”) on why it has been so difficult to convey the SVS experience in film and pictures (, I found myself thinking about the evolution of my own understanding about what makes SVS so unique. I think Linda and I were like many SVS parents when we sought admission for our daughter. We were fleeing one horror or another of the public school system. What was most important to us then was what SVS was not. We knew she would not have reams of homework, she would be not be penalized for failing to conform, she would not have to spend long hours preparing for and taking standardized tests and she would not be required to remain all day inside a class room without any outlets for her energy.

But SVS is so much more than the lack of homework, and the freedom to climb trees whenever you want. I think I got my first glimpse of what makes SVS unique when we attended our first SVS concert.


Like many musical events put on by people decades younger than myself, I found I knew very little of the music and despite my mild hearing loss, the music seemed much louder than it needed to be. There were also a number of very musically talented kids, along with a few that were less so.

But just barely below of the surface I saw vast differences between the SVS concert and similar events put on at more traditional schools. What struck me immediately was the lack of involvement of SVS staff. A few were in attendance, but none were in a leadership or managerial role. At other school musicals and plays, the music teacher or drama teacher are always present, if not by actually serving as master of ceremonies, then certainly by coordinating and instructing from the wings. They are often noticeably anxious and, on some basic level, have taken on ownership of the success or failure of the event. Their egos are on the line, far more so than the student participants.

At the SVS concert this lack of a non-student ownership of the event was striking. There are a host of technical challenges to any sort of production, theater, dance, music. At the musical events at our public school there was a small cadre of dedicated parents, possessing the necessary technical skills, to run lights, manage sound equipment as well as sell tickets and staff the concessions table. At the SVS concert all of these were absent. Students played all these roles.IMG_0757 How refreshing this was! Our younger daughter had participated in a local children’s theater, where parents had to buy the concessions, then staff the table. There was something surreal about giving my daughter a dollar, to go buy a snack Linda had purchased that morning, from a friend of ours, who was staffing the concession table during intermission. My daughter once even commented that it seemed strange that we had to pay to have her participate in the show, then had to pay for tickets to watch the show.

The full ownership of the SVS concert by the students was brought into sharp focus for me during what was really just a trivial moment during the concert. During an act change there was some momentary technical glitch. A couple SVS students were busily making the necessary corrections, but even before the problem had become a noticeable awkward pause in the show, another student jumped up in front of the audience, told a couple jokes to entertain the audience while the technical issue was resolved.

For me, that momentary delay, and how it was handled was a eureka moment. If this had been any school but SVS, one of the teachers would have come on stage and apologized for the delay, an army of overly involved parents would have rushed forward to solve the technical issue. The students would have likely felt a sense of dis-empowerment.


The concert also illustrated many other aspects of SVS. The multi-age acts were inspiring. Older more experienced musicians often provided the backup needed for younger kids to do their singing acts. The variety was impressive, the acts barely touched top 40 hits and ranged from classical to punk (do they still call it that?).

But for me, the insight I saw that night, was the educational value of the students owning the entire process. The collateral benefits to this ownership are probably impossible to fully enumerate. To produce such a successful event the kids had to learn and manage so much more than just the musical acts themselves: from the mundane issues of buying and pricing concessions, to the far more complex social tasks of self-organization and management.

I understand why the SVS difference cannot be easily photographed or filmed and then “given” to someone else to understand. SVS is so different, it is hard to fully understand without immersing yourself in parts of it. It needs to be experienced. And sadly only the staff and students get to do this on a regular basis. As a parent I must satisfy myself by getting occasional glimpses of it.

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Age Mixing, Another View

During the last Open House, in October of 2015, there was a remarkable interaction. It didn’t surprise me, but it greatly pleased me. Unfortunately, I don’t think the guests who were with me had enough context for what they saw to appreciate it.

Leah, who is 10, and who has been creatively amazing in many different media and many different ways since I met her when she was five, was sitting in the art room at the end of the day using markers and paper. The Open House was winding down and no other kids were using the art supplies at all anymore.Art-room915

There are many amazing artists in our school, and two of them are best friends, Amelia and Jane, both seven. They are extremely accomplished.

Leah explained that she was using a technique she had never used before, but that she had learned from Jane and Amelia. It didn’t surprise me that it was true – till I thought about it for a second. An accomplished, self-confident ten year old had no trouble trying a technique of drawing figures, which related to how hands and feet are portrayed as well as how faces are tilted, from two children who were much younger.

Dillon-and-Elise-art-room03We often talk about age-mixing and how it allows students to play with whomever they wish, which also means exactly the same as work with whomever they wish. It is easy to imagine how enriching this is — for an eight year old to be playing with eleven and thirteen year olds. It is easy to see the results: young children have (sometimes to our dismay) enormous vocabularies. They have staggering sophistication, sometimes in areas parents would not have imagined. But this is another story. This is the opposite side of the coin. Leah never considered the age of Jane or Amelia. She learned from younger children only because they knew something that interested her.

It was normal. It was beautiful, and it was totally striking, because most people consider the transfer of knowledge to be in a downward direction, not an upward. But it couldn’t be less true at Sudbury Valley, where the age-mixing is so normal that people don’t usually remark on it.

Emma-group-art-room042But they should. Today I watched a 12 year old girl on a visiting week spend most of her day with a nine year old “veteran”. Besides how to negotiate the school, I can imagine so many things she was learning. How to be an equal with an octogenarian may have been one of them; not to be disrespectful when your parents taught you respect, but merely to realize that in this school you are a peer.

When teenagers come to interview, I often tell them that they will learn from watching little kids. What will they learn? First, how to manage their time. Time hangs heavy on a new teen’s hands. They have usually spent a lot of school years hating being told what to do, but not being told what to do, it turns out, throws the burden onto you. “Oh, no, I wanted to be free, but now I don’t know what I want to do.” Young children are heedless of the idea that freedom is a burden. It is an enormous lesson to learn. Young kids express their happiness (and sometimes other emotions) with gusto. Teens need a dose of that too! They need to relax. Children who have spent years at SVS are masters of the art.

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“Lisa, Lisa”

Pottery039When you walk into the art room on any Monday or Wednesday, you can hear an almost constant murmur which turns out to be coming from several kids sitting at the clay table or at the two wheels working with clay. Some are throwing pots, others are making sculptures or hand building things, but they are all clamoring for Lisa Dolliver to show them something or to have her critique their work. “Lisa, Lisa” they all call out to her. And she is calm and patient and enthusiastic about their work. She just loves the medium and teaching people of all ages all kinds of techniques to create beautiful things out of the mud. But above all she loves the students. Her sincere joy in working with them is genuine and her warmth radiates to all.Clay057

But Lisa is not only a superb mentor, she is above all a fine ceramic artist. On December 4, 2015, she had an exhibition in her studio in Maynard to celebrate her twenty-fifth year as a professional potter. The small shop was full of a large variety of her work. Some are tiny little vases not more than three inches high, others are plates and cups and bowls and vases in all kinds of shapes, colors and designs. To walk in and be surrounded with this gleaming pottery is overwhelming. To say that her creations are beautiful and interesting describes inadequately the richness of art that fills every corner of her studio.

We at SVS are fortunate to have Lisa be part of our culture.

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