November 2008


So far, I have been reading lots of books published by the Sudbury Valley Press which have informed my thinking about starting a school. For my birthday this week, Liana gave me a book of Tolstoy’s ideas on education. I had heard several references to Tolstoy in listening to Dan Greenberg’s talk at Sudbury Valley this month, and had seen his quotes in books and websites related to homeschooling, unschooling, and alternative education. So, the Tolstoy book really interests me. One idea that fascinated me today was that Tolstoy’s ideal model for his school was the family. Apparently, the root reason for this is the importance of the mutuality of the ideal teacher student relationship, which harkens for Tolstoy to the mother child relationship. I was pleased to find these ideas for two reasons. One is that I have been thinking about names for the school and one that I come back to is The Family School. I think of the name and then I wonder, is this really a good model for a school, or will people think it is too narrow to model a school after a family or will they think of their dysfunctional family and want to be as far from that as they can, or what is the reason for that name resonating with me.  And then Tolstoy’s reasons for choosing the family as the model for his school resonated with mine. The ones I remember most are the importance of the immediate experiences of the child, and the mutuality of relationship between mother and child that support real learning and understanding in the family and in his ideal school. Tolstoy describes this mutuality in an observation of a time he spent with a group of students walking home in the evening and approaching a dangerous wood. He describes a conversation with his students about utility and art and beauty which comes from a story he tells and the students’ trust and openness and seriousness with him. It is perhaps a bit bold to say the observation reminded me of the times I most enjoy with students, but it did. Often, or sometimes, when we are having a meal or walking to the park, times that seem most like family moments, a child will ask or tell something that will trigger an observation or a story that we will share that will lead into one of life’s mysteries, like life or death or other times to some universal like how families are put together and what is their essence. When these conversations happen, I am aware of my role as the children’s teacher and guide, but I also feel something which now I will call mutuality, where both child and I are learning and expanding our understanding of something universally important. These are the moments I worry I will lose if we grow to a school. The intimacy and deep relationships we have now with the children, the family type moments like sharing meals or walks with a small group, and the openness of conversation are what seem to create the opportunities for these shared times of discovery and mutual understanding. I ended my reading today with this description of Tolstoy’s walk in the woods, which ended with the dissonance Tolstoy found in those moments of being both a teacher and a comrade, holding and observing and in a way molding these experiences while also sharing in them.  It is hard to imagine teaching this way of being to another person, as it seems like something that has developed from the way we have created our program, who we are as people, and our way of being with children, not from anything we were intentionally taught or that we read in books, more from just being with children for so long with the aim of connecting with them as much as of teaching them. I wonder if we can enlarge what we do while bringing other adults into this circle. Alice, Liana, and I all seem to have these moments, as do Macky and Michael, whose observations I read, so I think maybe it is a way that many adults who truly study children, and enjoy being and living with them, as opposed to “teaching” them, can be. I wonder if the staff at Sudbury Valley value this aspect of Tolstoy’s work, which I have not heard or read them discussing, or if they mostly find his views on self-direction in learning to be relevant. I would love to believe that Ben is going to have the kinds of talks with the adults at SVS that I value with the kids in the day care and that Tolstoy describes in his walk in the woods, that go really deep and leave teacher and student feeling moved. I wonder how to make this sort of experience a cornerstone of our school. I am grateful to have found Tolstoy’s insightful, articulate descriptions of these things to give them form and weight, so that I might quote them or at least share them in his book with future teachers as a model of a way to be in our school.

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Since I love writing observations, I thought I would write about the picture I have in my mind of a day in the life of our new school. I imagine the day starting around 8:30 the way our day care day begins. The parents and children arrive and the teachers and other children and parents are there to greet them. Kids of all ages are part of our school, so some are able to walk or take the bus or ride their bike or scooter to school. Those kids park their vehicles outside and come in on their own. Everybody has a place for their stuff and the first job of the day is to get organized and say hello. Then kids begin to do the things they do, whatever their morning routine. Some will go outside (older kids will be able to use the yard without a grown-up, younger kids will be able to find an adult to keep an eye on them when they want to be outside), some will talk with friends or parents or teachers, some will begin building, drawing, painting, playing a game, reading a book. Some kids might work on a computer, checking the news of the day, or investigating something that interests them, maybe playing a game that others will join, or answering an e-mail. In the early morning, teachers will have arrived ahead of the children to prepare for the day, tidying up from the day before, getting materials and plans set for the day, and talking with one another about this and that, observations and questions about children, about the space and routine, about challenging behaviors or kids needing direction, about the weather and scheduling and administration and what is coming in the short and long term future.

Once everyone has arrived and done their morning greeting and routine, projects or field trips will take shape. A group of kids might conduct a science experiment, do a cooking or art project, fix or build something, play, pretend, or organize a game or work in the yard, make music, sing, or dance. Some days a group will read and act out a book, or someone will write a play for us to perform. Other days a group might meet to read a book and discuss it, or work at math or handwriting. Some days there may be an outing to a park or a library, a museum, a historical site, or a local business. 

If there is a large yard around our school kids will go in and out at will. If not, we will be near a park or open space and we will organize a way to get kids there and back with teachers. No matter what the outside space, the children will play ball, run, jump, climb, play games and sports, look for bugs, dig, and dance and pretend. We will find ways to swim in the summer and to sled in the winter, to ride bikes and scooters, and to skate and hike and go on other adventures outside whenever we can.

Midmorning, or as kids are hungry, we will enjoy a healthy snack, sometimes one that we make together, other times something easy kids can prepare and serve at the table. We will have lunch and snack in small groups and take our time with our food, enjoying the tastes and textures, as well as pleasant conversation as we eat. 

Parts of the day will be boisterous and energetic, other times calm and focussed, still others restful and reflective. Children will have soft furniture for relaxing, tables and ready access to materials for projects, places to work or relax on the floor, dedicated space for some things like art or cooking or dancing or music or quiet  reading, and structure and rules that make sense and support individual freedom and group responsibility. 

Some children in our school will likely read at 3 or 4 or 5 while others will likely solidify their reading skills closer to 10. Because so many things will be valued in our school, kids who read earlier or later will not be considered out of sync, but rather will be developing on their own path. Kids will spend their early years developing their physical coordination, their playful sense of story, their musical and artistic talents and their social and emotional skills. As they grow, children will be surrounded by a variety of people of different ages engaged in what they love and this passion will be contagious. Children will see their friends laughing and smiling as they learn to write the names of their family and friends, they will see children dancing with abandon, playing drums with intense focus, drawing day after day until they are satisfied with their pictures, then trying something new, building towers and lego creations and book shelves that first fall apart and then take shape, looking for bugs and learning about the nature around us through the seasons, asking questions about why and how things work and figuring out the answers through observation, experimentation, conversation, and research.

Children will also learn to work with people of different ages. Older children will read to younger ones, younger ones will make the older ones smile. Human development will be vivid in all it’s glory and idiosyncracy and psychology and sociology  will be easy to study for those who are observant and aware.

I picture teachers and children knowing one another for many years, growing up together and learning to live with the challenging and endearing pieces of all the personalities in the group. I imagine many languages being spoken at drop-off and pickup by the families, and as many as we can manage being spoken and read and written and sung throughout the day. I picture many traditions and cultural ways of being influencing the way our group takes shape, the ways we interact with one another, the sorts of food we eat, the holidays we celebrate, the songs we sing, the ways we care for one another, and the ways we live and learn together.

In my wildest of dreams, our school is open to anyone who wishes to be there. We turn away no child whose parents cannot afford tuition. The local districts send students to us because they know their students will thrive with us and we offer an alternative that is important for many kids. We are welcoming to children with special needs and find ways to help them to meet their potential in as normalized a setting as possible. We find ways to make our school meaningful for children through to adulthood and to send our members on to happy, productive lives where they know how to sustain relationships, work, and pleasure, learning forever.

Many trends and concerns in the world around us influence our ideas about creating a new school. Here are a few:

  • Shifts in society which have led to more structured activities for children and less unstructured time. We feel strongly that unstructured time allows people to develop in healthy ways, socially, emotionally, physically. We want to provide time and space for this in our school.
  • The realization that we are becoming detached from our natural surroundings and that contact with nature is critical for our development. In our school we wish to provide ample opportunities to be outside, to explore nature and our community.
  • The segregation of people, and especially children, into narrow age groups. We believe exposure to and relationships with people of all ages is critical to healthy development. We will decrease the division between adults and children and between children of different ages within our school and we will seek interactions with people of all ages in the community around us.
  • The standardization of curriculum and regulation of teaching and learning is a strong current in society today. We believe that there are many ways of learning and teaching and that the ways that work best are going to need to be worked out at the ground level by people who know one another well. Adults working with children and young people who have the opportunity to observe the children carefully, and the children and young people themselves, can often maximize learning by an organic combination of everyday activities, including play, games, physical activity and exploration, conversation, art and science projects, daily routines of living such as cooking, eating, organizing, gardening, and maintenance, and engagement with books and ideas that are relevant to the lives of those in the school.
  • An overemphasis on literacy and school knowledge which does not allow for maximal development of other areas of human development, including artistic, scientific, physical, and caregiving. We expect our school to value the wide range of human development and to support a broader range of activities.
  • A concern that children develop according to a standard time table and that not doing so requires diagnosis and intervention. We believe that children develop very differently and that healthy development occurs according to individual timetables. Our school would take a non-graded approach, so that learning of particular objectives could be according to individual timetables. In addition, we believe that when children are engaged in activities of their own choosing and allowed to pursue their interests for as long as they wish, their development will be maximized, both in the particular area in which they choose to engage and in the other areas of their development. 
  • Resiliency theories support a strengths based approach, contending that all people have strengths and if we identify and work through our strengths, we can maximize our development. Resiliency theory also contends that it is by taking on challenges using our strengths that we grow best. Our school would not seek to make life easy for children by doing things for them, but would seek to find ways that all people could meet challenges according to their individual strengths and resiliency.
  • Small school ideas. We believe that it is by being known and in healthy supportive relationships that we grow, as well as by our membership and role as individuals in a healthy community that we can become our truest selves. We seek in our school to provide a place where each adult and child is known and appreciated for both her individuality and her contribution to the group.
  • Need for balance to create a healthy person. This includes the current awareness of stress and unhealthy choices and habits. Our school seeks to create a model for healthy living, including family style meal times, with group food preparation and clean up and mealtime conversations, regular opportunities for physical exercise, including natural movements such as walking, climbing, jumping, running, dancing, and work as well as opportunities to engage in sports and organized physical activities. We also aim to provide a minimally stressful environment, by creating opportunities for people to do things at their own pace, with ample time to follow up ideas, to relax, to be alone, in a group, to be inside and outside, to be quiet, reflective, active, social, intellectual, playful, and boisterous.
  • The vastness of the world and the ability to connect with people and ideas from around the globe and in all areas of interest through current forms of communication and connection, including books, media, and the internet. We are only just beginning to see the opportunities for learning that this new world can provide and we are open to learning how to create a school that can maximize the potential that is there. Some ways we have begun to see the potential are in our use of the internet to research ideas and concerns and to gain insight into problems, and in our ability to communicate within our group and with the outside world about our ideas.  This has primarily happened among adults in our community, but the potential for young people to do these things is well tested outside our group. The availability of books and media and our ability to create our own materials has been more obvious amongst the children in our care. So many books and materials are available to us through libraries, local stores, and the internet that we are able to follow any lead almost immediately. In addition, we are able to photograph and write about the work of the children and share it immediately with as wide an audience as we choose. Some of our older children have explored creating movies and songs using digital cameras and computers which can then be shared via the internet. The opportunities in these areas are exciting and something we would imagine exploring even more widely in our school.
  • Mobility of people and the shift in families, communities, neighborhoods, and schools. We seek to create a community of children and adults who can support one another over time in an era of transiency when families may not have extended family living nearby and when communities are experiencing coming and going of people.
  • Movement of women into the workplace and the shifts around that in the family, neighborhood, and the need for extended care and supportive relationships for children and families. We seek to provide a place where children can grow up happily, providing as much continuity as possible for them and their families, eliminating the need to move from child care to school, from before school care to school day to after school care environments, and providing a healthy rhythm to the day for children who will likely be in school longer each day than most adults are in the workplace.
  • The recent increase in homeschooling and unschooling, and the reemergence of the alternative schools movement which challenges the idea that the only way for children to learn is in a traditional school setting. In addition, as these methods of schooling gain in popularity, it is likely that society will find them more acceptable and places like colleges and workplaces will adapt their standards to meet the needs of the students who emerge from these alternative models.
  • The influence of immigration and of the many languages and cultures around us in Somerville. While there have been attempts to fight these trends, such as the Unz initiative prohibiting bilingual education, and many overt and covert ways of discriminating against immigrants and their languages and cultures, there is also a strong voice for the importance of building a multilingual, multicultural, diverse society. Our school would seek to support this model, as we would provide conversation and materials in the languages spoken by our families and inclusion of their cultural traditions and norms. We would counter any biases that might emerge directly and with openness and would continually learn about the languages and cultures of our community in an order to better understand and support them.
  • Concerns about the health and viability of our planet, including it’s natural resources and our ability to provide sustainable lifestyles for all people. Our school would operate according to our sense that resources are limited, and are to be conserved, reused, and recycled. We would model and teach ways of caring for ourselves and our planet which would heighten our awareness of how our basic needs are met and how we impact the rest of the world, and we would develop practices for good community living, such as growing food and buying locally, composting and recycling, limiting our use of resources and purchasing of materials to what we need, and finding ways of sharing what we have with others.

Well, this week we began moving past the talking amongst ourselves stage and into the going public with our idea stage. This is going to be trickier to keep on keepin on. So many people to talk to, so much information to gather. I talked to realtors, a friend on the zoning board, parents of younger and older kids who live in Somerville, the leader of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, and e-mailed with the founder of a freeschool in NY. Plus, we set our first parent meeting for day care families, and had a slightly smaller turnout than planned. The upshot of all these bits is that I am still excited about the idea, but also have all this new information to gather and absorb. I started reading, “Announcing a School” (this is not the exact title, but close), which is an account of how the Sudbury Valley School was started. It is sort of daunting to see how much of starting a school has to do with politics, real estate, pr campaigns, financial wrangling, legal and building issues, and connecting with all sorts of people, officials and people who would be potential supporters. It also seemed clear that the founders of Sudbury Valley had somewhat deeper pockets, as they were able to do all this groundwork while not working for pay, and continued to do that for a couple of years. Plus, they were able to put up the money personally for purchasing the campus. I am trying not to be discouraged. I know our day care teachers have a very solid, deep understanding of children and learning and an unshakable commitment to following children’s interests and needs and bringing to them things we find interesting, whether stories, materials, or different ways of seeing things, as well as to providing them a rich, nurturing, healthy life. Another thing that the Announcing a School book highlighted which I am just thinking more about now is that the founders had a very clear vision which they talked and talked about and then wrote down in first a draft of ideas, a manuscript they called it, then a prospectus. They used the manuscript to enlist people in joining their vision, and the prospectus, I think was more of a formal laying out of how things would work, that allowed people outside the inner circle to see validity in what they were proposing. Liana has suggested we do some sort of writing about our ideas to lay them out for people who don’t know us so well and to clarify the ideas for ourselves. We are both finding that hard. In part, we are the learn and shape things as you go types of teachers right now and we hesitate to say we know things we don’t know, or to plan things ahead that we will only want to change when we are in the middle of our work with the children. What feels true right now is that we are really exploring this idea of an alternative school with incredible energy. I am reading, talking, thinking, writing, observing with an eye throughout much of my day which is wondering, what does this tell me about the school idea? Regardless what happens, I know this is the start of some new direction and that I am not ready to abandon, no matter the financial, logistical, or legal hurdles.

This week I realized that the day care enrollment season is upon me. In order for that process to be open and and to keep things running smoothly for next year we need to start sharing our ideas about working with older kids with a larger group to see who is interested and what is possible over the short and long term. Here are some things I am doing to move the ball forward:

  • Day Care Get Together this week, either Tuesday or Friday evening to talk and plan and bring people into the conversation.
  • Investigation of our potential to expand – How many people are interested? Could we continue with our family day care license? Could we expand within Maria’s home or someone else’s? Could we buy, borrow, or rent another space? 
  • Many people have asked to come to our next meeting. We may need a bigger space to host, if we feel there is potential to expand beyond the day care license. If not, including a larger group might not make sense.
  • Two properties in Somerville are on the market which look like they could house a learning center or small school. I am finding out more about them, about zoning, and how one might go about establishing a small school or center in Somerville. They are both hard to imagine buying, but it feels like a good learning experience to ask questions with the big dream in mind.
  • And, as always, there is the daily going through life questioning everything stuff that happens all the time. Do we really want to do something outside the public school and homeschool communities which provide a social community for kids and adults and clearer boundaries for the experience of education? Can we make something new? Will our old friends think we disrespect them or don’t care for them if we turn away from the groups we are part of now? Can a vision and excitement and years of dreaming turn into something real? Is the timing right? How can we think of asking people to pay tuition in this economy, especially when we are talking about home schoolers and public school families who spend very little on education now? How could we really buy a building now when we have not fully formed our idea or our group? Is there a way to borrow money that is creative and bound up with the vision? Would having a space further the vision? Are we ready for a larger vision or do we want to try something small and build on that for a year?
  • Connecting with AERO, the Alternative Education Resource Organization by joining their listserv, writing out my vision and sending it to them, and investigating their resources, including mentors and an annual conference in June.
  • Connecting with others doing alternative things in Education, including home schoolers, home school learning centers, a coop director, independent and possibly charter school people to find out how the system works, what their experience of creating an alternative program has been, and how we might learn from them.
  • Bouncing ideas off friends, family, and colleagues to see if they think we are crazy, to find out what they think would work and would be too risky, what excites them and what they can do to help.
  • Post a comment if you are moved, please:)!!

I thought that last post was going to stay in a private folder. Sorry it was long and repetitive. Here is something shorter.

Big Ideas for working with older kids – Or core beliefs for healthy living for any age group, really

*Mixed-Age grouping – learning and living with people of all ages

*Time – to follow up on interests, to play, to work, to be outside, to be physical, reflective, alone, with friends of different ages, to eat, enjoying the pleasure of preparing and sharing meals, and talking together about important things.

*Real life learning –  feeding healthy development.

*Family time at home – uninterrupted by homework/busywork

*Relationships – develop over time, and are key to satisfaction, along with a strong sense of self.

*Creativity and play, conversations and questions, exploring and experiencing the world – are keys to learning.

*Adults and children sharing – passions and interests, enjoying life, experiencing the good and the difficult together in a spirit of openness.

*Communication – within the child and adult groups. This means talking, writing, sharing photos, emotions, experiences, observations, ideas, and work.

* Connections to the community – according to the needs and interests of the group, including regular adventures in the neighborhood and possibly beyond. Think parks, libraries, biking, running, playing, investigating, running errands, being part of city life, learning from people and places around us, natural and human-made.

*Each individual develops in his/her own way. All are capable of learning, each has gifts to give, needs to be filled. All must learn to find their true selves, each must be responsible to the group.

Because we are running a day care program which is both real and functioning well, and because we want to create a new way for school age children to learn that seems a lot like a fantasy, but one we believe could become real and sustainable, I feel a real pull to figure out both pieces at once, ideal and real. What is our ideal model for raising children and how can we make that model real? What are the questions we will need to answer to make our ideas work?

I am going to try writing here about the main points of what seems to me to be the ideal. My goal in putting this out to the world is to get feedback, in hopes of shaping a vision that will work for someone besides me. I love to think and dream, but collaboration is where it’s at for me in making good things happen.

Age-Mixing – This is something I have believed in my whole life, growing up in a neighborhood of young families and an extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles,  and grandparents. Perhaps because of this upbringing, I began my interest in education through a window of open classrooms, with mixed-age grouping one of my earliest research topics. I then worked in many camps and child care and school programs and found I was most comfortable in mixed age groups.

Our day care group has been mixed age from the start. First we had babies and toddlers. Early on our goal was to keep children through to kindergarten. Once our first group went to school, we invited them back for after school care. When our own school age kids needed space in the summer to return to day care, we converted some of our full year slots to school year slots and our summer program mixed younger kids with school agers. Last year, a new family asked if we would take their soon to be six year old home schooler one day a week, and that has worked well for over a year. Each time we have expanded the age range we have found it has worked.

Now we are looking to create more full day spaces for school age children and wondering how to do that. Should we take the openings that will occur in September when our six four and five year olds are due to enter kindergarten and fill those openings with school age kids? Will that mix of one year olds through school age kids work five days a week and how would it work? There are many questions to be asked even with contemplating this very small change in our program. We also wonder if we should think of expanding beyond our ten child family day care license. Could we add another license somehow? Could we rent space or borrow space somewhere else for older kids? Could we create a learning center or a small school? How would that affect the day care and how would such a place work? Do we want to eventually work with only older kids, say the 4 to 19 year olds of a Sudbury Valley School? Can we keep serving our youngest kids, the one to three year olds along with older kids? Do we want older kids and teens in our mix or just the traditional early childhood years up to 8 or 9? Must we have a cluster of kids of a certain age grouping or could we add kids a few years older than the day care kids and integrate the group’s needs into one program?

I realize upon rereading this that I am putting out my questions and opening myself up to the criticism of not knowing what I want, giving you the raw information about how our program has grown to incorporate a wider mix of ages, but not saying what about this mixed age thing is so lovely. This is how I work and how I will likely move forward. I am not one to put big ideas ahead of practical reality. Though I love the big ideas, I am born of German farming stock, and used to working hard and figuring things out, not so used to art and literature and things that are lovely for loveliness sake. That being said, our work with children, I have come to appreciate more and more, is the art in my life. Every day we start out fresh, wondering how our days will be, and most days, they end up lovely. Even when they are very hard or horrible, our ability to make them our own makes them important and maybe even like art.

So, it is hard to say exactly why the age mixing is the beginning of the idea for me, but it is. I love the way the children grow up with us. I love knowing them so fully, watching their personalities and interests evolve, seeing their relationships with their friends and families and teachers develop, wondering about the mysteries of each one’s strengths and challenges. There is something about the age mixing that allows this luxury of time which in turn allows us to see each child as an individual with his or her own way of becoming a bigger person. Having each child for two or three or five, or even ten or eleven years has been one of the most satisfying and affirming parts of my job. Watching my own kids grow up in a community of children and families who all know one another so well, and welcoming new families and children into the mix provides comfort and richness and depth to our lives and is something I want to grow. The idea of giving this opportunity to be known, to grow at one’s own pace and according to ones own rhythm, to develop deep long friendships and interests seems only possible in the context of a mixed age group. So that is the beginning idea for me.

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