December 2008

Well, here we are in the midst of our school vacation week and I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the media my kids and I are consuming, not to mention the actual stuff we are consuming and my trips around town and online purchasing and returning things. Disconnection!! Overload!!

The thing I am trying to reconcile in relation to the school idea though, is how media is important to kids and learning and how I as an adult, or we as a school or program for kids, can manage in this new world of media, which at times feels amazing and at times feels overwhelming.

I have always been averse to using media in our day care program. Kids are generally not given access to computers or televisions or even radios during the day care day. They do play music on a boom box downstairs and the computer upstairs. Occasionally, a child will use a computer after school to do research or type a project, or we will use the computer in the day care to find out about something or to share pictures with the kids or to type an observation with their input. We adults use the computer a lot to help us with our work, from digital photography to observations to notices and parent communication to researching concerns and issues.

This fall, when I began learning about the Sudbury Valley School, my eyes were open to a different way of thinking about media. The kids at SVS have freedom to choose how to spend their time and many kids there choose to use computers, video games, and less often television. While I worried how this would impact my son, it seems he is more attracted to other things at SVS and spends most of his time interacting with other teens or reading or spending time on his own outside. Other kids there, though, seem to spend a lot of time on video games or computer activities, and just knowing the school’s attitude was different from others I had encountered made me question my assumptions about media and kids.

One major tenet of SVS is that kids know a lot about what they need to learn. My understanding about computers and video games and SVS is that kids are living in a world where these things are very important and so kids naturally want to explore and understand them. One of the staff members even described how using computers and video games may have supported some kids in their efforts to learn to read.

Exploring SVS made me think, if computers and video games are pieces of the world our kids are growing up in, should our kids have freer access to media than they have had in our day care or home in the past? We started encouraging our daughter, who had not been reading and was almost 8, to use the computer to explore her interests, which include music on itunes, looking at the Playmobil and Disney channel websites (wince). Shortly after, she began to read. (Amazingly, she never asked to buy a thing). It may be that the extra help at school, or just her natural maturation had as much to do with her reading as the computer, but the timing was eery. 

This Christmas, our kids got a new Wii fit game, another couple of Wii games, and our daughter got an ipod (again with a screen in hopes that she would practice reading). For my birthday, I got a new computer and the kids now use my old laptop. We spent several days with cousins who have a wide screen tv and many video games. The kids played video games, we took them to a movie, and the only time I really talked with my nephews was during meals and when my older son was sleeping late in the room with the video games and the other kids were not allowed to wake him up. My kids have been asking me all day long whether or not they can do more screen time, which in our house includes computer, video games, and television. Our house rules allow kids 30 minutes to an hour a day. It feels like I am the media police. I am sick of the preference kids have for media over interaction, for the feeling that they cannot wait to get in front of the tv or video game and only do chores in a slapdash way so they can get to the screen. I am also sick of my own need to check e-mail, to surf the internet, and to tune out my kids while I have my attention focussed on my computer.

I wonder, if we took away the rules restricting the kids to certain amounts of screen time, and mostly only after completing chores, would the kids self-limit? Would they do chores with more care if they weren’t trying to get them done so they could get in front of the screen? Can kids manage this world full of media and still stay connected to other interests and maintain relationships?

I think about the time I spent as a kid over holidays. At our family gatherings we played cards, pool, sledded, walked in the woods, helped with cooking and clean up. We interacted with our cousins and the adults in the family, working and playing and talking with them while we were together. As I got older, there were times when we played Atari but that was the extent of the video games available. There were no movies or video or computer games turned on to keep kids busy, so the kids joined the conversation, listened, or went off to play. 

Sometimes I think we have gone off track with our kids. I feel badly that they don’t help around the house the way we did as kids, setting the table and doing the dishes most nights, taking out the trash, cleaning the house with regular efficiency. I am sorry they are missing out on memories like the ones I have of being in my grandmother’s kitchen baking, cooking, and washing dishes with her or with whoever was there for a meal. I remember a lot of pleasure in working alongside adults in my family and neighborhood. Other times, when I was given a long list of cleaning chores to do by myself, I remember feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Unfortunately, that is more the tone of chores in our house now, with Sunday afternoon being the time to get it all done, room cleaning, house cleaning, food shopping, trash and recycling and car cleaning. 

I wonder how our school could incorporate media and real work and relationships? Somehow I see these things linked. Maybe they needn’t be, but somehow, I see media as a way of disconnecting from everyday reality and real work and relationships dealing directly with everyday reality. I want to find a balance so that kids are media savvy and understand the modern world in a way that makes them part and master of it, but also so that they are connected to the people and places around them and can contribute and relate in meaningful ways.

What sorts of expectations or rules would we have regarding media and work and interactions amongst the members of our school?

I got a great new book for Christmas from my co-teacher called Making It Up as We Go Along:  The Story of the Albany Free School written by Chris Mercogliano, a longtime associate of the school, and it’s head at the time of the book’s writing. This morning I finished Kingdom of Childhood which is a compilation of interviews with Sudbury Valley alumni. I am going to enjoy following the latest Sudbury Valley book with a different perspective from someone involved in alternatives to conventional schooling in an urban setting.

From the first chapter, I started thinking about space again, and the individual paths people and groups go through in forming a school. One piece of the Albany Free School that seems very different from Sudbury Valley is the leader’s emphasis on the importance of relationships and the influences of such thinkers as Wilhelm Reich and Carl Jung on the ideals of the school. While Sudbury Valley clearly places importance on the free interaction and conversation between individuals, it’s leaders do not seem to espouse any psychological perspective, and in at least on place, I remember some disdain for interfering in the psychological realm of children’s lives. A hands off, though kind and open approach seems important to SVS whereas a healing, therapeutic approach seems to be supported at the Albany Free School. Both have governing or problem solving bodies (School Meeting at SVS, the Council at AFS), but one favors democratic decision making as a structure while the other favors personal responsibility to the group as a cornerstone of a free, evolving environment.

For some reason, starting to read Making It Up as We Go Along and hearing about the roots this school has in it’s founder’s experience of evolving a school from her experience with a son who was struggling in a decent public school feels very familiar to me, and also highlights the importance for me of my background not only as a parent but as a caregiver. I think about my early work as a teacher in day care centers and schools and my shift to family childcare when I had my first child, and the learning process that I have experienced in becoming more a caregiver than a teacher. We struggle often with the two labels for our work. Are we caregivers, teachers, educators, family day care providers? Teacher and educator seem to hold more status, caregiver seems more true, and family day care provider, most specific. I think in a way all the titles fit, but when I think of a free school and the nonprofessional status these organizations espouse, I think of caregiving.

When I provide care I meet the needs of the whole child. I feed, clothe, talk with, protect, and nurture the child. I work in partnership with the family. I am not a specialist, though I know a lot about child development and how families and groups of children and adults work, I know the kind of environment and materials and schedule and routine and policies and communication that are conducive to caring for children in family day care. I consider my skills to be general skills for operating in the world. It is important to be respectful, responsible, polite, kind, generous, reflective, warm, interested, caring, organized, efficient, relaxed, open, honest, thrifty, productive, hardworking, creative, dedicated, thoughtful. I would hope to take these traits which seem so key in my work with children and families into any setting in which I might work and find them useful.

The other thing I started thinking about in terms of caregiving and education is that caregiving involves a relationship which is determined by the individuals involved and their needs and personalities. It is not about a curriculum, or a program that is determined from outside the context of that relationship. It relates to the larger world in that the primary goal of caring for children is to raise healthy people who are part of a larger family, community, and world. That is our goal as caregivers, and I think most caregivers share that goal and put it above all others. The measuring of our goal is not done by tests or by outsiders, but by the people who know us the child and the caregiver. For those who work in center based programs, this may be less true, but for independent family child care providers, families chose us for who we are, for our reputations within our communities, and children who are healthy and happy are the measure of what it means to be well-cared for by us and by the families. This feels more in line with the philosophy of the alternative education movement I am studying than with the mainstream educational establishment, and is at the core of what is meaningful to me in my work with children.

The other thing that feels remarkable to me right now in 2008 is that we are in a place again, after perhaps nearly 200 years (when was universal, compulsory schooling established in the US?) when caregiving has become again a primary concern of society receiving as much attention as education in many cases. Now that women are seen as nearly as likely to be working as men, and now that most adults in children’s lives are working outside the home, the care of children is something we must all care about and for which our society is rapidly attempting to institutionalize. Even Obama, who is putting early childhood needs on his agenda, frightens me with his wish to institute universal preschool. This is a fear for me as I see this goal as taking children out of homes and communities and potentially pushing harder on the goal of standardizing the experience of education and care in ways very similar to the standards movement and NCLB, which have in my opinion been so devastating to alternatives in educational settings for older kids. I want to write more about how the aspects of care we value in family child care and the learner-centered approaches valued in alternative education would provide a healthier model for expanding society’s responsibility for our children. If our mothers and fathers are working more hours, we must develop nurturing places for our children to spend their days. It may be that neither conventional school, child care centers and after school programs, summer camps, or alternative school models are the best solution for our time. I propose that we need a way to provide for children’s upbringing and learning which is multi age, family and community based, and can serve the needs of the child and the family in the modern world.

I was thinking this morning about my family. Christmas is approaching, and I am nostalgic for childhood celebrations with lots of extended family. When I was a kid, we had two large families of relatives. My dad’s family, which started with ten siblings, had to rent the community golf club each Saturday after Christmas because no one’s house could hold us. My mom’s family, which had seven siblings, celebrated often in the family farm house, where my aunt was raising her kids. I had dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles and several grandparents, including steps. Maybe all families are like this, but in my family, there were people with 8th grade education (my paternal grandfather), people with high school diplomas or GED’s, and people with college degrees. My grandfather was one of the most resourceful people I have ever known. He left school in 8th grade, raised a family of ten on a dairy farm in Western, NY, lost his wife when the youngest was a baby, and took on work as the Highway Supt in addition to doing all the things required of a small dairy farmer during the Depression, World War Two, and up through the 1960’s. When he retired from dairy farming, he continued to chop and burn wood for fuel, refilling the furnace all night long until he had a fall in his late 80’s or early 90’s, and he worked at a basket factory until he was 81 years old. He designed and built his house and helped two sons build theirs. They chopped trees and had them milled into lumber. In his retirement, Grandpa also raised two large gardens of vegetables, ran a farm stand to sell his sweet corn, and gave anyone who stopped to visit bags of vegetables. In his 80’s he built a chicken house and raised chickens. The hardest thing for my grandfather was getting old and spending his last days on oxygen. For a man who loved to build, repair, grow, and care for things, sitting around with a tube in his nose was just not right. When I think about my grandfather, I think how much he learned in his life, how much he accomplished, how much he knew that I will never, ever know. He was wise, respected, responsible, and educated only until 8th grade. I doubt he read many books. I don’t think he went to museums or plays or maybe even knew a lot about world events. He went to a small country church, which knowing him, he probably helped build. I imagine he helped take care of the cemetery next door where many of his family were buried, and he helped with church suppers and looking after the ministers.

My grandfather’s second wife, who he married after all his ten children were grown, was a school teacher. She had begun her career in a one room school house. I think it was the same school my dad and his brothers and sisters went to up until the 8th grade, when they took a bus into town to high school. The few stories I know of my dad (he died when I was 6), include the fun the Wests had at the school house playing baseball at recess. Grandma West died awhile after Grandpa West in a nursing home. She had moved back and forth between the nursing home and her assisted living center, fighting to keep her independence in part so she could stay active with the Scrabble group there. She loved words and learning and was proud her whole life of her early career as a teacher. 

My dad was raised from a young age by a single dad. When he left home, he took time working in a bank and in the army as well as going to State University. When he met my mom, she encouraged him to go back to school and finish his degree. He became a chemical engineer, finishing college in his early thirties. While this education and working for Kodak were proud accomplishments and great experiences for my dad, I also wonder if they were related to his death in his late thirties of leukemia. It turns out chemicals used in college labs at that time have been linked to leukemia, and sadly, at the time my dad had the disease, modern day cures were not around.

Three of my dad’s brothers made it through college. They became proud graduates of Cornell and Tristate University and went on to work as educators and engineers. His sisters didn’t go to college, but worked in jobs that required quick minds, one as a banker and another as a County Treasurer. My dad’s other brothers worked as a prison guard and a factory worker, jobs that also took skill and dedication, but which might not have been their first choice had they been to college. When I asked my uncle who had worked in the factory how he had left the farm, he said the price of milk couldn’t compare with the wages offered in the factory. I wonder if times had been different if some of my aunts or uncles might be farmers today. If their lives on the farm had not been so hard, would any of them had aspired to raise their children on the farm? When I was a kid, I loved hearing stories of my parents’ growing up and visiting the family farms (where family members lived in the houses and rented the land and barns to active farmers). I sometimes imagined growing up to be a farmer.

More of the next generation in my dad’s family went to college, but certainly not all of us. At a recent family funeral for my dad’s oldest brother, I heard stories about how hard he had worked on the farm, staying for nine years after high school to help out before leaving for Cornell and how much he had encouraged his children and grandchildren in the pursuit of their college degrees. I sat surrounded by family members in my grandfather’s small country church and felt the difference of our lives in that moment, wondered how it felt to those who worked in factories or prisons to have college education held as the beacon of accomplishment and pride. I also thought how unlikely it would have been that I would have been a Cornell graduate without this uncle leading the way, and how sorry I was my own dad was not able to give my kids the guidance my uncle had given his grandkids to find their way to college, or to teach them the things all the West’s learned on my grandfather’s farm. I think now how proud I have been my whole life of my grandfather, and how smart I always knew he was, regardless of his 8th grade education. When my son left the public schools at the beginning of 8th grade to go to Sudbury Valley, where no classes are required and kids are given the freedom to follow their interests all day, I thought of Grandpa West. I figured if he made it on an 8th grade education, Ben could leave traditional school in 8th grade and make it on his own if he had to. If the Sudbury Valley thing turned out to be nothing worse than a place to fit in, be happy, make friends, and follow his interests, at least my boy could read, write, and do basic math. If he ended up with a life as long and rich as my Grandpa West’s, he would be a lucky guy, even with Grandpa’s living through two World Wars, the Depression, losing one wife and four children before he died at 96. Of course, life was different then, but life is going to be different for Ben, too, than it has been for me. I have no real way to know what he will need to face his life’s challenges.

In the day care when Cambridge is open and Somerville is closed we have one of our truly mixed aged days. Big kids from school are there with younger kids from day care all day long. While this is true in families all over the world, it is special for kids in group care and education settings, and one of the things I love most about family day care. I think our kids and families do, too, as most often on days like this everyone shows up, in spite of having to spend extra time digging out driveways and cars and driving in bad conditions.

Spending a whole day like this today reminded me again what I am hoping could happen if we could work more with school age kids in our program or another program we would invent. What I love is how easily the kids find their way through the day, doing age appropriate things, mixed age things, helping things, and just playing till we literally lose track of time. Today we had kids from one to eleven in the mix: a one-year-old, a two-year-old, 2 three-year-olds, 4 four-year olds, a five-year-old, 2 seven-year-olds, and an eleven-year-old. Supervising al these kids were two caregiver/teachers, one in her forties and one in her sixties. The age mixing was pretty wide. We managed to accommodate toddlers who are just learning about snow all the way to a senior who was concerned about walking on ice.  We also had a thirteen year old and a working dad upstairs, with the eleven year old and the seven year olds spending part of the day up and part of the day downstairs. The thirteen year old took a walk to do his Christmas shopping and the eleven year old spent a lot of time reading, as he had a cold.

The seven year olds took time playing with block families and playmobil by themselves and with each other. One of them brought a workbook from home and spent a long time on the couch writing in that. During transitions, she read and read, announcing at breakfast that she is a book worm. This reminded the other seven year old how much she likes to read, and both girls read beginning readers while the five year old looked at the pictures of a nonfiction book about animals, studying the older girls’ posture and seriousness as he read.

The eleven year old started the day with a four year old and a one year old building with a marble run set they had enjoyed together after school last week. Then they moved to the back room to make an “awesome train track” in what I think was an attempt to keep from being annoyed at the one year old who wanted to drive her favorite Thomas trains on the marble run. 

One seven year old loves a particular dance tape and after a long time in the early morning playing with the door shut in a quiet room, she came out to play music. The other seven year old who was doing the work book on the couch enjoys the music, too, and soon there were several preschoolers dancing along with the seven year olds.  During all of this activity, there was an art project in one room and a gingerbread baking project in the kitchen, both facilitated, but done primarily by kids. Today these were popular with the one through five year olds, but another day they could have just as easily appealed to the school-agers.

It was a very cold, snowy, but beautiful day, too cold for a long walk to the park, but just right for playing in the yard. The kids dressed little by little and when we had a group, we headed out. By the end of the morning, everyone was in the yard. There was a big pretend game of huskies organized by the seven year olds which involved kids crawling around on the snow and lying in big piles of it. At one time, there were several preschoolers following the lead of the seven year olds. Later a group of preschool boys helped me dig out a large collection of plastic sleds from under the front porch. Most of the kids used these in some form or another, first to slide down a very small hill in the corner of the yard, then to give many rides around a cluster of stumps, digging a track as they went. The seven and five year olds pulled all the younger ones and everyone smiled. Kids also just touched, walked, fell in, tasted, and admired the snow. Many of them dug in it, all enjoyed the soft cushion of it as they lay or walked across it.

At lunch time, we had to think a bit about table and chair height to accommodate the growing, mixed age kids. This made me think about furniture that could better accommodate growing kids, but really we made do just fine with an adult sized table and chairs, a trip trap chair, and varieties of small chairs, some more suitable for toddlers, and some more suitable for older kids.

I kept thinking how natural it feels to have kids together like this, how happy and not at all bored they are when they are in a setting that allows them so many options with a comfortable flow, good food, and kids and adults who are all fully devoted to the present moment. When I am with my own kids on the weekend or in the evenings, we have so many competing agendas, but in the day care, we have all the time in the world for each other and can do just what we feel like doing, not what we should or could be doing.

While the eleven year old wore out on the day care midmorning, he was not feeling great, and there was no one really close to his age to do something like a board game or take a walk to the sledding hill, challenges he would have enjoyed had there been someone up to the task. If there had been another older kid, I imagine they could have come up with something to fully absorb them the way the younger kids did. As it was, he did not say he was bored, but just went off upstairs to read and lie around, probably what he needed considering his cold and the busy weekend he had with friends in the snow.

The seven-year-olds seemed completely at ease, and I wonder as I think about the things they choose on their own, like reading and hard puzzles and organizing games for the younger ones, and pretending with small figures, sledding, dancing and listening to music, if in time they would make all the choices they would need to grow up into healthy, capable, confident adults. Could we trust them, as we do our toddlers and preschoolers, and as we do the older ones during after school and vacation, to do what they need to do to grow? And would their learning be more substantial, deeper, more significant because it had meaning for them, and because they shaped their own lives? This is the question I keep asking when I wonder about what we are trying to do.

I don’t want to be a teacher again in a classroom where I tell kids what to do all day, inventing work for them to do that may be meaningful to a few, but not to many, where I rush kids from what they love to what they dread, where lunch and recess are a very small, poorly respected part of the day, and choice time exists as a treat, but not as a key component of the day.  I think, if I don’t want to be a teacher in that environment, how can I want kids to spend their days that way? How can I expect my own kids, or wish for the kids in the day care to move from a place where they choose how to spend their time (within the limits of what we have to offer and our routine of meals, inside and outside time, and nap) and learn in the ways that suite them best to places that tell them how to spend nearly every minute of the school day and which doesn’t value so much of what we know our children to be good at and love? It is a hard compromise to make and to explain, asking kids who love blocks and drawing and pretending, being outside, reading on a couch, talking with friends, cooking together, playing in snow, doing puzzles, caring for younger kids, organizing games and materials, to just forget all that and go all out for the listening, reading, writing, class assignment, short recess, barely any lunch, stay inside when it snows routine. It is almost a lie for me to say that I both believe in what we do in our program and I believe in what is happening in most schools. How can I believe both if I am honest with myself and with the kids?

So, I have been reading lots and lots of stuff about Alternative Education. Mostly, though, I have been reading books published by the Sudbury Valley School Press. It is a big deal to move from public school to private school, from an urban school to an idyllic suburban campus, from alternative public school parent organizer to parent and student of a school that denounces nearly everything about schooling as I have known it. I have just been through years of involvement with testing of my own children and of the children in the day care. I am in the midst of reading a chapter in Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept entititled, “How is my child doing?” which denounces everything that underlies testing and the scientific frameworks that support it. Another chapter,  “Sudbury Valley  School” and “Learning Disabilities”: an Incompatible Pair says that many families come to SVS with children who have been tested and diagnosed with learning disabilities and that this history makes it hard for the children and families to get what they otherwise could from the school, where the term learning disabilities has no meaning. I am writing a blog about my vision of an alternative school and have just finished reading a chapter in this same book which states that Sudbury Valley School is not an alternative school because the definition of alternative school assumes that students must learn the same predetermined things as traditional schools but in ways that are different from the norm. This definition of alternative does not apply to SVS where there is no predetermined set of things that must be learned, but each student follows a unique path in learning according to innate drives and their interactions with the world around them.

I feel a bit turned upside down. In so many ways, my experience as a parent, teacher, and caregiver bears out the SVS view of the difficulty, even pointlessness of teaching children things in traditional ways, and the value of creating a safe, stimulating environment in which children can follow their own interests and develop creativity and relationships. However, I am not a student of the history of science, or of philosophy, as Daniel Greenberg seems to be. His ideas make some sense to me, but his frameworks are not mine. I have to find ways to understand what he is saying, and the aspects of it that make sense to me, through the lense of my own experience and ideas. Which is part of the rub. For some reason, the tone of his books assumes that if I would simply “get it” all would be well, while the message about education he is illuminating is about the subjectiveness of experience and the need for each individual to evaluate ideas and move through life on an individual path. So, I continue to read and read and read, comparing my reality to his words and to my limited experience of the school, challenging myself to keep my mind open, but wondering, is this place a bit cultish? Is it weird or sensible, but so obscure that not enough people have known about it to make it “normal”?

A piece of the questioning for me right now is about the ability of self-directed experience and learning to bring people to successful adult lives. Sudbury Valley School claims that their students do this. They have interviewed and documented the stories of their alumni, who seem to be happy, creative, and satisfied with their lives. These are good models for a parent like me who wants these basics for my kids. Daniel Greenberg says we base our evaluations on information we collect from talking to people and reading. I want to talk to some students whose words were not represented in the book. Not one student whose words are documented has said SVS was a bad experience, or that their life is hard, that they cannot get out of a deep depression or find work, that they have created a messed up family or found themselves in a job or marriage in which they are unhappy. I wonder if this could really be true, that all SVS graduates have good lives, that they can find their way out of the situations in life that drag so many of us down? If not, I need to hear from some of those whose lives have not gone so well and from those for whom SVS may have been harmful or at least a stumbling block to the success they wanted in life. My life has been full of people who have not found happiness or fulfillment and I wonder if it is possible that those people would have found these things had they found and “gotten” SVS.

This applies to my venture in schooling. While it is important, in my mind, to have an image of an ideal school, it is also important to be honest about reality and to question assumptions about what works  and what doesn’t.  That brings me back to the beginning of this post. How does one transfer the idea of a school like Sudbury Valley from a private school that can select and remove students who prove not to be a good fit to a public school or a private school which admits and keeps everyone who applies? (Though no school admits or keeps everyone.) Would this model work for all students, and if not, what model is proposed for the others? I drive through Somerville and I wonder, if kids from all backgrounds were given access to a Sudbury Valley School in their midst, would they stay on campus and create a healthy community of self-directed learning and a fair system of justice? Or would some kids take off to explore the world outside, to get involved in gangs or drugs or criminal activity, to sit in homes empty while adults are at work and hang out there instead?  Would wandering around shopping in the many stores or eating in the many restaurants within walking distance be more appealing than staying in school? And how would these paths prepare young people for adulthood. Somehow, Sudbury Valley has found that most students prefer to be at school. With those who choose not to be on campus, there are consequences the community has deemed reasonable for changing that behavior or excluding that member from the school. The school has determined, it seems, that membership in the community requires participation by attendance on campus. For now this works, in part because the larger society has determined that schooling, either in a school or homeschool setting, is compulsory for children up to the age of 16. I wonder how this model would work if total freedom were granted to children. Would they choose to be in a Sudbury Valley model school over their homes or the streets? Or would some children do just fine without school? Clearly, many are choosing this through homeschooling, but this depends on having adults available to younger kids in homes or homeschool coops or classes. And do some students just do poorly no matter what? And how many of those children are there, or can we tolerate or support as a society? More and more I see the effects of mental illness around us. In Teaching for Tolerance magazine this week I read about a man who has been a deliverer of hate messages for many years. His brother told the family version of his story. This man’s mental illness was going unchecked and in the process he was spewing mounds of hate, losing his family. His brother’s greatest fear is that these messages would incite a younger person to acts of violence. I look around me as drive down Alewife Brook Parkway at the many panhandlers asking for money. I wonder how many are in the position they are in because of mental illness. While I appreciate Daniel Greenberg’s concern about the lives being changed for the worse by overdiagnosis of disorders, I also wonder how we will ever begin to truly help those like the panhandlers and the messengers of hate if we don’t begin to figure them out as young people. Studying people, which Greenberg seems to say is based on flawed assumptions that human behavior and cognition can be reduced to scientifically knowable principles, is the core of my life’s work. Without sharing in the work that others have done in studying human behavior, how would I understand the behaviors and patterns I see in my children and how would I know how to help? Would my own direct experience and intuition and intelligence really be enough? Is it really possible to separate out testing, cognitive psychology, and educational expertise from the other ways people have pooled their knowledge to better understand the world? Can we really discard these scientific ways of understanding and go back to preindustrial ways of knowing and being, even while using the internet and all the current technology at our disposal? The conflict of these ideas is likely something Greenberg has thought about, and perhaps in the next chapter or the next book I will find out how he sees this dilemma. Clearly, I am captivated by this new way of thinking, much as I probably was when I learned about John Dewey, open classrooms, the social justice movement in the Catholic Church, and other big ideas that have challenged and resonated with my own views of the world, and incited me to action.

I do worry that this new way of communicating by blog, which offers my ideas to the whole world, is somehow dangerous. By being honest and totally transparent, do I open myself up to criticism and even ridicule, and possibly exclusion from groups such as the public schools or Sudbury Valley, which I openly question and wonder about in my writing, while at the same time wishing to belong? Am I being too open and out there to seem stable and wise? And in the process, will I worry or push away the sensible, wise, thoughtful people I wish to encourage to join me in thinking about how our children learn? Is openly wondering and not knowing or taking positions for the sake of exploring ideas a risky or even dangerous way to interact with people when I am in the business of caring for and educating children? I have lots to wonder about. I hope that others will connect my wondering to their own rather than think I am a total nut!

I absolutely appreciate Macky’s concerns about my vision of learning for kids who have special needs, whether disorders or delays. I have thought long and hard about how to meet the diverse needs of kids in our family and in the day care program. When I have had concerns about a child’s development, I have advocated strongly for assessment and diagnosis and treatment or remediation. We have worked with children who have had disorders or delays in the areas of speech and language, reading and writing, small and large motor development, sensory integration, attention, regulation, executive function, depression, emotional and social development, nonverbal learning, and dyslexia. I have worked with families, colleagues, Early Intervention, medical, mental health,and educational professionals to figure out what is going on with children and how to help them. Through the process, we have gotten a lot of information, insight, and strategies for understanding and solving problems that have been challenging in day care and family life. 

That being said, I have increasingly questioned the structure of contemporary schooling and it’s ability to differentiate instruction and create an environment conducive to the healthy development of the whole child. My concerns about this have been highlighted by my experience with my own children’s special needs and the challenges of meeting those needs in a traditional or alternative public school setting.

My kids have all had very good teachers and are in a school system I respect very much.We have initiated evaluations and received services through a number of systems. I can’t say that any of the services we have received have been unhelpful. However, at several points, we have felt that the system just was not providing the optimal environment for our kids. We were then faced with the options of advocating for further modifications and services or going elsewhere with our kids, either to receive special services in other settings and/or to try something very different from school for the hours most kids are in school. This is in part how we ended up at Sudbury Valley with our oldest child and where we are right now in sorting out what our youngest child needs. Our middle guy is pretty happy where he is and in general school is a good fit for him. We will see how things go when he hits 7th grade and a more traditional program. When the kids have been struggling and we have hit a wall in what the system is willing to do, we have been encouraged to go to the next level of advocacy. However, the idea of paying for detailed assessments, hiring an advocate or lawyer, attending confrontational meetings with the special ed department to advocate for the creation of a detailed Individual Education Plan, then monitoring that plan.  Even if we were able to do what it takes to get a detailed IEP in place, the idea of watching our kids negotiate the special services along with the limitations of the regular education program feels less right than imagining an alternative way of growing up that might offer a more strengths based approach.

The other piece of fitting in to the traditional educational system that I have really struggled with of late is the decision so many of us are making to medicate our children for things like attention deficit disorder, depression, and anxiety. While it may well be that there is something in the food or the genes or the environment that is creating a generation of kids whose systems require medication to function effectively, I am not fully comfortable accepting this conclusion. I feel it is important to try to modify children’s experiences of the world to see if we can find ways for them to be healthy, focussed, and relaxed without medications. I imagine that some children would need treatment for depression or anxiety or attention or hyperactivity even in the most child-centered, active, relaxed, caring environment. But I also think that many children who cannot sit still in school, who are anxious or depressed, would not need medications if they were allowed to live their lives in a more holistic, healthy way.

Similarly, I know that there are kids who experience the world differently who would benefit from special teaching and activities in the areas of social skills or sensory integration or learning reading, writing, and math. There are kids for whom reading is very difficult at 6. Many parents have told me that their children with dyslexia do very well with specialized instruction. I also read in the Sudbury Valley literature that children allowed the freedom to pursue what interests them all learn to read, mostly by age 10. Ten seems old, but I also know that Waldorf education focusses on reading later than traditional schools do, and that research in Europe has shown fewer reading disabilities in places where reading instruction begins later than it does in the US. I wonder how our kids would fare if they were not under so much pressure to read and write so early. I have watched kids go from our day care with openness to letters and books into a kindergarten and first grade classroom where so much focus is on literacy development, but they don’t measure up and they feel defeated. I want to give those kids space to do other things, to develop literacy skills a bit later if that is their path, and to see what happens. Maybe it is true that the Orton Gillingham approach is the best solution for some of these kids, and I hope that if we do create our school we will learn which kids might need that help and which are progressing differently or more slowly, but are on their way to becoming lifelong readers and writers. I hope that our love of books, our mixed age grouping, our easy access to writing and drawing materials, the modeling of readers and writers at all levels will provide a lot of support to the healthy development of literacy skills. I also hope that we have skilled teachers who can observe children and communicate with one another and the families, who can read and learn and think in depth about what children need, and who can adapt the program and the child’s experience accordingly.

I would hate to find that we invited kids to our school and did not meet their needs, that kids went on to fail in life and to hate learning or reading or writing or math. Certainly, I have known people who were limited in life by their academic skills, but I have also been pleased to see some folks for whom school was a trial blossom in real life to become tradespeople, caregivers, entrepreneurs, artists, and parents of great skill and accomplishment. I want to acknowledge those ways of being a success in life and honor the kids who may be developing towards those pursuits so that their school years are not so grim, but full of as much hope and promise as the kids who read at 4, love science and math, and take to a teacher’s assignment with glee!

Macky’s comments are really helpful in getting me to think more about critical aspects of school life. One is how to develop a sense of responsibility to the group and care for the school. This is something I think Sudbury Valley does very well with their Judicial System, School Meeting, Clerkships, and Corporations, structures that support student involvement with everyday decision making and work and long term responsibility for the school. These structures are only familiar to me from reading and hearing about them, so I don’t really know how comfortable I would be imitating them or reinventing them. I do value children’s real work and contributions to the group, so I know these would figure into our school. I need to think more about how this would happen. In the day care, we do all kinds of things appropriate to our setting which encourage kids to take responsibility, from serving meals family style, to having kids clean up toys and spills and materials, to organizing activities, nap, meals and snacks. In spring, we sometimes help prepare the garden, in summer we pick raspberries and tomatoes and basil, in fall we rake leaves, in winter we shovel snow. This year kids decorated the house for Halloween. After school kids help one another with homework. During the day kids help one another with puzzles, with jobs that are too big for one person, with dressing skills that one child has mastered and another is developing. We read, write, talk, count, and organize for each other. This year kids are playing school and organizing dance and gymnastic activities for the younger ones. Often in summer, school age kids set up science, art, and cooking projects for the group. I hope that in our school these things will continue, and that we will find ways to expand the real work we do so that the older students can take on more of the tasks that caregivers and teachers perform now. Recently, our seven and five year old learned to make toast for the group, which was gratifying for all of us. The next time we had toast, the five year old offered to make it and taught it to a four year old. My guess is that with more age mixing the cross pollination would create a stronger set of skills and more learning and teaching going on amongst kids.

The judicial system and School Meeting structures from Sudbury Valley are less a piece of our day care, though I could imagine working on systems if our program grew to include more kids and older kids. Right now we talk a lot about what is right and fair and kind, and how to handle situations when people are not responsible about following our group standards. Kids don’t hold court, but they do enforce rules and remind one another of how to behave in the group. We don’t have formal School Meeting to make decisions about the day care operation, but we do have small meetings to plan events like graduation, to organize an unruly day, or to eat meals and share stories and discuss important things. With a larger group, I could imagine a school meeting structure would make a lot of sense. My hope is that we could learn from Sudbury Valley and other Democratic Schools about how to set up a system that would work for us.

Thanks for asking such helpful questions, Macky. I totally agree that teachers should not be doing all the work of running the school and that helping to run it is an important piece of community building and learning for kids.

My big dream today is that in two years I would be running a small school that would serve families looking for an alternative. My little dream is that next year we would find a small group of school age children to join our family day care group. They would come from families who are looking for an alternative and are willing to take on the responsibility of homeschooling and to take a risk on putting their older child in a mix of younger kids, and can pay our day care tuition for whatever part of the week their child is with us.

As I drive around town, I imagine the middle sized dream. I picture every vacant building I see, from old car dealerships to office buildings to warehouses and factories, every house with a large yard, filled with kids and adults doing cool things together. We have blocks, we have paper and markers and paint and scissors and tape, we have books for kids of all ages and interests, and access to the library, we have space and time outside in our yard, on the bus, in the neighborhood, at the park, we have music and instruments and places for dancing and singing and playing. We have kids of all ages playing board games, reading books, building things, talking with one another, getting dressed for outside, planning an outing, relaxing. 

The thing about the middle sized dream is that it happens every day. Today after school kids played music and had a dance party. Boys and girls from 4 to 12 sat around in comfy chairs and smiled and hung out, organized, performed, and enjoyed the show. One four year old spent her late afternoon in the quieter kitchen, making a homemade computer out of paper and markers. Kids in the other room from 4 through twelve built marble runs, testing them and sharing their ideas.  Earlier in the day, the marble run had appealed to kids as young as one, who did more watching and learning of boundaries than building, but were interested and learning all the same. Kids pretended throughout the day. Earlier it was kids dressing up and playing superheroes, a two, a three, and a four year old. More four year olds played with figures and built stuff with Lincoln Logs. After school, we had a violin player practicing while others did math, writing, and social studies at the dining room table. Then the violin player read Calvin and Hobbes on the couch while another guy watched four girls dress up and pretend to be maids, teachers, friends, rich royalty, and chihuahas. We had conversations including kids of all ages about Santa, Chanukah, not wanting to die, but knowing everybody does and feeling sad about the iminence of our parents’ deaths and peace about the death of our very old grandparents, and a reality check about an uncle who died from a heart attack, a grandmother who didn’t die of a heart attack and the fact that the uncle did not get to the hospital as quickly as the grandmother, luck or access to health care? We also talked about rules, punishment, and how kids and adults behave in different settings, as well as the weather and what sorts of clothes to put on and what was for lunch and how delicious were the pancakes and how long we wanted to go on eating them.

So, even if the big dream or the little dream don’t come true, right now is pretty good.

I do wonder how it would be different to have the older kids all day, to have the space of an old warehouse or a huge mansion with a yard, to have a group of twenty or fifty kids instead of ten, to involve more adults and more families, to be responsible in some way for the learning kids do in school now. Would it be as much fun? Would we get sick of each other if we were together all day or does the contrast of school with after school and summer care add something to the pleasure we take in our time together? Would more people make trouble or create more options? Would a big space be freeing or institutional or burdensome to pay for and maintain? Would I miss my home and the small family feeling of what we do now?

And bottom line, since the kids seem to be learning now all the time and happy most of it, what would it be like to do all this without school? What would they miss and how would they be different?

I have been thinking about public school, alternative school, and growing up, trying to reconcile my ideals with various pieces of reality. I know what felt good and not so good as I was growing up, and throughout my life as an adult working with kids in all different settings, as a teacher, child care provider, camp counselor, and parent. I was a pretty easy kid, a good student, not much of a challenge to parent or teach. Several years ago I went to a talk at the Cambridge Forum by Deborah Meier and others talking about the MCAS and NCLB. I was shaking when I got my turn at the microphone, as Deborah Meier has started many schools I admire, and one in particular that I worked in that really shaped my life as a teacher and parent, Central Park East Elementary. I asked Deborah what she could teach me about starting a small, alternative High School in Somerville. My son Ben was a young child then, probably in the early grades at our alternative elementary public school. I had high ideals about how much impact I could have on the school system as he grew up. Deborah’s response was that I should gather a group of others with like minds and start with a grassroots effort. Earlier in the q and a was the comment that triggered this memory. An older man in the audience wondered why Deborah’s alternative, small school approach was important, given his success in a large traditional high school. She reminded him that most of us in the room had positive experiences in school or we wouldn’t be here in the Cambridge Forum. She asked us to think of those in our high schools who may not have done so well and let us know her efforts are aimed at make education accessible to those kids. I thought of all the faces in my small rural high school that did not make the strides I had in education or in life. I met some of them at our 20th high school reunion. I talked with adults who had been too high on drugs or too busy sleeping with other teens in cabins in the woods to spend their afternoons at school with me attending spanish club or student government meetings or musical rehearsals.  I am not a successful person in the minds of most of the world. As a family child care provider in a working class profession, I don’t rank in terms of status or income. However, I do feel like a success. I have my own business, I have employees, I feel respected and I respect myself. I can’t help but attribute some of my feelings of success in life to my educational success. From elementary through graduate school I was in the top of my class. We had top reading groups, college track, ivy league status, and graduate school to remind us we were on our way someplace. We  had S +’s, high honor roll, and 4.0 status to let us know where we stood at or near the top of the heap. In a lot of ways that system worked for me. All around me, though, I have memories of people for whom that system didn’t do much, or did real damage. At the twentieth reunion one woman stumbled in drunk at 7 pm, another told me of her life running the liquor store, raising a daughter she had at a very young age as a single mother, a guy I had a hard time with in junior high where we had been in the faster track together until he fell behind and partied his way through school, told me about his life in town, working at a factory, and taking solace in the public elementary school where his daughter was in class with children of our classmates. And these were the ones I had known well enough to talk to twenty years later, the ones who had started junior high in the faster track with supposedly as much promise as those of us who made it through four years of college and on to lives we chose with more options available to us, to careers that seemed to give us real satisfaction, whether in education, in the CIA, or on the family farm. The kids who started off junior high at the bottom of the heap mostly didn’t show up twenty years later.

I wonder what I learned from these memories that can help me think about starting an alternative school. Could I support those kids who start off with so much promise but just don’t make it through school to an adult life full of good options? Would there have been a way to give those kids a better chance in life, many of whom had families who were falling apart, or who were predisposed to addictions or unhealthy relationships, who for whatever reason didn’t feel smart enough or interested enough or motivated enough to succeed in school?

And I wonder, would kids like that who live in families that are working well, who have education as a priority and finances available to support kids through the rough spots with counseling and tutors and advocates and that extra semester of college be ok anyhow? Is there a way that a model of schooling can even the playing field or give the kids on the margins the extra support they need to make it in life? Or is it all about who you know and what you have and your family and their economic, social, and educational status? And how will I know anyhow if the school we can create is only accessible to those who can pay? And is it worth it to try something that might help the kids on the edge socially or emotionally or academically or physically, if not those on the edges economically?

That’s when I get my pictures of the good things in life I want kids to have all day long every day of their lives. I remember swinging and playing football on the grassy playground of my elementary school, seemingly for a very long time. I remember working with our fourth grade class digging holes and planting seedlings we bought with money we saved. I remember Colonial Days, when we learned from many local farmers and craftspeople how to make bread, card, spin, and weave wool, and dip candles. I remember working with children in classrooms where active pursuits were as common as sitting at tables and working with pencil and paper. Fourth graders built with blocks every day, first graders used a water table to learn about measuring, preschoolers and kindergarteners had parallel bars as a daily choice in their classroom along with cooking, which was the way they made their class snack. I remember All School Sing, the Clay room, Observational Drawing, All School Meeting, dancing during recess with only kids in the classroom, the Pom Pom club, teachers meeting in small groups to study and implement whole language more effectively, to study the portfolio system and use assessment tools that were free of grades for young children, to study and try out mixed ages, and to come up with new ideas from amongst ourselves.

Most of these things happened in public schools, though in a different era. In the 70’s when I was in elementary school, in the 80’s when I was training to be a teacher, and in the early 90’s when I was a young teacher, progressive ideas were out there. It felt exciting to be a student and a teacher when trying new things meant studying children and creating ways of working with them that were holistic, student and teacher centered, and evolving. I want that energy back. For the last few years, when I have expressed a wish to go back to these roots in progressive education, rather than put my energy into standards and standardized ways of doing things, I have been told, “The train has left the station. Get on board or get out of the way.” “that is old-fashioned. We all know those ideas don’t really work.” I have been laughed at and marginalized for my belief that those ideas do work and in fact it would make a lot of sense to revisit them.

And then, this year, I found the Sudbury Valley School. It was like I was going back in time and yet it was also a modern version of freedom, with computers and the internet and video games and magic cards, things that didn’t exist in my childhood classrooms of the 1970’s and were just emerging in my early days as a teacher. From the Sudbury Valley School, I gained confidence that 40 years of students going on from a self-directed learning experience could emerge as successful adults. I also started to believe that maybe my ideas were not overly romantic or old-fashioned and unworkable in the modern age. I still think the train has left the station, but I am feeling more like creating a new divergent track than like getting out of the way. From studying about SVS I discovered all kinds of things I thought were dead and gone. There are in fact many Sudbury Schools, free schools, democratic schools, and alternative schools of all shapes and sizes functioning and even being started right now. The wish to do something different is not only taking root in the US, but all over the world. People around the US are homeschooling in ever increasing numbers and the number of unschoolers also seems to be growing. People are wondering if there is more than one right way to do things or if the one right way that most of us have as our public school option is the way forward for them.

The big difference I can see is that the public agenda seems not to have much room for these ideas today and there seem to be more barriers to experimentation in the public schools and even in the realm of independent schools. The standards that are increasingly being applied to public schools are impacting early childhood and also independent schools. The need to standardize teaching and learning in schools seems stronger than it was in the 60’s and 70’s when the last round of progressive energy took hold. The good news for me, and maybe for others, is that the internet allows the very small pockets of people trying new things to connect from their previously isolated worlds and share ideas and lend support. So, maybe, just maybe, the internet will give the added boost we need to get us over the increased barriers that seem to discourage innovation of the child and teacher centered variety. If individuals can work together from around the world, ideas just may take root in a new and exciting way that will be even stronger than the last round. I think I want to be part of that.

The last few days I have been wondering how to move forward in a positive direction without hurting the day care or the public school system in which I have invested a lot. I have been at school for social events, a meeting, parent conferences, drop-off and pickup. Anywhere I go around town I meet people from school. These things remind me daily of the benefits of public school, and of the challenges. While what I want to do with children is in part a reaction to things I don’t like about public school today, like silly homework, sitting still, rushed meals, too much time inside, and MCAS exams, my worries about what I envision as an alternatvive also have a lot to do with what I love about school, like getting to know families in my city, those like myself and those who are different, having a wide range of role models for my kids, having a separate space where my kids feel at home and time when they don’t need me, books and ideas from outside our world coming to the kids from all the other kids and adults at school, free music lessons and citywide concerts in the high school auditorium where I am in an audience of families from around the world, a playground full of kids running around together after school, big kids organizing events for younger kids, a huge cafeteria full of people who are all connected. I love being part of that. I love that everyone can be part of it.

Leaving that part of public school behind is hard. It is hard to leave it even for the utopian vision of kids following their interests all day, interacting comfortably with kids and adults of many ages as they wish, eating and relaxing and playing according to a comfortable rhythm, spending time outside and around town, living and learning in comfy spaces, focussing as much on physical and social and emotional and artistic development as on literacy and mathematical development. I wonder if the tradeoffs are worthwhile, if the vision could include more of the good stuff of public school that seems so hard to leave behind, if others will find breaking with public school a smart move, even if I take the plunge, if I will miss my community there, or even be excluded. And if others join us, will we pull away families or kids whose contributions might enrich the public schools and is that a reason not to go forward?

I even wonder about the not so glamorous stuff. Does making it in public school give kids a resilience they would not get otherwise? Does it give them an insight into people and economics and society that might not be obvious in other settings? Does the unfairness they experience, whether in economic differences or the way discipline is handled or the way kids who learn differently are treated, make them want to fight for justice?  And while many schools are pretty segregated by race and class and other things, does a reasonably integrated school system give kids a comfort level with people different from themselves that is hard to replace in other settings?

When I answer these questions with an answer that makes me want to move forward in creating an alternative, I think, “Children have basic rights to freedom, to learning that is developmentally and individually appropriate, to respect, to access to the outdoors and the community, to explore what interests and is important to them. If we could create a place that more fully realizes those rights, it would be worth doing. And hopefully, if we could do that, we could include anyone who wanted to come, and our work would add energy to the larger movement to address the basic rights of all people.” When I answer these questions with an answer that worries me, I think, “Jonathan Kozol is right. Creating something wonderful for a small group of children does nothing for the rest of the children who have no access to it. And, it might in fact take the small group of children and their families out of a situation in which they would learn more about addressing the larger issues.”

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