Our journey to Sudbury schooling

2010 February 15
by Evan Lenz

I’ve written before about our stint with Kindergarten. And I’ve mentioned that my kids now attend a Sudbury school and alluded to everything that’s wonderful about it. But I haven’t yet blogged about what Sudbury schooling is. I won’t be doing that today either, but I am going to tell the story of how we got to where we are.

I was homeschooled from 3rd to 9th grade. (I’ve related some of my highschool experiences already.) I’ve always been proud of the education of my youth. My mom was truly a pioneer in education. Whereas now there are homeschoolers everywhere, very few people were doing it when I was a child. My mom and a small group of other parents had convictions about education and the sort of environment they wanted to raise their kids in—and they did something about it. They pulled their kids out of school and taught them at home. I have fond memories of homeschooling and the freedom it afforded us. We could go skiing on Mondays when the slopes were clear. We could go on impromptu outings and field trips to the Science Center or play dates with our fellow homeschoolers. This experience had a definite impact on the choices I planned to make as a parent.

For one thing, I had experience with alternatives. Many people grow up without ever considering educational alternatives, but for my family, it was totally normal to do so. Just the fact that we did this—even if the education my kids are receiving today looks very different from the education I received as a child (“traditional” school-at-home)—the fact that I had this experience made it that much easier for my wife and I to consider educational alternatives for our own children from the get-go.

Since I was so fond of my own homeschooling experience, I grew up thinking I would probably do the same for my own children. When Sammy reached preschool age, we took the opportunity to enroll him at the budding preschool at our church in Seattle. We had a generally positive experience there with both him and Morgan, who attended for a couple of years also. But as they continued to grow, I continued to do research and reflection on what I wanted for my kids and whether what they were doing (preschool) was what I really wanted.

One of the things that bothered me about preschool was how set up it was for kids to please the teachers. Don’t get me wrong. The teachers were very nice and loving to the children, and the kids did love to please them. But something seemed strange and fake about this to me. I had always tried to have genuine conversations with my kids, assuming they were smart and could understand what I was saying. I would also try to speak to them as if to another adult, at least insofar as respect and honesty are concerned. I wanted to afford my kids as much respect as any other human being, and be honest with them as I would with any other adult. In other words, I wouldn’t act fake just to make them feel a certain way or get a certain response out of them. But at preschool, some of the interactions I saw—when dropping off and picking up my kids—seemed very fake to me. Teachers would act so over-the-top happy about seeing my kids arrive or tell them how cute they were. Etc. The thing that bothered me the most was how much my daughter Morgan ate it up. I didn’t like witnessing her so easily manipulated by their well-intentioned, but nonetheless manipulative, overtures.

After our Kindergarten run-in, we decided to start “unschooling” both our kids. We had been reading a few books here and there. Lisa had read The Unschooling Handbook, and I was starting to read some of John Holt’s books, including How Children Fail, which was very powerful and made me re-think so much of what I thought I knew about education. That book really got my wheels turning. I even thought I might start blogging about it (resulting in this false start)—so many were the insights and aha moments that were stimulated by reading that book. My library copy was full of little strips of paper used as bookmarks on every few pages with my responses to all the thought-provoking stuff I read in Holt’s book.

Another author that influenced me greatly was John Taylor Gatto, particularly Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and a couple of other books he wrote. I’m a sucker for impassioned rhetoric, and he had me nodding my head vigorously right off the bat. We continued to go through a phase of reading all we could about education and parenting, including other authors, such as Alfie Kohn’s exhaustively researched Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Also, Scott Noelle’s “Daily Groove” continues to be a thought-provoking resource full of helpful parenting ideas. We also attended the LIFE is Good unschooling conference a couple of years in a row and very much enjoyed ourselves there.

But we had a spur in our boot that made us want to keep looking, perhaps even beyond unschooling. Despite our misgivings, Morgan did love the social atmosphere that preschool provided. And I did see some benefit in their spending time apart from their parents on a regular basis. We had heard something about an “unschooling school” in Bothell, WA. I looked it up and read all the great essays on The Clearwater School website. I was quite inspired by what I saw. In fact, whereas I assumed Morgan would love it, I saw even more potential for how it could help my oldest, Samuel (then 6) grow through interaction with a wider variety of people, away from his parents.

So I made some more trips to the library and came home with books like Free at Last, Legacy of Trust, The Pursuit of Happiness, and Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept. These all came straight from Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 and the original source of inspiration for the 30+ Sudbury schools around the world. (You can get all of these books and many more at their online bookstore.) I very much enjoyed Daniel Greenberg’s scholarly look at education and what it means. Also, as one of the founders of Sudbury Valley, he had lots of stories to tell about their experiences. I was inspired—even more inspired than what I had discovered about the “unschooling” approach to education.

In fact, I was so inspired that I became a little jealous of kids who get to go to a Sudbury school, despite the fondness for my own schooling that I mentioned above. In the summer of 2007, I even started Googling for what that might look like. What would Sudbury schooling for adults look like? I searched for “synthetic village” and didn’t find much. But then one day I stumbled onto to the Clearwater Commons website, a co-housing project that some of the Clearwater School people are working on. It was then that I discovered the term “co-housing” and “intentional community” and was only a few clicks away to finding the house that we were to buy only a few months later, in Indianola, WA, home of both Wise Acres (where we now live) and The Trillium School (where my kids go to school).

Last summer, I had a chance to attend a staff conference at the Sudbury Valley School campus, and I’ve continued to be nothing but inspired by what I’ve seen. One of the most inspiring things I’ve witnessed is how dedicated the founders of various Sudbury schools are. The strength of both their intellect and their commitment is astounding. I’ve never been so exhausted after a conference. The discourse went from morning til night. I thought some of the technology conferences I’ve attended were pretty intense, but they were nothing compared to this one.

I remain fond of homeschooling, and unschooling in particular. But the Sudbury model is what inspires me. In a future article, I’ll look at some of the distinctions between unschooling and Sudbury schooling.

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  1. Jennie permalink
    November 26, 2011

    I home educate my children, who are still very young, but although I do love spending all the extra time with them I feel that it’s not 100% right for me or my eldest who is very sociable and I keep thinking about SV. I love the idea of democratic education but sending my children to a SV school means a big move or to try and set one up myself.
    Up until now I’ve felt guilty because home education is meant to be so fantastic and perfect, and of course it is great, but I also feel it’s not quite what I want for my family forever. Your article made me realise I shouldn’t feel guilty so thank you!

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