In the past month, several people in my life have referenced the Sudbury Valley School, and after encountering another reference to the school in a comment on homework-as-control-mechanism, I decided to check it out.
For those of you who are as unaware as I was of this private school in Massachusetts, Sudbury is a PreK-12th grade program that has no formal teachers, no formal classes, and no specific curriculum. Adult staff are decided on by students year by year according to how kids perceive their contributions to their learning. Parents, staff, and students set the rules and administer the consequences in a New England style meeting.
The belief is that we are born curious and that we pursue knowledge and understanding as a matter of living. The vehicle by which kids learn to read may vary, but it is always through a need to know within a larger context and decided upon by each individual child. The same goes for mathematics. So, on a visit to the campus, one might see kids cooking, climbing trees, having conversations, studying and creating art, playing music, or reading in a corner. The staff is there as a resource when a student wants to explore more deeply in a given area.
In short, nature–and children–are trusted, and the resources are there when the time arrives.
Now, I am a recovering control freak, so as intrigued as I am by the idea, my controlling side screams, “But…but…but!” However, I remember how desolate and horrible school was for me, even back when testing didn’t control the day to day classroom. I remember, clearly, how I could listen to the teacher in each of my literature classes in high school and ace tests without ever reading the books assigned. I also remember reading voraciously on my own, of testing at the college level in comprehension in seventh grade, and of trips to the library where my parents set no limits on what I read other than being open to talking about whatever choices I made. I remember learning about measurement from cooking my mom’s scrumptious macaroni and cheese and about Spanish from traveling extensively in Central and South America. More than that, I am absolutely certain that my strength in teaching writing comes from writing daily and pursuing my passion, not from *gasp* my college courses about teaching writing.
I am wondering if, by squeezing out student choice and personal meaning making, we are actually disabling our students’ natural desire and predilection to learn. I am wondering if we are handicapping them, teaching them to rely on us, spoon feeding them and then becoming angry when they spit what we have to offer out.
I refuse to do that in my classroom. My kids have the space to explore writing in whatever way makes sense to them. My only requirement is that they are pushing forward, taking risks, and writing for real. And now I’m wondering how to give them even more breathing room to max out their learning in reading and writing with me on the side, there when they need me, out of their way when they don’t.