The Cutting Edge

In many ways, it is nothing short of miraculous that Sudbury Valley has reached the 50th year of its operation. For all the talk of reform in the world of education, those parents who feel comfortable allowing their small and large children autonomy are always an infinitesimally tiny minority. They are hard for any Sudbury school to find, and they must work hard to keep their aims clear when they conflict with society’s norms for how children should be treated. The fact that their children become strong and amazing people does help, but here we are: still on that cutting edge, swordfish wondering why we can’t seem to turn into . . . . cuddly cod yet!

One of my personal favorite things, now that we have had so many years of graduates, is that when we have a visit from an “elderly” alum – say 45, 50 – who went to school here long ago in the far away, they say three things: “wow, it looks so good here, now!” (it does; the campus and building improvements have been immense); “everything is exactly the same” (yes, the way people treat each other, and feel about being here, which defines the atmosphere of the school, is precisely the same); and often, “oh, I remembered it being so much bigger!”

So, this is what I want to say about us on our fiftieth anniversary: an idea that stays, unwaveringly, on the cutting edge for 50 years is an impressive thing. That is because the idea was right! Respect and all those nice “r” words work. When we look at our former students we see people who are successful at many things, not the least of which is understanding themselves and how they want to lead their lives. The alumni who come back are physically beautiful too. Sometimes – as happened last year with one of the students who was about 9 or 10 when the school started, graduated at 18, and lives in a very distant part of the country – the ex-student walks in looking radiant. What they got here “took”. It lasted. They got that feeling of being able to control as much of life as is possible to control, to make changes, to move forward.

Fifty more years? I hope they will not all be on the cutting edge! In my mind in another 50 years we will be the norm. We will be supported some way that does not double-tax parents, but hopefully is not part of the horrid heavy expensive bureaucracy that is the present public school system.

That is what I thought in 1968 too, and it didn’t happen yet, but one thing I am sure of: our staff, and staff in similar schools, will keep up the push as long as necessary. Being in the avant garde is, at the very least, something that makes your back and shoulders straight. It keeps your vision clear. Parents who have bitten the bullet, students and former students, and staff in Sudbury schools everywhere: we can all be justifiably proud of keeping a very beautiful way of treating children right on track!


This bouquet was a 50th Anniversary present for our Opening Day,

from the Jersey Shore Free School.

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Instant Availability Without Continuous Presence

This blog was originally published as an article in our journal, May 1, 1994.

Somewhere I read this quote by Lotte Bailin:

Instant availability without continuous presence is the best role a mother could play.”

A lovely quote, I thought, and I let it languish on a little piece of paper in my desk drawer. Last week two unrelated events took place which clarified to me why I saved this quote and what it evoked in me.

As sometimes happens at school, we had a little accident. A young girl did a cartwheel and slammed hard into her friend’s R.’s arm. It hurt a lot and Mikel who used to be an EMT, attended to her. He put a splint on very carefully in case a bone had been broken and called R.’s parents to come and take her to the doctor. Mikel’s judgement was that R.’s injury didn’t need urgent care and that it would be better for the child to be with her parent rather than be taken to the hospital in an ambulance which is more traumatic.

This happened during School Meeting when an important issue was being discussed, but from time to time a concerned staff person would slink out of the meeting to find out how R. was doing. We all knew that Mikel was taking excellent care of her, but we just could not settle down to the meeting’s issues without seeing for ourselves that R. was alright. In the evening I called R. to find out how she was and her mother talked to me about the incident.

What she said stunned me.

She said that only now after this happened did she really understand how the staff works at the school. R. told her how concerned and caring we were and how good she felt about it. The mother realized for the first time in almost two years that what looks like benign neglect on the part of the staff is purposeful, and is not neglect at all. It is giving the children space to develop and grow unhindered by adult interference. (I am putting into my own words the gist of what I was told.)

The other incident had to do with Ben and his trip to the White Mountains. His mother published parts of her diary in the SVS Journal in which she too says, in the following quote, how it helped her understand SVS’s philosophy better, after being involved with the school for over a year.

“Another thing is that the fact that so much attention has been focused on Ben over the past five days, by us and by the staff at school, is a good message of caring and support for him. Most of the time I see SVS operating by benign neglect, but in this case a different approach was called for and it happened in spades. I appreciated that, and it helped me see SVS in a new way. Basically, what I saw happening was them responding to Ben’s intense and unwavering desire to go by deciding to support it, provided a way could be shown that he was up to the trip, even though by doing so they took on more work and more responsibility.”

What astounded me in both of these parents’ words was how long it actually takes even for parents who send their little children to SVS to see how it really works. They trust their kids enough to bring them to the school and allow them to be responsible for themselves, but they don’t really know how the staff operates. In truth I am unable to explain it too well myself and I think that this is one cause for the difficulty that many parents have with enrolling their children in our school. The problem is that benign neglect appears as neglect. Only in extraordinary occasions can parents see how the staff is interacting with their kids. On a day to day basis the caring and empowering take place all the time, but in such subtle and undramatic ways that no one takes notice — not the staff, not the kids, and not the parents. It just happens naturally. But from time to time the circumstances call for people on staff to galvanize all their resources and direct all their attention and energy to one student’s issue. When that happens the exaggerated activity sheds light on what goes on at SVS every day in a more quiet and subtle way.

So it seems that “availability without continuous presence” is in fact what we do at SVS. We don’t always respond instantly to every request because we are usually busy with a student or whatever we are doing to keep the school going. We have to use our judgement and decide in each case whether to continue what we are doing or to stop and attend to a request. Usually we set up an appointment for a later time and it works out very well. Often the wait forces the kids to solve problems on their own and that of course is another way to give them confidence in themselves. But occasionally something happens which can’t wait and we have to drop everything and tend to it. Then it is easy for us to respond with alacrity because all the kids feel it’s necessary and they want us to help their friend in pain or trouble. The support that the children give each other is of the same quality and style as that of the staff. They help when asked to help and they give each other space when that is wanted.

As the years roll by we become better at being staff at SVS. We have learned the art of letting the children be our guides in answering their needs and we do more for them by doing less — not interfering, while listening carefully to what they want.

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Activity vs. “Activities”

It is not uncommon for people who come to an interview inquiring about enrollment to ask, “What activities do you have at Sudbury Valley?”  After all, it is a school, and schools usually have, in addition to regular classes teaching the required curriculum, all sorts of activities for students to choose from.  Things like athletic programs, chorus, orchestra, theater, science club, and so on.  The people who ask about activities know that we do not have scheduled classes (they have come to us looking for an “alternative” or “free” school, and have found out in advance that we don’t “do” the curriculum), but they expect that we at least have “activities”.  Otherwise, what would students do all day?

I have never quite understood that question, especially not coming from someone who has walked down to the school from the parking lot, past our beautiful outdoor campus, and through several rooms before they have gotten to the interview.  If there is any single word that sums up life at SVS, it is activity.  Students of all ages are visibly active all day, all the time.  The place is like a beehive.  Walk into any room, or past any area outdoors, and you will always find the occupants engaged.  They are talking, or playing basketball, or working at a computer game, or on the four-square court, or running across the campus, or throwing a pot, or drawing, or studying something on their smartphones or notepads, or cooking, or selling, or at a meeting.  As are the staff.  All day, a flurry of activity is going on – and it is all in full view.

But there is no smorgasbord of activities prepared for them by the staff, offerings that are there to choose from.  No list on the bulletin board of stuff to do.  Yes, there are occasionally planned functions, but the initiative for them comes from the community, and they live or perish according to the degree of interest of people in the school.  There is no way to reply to the question, “What activities do you have at Sudbury Valley?”, because those few planned ones that happen to exist on the day the question is posed may well have vanished before the child being interviewed even begins his or her visiting week!  Today’s answer would look to be a purposeful misleading if it is no longer true tomorrow!

The key difference, of course, is what lies at the heart of the school: all the activity that goes on here comes from within each student, and represents the interests and passions that drive the students to act.  The result is to imbue the students with the feeling that what they strive for counts, and that the effort to achieve their internally-driven goals is a worthy one.  One could hardly ask for an “educational outcome” more relevant to, and worthy of, the twenty-first century world.


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