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.