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.

Posted in General, Life at Sudbury Valley, Underlying Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Many Levels of Gingerbread

The month of December always feels rushed, but in a good way. Students are more amped than usual. They are excited for Christmas, parties, and especially making gingerbread houses.

Mimsy organizes a few days to make gingerbread houses before the winter break. There is always a buzz about doing them. People ask each other if they are participating and what day they are doing it on.

It’s a lot of work, so, there are different levels of it. The beginners make gingerbread cookies. These are done with a few of the youngest students. They take about two hours with a half hour break in the middle. This year, similar to the years before, there was a student who ate way too much candy and cookies. One student couldn’t help herself and over-indulged, despite the wise advice to eat her lunch first. It was actually very funny. After being told repeatedly to eat her healthy lunch, she proclaimed, “I’m going to eat the candy first! Then, maybe, I’ll eat my lunch…if I’m hungry!” I’m not positive she ever got to it.

The intermediate phase is making gingerbread trees. This takes about four hours and involves more precise details. Students are expected to roll out their dough, which takes strength and patience to make it the right thickness. Once the dough is rolled out, they have to cut the tree pieces out. There is a lesson on how to conserve the dough to make the most of it and how to slice the pieces out. This takes a lot of concentration and the room can be awfully quiet, enough to hear a pin drop. Similar to the cookies, there is always one student who over eats and the majority have candy residue all over their mouth and cheeks.

The older and more mature students, make gingerbread houses. This is an all day affair and takes an enormous amount of energy. They need to roll out two or more blocks of dough for all of their house and tree pieces. Once everything is all baked, they are able to decorate their houses into whatever they like. This year one student transformed her house into a barn. Another person, decorated her house to have “Stranger Things” references. The finished products are always amazing and unique. With the older students, the staff doesn’t have to remind them to eat lunch. There was one student I thought was going to get sick this year. This is the first time she did a house. She’s worked her way up to this, starting with cookies when she was younger. Every year she over eats candy and ends up comatose from too much of it. I was expecting her to do this again. To my surprise, she didn’t! She learned how to monitor herself and ate only a few pieces while decorating. I asked her, “why didn’t you eat all of your candy like you did the other years?” She laughed and replied “I didn’t want to get sick”. Then we both laughed, remembering the past.

Watching the students grow and learn how to do harder tasks is a real joy. Every year, its exciting to see what creations will be made. The students have such great imaginations that every cookie, tree, and house is something to admire.

Below are a few photos of all the action!

Posted in General, Life at Sudbury Valley, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Fall Hikes

This blog was originally published as an article in our journal, November 1, 1992.

We often enjoy annual trips to the White Mountains in October. One trip took place a bit after the glorious colors of Fall were at the height of their beauty. The weather was bad. It was raining most of the time and clouds and mists shrouded the mountains hiding their vistas. Still, the forest wasn’t gloomy. The ground was laced with the brightly colored fallen oak and maple leaves. Many trees which I never noticed when the reds predominated sparkled as if they were enameled by the rain drops with many shades of yellow and green. It was lovely and it was wet. The students were all teenagers, some old timers and some new. In spite of the cold and disappointing weather nobody was cranky, nobody complained.

Over the years I have learned that it is O.K. for kids to swim in the cold river when the ambient temperature is around forty degrees. I learned that kids can walk around with wet hair without contracting pneumonia or other dread diseases, while I am dressed in many layers of wool and down. I learned that they know how to take care of themselves without my watching them too closely.

It was a mellow and harmonious outing which ended for me on a “high” when I scanned our campsite for litter and found none. The students had picked up every scrap without prompting by the staff.

By contrast, the hike to Nobscot Mountain in Framingham was blessed with perfect weather. Twenty-three children all under the age of nine and many only four or five came along with Barbara, Denise and me. I worried that the youngest ones would be anxious on their first outing away from school. I wondered whether they would have the stamina to walk all the way up, each having to carry their sweaters and lunches. Happily, they all made it to the top. The view was superb. The hills underneath us were still colored in Fall reds all the way to the horizon where we could clearly see Boston’s skyscrapers, the Prudential and the Hancock buildings. Everyone loved it. We ate our lunches and lounged in the warm sun. After a while the children started to explore and before long they discovered a wall of rocks which presented them with a fine challenge to climb, and presented me with something to fret about. In fact, seven year old D., who brought me over to show me how he can scale this wall, told me with twinkling eyes that his mother “would die” if she saw him do it. I nearly died too, but I couldn’t allow myself to show my apprehension. I was torn between opposing responsibilities: physical safety versus respecting the children’s spirit of adventure and strengthening them by showing them that I have trust in their judgement. I decided to wait and see before interfering and so I stood there and watched them. I saw them figure out the best ways to get to the top, and take their time to assess the situation and plan their assault. They taught and encouraged each other and most of them made it. Some, however, were too small or not agile enough and they quietly retreated to the base of the rock. Two, in fact, had to be rescued by me like the proverbial kitten rescued by firemen.

Even though I was impressed by how careful and sensible the kids were I was relieved when Barbara called to tell us it was time to leave. And then a new student aged four decided that it was her turn to scale the ten foot rock. My patience was all used up and I told her that she was too small to do it. She knew that it was so but she was furious with me for saying it to her. She told me firmly that she should be allowed to try and decide for herself what she can and can’t do. It was tough for me to prevent her from doing it but it was getting late and I thought it might be dangerous. She was angry with me for a while until I found a way to let her know that I basically agreed with her. It would have been better if I had taken the time and had let her see for herself that her legs were too small to reach the first foothold. It was clearly a situation that arises in many interactions between children and adults: I have to allow them to take the risks that they think they can handle and they have to accept that there are times when they have to yield to our experience.

I was glad to be back at school with all twenty-three children safe and happy. Being a grown-up isn’t as easy as it seems.

Posted in General, Life at Sudbury Valley, Underlying Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Two Fall Hikes