No Morning Bell Rings at the Sudbury Valley School

Recently I was struggling with ideas on how to get the kids to help out more around the house. I found myself pondering what leverage I had over the kids. We have chosen not to make their allowance dependent on chores and I don’t want to regulate or dictate screen time limits. Much to my amazement, I found myself thinking, “I could threaten to pick up the kids from school earlier if they are not more helpful at home.” I quickly dismissed the idea as rather backward thinking. The idea of “taking away” part of their education seemed draconian. It is not like I need to take the kids out of school during harvest time, because I need their labor to bring in the crops.

But the mere fact that such a thought crossed my mind is another example of how the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) reshapes how we and our children think about school. For our kids, school is no longer a dreaded chore. We no longer struggle over going to school, in fact the kids look forward to school. The ultimate paradox for me is that the kids were somewhat sad about the start of summer vacation, because they wouldn’t be able to go to school!

This year in particular my kids have been asking to go earlier, and stay longer, than prior years. This elastic school day, with a minimum of 5 hours any time between 8:30 and 5:00 pm is a wonderful by-product of the school’s philosophy of learning. That philosophy relies on an unstructured environment to promote learning through independent play and organization among the students themselves. SVS’ abandonment of the structured schedule of classes, that were designed to mimic the rigors of the early industrialized world, mean that arrival and departure times no longer need to be as rigid as the old time-clocks used in factory jobs.

Scene from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industrial Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The mural depicts how industrialization required men to work in synchronization with the machines in repetitive demanding work. Our traditional education system, public and private, hails from the same period, designed to produce workers who can adhere to the stifling demands of factory work.

When Linda and I were first thinking about sending our kids to SVS, I remember spending considerable time on the SVS web-site trying to figure out “drop-off” and “pick-up” times. We were so conditioned to the faux industrial work schedule of pre-school, public school and after school programs, that it never occurred to us that a school would not have a precise and standardized start and end time for the students.

In public school we would read with great interest the complex drop-off and pick-up rules, trying to fit our family’s work and play schedule into that of the school. One year when a large snow storm resulted in a multi-day snow emergency, which restricted parking in the entire town, the schools put out a multi-page set of instructions on how drop off and pick up would work. Depending on the age of your child, you were to queue up at various school entrances at various time ranges, you were not to leave your car, instead, teachers and staff would deliver your child to your waiting and running car. The instructions even clarified which entrance and time range you should use if you had a family with multiple children of different ages. Overall it was an organizational marvel somewhat akin to the Berlin Airlift.

The flexibility of SVS drop off and pick up is now something we take for granted. As a stay-at-home dad, it allows our lives to follow the rhythms arising from our needs, passions and desires. If we stay up late watching a presidential debate, we can sleep a little later in the morning. If there is a big sewing project planned for the day, they can stay a bit later. If we have a doctor’s appointment, we can leave early. None of these require special permission nor do they generate reprimands (unless the kids end up with less than 5 hours at school).

The five-hour rule means that despite the lack of drop off or pick up times, the kids still learn responsibility regarding attendance. The students must log their individual arrival and departure times on a central school attendance sheet. These logs are reviewed and you can be “brought up” for failing to meet your 5-hour requirement. My kids have become adept at doing time based math (which is tricky with a 12-hour clock).

So for example, this morning we did not get to SVS till 9:15, a little late by our recent schedule, my oldest is leaving early today as part of an internship program. Our original plan was to leave a 2 pm. But looking at the car clock in the driveway, she asked, can you pick me up at 2:15 instead of 2:00? Sure, no problem, we have flexibility and responsibility at SVS.

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Our First Open Mic

An Open Mic is a scary thing to organize. After all, the success of the endeavor depends not on who says they want to sing, or play a song, or dance, or do an act, beforehand, but who actually steps up and does it at the time it is happening. In a school like Sudbury Valley, two things tend to happen. The first is that there is some sizable group of people who take the opportunity for an Open Mic extremely seriously, and rehearse for it as if for an audience with, say, the President. And the second is that some don’t, but carry things out well anyway. Oh, well, I guess there is a third – but that didn’t seem to occur – people who say they will and then don’t bother. So, here as well as in the public arena, an Open Mic needs more than just opportunity. It needs follow-through.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the scene of our first Open Mic performance, which took place on November 16. A lot of work had been done. There was “minimal” equipment, but far from none, and it had been set up well. There was incredible food. Usually our performances have had store-bought pizza and drinks. There is nothing wrong with that, but for this day a different plan had been made: the people running the Open Mic seemed to expand and expand. Jay Flood was the original man behind the idea. He has spent some time here this summer and fall, for the Physical Plant Committee, organizing the music rooms, which had fallen into disorganization over the last year or so, and developing techniques for keeping things in good shape. He wanted kids to have a chance to perform, and he also wanted them to earn some money for expenses for musical endeavors.

In this spirit, a couple of other adults and a host of young and middle-aged kids, along with Jay, planned a menu to make people happy while listening! There was homemade pizza (oh, yes!) and two kinds of homemade cookies. A ton of it was sold to happy listeners who forgot to litter their plates. (That was pretty exciting too; it was a definite mark of respect for the performance, the school, and the refreshments.)

There is no way to list the high points of the performances. Kids who had never played at school before displayed glorious talent. It was exciting to see new kids, who often seem shy, show big talent. Little kids were wonderful and well-rehearsed. Big kids were kind to one-another in general, played together without “starring” by stealing scenes, and played accompaniment, in the SVS way, whenever there was a situation that needed it. It was all just plain wonderful. Old stars and new stars entertained us well.

Meanwhile, the food scene was manned by a fabulous group, some of whom had done a lot of the cooking! It was beautifully organized. Fresh hot pizza was occasionally run up from the kitchen (not the pleasantest job; it was raining) by some of our super-runner cooks, and the entire handling of the concession matched the handling of the performances. Who doesn’t want to see four smiling students taking care of our food needs?

For me, Josie was the high spot of the day. She is one of the constant delights of my life anyway! A high-spirited independent young woman of perhaps six, she is one of the most expressive people I have ever met. She was not a performer, but I have never seen more spontaneous appreciation of the performances of others. She was unable to contain her joy, and greeted performances with excitement, movement (too gentle a term) to the music, and major hugs for performers. She raised the mood of the audience to hers – ecstatic.

So many people need to be thanked, but it is so many that I can’t think of where to start! I think of some of the singers, and they still make me happy; I think of some of the musicians, and how much fun they made for the audience, and they also still make me feel great. Oh, and the pizza in my tummy didn’t hurt either! Thanks to several dozen students, to Jay, and to the other staff who were instrumental in our first Open Mic.

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Culture, Identity, Adulthood

Written by SVS Alum Michael Greenberg!
Reprinted from the Liberty Valley School (LVS) Journal

For some time now I have been thinking about a bunch of questions that turn out to be related to each other. Here are some of the questions, in no particular order: Why is it so rare these days for my life to be deeply affected by a book, movie, song, or artwork? Why is the bulk of our commercial culture directed at people under the age of 24? Why do the kids at LVS (and other Sudbury schools) spend such an enormous amount of time doing art, listening to music, playing games, reading books, and discussing movies?

I think it is fair to say that the more resolved your cultural identity, the less you need culture. When I was young, the music of the Beatles was so much more than a collection of songs – it was a vision of what life could be. When I was 17, Elvis Costello and the Punk Rock movement told me what to do with my broken heart, my cynicism, and my shattered ideals. After movies, I remember actually spending time thinking about the characters and their decisions as if something important in the real world was riding on it.

Once I was in my 20’s, I kept listening and watching, but since I was living my life the way I wanted to live it, I no longer had anything big at stake in the way a song or a movie turned out. Directors and composers were just other people muddling through.

When you are young, especially when you are on the brink of adulthood, a teenager, the all-important question is what kind of a life you want when you grow up. You search for the attitudes of, and about, a thousand different archetypes; Grifter, Honest Dealer, Punk, Badass, Nice Guy, Cop, Priest, Champion, Sucker. Each one of us is a complex mix of all of this and more. Bits and pieces that we saw and liked, things we identified with. A bit of John Lennon’s idealism, a bit of Monty Python’s sense of discontinuity, and suddenly, you have sorted out the missing pieces of your world view.

Yet how little credit the average kid gets for his/her dedication to a favorite band/actor/author. Kids who supposedly have difficulty with focus and discipline will memorize the lyrics to hundreds of songs and discuss the meaning of their content at great length. One of the odd defining characteristics of youth culture since the birth of rock and roll is that part of its legitimacy for kids is that your parents hate it. On the one hand it refutes and expresses discontent with the established culture; on the other hand, it is a tool for building your identity in that same culture. Parents have been equally upset by Elvis Presley, Death Metal, and Marilyn Manson over the years. Kids have to embrace what makes their generation distinct. In many ways the world they are entering is fundamentally different than the world their parents grew up in. My parents did not have TV. I did not have the Internet. Like most people, I tend to underrate or ignore that which I do not understand, but the time that young people spend in the culture that defines their world view is crucial. Most adults seem to have all but forgotten their own long search for identity via culture. But think about it; how many of the most important books, movies, songs, thoughts, did you have before the age of 25? At LVS, kids have their priorities straight, and that is why they spend so much time watching, creating, and discussing culture.

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