Sudbury: Theme & Variations (Part I)

The following is adapted from remarks I prepared for a discussion meeting at Clearview Sudbury School this past December. I ended up not speaking on this subject, as you can read in this post. But the idea of commonalities and differences among Sudbury schools is very compelling to me, and so I wanted to share these thoughts over a couple of posts.

By now most of you know that Clearview isn’t my first Sudbury school. Most of you also know that I came to Clearview by way of Alpine Valley School in Colorado, where I was on staff for over a dozen years. But I’m not sure how many of you know this is actually my fourth Sudbury school.

In early 1997 I joined the founder’s group of Liberty Valley School near Chicago, about nine months before that school—now defunct—opened. I left Liberty Valley at the end of its first year to follow my now ex-wife to Gainesville, Florida. The Sudbury school I joined there—Independence School—closed a few months into its second year, just weeks after my arrival. That’s when I found my way to Alpine Valley and Colorado.

Beyond the schools where I’ve staffed, I’ve also visited Fairhaven School in Maryland, as well as The Clearwater School near Seattle. In addition, I’ve been to Sudbury Valley School a few times for staff workshops, though not (yet) while they were in session. On top of all this, the Google group of staff at the various Sudbury schools has given me a a real sense of community with colleagues the world over.

So when we were talking about a topic for tonight’s discussion, I thought it might be of some interest for me to talk about what I’ve observed in my Sudbury travels, through my many connections and friendships over the years. Hopefully some of this will give you a clearer sense of this unique educational model.

There’s a structure in classical music known as theme and variations that I think fits the Sudbury model quite well. Certainly there’s plenty of variation in how the model plays out, even as there’s an amazing degree of consistency, a common language and a common feel. I’ve heard it said more than once that you know a Sudbury school the minute you set foot in one, and from my own experience I’d say this is absolutely true.

That there’d be variations between Sudbury schools isn’t the least bit surprising, since this model maximizes the space for people to flourish. So each school assumes a unique personality because of the people who comprise it. You might say Sudbury schools are something of a human kaleidoscope: each one unique and very colorful, with each rotation offering a different pattern. Indeed, this free and constant unfolding of individuals explains not only differences between schools, but within each school over time. People come and go, and change; interests shift—thus the environment is constantly renewed. That’s part of what makes it impossible to describe a typical day: life at Sudbury schools is always in motion, constantly evolving.

Okay, that’s the variation side of things—what about the theme? What do these schools have in common, what’s their essence? Simply put, it’s people of all ages exuberantly encountering life. By far the most common activities at Clearview are play and conversation, people creating things and figuring things out, prioritizing and problem-solving. There’s a constant stream of activity, with a natural ebb and flow: every day there are meetings, and games, and art, and make-believe. Students play indoors and out (in pretty much all kinds of weather), and their continual discussions hover on a really lovely border between the serious and the silly. Whatever they’re doing, it’s nearly always intense: these young people are happy and passionate and creative; they’re engaged in the serious business of figuring out who they are and how things work.

So fundamentally, they’re just good people to be around: funny and genuine, articulate and reasonable, mature yet equally playful. Consequently, Clearview is a lively and respectful place. In fact, Sudbury schools are easily the most respectful work environment I’ve ever known, even while, as I’ve said, they have this rough-and-tumble, boisterous quality about them. Even small schools are still very vibrant, as unlike conventional schools, our students pursue their passions, rather than being made to do the same things at the same times.

For sure, more students means more people your own age, more activities already going on that you can observe or join—and it means you’ll be more likely to be able to buy your own property and pay your staff reasonably. Yet at a smaller school I think you’re more likely to be a well-known and critical part of the community. So while there are some disadvantages to being small, there are also benefits.

Another note in the Sudbury theme is that a school’s survival is never guaranteed. Most depend on finding staff who are willing to work for sub-standard pay, or supplement staffing with outside work, rely on a spouse’s income, etc. All schools have to be mindful not to spend on anything that’s not important. Thus, Sudbury schools are forced to think and operate like start-up companies, no matter if they’re in their first or tenth or 45th year. Every new family that joins, every existing one that leaves, makes a big difference. Like any other Sudbury school, Clearview depends on a lot of extremely dedicated people—parents as well as staff—willing to take risks and sacrifice in order to make this dream come true.

And so I’m truly touched by the degree of trust all you parents have in your children, as well as us staff, for enrolling here without really getting to see what happens at school on a day-to-day basis. Granted, you see the effects of Sudbury in your kids, and perhaps in your family lives, but I just want to take a moment and acknowledge your trust and courage.

You can read the rest of this post here. And if anything you just read struck you one way or another, please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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One response to “Sudbury: Theme & Variations (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Sudbury: Theme & Variations (Part II) | Write Learning

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