Decisions, Decisions

The past few weeks have been full of great experiences. I got to spend a week with Emma, my girlfriend, in Portland. I’ve seen a number of schools and gotten deeper into some great books—namely Excellent Sheep by Bill Deresiewicz and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And I’ve had some time to reflect.

In Portland, I visited the Village Free School, a free/democratic school located across the street from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Like in most free schools, the students (ages 5-18) choose how to use their time. There are plenty of resources around, like books and computers, that the students take advantage of. There are also classes that the students can sign up for (and propose), including everything from “circus games” to chemistry. Students ages 9-12 have “project time,” which involves designing and completing projects. The activities you might find kids doing in a free school, even in a single day, are as numerous as the ideas those kids can cook up. The younger kids spend much of the day playing—though playing is an encompassing word that fails to describe the richness and variety of experiences involved in it. When you go (and I hope you do) to visit one of these free schools, I hope you’ll see that the separation between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’ is really an artificial one (you may have already seen this if you’ve closely observed a child absorbed in play).

I joined one class, called “Fairy Time,” which consisted of mostly younger kids and a staff member who take a short walk down to the shore of the Willamette River, where they read fairytales, act them out, and play. I spoke with the mother of one of the kids, who told me her son is actually homeschooled but comes to Village Free School once a week to spend time with other kids. As we talked and watched the kids play by the river—examining rocks and pushing logs out into the current—it struck me what this school was about: the kids are simply given room to grow into who and what they want to be. It was an important moment for me because I realized that that goal is enough.

Many schools claim to do it all—to put kids through a ‘rigorous’ academic curriculum while building responsibility, citizenship, and independence, all the while giving kids the space and freedom needed to find their passions and pursue their dreams. In practice, however, those ‘rigorous’ academics (the rigor of which is the subject of its own discussion), implemented through a system of coercion, are given primacy to the exclusion of the other values. In practice, most schools give kids little to no freedom to choose their own activities or to develop along their own path.

How can you develop independence, responsibility, or love of learning by making a child’s choices for them about where to be and what to learn? And is it so revolutionary to say that we don’t primarily care whether our kids go to the Ivy League or follow any of the prescribed paths to success? That instead our primary goal—way, way high above the others—is to help them develop into independent, responsible, engaged, and happy people?

One question that the phenomenon of free schools raises and that I’m still mulling over is this: which decisions are children capable of making for themselves, and which should be decided by adults? It seems obvious that young children shouldn’t be allowed to use or play with dangerous tools, or walk dangerously close to the raging waves of the ocean or the edge of a cliff. But should they be allowed to make decisions about what they want to learn? Does the same logic that pulls a child back from walking toward the crashing waves wean her from playing and place her in a desk? Essentially, do we protect our children’s futures by placing them in a compulsory system of learning in which they spend most of their time doing and learning things that have been determined externally? Or can children, when given the freedom to explore their own interests and choose their own activities, develop independence and responsibility from a much earlier age than a system of compulsion allows for, and also be able to perform in whichever field they eventually choose to go into?


When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced…Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?—for the nobler plants are valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light…

–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Instead of success, make the work itself the goal. That’s what I always come back to. When I start to care too much about rewards, I remember to return to the work—to the never-ending effort to perfect it.

–Bill Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep


As I’ve had some time to reflect, what I’m learning now is as much about myself as it is about education. And now that I’ve taken a little time to step back, I’m seeing that I need to step back even further, that this is just the beginning of my soul-searching. I realize that I often seek personal affirmation in the opinions of others, that I tend to base my sense of self-worth on how others perceive me, and that somehow I believe that to lead a good life involves little more than to have others believe I lead a good life. None of these are ways in which I want to live my life.

I want to bring some genuine value to the world. I want to take some time to focus on bringing real value to, and finding real value in, my present moment—for it’s all I have, and it may be taken away any day. And I want to further develop my own passions, that I may find what it is I can and should do during my relatively short stay on this earth. In order to do these things I need time and as much freedom from external pressures as possible.


What’s in a Name?

Is “Alternative Education” the best term to describe what I’m interested in? David Marshak, director of the SelfDesign Graduate Institute, first posed this question to me when we had coffee in Bellingham, Washington. Some other possibilities: progressive education, holistic education, experiential education, humanistic education, democratic education… None of these terms may be entirely accurate. David resists the term “alternative” because it artificially separates education into two categories: mainstream and alternative. In reality, there is only education. Some forms of it may be more conducive to human development than others.

Additionally, there is a stigma attached to “alternative” education: Alternative schools are where students go who can’t behave in or handle regular schools. Windsor House School in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and Nova High School in Seattle are two schools familiar with this stigma. Both are publicly funded alternative schools. Both schools take a mix of students, some who come to the schools entirely by choice and others who don’t get along (or at least who make clear that they don’t get along) in regular schools.

Windsor House School was one of the most unique schools I’ve seen so far. There was so much activity, and on the surface it seemed disorganized. But there was a deep structure at Windsor house, if you paid close attention. Students were absorbed in whatever it was they were doing—creating a model of an island for a science project, skipping through the halls, drinking coffee and chatting in the common room, to name just a few examples.

Helen Hughes started the school in the mid-70s—just a handful of students in her house. The school grew, eventually becoming a public alternative school. Now there are around 140 students, ages 5-19. There are 10 staff members, and many parent volunteers can be found at the school every day.

The school has evolved according to the needs and wants of the community for 40 years. Evolved is the term Helen used. According to Helen, when it began they didn’t know what they were going to do. They only knew what they weren’t going to do. In that sense, Windsor House may fairly be called alternative. But in terms of what it actually is, Windsor House is hard to define.

Classes at Windsor House are optional, though most students take at least a few classes. There is a schedule wall that shows classes/times for each day, and a suggestion wall on which ideas for classes are posted and interest in those classes are gauged. If high school students wish to gain diplomas, they have to meet certain credit requirements. Rowan, who was about 20 years old, was sipping coffee in the ‘community room’. He recently finished his time at Windsor House, where he chose not to get a diploma. Instead of academics, he had focused his energies elsewhere. He had been quite seriously involved in the school council and the drama club. He’s now pursuing a career as an actor, and he was back at the school to help out with this year’s fledgling school council. The school council meets once a week, and students, staff, parents, and volunteers can cast votes that affect school policy.

Cheryl, a parent and frequent volunteer, showed me around the school. I got to talk with her, another parent, and an older student, Theo, who transferred to Windsor about a year ago. Theo said he came to Windsor house looking for an easy path to graduation. Now he feels more educated than ever—he was quite articulate—and it didn’t even feel like work. The classroom dialogues, he said, are endlessly intriguing, and during them he’s learned more about philosophy and literature than he ever did when those things were forced on him at his old school.

After the school day ended, I joined Helen, Cheryl, and Linda, another volunteer, for tea at Helen’s house, where we talked about education. Helen could possibly be the most experienced educator I’ve ever had the opportunity to talk with. Her years of work in the field seemed to have both hardened her as an educator and filled her with immense wisdom.

“I’ve lost some of my idealism,” she said, referring to the supposed predictability of how children will act and grow when given freedom. Some will use it well, it seems, and some won’t. Nonetheless, she’s full of the conviction that students and communities are capable of taking education into their own hands. But she doesn’t feel she subscribes to specific educational philosophies anymore. “The older I get, the fewer theories I have,” she said.

Helen learned what she knows by close observation and hours of reflection, and she continues to learn all the time. She feels that one should start by simply listening to and observing students. That subtle, detailed observation may allow you to help students get what it is that they need. Helen’s power is that she learns new things from the students all the time. It’s clear that she’s learned as much, if not more, from the students at Windsor House as they have from her.

Nova High School in Seattle is likewise a public alternative school, and it shares similarities with Windsor House. Many decisions are made democratically by students. The teachers create classes based around student interest. Assessment are holistic and involve detailed writing from teachers instead of grades.

There are 341 students at Nova. Many of the students transfer here to find a safe environment. Mark Perry, the principal, said “The core of everything we do is safety. Not just physical safety, but social, emotional, and intellectual safety.” There’s an emphasis on social justice, finding one’s identity, and allowing students to be themselves. Teachers and administrators build trust with students and try to create as non-judgmental an atmosphere as possible. I only spent an afternoon at Nova, but the non-judgmental atmosphere seemed tangible. The school felt free from many of the pressures you might find in other high schools—to outperform others, to gain status, etc. Instead, the students seemed very accepting of one another and the teachers and administrators seemed very accepting of the students, no matter where they were developmentally or academically.

Many former Windsor students keep in contact with Helen, and many have gone on to lead interesting, contributive lives. Helen said it’s amazing to see some of these kids suddenly grow up. They might pose problems for years and years, and adults might worry about what these kids are going to do with their lives, and then suddenly one day the kid might say or do something, and you’ll see maturity blossom in them. The key, at Windsor House and Nova, is patience, something our larger culture seems to have less and less of as time goes on.

Briefly I’d like to mention a number of other schools I’ve seen in the past few weeks. People at all of these schools welcomed me in and happily showed me how their schools work, and to them I’m very grateful:

Chicago Grammar School – An elementary/middle school that focuses its curriculum on history, literature, Latin, science and math in an effort to give its students a “classical liberal arts” foundation.

Chicago Free School – A new school in the Hyde Park area that offers elective courses to elementary and middle school age students.

The Ancona School – A blended Montessori/progressive school that stresses art, languages, and experiential learning. (Chicago)

Zooschool Preschool – A preschool inside of a zoo, where the children learn about animal behavior and biology alongside their regular preschool curriculum. (Billings, Montana)

The Clark Fork School – A school that uses place-based learning to teach its preschool and kindergarten age students about the local (and broader) natural world. (Missoula, Montana)

Wheels of Life Community School – A free school in Bellingham, Washington in which the kids choose their own activities and can take part in environmental education lessons.

Explorations Academy – A high school in Bellingham that stresses experiential learning, in which students go on at least one field trip a week and get the opportunity to take a month-long trip abroad.

Clearwater School – A sudbury-style free school in Bothell, Washington located on an outdoor campus. Children ages 5-18 play and learn on their own volition with access to a number of rooms (e.g., music, art, kitchen) and resources. The kids here seemed extremely independent, even from a young age.

Puget Sound Community School, which I saw today – A school in Seattle that offers many elective courses to middle school and high school age students, both on and off campus. Students can pitch ideas for classes and even facilitate classes. The students seemed quite interested in their classes. The school seems to strike a pretty fair balance between personal freedoms and responsibilities to parents/adults.

I would like to write a detailed post for each school above, but writing this blog while traveling, seeing schools, and exploring cities is a handful (a joyous handful no doubt). There were a number of people behind each of these experiences. I’d like to give a huge thank you to the people who allowed me into their schools, showed me around and shared their insights with me. If you’re reading this, I apologize for the brief descriptions above which don’t do justice to the rich experiences I had at your school. I hope to revisit these schools in future blog posts and write more detailed accounts of my experiences at these unique ‘alternative’ schools.

I’d venture to say that it doesn’t really matter which terms you use to define your school’s educational model. More important to what you do is how you define success for your students. People at Windsor, Nova, and just about all of the ‘alternative’ schools I’ve visited for my project strongly believe success involves fostering happy, independent people who care about and contribute to their communities. I’d say that’s a definition worth fighting for.


A beautiful city whether you call it Seattle or anything else

Reflections from the Road

One fact is overwhelming: this country is massive. As I drive for hours a day, with wide expanses constantly coming into and exiting view, I’m struck by just how massive this country is. Each change in terrain hints at ever more variation outward across landscapes unseen. Driving through farmland, rolling hills, and mountains, I wonder what life is like in the places I pass. I imagine myself growing up there, moving there. The possibilities seem endless.

I stayed with my friend Ben in Des Moines. We walked toward downtown, through a sculpture garden, and ate dinner on the sidewalk. I learned that insurance and finance are the big industries in Des Moines. We went to a public art exhibit. On the roof of a theater we met some cycling dudes who said they wished they would’ve brought more beer (for us). We found a “world food & drink” fair winding down. We walked through it as people were leaving, styrofoam plates blowing across the street like tumbleweeds, and smelled the eclectic mix of aromas.

In Rapid City I couchsurfed for the first time. Skyler was a great host. Anthony, another couchsurfer, and I played soccer and skateboarded with his two sons—bright, observant little boys with big imaginations. We ate homemade burritos. We conversed—about couchsurfing culture, about our perspectives on life and spirituality. In the morning Anthony and I drove to Mount Rushmore and per Skyler’s advice parked on the side of the road instead of going through the official tourist entrance. We found what seemed like a trail, or dried up stream, and followed it. We eventually made our way up some large rocks and found a stunning view. We were up close to the monument (even though we only had good views of Washington and Lincoln), and we could look out in all directions at the mountain scenery.

In Billings I couchsurfed again. Rob and Carey generously welcomed me into their home. I got to know Carey, her daughter and a couple of their friends, who were working on the roof. We went to the grocery store, then returned and prepared a big dinner—spaghetti with lamb sauce, salad, garlic bread, sautéed zucchini, and lemon meringue pie. Rob came home during dinner. We talked about education, couchsurfing, traveling, and Rob and Carey mentioned a school in Billings I might be interested in. Rob and Carey’s grandchildren go to ‘Zooschool,’ a preschool inside of a zoo. The next morning I met their daughter-in-law, Heidi, there. She showed me around and I spoke with some of the teachers. The kids seemed excited about being around animals.

Right now I’m in a coffee shop in Missoula. I’m staying here with my friend Derek. Last night we went to bar trivia at a VFW bar. Needless to say, we won. $20 between four of us—us and two of Derek’s friends from his fiction MFA program. This morning I saw The Clark Fork school, a parent co-op preschool/kindergarten that emphasizes place-based learning and connection with nature. They take students on “saunters” around the neighborhood and nearby nature areas (the school is located at the base of what is, at least by my Midwestern standards, a mountain). They seek to make education as hands-on, relevant, and locally-inspired as possible. In the school’s natural history room, the shelves are lined with skeletons, stuffed birds, and other animal paraphernalia. I lifted an elk horn off a shelf. It was heavier than I expected. The kids get plenty of time for unstructured play outside on the playground, and during class they learn how to garden and to respect and take care of animals, among other activities.

My next stop is Spokane, where I’ll be couchsurfing again. Couchsurfing has been an excellent experience so far. My hosts have all been generous, accepting, passionate people. When I told friends and family I was going to couchsurf, the almost inevitable question (sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow) was, “What’s in it for them?” Why do people open their homes to strangers without monetary compensation? Do they have some nefarious motives?

First of all, hosts get to see your profile, including your couchsurfing references, communicate with you, and decide whether or not to host you. They’re not obligated to host any surfer, nor is any surfer obligated to stay with any host. But more importantly, the reason many people host is simply to meet others and to learn about their experiences.

I’ve met really interesting people, exchanged ideas and philosophies, and learned about their backgrounds and experiences. You can learn much more about a place from people who live there than from maps, travel guides, or the internet. It’s nice that couchsurfing is free, but if hotels were free I’d still prefer couchsurfing. Every now and then I might want a hotel room for a night, but for the most part hotel-staying is a lonely affair. Some people seem to have this notion that if you’re not spending money, no value is being created or exchanged. But that’s just not true. Connections are made, and networks and worldviews are expanded. What is the monetary value of these things? It may not be easily measured.

I think back to when Anthony and I hiked near Mount Rushmore. I owe couchsurfing and Skyler for that experience. Skyler opened us to the possibility of just hiking up the mountain instead of paying to park and take pictures on the tourist platform. With a little determination and some trial and error—trying one rock until it got too steep and we couldn’t go any higher, then turning around and trying another way—we made a pretty significant ascent and stood on top of some large rocks where we got a close up view of the faces and could look out in all directions.

I think it’s easy to get stuck in a groove of thinking in which we see only a few possibilities in front of us. Park in the official entrance, pay the fee, and take some pictures, or maybe circumvent that and park elsewhere, a little farther away, and take pictures for free. But we don’t think to hike. And if we did, we might say, “I don’t see any signs for trails.” Where we see only a few possibilities, only a few paths, there are likely many more ways to go than we initially imagine. We need to look around, generate ideas with a creative mind, then act on and adjust those ideas as we go along. Climb that rock there until it gets too steep and you have to turn back and find another way up. Keep this trial and error up and eventually you will reach your goal. If the desire to get to the top (of the mountain, not of others) is strong, you will find a way. Your passion, and the clarity with which you see your goal, will be the impetus for generating creative routes.

Education should foster this creative process, not inhibit it. It should help people generate their own ideas about how to go about achieving their own goals. I believe that in order to do that we must give the reins of self-determination to the young people we seek to educate, not the adults trying to teach them. Too many children are being taught, implicitly or explicitly, that they must need and want certain things and that there are a few prescribed routes for getting those things. Rather, we should show young people the many possibilities, lifestyles, and avenues of human endeavor out there. Let them choose their goals for themselves. When they do, they will do so with passion, and when they have a clear vision of what they want, they’ll see a thousand paths where they might otherwise see none.

mount rushmore view

The view from Mount Rushmore

mount rushmore

The Montessori School of Englewood

Chicago, Illinois, September 12th

Kelly, the Director of Social and Emotional Support, gave me a tour of the school. She explained that the school has 250 students (up from 190 the year before, and 95 the year before that). There are headstart/preschool classes, kindergarten classes, 6-9 year old classes, and a 9-12 year old class.

First I observed a kindergarten class. The children—some on their own and some in small groups—were doing a number of different activities around the room. One drew on a canvas, some arranged puzzle pieces, another filled a bucket with soapy water to use for cleaning a table. There were lots of activities and materials available in the room, and the students chose what to do (Montessori practitioners call it “freedom within limits”). The teacher sat with three or four students, showing them how to put together a certain type of puzzle. Once they were working on their own, the teacher went to check on other kids. In addition to the teacher there was a teacher’s assistant helping some of the kids. Some of the students talked while working, some sang.

The Montessori materials seemed to involve a lot of tasks involving sorting, arranging, and ordering. For example, a little girl had a bunch of pictures of things and had to sort them into two groups: one of ‘living’ things and one of ‘non-living’ things.

In the older class of (6-9 year-olds), kids were reading individually when I entered the room. One boy was flipping through pages of pictures books, making up stories that corresponded with the pictures. Then a teacher’s assistant came over and helped the boy to actually read the words of a different story. To get all the students’ attention, the teacher tapped a gong three times—which seemed like a very calm way to capture attention.

The Montessori School of Englewood is a public charter school, meaning it’s open to the public, who apply for a ‘lottery,’ and the winners get to enroll. The school is partially funded by Chicago Public Schools and partially funded by private donors. As a charter school, they have control over the structure and activities of the school. However, their contract with CPS requires them to administer standardized tests to the students at points throughout the year.

In the past, the school did not make any effort to integrate testing standards into its curriculum. This year though, they are trying to think of ways to softly introduce some standards into the Montessori activities—but they are adamant that they will not change the Montessori approach. Simply put, the test scores are not the priority. The intellectual, social, and emotional development of the children is the priority. The best path to aid in that development, the administrators are convinced, is through the Montessori way.

You can read a very thorough Q & A about Montessori education on The Montessori School of Englewood’s website.

Kelly told me about a number of social-emotional development programs they use in the school. Below is a list of some resources Kelly gave me (with links). Anyone interested in the social-emotional side of education would benefit from looking into these programs/books:

No Nonsense Nurturing

Conscious Discipline

PATHS (Providing Alternative THinking Strategies)

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Power Struggles

It was very refreshing to see a school so focused on the social and emotional needs of its students. It seems that many charter schools serving underprivileged areas don’t focus on this aspect of education. With a few exceptions, the larger charter school movement has made raising test scores its priority, often to the neglect of students’ social-emotional development.


Urban Prairie Waldorf School

Chicago, Illinois, September 10th

Peggy, one of the administrators, greeted me. I asked Peggy what makes Waldorf education different from traditional school. Firstly, she said, the kids get a more hands-on approach to learning. They get to see and do what it is they’re learning about. There are no textbooks for the students—they’re encouraged to make something during every learning activity they do (usually in form of writings or drawings in a workbook). By the end of the year, they have a whole lot of their own work collected in these workbooks, and they can look back at all they’ve learned and all the hard work they’ve put in.

Another interesting feature of Waldorf is that teachers continue with their students throughout the grades—so your first grade teacher will continue to be your teacher all the way through fifth (sometimes up to eighth) grade.

According to an information packet Peggy gave me, Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist, developed Waldorf education in Germany in the early 20th century. After World War I, “people were devastated physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” The goal was to produce “a school that could develop the full range of students’ capabilities and allow them to become free, self-reliant individuals capable of contributing fresh insights and initiatives to the world.”

In the younger grades, kids get plenty of time for play and socialization. The mornings are reserved for the important lesson or academic focus of the day, but then the afternoons, especially for the little ones, involve a lot of free time.

The curriculum at most Waldorf schools is more or less the same. Students progress along a set track of topics, lessons, and ideas. For example, for language development first graders focus on fairy tales, second graders on fables, third graders on the Old Testament, fourth graders on Norse mythology… The goal is to steadily build students’ language ability and understanding of narrative.

In the younger grades, game-playing and music/movement was a common feature. When I walked into the second grade class, the entire class was singing a song—very beautifully and in harmony—while moving in a circle. Then the teacher brought out bean bags and threw them one at a time to the students—part of building fine motor skills I assume.

In third grade, the class played “Zip Zap Zop,” a movement and concentration game I first encountered in an improv class at The Second City. After the game, they took their seats for a math exercise (an addition worksheet). Next they discussed the story of Cain and Able.

When I entered the fourth grade class, the teacher was leading the class in singing and movements. Peggy informed me they were practicing for an upcoming school-wide pageant. Then they played a jump-roping game during which each student had to shout out a multiple of 8 in succession.

In the mixed fifth and sixth grade classroom, the teacher was reading a passage about the biology/anatomy of bees while one student wrote what she said on the blackboard and the rest of the students copied the paragraph down. After the writing portion of the lesson, the teacher brought out a large drawing of a bee and the class started to copy it down in their workbooks.

After observing the four classrooms, I sat down to have a discussion with Mat, the 3rd grade teacher and faculty chair. He spoke about three important aspects of developmental that Waldorf focuses on: the hands, the head, and the heart. The hands involve fine motor skills at the lower level, artistic and handiwork ability at the higher levels. The head involves intellectual development—knowledge and critical thinking skills. And the heart involves socialization, emotional growth, and the feeling that oneself and one’s work contain meaning.

As far as traditional options go, this type of school seems like a good one. The school didn’t strike me as being all that alternative. There may be a little more physical movement and a little more arts integration, but overall it seems pretty much like a traditional school. The teachers still direct and correct the students during lessons. The kids don’t really get to choose what to learn about. And the desks are positioned traditionally—in rows, facing the front of the room. Waldorf does utilize an important alternative practice: instead of testing and giving out grades, the teachers write holistic assessments of each child and meet with the parents regularly to discuss progress–a much better approach to assessment that doesn’t rely on external reward and doesn’t breed as much competition or people-pleasing (it also simply offers a more informative and useful assessment of the child).

Mat and I agreed that grading young students can take away their inclination to learn for learning’s sake. Mat said that they have absolutely no problems with cheating at Urban Prairie—the thought doesn’t even cross students’ minds. External rewards are minimal. The reward for good work is internal—meaningful learning—so one gains no benefit from simply reproducing ‘the right answer.’

The reward for students comes in the way of feeling more confident in one’s abilities. By the end of the year the students’ workbooks are full of their creative, hard work, and they are meant to serve as reminders that one is capable of learning and producing meaningful things.

Overall, Waldorf seems like an interesting model. It’s not quite as radical as some other alternatives, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

You can read more about Urban Prairie at their website.

You can read more about Waldorf education here.


Free, at Tallgrass Sudbury School

Riverside, Illinois, September 9th

When I arrived at Tallgrass Sudbury School, I met Natalie and Helen, the two full-time staff members. They gave me a tour of the school, which rents the second floor of a church building. There was a meeting room/art room with some tables, couches, and sewing machines. In the library—an isolated single room lined with books—a girl sat reading. Students can come to the library whenever they please to read in a quiet environment. In fact, the students may go anywhere in the school at any time, and may do whatever activity they’d like to.

Sudbury is a truly democratic model of education. Children choose what activities to do. It’s pretty much as simple as that. There are staff members around, but they don’t make requests for the kids to learn about this or that. If the kids ask the staff members to teach them something, that’s great. If not, the staff member won’t force a child to learn anything. The goal is to empower children to take control and responsibility over their own educations. In addition to choosing their own activities, children are responsible for creating and enforcing school rules—all through democratic processes.

Natalie said the students sign up for chores and have to clean up after themselves. “We’re our own janitors,” she said. If they fail to do chores or clean up after themselves, they may face disciplinary action from a committee made up of their peers.

In the hallway, a boy walked by us and introduced himself. I asked what he was up to. He said, “I think I’m going to draw.” A few minutes later he presented me with a comic drawn on a page—about a man in a restaurant who complains about an eyeball being on his plate. The waiter asks, “If you didn’t want an eyeball, why did you order the Mystery Surprise?” The eyeball proceeds to morph into a monster.

In the computer room, four kids were playing a video game on computers, talking casually.

There are a total of 17 kids at Tallgrass, ranging from ages 5-18. There are no grades or age groups. 5 year olds and 15 year olds are treated as equals.

Back in the main room, I met Karin, a teacher from Sweden who has been taking her two children to Tallgrass while they visit the US. In a few months they’ll return to Sweden. Karin, Natalie, Helen and I had a great conversation about education. Karin has been a math and science classroom teacher for 20 years. She said they don’t have anything like Sudbury in Sweden. Though she doesn’t know whether she’s entirely sold on the Sudbury model, she does see some benefits from it. She said something that stood out to me. She said that as a teacher, one of her most pressing questions is, “How do I get them to want to seek knowledge?” That is the question I’m asking in my project too. The Sudbury philosophy might say, “You don’t have to get them to. They will naturally.” Most adults aren’t immediately sold on that premise. My thought is that kids will seek knowledge naturally, but the difficulty comes in providing an environment stimulating enough to pique that interest. Adults don’t necessarily have to ‘create’ that environment artificially; they just need to know how to set up a child for meaningful exploration. These are just some ideas; I believe I still have a lot to learn.

Natalie talked about Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. I had heard of the book before, and was even planning on buying it. Natalie couldn’t stress enough just how good a book it was. I ended up buying a copy from the school, and I’m excited to start reading it. Peter Gray is slated to speak at Tallgrass in October (Thursday, October 16th to be precise. If you can, you should go. See the Tallgrass website for more info). You can read some of Peter Gray’s work here.

After lunch, a boy made an announcement: “J.C. meeting! J.C. in the J.C. room!” I had been waiting for this. J.C. stands for Judicial Committee. I had been told I could observe the meeting.

We sat down in the J.C. room (which doubled as the music room, equipped with a piano, a drum, and some smaller instruments) at an oval table. One boy, the J.C. clerk, initiated the meeting. Here’s how it works: anyone, child or staff, can fill out a complaint form. In it they record what happened and who the complaint is against (sometimes the guilty party is unknown). The JC, consisting of 5 elected students from across the age spectrum, votes on whether or not to investigate. If they vote to do so, they send for individuals, question them, and then deliberate until they reach a decision. At that point, they call the guilty party in, inform them of the rule they’ve broken (there’s a handbook with a number of school rules), and issue the resultant penalty (usually an extra chore). The child can choose to plead not guilty, but then some complicated mess occurs, they told me, and this rarely occurs (the suspect usually owns up to doing it or the JC doesn’t enforce a penalty). On this day, three complaints were lodged. Someone didn’t put away their drawing materials. Someone didn’t put away toys. And another person left a box of macaroni, a dirty bowl, and a fork out in the food room. All three incidents were solved and extra chores were dished out.

At first I was thinking it was all kind of silly. Why spend so much time and effort on addressing such little incidents in such a formal way? But then I suddenly realized that something special was actually happening. The point was not to punish seemingly minute infractions or to enforce nitpicky rules. The point was that these kids were partaking in a democratic process, one in which they were responsible and engaged participants. This was perfect practice for anything in the field of law. This was perfect practice for living in a democratic community. Actually, it was living in a democratic community.

As mentioned before, the structure of the school was pretty simple: The kids just did what they pleased. This included snacking, drawing, reading, watching videos on an iPad, playing card games, playing video games, talking with each other. At one point, a boy announced they were going to hold a ‘funeral’ for a girl’s macaroni noodles, which had met their fate on the floor. I attended the funeral, during which children pretended to sob and gave faux-heartfelt speeches while one played the low keys on the piano and another slowly beat a drum. It was a completely child-organized, child-led drama/comedy. This was unfettered childhood.

So no, I did not see many examples of learning in a traditional, academic sense. Although some chose to read, no one chose to learn math, science, or any other traditionally recognized subject. Is that a problem? I don’t know. But I can say that I was very impressed by the maturity and sociability of the kids here. The kids were active, responsible members of a social group that transcended the artificial boundaries of age groupings and cliques. The younger kids looked up to the older ones, and the older ones taught the younger ones—both directly and by example.

I imagine that the experience of a 6 year old here is much different than that of a 6 year old entering a classroom for the first time with 20 other 6 year olds. The 6 year old at Tallgrass seems to be on a smoother and more organic path of social and emotional development. They have role models and friends in the older students, and they naturally grow into older students who in turn can be role models and friends to new younger students. Everyone is an equal member of a democratic system, and each feels a real responsibility for their own actions (a natural result of their freedom). And the kids seem happy here, even if boredom rears its head every now and then for some of them.

I think the question I’m asking now, and the question Sudbury practitioners maybe ought to ask themselves, is how to create an environment that allows children to see all the many options of activities that are out there and from there pursue their interests. If the environment at Tallgrass is at all limiting it’s only because there aren’t all that many things to do in any school building, even a free one like Tallgrass. Books, toys, and computers can offer some meaningful experiences to kids, but if they had more exposure to other fields of knowledge and areas of practice, they might naturally engage in more academically demanding pursuits. This is just a thought—I really don’t know.

So even though I didn’t see very much observable, ‘classical’ learning taking place, there were some very special things going on at Tallgrass.

You can read more about Sudbury schools here.


The Children’s School

Berwyn, Illinois, September 5th

I arrived at The Children’s School around 9:00am. I met Christy, the director of curriculum and instruction, who led me to a room where an open house for parents was beginning. There I spoke with a few parents. Brian was a professor of education and had two children at the school. He described the school as a “gem,” doing what most schools only theorized or talked about doing. Antoine had three children go through Chicago Public Schools, and while he said that for the most part they all had good experiences with CPS, he decided on The Children’s School for his youngest because he and his partner wanted something different. He said he’s noticed something different in the way his youngest is learning—she is more excited and motivated to learn than her older siblings were.

Pam, another administrator, explained to me that The Children’s School uses a progressive methodology based on John Dewey’s ideas—namely that education should prepare people to be active members of a productive, democratic society. One of the main goals of The Children’s School is to foster joy of learning in its students. Teachers do not give grades. Project-based learning is employed as often as possible, in order to give students a connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and the real world. On top of lending meaning to students’ learning and fostering creative thinking, project-based learning is more collaborative than lecture-based learning, leading to a greater ability to cooperate and learn in groups.

We entered a classroom of 3rd and 4th graders (some classrooms include students from across grades). The students were in the corner, having a conversation with the teacher. The teacher explained one of the boards on the wall. It was the “How am I feeling?” board. There were numbers one through five and clothespins with the students’ names on them. At any point during the school day, a student could go to the board and change their number if they’d like to. The teacher explained that this would help her monitor how the students felt throughout the day, so if something were to happen that upsets or elates them, she could inquire about what sparked the change.

Besides the How Am I Feeling board and a few other posters here and there, the walls were mostly bare. Christy pointed that out to me, and said that that’s common this early in the school year because the school wants the children to have a decision in how their environment looks (and to gradually fill the walls over time). The teacher got into a discussion of multiple intelligences and the students went to tables to start an exercise.

Next we saw some younger classes, where students were voting on a ‘class name.’ Some options included The Sharks and The Dragons. Another one of The Children’s School’s main goals is to engage students democratically, to encourage them to raise their voices and express their opinions. Every other week the whole school convenes for a ‘town hall meeting’ in which students voice concerns, ideas, and recommendations. If one group or person proposes something, the students can vote on how to proceed. I was told of a brilliant moment during one of last year’s town hall meetings, in which a group of students proposed that students ought to be allowed to eat lunch in any classroom of their choosing. Most students were in agreement with this notion, and would likely have voted to abolish the current location-restricting lunch policy. But then two 1st graders bravely and eloquently explained to the whole school that they had peanut allergies, that they know their classmates don’t bring peanut-containing food but that they don’t know whether others would, and that they might feel unsafe if the policy were to change. Suddenly everyone’s mind changed—they hadn’t thought of that.

We went to the middle school building, where 7th graders were transferring maps from atlases onto poster paper. The atmosphere was very casual. Some students were actively tracing countries onto the maps that were presumably going to be hung around the room while others sat around nearby, everyone engaged in discussion. In the 6th grade classroom, 6 students (the whole class) sat talking with their teacher about what subjects and ideas they might want to learn about this year.

We went outside and around the building to where a young class was playing in a sand mound, building things out of sand using their hands and tools. Another class came outside to read on the grass. We went back inside and I inquired about how much freedom the teachers are granted. Christy said a lot. She said there are certain things they agree on and that the administrators keep the teachers to, but as long as they meet those basic responsibilities (such as helping students achieve developmentally appropriate skills) they have the freedom to foster learning however they would like. Teachers, or students themselves (provided the teacher allows it), can decide to go outside to learn, to use the art/project room, even to go on field trips to places of their choosing. Christy said that if there was a spectrum, on one end traditional public school and on the other end unschooling, they’d be right around the middle.

To me, the students seemed engaged and excited to learn. They also seemed to feel like they had a voice and a say in how things were done—some control and responsibility over their own education. And it was very refreshing to see how the school had patience for the development of each individual child. There was no great rush to teach rigid, ‘age-specific’ standards—the school recognized that each student learns at an individual pace and in an individual way.

You can read more about The Children’s School and its philosophy at its website:

The Childrens School