How DO They Learn?

It is the first question parents ask once they try to wrap their minds around the fact that students at Sudbury Valley are, in fact, free to use their time in the ways that appeal to them.

And even after we have gone through the whole bit; after one of us says, “Even I learn; all of us learn all day every day, whether we want to or not!  It is hard – maybe impossible – to stop.”  And then we point out that their children have been learning beings since they were born and (as we know now) even before, but the learning process is certainly observable every day – maybe every minute – after birth.  I blabber sometimes about how babies will learn to sit, crawl, walk, talk – all without help, even though loving care and the physical freedom to make these gargantuan gains helps – and how much harder that is than, for instance, reading.

I notice that most of this chatter falls on ears that either don’t hear, maybe because they feel that the stuff babies do is just “natural”, “normal”, “evolutionarily destined”, and therefore of no interest, because it basically happens to them all.  I think people want to know about how kids learn the things that regular, loved children sometimes don’t do, like geometry. How they learn geometry however is usually about where they go to school, and only sometimes about their interests in life. Somehow, it is hard to connect those entities in people’s minds: naturally being inquisitive and pursuing anything you want; school; life…

I have been thinking about “how they learn” a lot because at the latest Open House, a larger than usual number of prospective parents asked me that question, and of course I was unable to satisfy them, no matter how hard I tried. In the Spring 2017 issue of our Journal, and on the May 7 blog post, there is an article, The Animal Hospital, by Wendy Lement, about the work two of our very young students have been doing all year to formulate and then realize their ambitious dreams. Their dreams were to build a hospital (in miniature) that would be useful for every sort of situation – for instance, there must be emergency rooms, recovery areas, etc., and species of animals that do not get along with others would have their own areas of the buildings.  To me, the tireless research, planning, and building work they have done is mind-blowing. And to me, it says everything you ever want to know about how they learn.

However, neither of the (loving, interested, attentive) sets of parents of these children have any clue about how they spend their time at school. They don’t know if their kids are doing anything at all except getting older. And when you read between the lines of The Animal Hospital, you will have a clue about why. How do you explain to someone who lives quite literally in another culture (like your mom) how you pursue your interests; how far and how deeply you go to pursue your interests; how important it is and how completely non-play, because there is no line between work and play; how integrated the ways in which you follow your passions are; how you are not thinking about anything but finding out what you need to know and doing what you want, actually need to; and even more: how does this lead to being “educated”? How DO they learn?

Then people talk about “learning to learn”. That is a phrase I have no relationship to and no understanding of. “Learning to learn”. What? We all know how to learn. Does it mean gaining the skills one needs to do what one wants to do? Figuring out how to have fun? Figuring out how to obtain information? Of course, but doesn’t every young child every day pepper the air with “why”, “how”, and “what does that mean”? Not to mention, “when”, “where” and “are we there yet”. Kids’ first words, after they learn some nouns to get by with, are usually inquiries. They know how to learn.

I sometimes think about self-confidence. One does not usually see tots who are not confident enough to explore their world. But one often sees adolescents who are not. How do they learn that? Is that anti-learning? As a graduate of ours said once, “I thought every day you lived in the world and got smarter and smarter. . . . I thought there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain.” Maybe a child’s confidence can be erased out of their brain by hearing really often that the things they were interested in doing are not worthwhile and that there were other things that they should be doing. I have seen kids that looked like that. But if they came to SVS they didn’t stay like that. At our school, they looked around, noticed that there were other ways of living, and slowly but surely recovered that confidence.

Then I thought about the animal hospital. I did not think that actual animals would be operated on there. What I thought is that a fantasy world had been built, in nature, with everything that they thought it needed after deep research, serious planning, careful gathering of materials, and – dare I say – happiness. There are few times when one can watch a process like this in action. One can watch a child develop in so many ways, but to see each point, as Wendy did in this project, is rare. And sublimely beautiful. This is what learning is, and this is what builds the confidence and gives a student the tools s/he needs to go on and on. Another alumnus said, “Everything you do helps everything else you do because if you’re doing one hard thing, it’s not that different from doing another hard thing.” The Animal Hospital was one hard thing, but of course that was not the idea behind it, nor the feeling while it was going on and on.

Emma Tunstall, a graduate who just graduated from Bryn Mawr, summa cum laude, wrote in a letter from college a few years ago. “School feels very far away but earlier today one of my friends asked me about a picture of the musical I have up in my room and I got pretty nostalgic. As much as I like them, no one here can ever really understand SVS.”

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Secret Worlds of Learning at SVS

Over the past few months I have noticed, and been fascinated by, the proliferation of “secret worlds”. As I’m an invited guest to these meaningful and sometimes sacred endeavors, I must omit names, locations, and other details, so as not to break bonds of trust. That said, I will attempt to convey the multifaceted substance of what has truly amazed me.

A majority of secret worlds I’ve observed have “rooms”, designed and constructed by the individuals who inhabit them. These rooms often appear in, beneath, or between trees. They include large stones, pieces of concrete that jet from the ground, logs, and other stationary items. These elements form the foundation of their living spaces. As in a traditional home, the foundation of each room serves as a base on which to build. The construction process may last for an hour, the better part of a day, or over the course of days or even weeks. Each room reflects the interests, tastes, personality and talents of the student who creates it. Rooms are sometimes made comfortable with leaves and other items found in nature, or with fabric carefully positioned or stuffed and sewn into pillows.

The creativity of SVS students is increasingly revealed as their rooms take shape. I was intrigued watching students create tools from found objects in order to build, sculpt, and decorate items in their rooms. Rocks and sticks initially played a central role in construction. A turning point occurred when a box of slate from the bridge roof, removed last summer, entered the scene. Students began using pieces of slate for various tasks. They sharpened them with rocks to improve their effectiveness. They used string, yarn, and fabric to firmly attach the sharpened pieces of slate to sticks. Among other uses, these refined tools cleanly and precisely chopped sticks into desired sizes. As time went by new and more efficient ways to carve slate were discovered.

I should mention that there is no set group of students engaged in these activities. Rather, students of different ages and genders may or may not be involved in these endeavors at any given time or day. Students sometimes form “clans”, not to be confused with cliques. Clans have evolving missions and rules. Their memberships ebb and flow; I was temporarily a member of two clans. Groups and individuals work alongside each other, learning new techniques through observation and occasionally instruction. For example, when one student discovered a particularly precise method for carving slate, others quickly adapted it to suit their purposes.

Slate is not only used as tools, it is also sculpted into pieces of art that adorn rooms or used for stand-alone installations. In one case, walls of a small house were erected complete with a walkway. Paint is used to decorate many of the artistic pieces. Of note is that the paint doesn’t come from the Art Room. Rather it is painstakingly made by grinding brick, slate, and other objects into a fine powder and adding liquid. Crushed berries and petals also serve as the base for paint. Paint brushes are made from a combination of sticks, grass, leaves, and other natural materials.

The rooms display students’ artistic sensibilities. While many of the same materials are used, the environments created are as unique as each individual. On a sunny day, one student relaxed in her room surrounded by a carpet of petals. She transformed the puddle in her room into a Japanese water garden, complete with carefully selected petals and leaves that floated on the water’s surface. In addition to decorative sculptures, functional objects are also built. Several pieces of slate, carved into precise sizes, were assembled into a sturdy and quite beautiful table.

Finally, many of the students themselves become part of the ambiance of their abodes. Sticks, blades of grass, feathers, and/or flowers are woven into hats, hair extensions, and hand-made headbands. These accessories harmonize with the look of the room. Paint made to decorate sculptures is also used on students’ faces. Thought and care is given to the color and design of the face painting, so that it reflects the concept of their room.

I’m continually inspired by the ingenuity and boundless energy and imagination of SVS students.

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Separation and Transition

There was a Separation and Transition Workshop for parents at my son’s college orientation that I went to, and I don’t regret going, even though I thought I would.

Convinced that the last thing my SVS educated son needed on his first day of college was a hovering parent, I resisted the idea of spending any extra time on campus after dropping him off, but I have to admit that I’m very glad I went for a little bit. It was very good to hear some of the very clear headed staff speak and I very much appreciated exchanging a few words with fellow parents. I’ll be happy to tell you more about it some other time – maybe at our next SVS coffee. But what I want to talk about here, what really struck a nerve and continues to keep going through my head, apart from this whole separation and transition business, is this: At some point during the truly excellent Separation and Transition Workshop, a somewhat spooked parent brought up the issue of “substances” on campus, you know, alcohol, marijuana, maybe worse, and how from that on, it was quite difficult to steer the conversation away from things people were afraid of for their children, to name just a few, in alphabetical order: alcohol, cigarettes, gender identity changes, hair changes, health issues, heroin, laundry, marijuana, relationships, sex, and get back to our topic of separation and transition. Who, the only question in the room suddenly seemed to be, was going to take care of all this, now that we parents would not be around? Which office, please, can our students contact, and how can we be sure they know that and make the necessary call?

Where we were talking about different facets of the separation process and transitions one moment, we were suddenly focusing on this, that or the other thing we were worried about for our students, and while worry is part of life as a parent, worrying is not the whole story of separation and transition. If we knew our children would leave for school and never get into any trouble, enjoy only positive relationships, have zero interest in any other substances than bottled water (wait, that could be contaminated and lacking the fluoride they need for healthy teeth, or have they outgrown that?) and wear their hair exactly the way we think looks best on them, we would still have to deal with the fact that at any step of their development they are moving away from us, that our houses are getting emptier and quieter, and that we ourselves are now definitely getting older.

Or, put another way, even if our children would always stay close by, there is, at some point, not so much we as parents can do to protect our children from something if they really want to explore it, be it those dreaded substances, those disastrous relationships, or unflattering (in our eyes) hair colors. Being parents, we tend to focus on things we can perceive as threats from some outside source, things we think we can battle, things we can make choices about, for us and for them, but there comes the point when what we can do for our children has been done, and our contribution to their health and happiness is what we did or didn’t do in the lives we lived closely together. If they have seen us reaching out for help when needed, we might have to worry less about if they figure out how to find the health service. But we don’t know that. Maybe they don’t want to be happy and healthy, somehow, the way we envision it for them. Maybe they want to explore other aspects of what it means to be alive and to learn.

So what is a school to do about that? Parental worries?

Suddenly, I was transported back in my mind to a conversation I had with a doctor shortly before that son I was now dropping off at college was born. Stubbornly in breech position and refusing to come out of it, the doctor’s reaction after evaluating the possibility of turning him around, was “he has to come out now. The amniotic fluid is low. Do you have any questions?”

Well, the only question I had was if my son would be ok, and of course it is the one question the doctor would not answer, at least not in any way I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to hear percentages of risks. For me, all percentages reduced to a 50/50 chance, a yes or no. And honestly, I was pretty much too scared to even ask it like that, because what if the answer would have been no? We danced around the big question of whether he would be alright or not for a while in this uncomfortable way that was so much like the conversation we were having now here between the parents and administrators at school. All we wanted to hear was that our children would be ok, yes? But a school cannot just say that, perhaps even less than the doctor could have, for many reasons, the biggest perhaps being that our children are the ones making the decisions that will contribute to them being ok or not, not we, and not the school.

I felt a bit bad for the administrators who had to navigate explaining what would happen to somebody caught crossing campus with a six-pack of beer, addressing simultaneously the parents who are worried that it would be their son or daughter caught with the six-pack, and the parents who’d prefer six-packs would simply not exist in any proximity to their students, and that any student who would ever dream of bringing such a thing to campus would have been carefully eliminated already in the admission process. There is very little a school administrator can really say faced with parents’ worries about their children being ok or not. For some people, hearing impressive lists of available resources and safeguards in place to protect students is reassuring, others might wonder why all this is necessary if it’s not a dangerous place to begin with.

When I, as a concerned parent, become aware of the fact that there is open talk about things I conceive of as threatening, it can easily look to me as if a school is condoning whatever it is that people are talking about, such as drinking, smoking, and substance use. Or, thinking more particularly of our campus right now, candy, the smoking area, and computers. Does letting people buy candy mean we all think it’s healthy? Haven’t we heard about the dangers of smoking? How can we not restrict computer time?

As an SVS parent, you have very likely come up with answers to these questions yourself, and you know that it is not an easy task. At school, many interesting discussions and conversations come from exploring and negotiating difficult topics with each other. But just like with that doctor, I do find that in school–parent interactions, it is me and my own fears and anxieties as a parent that can make the much wanted and needed open communication about unnerving topics difficult if not altogether impossible. I don’t want to hear about how a school is dealing with substances because I don’t want there to be any substances other than food from the school owned farm, and milk from happy cows to begin with. Students, especially the somewhat fearless kind you meet at our school, are often very good at talking about challenging topics, but as a parent, I think I am just not an ideal partner for this conversation, because I’m already worried, and if something happens to my child, I’ll be inclined to find the school at fault, no matter what. So not only did the question about substances threaten to derail the conversation about separation and transition, it was not really a good, or perhaps I should rather say not even a possible conversation about substances on campus either. At some point, I guess, a parent just needs to leave.

Back at home, flipping through the students’ orientation program we somehow picked up accidentally, together with our own separate parent schedule, I saw there was something called Real Talk coming up for students later that week, about substance use. Judging from the people I met at the Separation and Transition workshop, the students I had seen, and everything else I learned in my visit to my son’s school, it will be a good thing. If he attends that session or not, I’m feeling relieved because I know that where he is now, real conversations, about things both interesting and perhaps sometimes a bit frightening, the kind of conversations he is used to having as an SVS student, can continue to happen, so I can go back to quietly cleaning my fridge, an excellent way of dealing with separation and transitions of all kinds, in case you are wondering how I’m coping.

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