A 17 year Old’s Journey to Discovering Glacier Lake (democratic) School

“#DoItForTheCAS.” The screen of my phone lit up with yet another notification from one of my fellow International Baccalaureate classmates. Our Facebook group was active, now even in summer, and every time I glanced up from the Lego game I was playing with the children I babysat for, it was filled with more questions about homework assignments, funny memes to lessen the stress, and general griping about the long school year to come. CAS, or creativity, action, and service, was one of the most frequently complained about components of the program. Although the intentions of CAS may be well meaning, rewarding students for their work and passions outside of the classroom and encouraging curiosity and reflection in all aspects of one’s life, for me it had become yet another disheartening source of the message I had become conditioned to believe all my life: your success is directly tied to the score you receive for it.

I hadn’t always felt such a startling disillusionment with my formal education. When I was younger report card days were some of my favorite of the year. I hated that the teachers would only give them to you right as you were leaving the classroom to go home, to discourage students from comparing them to each other. I was incredulous. Why shouldn’t the other children know how smart I am? When I discovered that I wouldn’t receive letter grades until third grade, I was infuriated. I wanted bright and shiny As. Making due with a system of checks, check minuses and check pluses was torturous, but I was satisfied that at least I could receive the highest, most prestigious type of check mark in every subject and my math papers and spelling tests would always come back with gold stars.

When I finally hit the third grade, I wrote a report about peacocks. I could not tell you now where they live, the length of their gestation period or any of the other, actual information I learned through the process, but I can remember with all certainty that I got it back with a thick red A in the top right corner. At that point in my life, the validation of an A was enough; I craved good grades and high scores and felt unstoppable when I made them happen. The deepest sense of fulfilment I could achieve was a 100% handed to me by a smiling teacher.

If only that were still enough, I thought, as I lay watching a six year old and a nine year old map out an elaborate Lego land, complete with stores, and characters, and a system of governance. Why, when I could recite the extensive list of my extracurriculars along with a specific description of exactly what college-worthy quality each had instilled in me, did I feel as though I didn’t have any genuine, unique interests? Why, when on paper I could list off all the impressive classes I’d taken and the top grades for each, was I unable to conjure up any of what I had supposedly learned once my tests were graded? Why, when to the external IB graders I had supposedly been entirely successful on my exams, did I feel entirely unaccomplished? Why was a system created in which students learn just enough to ace (or pass) a test, then wipe their brains clear in order to cram them full all over again with the next chapter’s material?

It struck me just as John Green described falling in love and falling asleep: “slowly and then all at once.”  There had to be another way. I looked over at the children I was babysitting, as they independently played and explored and learned. What if there were schools where kids were trusted enough to know how and when and what they wanted to learn? I wondered if it could work. I doubted that it existed.  I typed into Google on my phone, “education systems where students direct their own learning in a collaborative setting.” Imagine my surprise to find that these schools were both very real and very effective at helping children to reach their full potentials without stifling all passion for learning. These schools existed, entirely as I’d imagined in my mind, places where students of all ages learned in entirely unique ways driven by their own curiosity, passion, imagination, and motivation. And not only did they exist in far off cities, there was one right here in Montana, only about 50 miles from my house, Glacier Lake School.

I poured over all the articles and books I could manage to find about this system of education, the Sudbury Valley model. Once I discovered learning could be driven by passion, I knew I could not squeeze myself back into the narrow mold students are required to fit within a traditional education system. I used to think that I wanted an IB diploma because I wanted a challenge. I thought a challenge would help me to grow. I realize now that what I wanted was the diploma at the end, the bragging rights to list off the scores I got on each exam. It would be another shiny gold star to reassure me of my own self-worth. In reality though, the stifling traditional school environment was not conductive to my growth in any way.

What was the point of success without passion, without curiosity? I didn’t want to do it only for the CAS anymore. I wanted to do it for no reason other than because I was wildly, uncontrollably excited.  I don’t think it is selfish or shortsighted or unreasonable or lazy to demand an education that is endlessly riveting. I want to be consumed with curiosity.

I decided not to complete the IB diploma program. I am taking the several required high school courses I have left online and several university courses about topics I am actually genuinely fascinated by. Sitting in a classroom under fluorescent lights for eight hours a day is no longer my education. Life is my education.

Several weeks ago, I got the opportunity to visit Glacier Lake School. It was empowering. A year ago, as junior in high school, I had sat in my advanced math class on the first day of school as we went over the classroom rules. Be in your seat when the bell rings or you’ll be tardy and get detention. Only drink clear liquids unless your cup has a lid. Don’t lean back in your chair in case you lean too far and fall and hurt yourself. The atmosphere at Glacier Lake could not have been more strikingly different. I saw children of all ages climbing trees to pick apples or working with saws to build elaborate contraptions of their own design or playing imaginatively in a treehouse. Most importantly though, I saw children who were excited to learn and happy to be at school.

Nora Gibbons aged 17

Missoula, Montana

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