A Blog article

 

The Psychological Ecology of Sudbury

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When I tell people about how Hudson Valley Sudbury School (HVSS) works, they sometimes ask if it’s like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. They imagine a vicious world of savage children struggling for supremacy, gnawing on limbs, and skewering random stuff with sharpened sticks.  They even bring up anecdotes from their own experience to suggest that we should expect brutality to rein under the conditions we maintain at our school; they’ll say something like, “in my high school, if the teacher ever stepped out of the classroom, even for a second, a fight would break out.”  I understand - I’ve even worked in a school where that was indeed the case. If not a fight, something transgressive would happen - a champion would emerge from the rows of desks to make some raucous gesture of contempt for authority, to the hoots and applause of classmates.  And when we attempted to have unstructured time, like a recess, there was almost always an actual fistfight. At that school, the adults micromanaged the students as much as possible. The more control a teacher was able to exert over students, the more highly that teacher was regarded; power, and the control it afforded, was the highest good.  The most effective teachers were known for directing students with military precision, drilling them in posture and guidelines which sharply restricted how they could move their bodies, even while seated, and where they could direct their gaze at any particular moment. In such an excruciating and oppressive environment, tense but utterly boring, people find ways to rebel - not because they can’t handle freedom maturely when they find or steal a moment of it, but because they are deprived of it.  Their “transgressions” are hardly evidence of immaturity; they are, rather, evidence of an unhealthy ecology of relationships. The boys in Lord of the Flies were cultivated within a culture of mistrust and assimilated into a brutal hierarchy at their mid-20th century English boarding school.  Left to their own devices, they recreated the ecology of their native psychological habitat. Lord of the Flies is not a cautionary tale about freedom; it’s a cautionary tale about oppression.

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What the Sudbury Model is Really About

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As a child of the 1990’s, I grew up a cultural orphan, severed from the traditions and worldview of my ancestors, even of my grandparents.  I had no religion, or explicit system for understanding and thinking, and I experienced this lack as a bewildering vertigo. Nevertheless I longed for meaning, and I was thus vulnerable to every sweet-talking spiritual terrorist and ancient sage who popped into my field of vision.  The philosophical foundation of my psychic environment was materialistic and nihilistic, and for much of my childhood I tottered about swollen with anxiety like a balloon on legs. Matchstick legs. I felt, experienced, and lived all this rather than understood, thought, or articulated it; I was engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty which masqueraded as freedom.  These days, I know this to be a phenomenon new to the human scene, and that it is called “postmodernism,” but at the time it was the only world I knew - the lonely, drifting planet of my birth.

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Compulsory Math is a Bizarre Institution

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Math is vital to civilization. But it doesn’t follow that everyone should be made to study it.

Math is a ubiquitous requirement in school curriculums all over the world, even though most adults don’t know any math and are no worse for the wear. So what gives? Why do we require every child in the country to receive 10-13 years of instruction in math?

One reason seems to be that math is a natural fit for our data-obsessed society; math skills are easier to measure than other types of academic skills, and educators and policy makers can compare scores, compile data, make comparisons, and utilize it all for political ends. Another reason is just that, having signed kids up for compulsory education, we need to find something for them to do, and math fits the bill nicely: it takes lots and lots of time to get a classroom of diverse cognitive abilities on the same page and progressing together through sets of skills, plus all those numbers and equations look good on a blackboard, and there’s always more worksheets if you finish early. Presumably, math is also relevant to making a living, but that’s only true for a select few..

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Strength in Solitude

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Most of my days as a staff member at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School are busy as can be. My list is often long and I usually leave having only crossed a few things off because the joys and bustle of the day took me in other directions. But, on occasion, I arrive without a list and end up spending most of my day floating, wandering through the halls looking for who might possibly want my help, or heck, even my company. But, like today, everyone is seemingly content, engaged in their own pursuits and I am more of an unnecessary fly on the wall. In these moments I struggle, much like our students, to figure out how to be productive, to answer the bigger questions about my usefulness in our community, and in the world. I struggle with being alone.

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But They’ll Just Screw Around All Day!

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Many people - and the institutions they create - insist that kids cannot handle autonomy in their personal lives, that free kids will inevitably use autonomy to debase themselves, developing indulgent self-regard and failing to learn vital skills like the discipline to delay gratification. At other points in history, majorities of people have also insisted that members of particular races, ethnicities, and genders could not handle autonomy either. But this patronizing attitude, a hallmark of someone ensconced in the narrative of Man vs. Nature, has consistently been proven wrong, and it turns out that even kids(!) thrive when they are free, provided they have a basically safe and nourishing environment.

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But What About Academics?

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In part 2 of Special Snowflake Syndrome and Other Good Questions, Matthew answers the question, "But what about academics?"

Learning to read in the abstract, without intrinsic motivation, is difficult; it takes several years to get most students to do it in traditional school environments. In fact, deep and substantial learning of anything absent of such motivation is, perhaps, impossible. But kids are motivated to have fun, connect, and explore, and meaningfully engaging virtually any activity requires, at some point anyway, literacy, so our students learn to read directly from the material from which they want to get information. Some learn because they are fanatical about Minecraft and need to communicate with other players and understand instructions. Some learn because they want to text with their family and friends on their smartphone. Others learn because reading is a gateway to story as well as enormous amounts of information, and they want it. Either way, kids are usually able to accomplish basic literacy if adults simply provide a text-rich environment, stay out the way, and answer questions and provide requested assistance in a straightforward manner.

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Special Snowflake Syndrome and Other Good Questions

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Earlier this year a new parent mentioned to me that she had suffered through a couple awkward conversations about the school in nearby communities.  The people she had spoken with in these instances made pained, disconcerting facial expressions and offhand remarks about “things they had heard” about HVSS, like “kids play all day at that place!”  She found herself, for the most part, stymied as to how to proceed in these conversations.  Like any self-respecting educator, I’m quick to offer unsolicited advice, so I immediately directed her to read Jeff’s excellent blog post, The Sudbury Conversation, which has good tips on how to begin responding to the negative caricatures of our school which do regrettably exist, lingering in the atmosphere like ghosts from Salem, perhaps belying a puritanical distrust of homo sapiens per se, in this puffy educator’s opinion, at least.

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A Fish out of the Hudson - A Sudbury Student goes to India

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You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to speak at The Association of Internation Schools of India (TAISI), the education conference for private schools of India taking place in Goa.

I would get to go to a country halfway across the world on a continent I’d never been to.

I would get to share my views at a conference in a country that’s known to have rigorous views on education.

I was in Germany when I got the invitation email at 1 am. I texted my mom immediately and resisted the urge to wake my brother up and tell him. I was thrilled! I started thinking about what I was going to say. What the goal for my talk would be. I knew I wanted my audience to see my school like I see it. I also wanted them to see there is more than one effective form of education.

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The Elephant in the Room

Recently, Sudbury hosted an open house for prospective families to come and see what we are all about. In addition to the tours of our beautiful school, there was a panel comprised of several students, parents, and a recent graduate. The faces of the prospective Sudbury parents were characterized by that mixture of wonder, eagerness, curiosity, doubt, and pure terror that so many of us are used to encountering when we share our stories out there in “the real world.” (The element of anger, a surprisingly common response, was thankfully absent. These were, after all, families that had sought us out.) I was not on the panel, but at a certain point I felt compelled to say something about the elephant in the room.

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It Feels Good

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Yesterday was the second day of school at The Hudson Valley Sudbury School. For me it was an emotional start to the year. My youngest is now officially enrolled as a fresh five year old, and two of my oldest graduated last year leaving me to start the year without them. It’s been bittersweet. I know that they were ready to leave.  One is at Sarah Lawrence College, not too far from home so I can still lay eyes on him every so often. I look forward to watching him grow, I eagerly await the stories of his classes, his adventures and what it’s like to be a Sudbury grad, and of course to watch him serve as an alumni at various school events. The other has flown across the world to conquer the professional video game stage, signed as a well-paid, pro player on a team in Asia. He’s on a team that is navigating having players who speak 4 different languages; he’s training, he’s greeting fans, he’s keeping color-coded spreadsheets about technical play - the opportunity of a lifetime. They are both exactly where they should be, and they have taken these steps with a grounded confidence that makes me proud. And I’m doing what I can to miss them in a positive way.

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Hudson Valley Sudbury School

84 Zena Road
Kingston, NY 12401
 
Phone: 845-679-1002
Fax: 845-679-3874