One of the most inspiring aspects of being a Partnership for Change Fellow is the opportunity (license, permission, demand?) to dream of new ways for schools to function and best serve students, teachers, and the community. In my research recently, I came across the Sudbury Valley School, an alternative school in Framingham, MA with an uber-student-centered mission. I was immediately entranced and spent several hours exploring their website, reading testimonials from students, teachers, parents, scholars, and alumna. I broadened my research and read about what others are saying about the school and its methods. Here’s a link to a cool article from Psychology Today. Loosely, Sudbury allows students, beginning as early as age 4 (and as old as 19) to pursue their own passions and interests by putting almost no restrictions on their time or focus. There are no tests. There is no homework. Instead students are free to explore the world and to structure their own learning. They are free, even if that freedom comes with the unexpected challenges of thriving in an unstructured environment, of owning one’s choices. They stress that freedom is not anarchy, nor is it easy. Many students there articulate that more freedom is more challenging, though also more rewarding. Sudbury has its own justice system based on democratic principles in which youth and adults are completely equal (one vote to a person). There are annual elections where students vote on staff retention and hiring, including the founder and headmaster Daniel Greenberg. Students live by community agreements and must defend their actions if they violate them, or be willing to show how another may have violated them.
Now, despite my curiosity, I don’t write about Sudbury Valley to promote their approach. I’ve never visited the school, nor met anyone who attends (though I hope to change this with a research visit!). And certainly by any standard of what a “normal” school is, Sudbury is something else; it represents a radically different approach to school. No, I write about Sudbury to encourage us to think big, to think differently, to remember our goal of crafting a new vision and to being open to the natural evolution of our learning environments. What could we learn from schools who are thinking so far outside the box they don’t even know what a box is? With the Partnership for Change, Burlington and Winooski high schools have a rare and treasured opportunity to ask exciting, and daunting, questions about school structures, student/teacher roles, and what the purpose of school is. What does school mean to our community? What do we care about? What do we value?
Let’s keep asking the big questions. The daunting ones. Who knows what answers we’ll find.
Here’s a video Sudbury Valley produced that invites us into their school and lets us hear directly from their students. It’s worth every one of the thirteen minutes it takes.