We were so lucky back in May to be able to spend a week at Sudbury Valley School where we instantly fell in love with the place and atmosphere. The air of freedom and respect that permeates everything is both calming and invigorating. In a recent blog post Mimsy Sadofsky writes that a visitor described the school as a “spa for the soul” and I can immediately see what they mean. So when unexpectedly we received an invitation to spend a week at Alpine Valley School we jumped at the chance. And this time my two children were able to come along too.
For co-founder and teacher of 25 years Marc Denervaux it was a first experience of a school based on autonomy. For my two girls it was their first ever experience of going to school and getting up on time – not easy when you also have jet-lag to contend with. For me, I was keen to experience how the model worked on a smaller scale and in a less grand setting. And we were all looking forward to spending more time learning from founder and staff member Larry Welshon who was so kind as to spend a week with our group in the summer, allowing us all to benefit from his 20 years experience of the model.
After a day recovering from the journey we arrived in school on a bright and crisp Monday morning, the girls understandably had a few nerves and jitters about being new to the school. Within 5 minutes my 5 year old asked to be certified for the toys and games resources, a rule designed to improve responsible usage of the resources, and she was away. By the end of the day she’d made friends with little kids building forts and playing on the climbing frame and a much older girl who taught her how to write her name in Japanese. Which was a wonderful coincidence as the writing in Yo! Sushi at the airport had already piqued her curiosity.
My 7 year old however, less bold at first settled into a game of Minecraft on a server, which quickly attracted the attention of the more techy students. Once they’d connected digitally, friendships evolved and they were drawing together, roleplaying and chattering happily by the end of the week.
Moving about the school and its various flexible rooms and spaces you find a variety of activity taking place and a very natural and organic rhythm occurs over the course of the day. Students arrive slowly at first, some quietly going off to their preferred spots ready to pick up where they left off the day before, others skip in merrily looking for a playmate and checking out what others are doing. Two young boys with camouflage outfits and carefully constructed paper weapons sneak up the hallway on the lookout for the enemy. In the art room beads on the floor tell of a previous experiment and there is discussion about who is responsible for picking them up. In the JC room a group gathers at 11am and sets about its serious business of unpicking any problems from the previous day. Around midday the mainroom fills with conversation as staff and students gather to eat their lunch. In the kitchen someone is cooking up spaghetti. As the sun heats up students filter outdoors to the swings and four-square court. The computer room always a hive of activity flows between a few students quietly playing a game on their own or over the web to more noisy games of competing students and a crowd behind supporting and advising the players.
It can be hard to see in such a short snapshot how this activity of hanging out and playing games results in preparing students to be responsible adults but pay attention and in all these little moments you see students persevering with something despite its difficulty and frustration, you see one student carefully explaining something to another, you see intricate negotiation taking place. It’s these little moments that strengthen characters and build understanding of how the world works.
Through conversations with parents and graduates about their experiences of the school a theme that occurred again and again was how when they arrived at the school they were concerned that a particular weakness would hold them back from getting the most from the experience. Sometimes it was a personal skill like shyness or rebelliousness other times it was more academic such as not being able to read yet. You would think with all the freedom of the school it would be easy for students to avoid these weaknesses and avoid having to deal with them, but in fact the contrary is true. Where you have to determine your own activity and take responsibility for your actions sooner or later you come face to face with whatever issues you have and it’s down to you to find a way through. It is this that graduates and parents cited as the most important aspect of the school and which helped build the qualities that have enabled them to go on to succeed in their chosen paths after leaving the school.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the JC. Students that have trouble reading social cues are written up for disturbing others activities, those with short memories are written up for leaving messes, those still learning to manage their emotions are written up for over-reacting and upsetting others. But the JC itself avoids judgement, it allows students to hear the consequences of their actions in a calm place and gives them the opportunity to take ownership of it and make amends to the community. Once a case is over it’s done with and all parties walk out friends again. The openness of this process is also so important, there are no whispers behind closed doors, no rumours about who did what. The knowledge that any complaint no matter how big or small will always be dealt with, with the same level of seriousness and care is what protects the freedom students enjoy at the school.
We were all sad to say goodbye after a wonderful week, my girls came back with arms full of drawings and other creations and contact details for new friends and Marc and I with anticipation to see our community form. How will the personalities of East Kent Sudbury School shape our community? We look forward to finding out in the new year.
Find out more about Alpine Valley School on their website: www.alpinevalleyschool.com