How It Feels To Send Your Kid To a “Free” School

(edited from a presentation to the Cascade Valley School Assembly)

by Mimsy Sadofsky, Co-Founder, Sudbury Valley School

Over the years, we have found that the parents who choose to send their children to Sudbury Valley School have very few things in common. They don’t seem to come from the same socio-economic class. In fact, most of them seem to be impossible to “class”ify at all; certainly it is impossible from the cursory amount of information we collect from them. Clearly, however, there are always more parents who struggle to pay our modest tuition than parents who find it easy.

They also have widely different standards for all sorts of categories of behavior in their homes, or at least so they and their children tell us.

Very often they turn out to be parents who would not ordinarily be sending their children to private schools; that is to say, they are the kind of people who generally feel that private schools have an odor of elitism about them, and they find that odor unpleasant.

However, what our parents do share is an overwhelming desire to do the best they possibly can for their children. Even though they might be people who only questioned the process of public schooling because their children forced the issue, they are not people who accept the status quo in child rearing or in education.

We have written extensively about what happens to kids who have had all or part of their education at Sudbury Valley. It is also pretty obvious that their parents examine their own lives in many of the ways that we feel any Sudbury Valley student must do over time. That in itself is enough to scare away many parents who are not willing to accept this challenge. I think this willingness to undergo intense re-examination of their own lives is one of the few generalizations we can make about our highly individualistic parents.

So, let us say that someone has examined the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, feels confidence in their child’s curiosity and judgment, and decides to enroll that child. One might hope that the enrollment would signify the end of anxiety; that the decision to put full trust in the child’s judgment would be a relief to parents.

And it is a relief. But it also isn’t. This is a quote from the text (printed in the November Newsletter) of Will Twombly’s presentation to an informal Assembly meeting. Will is the parent of a teenager in his second year:

For Alex, the philosophy of this school made so much sense that coming here seemed like second nature. For us, however, slow learners that we are, the decision was much more an act of faith than one of reason. Molded by our parent’s values, our own educational experiences, and the predominate thinking of today, it was clear that in order to be “good” SVS parents we would have to let go of many deep-rooted expectations of what education should be. We needed to get in touch with what we felt really mattered about school, and disregard the rest. This reorientation process hasn’t been easy, and has offered a number of terrifying moments, as well as some extremely happy ones. I realize that in many ways hope is merely the flip side of fear. We hope that something good will happen, while fearing that it won’t. Some days one face of the coin is up, other days the opposite side is showing. This contributes to a pretty exciting ride on an emotional roller coaster, especially where SVS is concerned.

None of us lives in a vacuum. Everyone has friends, relatives, parents, sometimes other children, who feel that allowing a student so much freedom is tantamount to telling that child that no one cares what happens to him/her. Most everyone is in a workplace or a neighborhood in which such a brave decision is treated as a sign of abdication of the responsibilities of parenthood. And the very same people who might hesitate to tell us if they thought our child had been nursed for too long, or put in day care too early, or not forced to sleep through the night, have no trouble spending a great deal of time denigrating the educational philosophy with which we, as parents, are trying so hard to align ourselves.

Partly that is comforting. It opens up many forums for discussion. But partly it isn’t, because a lot of the people one has these discussions with are working from a very small amount of information—mostly from the tops of their heads or from what you have haplessly told them—or from a position in which many of their beliefs are threatened. A lot of the people each parent knows are sure, totally positive, that the structure of education that is most familiar to them—and it will almost always be a variation of the structure that most children are in today—is the only possible one that guarantees that we will not produce a generation of savages, ignorant savages at that. They feel threatened by the idea of the loss of adult power and control that such a “free” school as ours is predicated on.

But of course we too feel threatened. There we are, open for attack from all of those other people who already thought we were crazy, as well as from our own anxieties. It is very well to say in the abstract: “Sure, I know that my kids will grow up constantly busy learning things. I understand that to be the human condition.” But then when the things your kid spends time doing—perhaps Nintendo, or playing games in a tree, or poring over Magic Cards for months on end—don’t look at all like the things you did in school at that age, and don’t require that they learn the capitals of the states, or how to diagram a sentence, then it is not so easy.

In fact, sending a child to such a school is a courageous and still an almost unique choice. We all want our children to have even better lives than we had, no matter how good ours was. When we think of a better life these days, we don’t usually mean materially better, because most of us have had quite adequate material lives. We mean intellectually, emotionally and spiritually better. And it is hard to keep your “eyes on the prize” of the excellent, well-examined life when the life your children are leading is one in which they can play Nintendo as long as they want, or work with clay for months on end, or read a million science fiction books, or talk to their friends on the phone for hours and hours and hours—after talking to them all day at school.

Most of us went to traditional schools. They became the tradition because society was oh-so-heavily into educating for uniformity. Now that we are adults, we have noticed that uniformity is not much of a selling point when we want to get interesting jobs, or create a work or art, or create a new idea, or create a new product, or create a new way to market a product. In fact most of us are either in creative jobs, or at least totally excited about the creative activities that fill our leisure hours, and we realize that we don’t have to know exactly the same things as everyone else. Of course there needs to be some overlap between our knowledge and other people’s; being alive in the world makes us crave for that overlap, so we go after it. Often, we look for commonality with others even in areas that are of limited interest, because we want to have things in common with people who are not just like us. That is one of the social imperatives of life.

If you are now a parent , odds are that in your childhood you were educated mostly for a world that was going out of style at the time and is becoming a distant memory now, a world where uniformity was vital to the workplace. Since my childhood the possible ways of earning a living have changed from many, to incredibly many, to no-one-can-count-how-many, because new ideas of how to spend time are invented every minute. Your kids need to be educated for a world that changes even faster than today’s world. A hard thing even to imagine. But that is why we have to allow them to use their minds in their own ways—because that will guarantee the most complete possible development for them, which will maximize their chances of succeeding in a wide-open world.

It used to bother me—actually it still does—that I had no one to turn to for help with problems once the computers we were using at school had a certain number of programs on them. The configuration became totally unique, and there were so many possibilities that no one who had not studied our system could possibly be on top of them all, and be able to help us; and maybe not even then. The kind of anxiety computer problems raise in me are the same kinds of anxieties we have about our kids. These are control issues. They are already in a world that is out of our control, all day every day, bombarded with information we hardly have a clue about. We are raising them for a world where there are less and less secure answers, and more and more possible paths, and that means such a total and necessary abdication of authority over them on our part that it is terrifying. I think every one of us who has chosen to send a child to a school such as ours has contemplated that abdication of authority, that releasing of “power”, and everyone, no matter how secure, also has some residual worries about making a mistake.

So, now that we have taken a look at some of the things that are guaranteed to make one anxious if one is the parent of a child in such a school, let’s look at the other side of the coin.

What do kids learn at Sudbury Valley? Are there any guaranties? I actually think that there are, and I think the things that can be (almost) guaranteed are the most important things of all in an explosively changing world. A student learns to concentrate. A student gets constant opportunities to make ethical judgments. A student learns to be treated with total respect. A student learns to appreciate the outdoors. A student learns to be self-reliant. A student learns to be self-confident. A student learns what it means to set a goal and reach for it, to re-assess, to reach again, to achieve the goal, or to fail miserably, and to pick him or herself up and do it all over again, with the same or a different goal. A kid learns life skills. Real life skills. The skills that it takes to be successful at marriage, at child rearing, at friendship, as well as at work.

What does it mean when I say that a child learns to concentrate? It means that the person focusses in on the interest of the moment, or the hour, or the year, and pursues that passion until it is a passion no more. Which of course also means that the tremendous let-down of losing a passion and having to go out and find a new one is a frequent companion. I see this focus mirrored in students in our school every day. I see it in the student who at 17 has suddenly developed a passion for math, and spends hours a day grinding away at it. I see it in the determination of a kid to get up into the heights of the beech tree, a goal that can take years to reach—not that the goal will be pursued, of course, every minute of every day, but more as a theme of life—constantly working on climbing skills, and constantly working on what it means to look down 15 or 25 or 50 feet and know only your skills keep you safe. I see it in the kids who constantly design and re-design Lego planes, airports, and space stations; and play elaborate games with the structures they have made. I see it in the drive to learn everything a person has to know in order to be allowed to work in the photolab alone. Or on the wheel. And I know, because I have children of my own, and because I have seen 28 years worth of Sudbury Valley students, that I see only a fraction of a percentage of what is going on, of the concentration that is happening.

One of the hardest things for all of us to see and to understand is the work necessary for a teenager who comes to our school to do what s/he has to do first; to come to grips with who s/he is. To many people, a lot of teenagers look like they are wasting their time. They just seem to spend so much time hanging out, talking, drinking coffee, sometimes even smoking cigarettes unfortunately, talking some more, driving around. Yes, they read. Yes, they are wonderful resources and usually extraordinarily kind to younger kids. But what are they doing? Part of what they are doing is forgetting. They have to forget that they spent years hearing that other people had an agenda for them that was the “best” thing for them to pursue. They have to get in touch with the idea that the person who really knows what is best for them is themselves; that they can become responsible for their own intellectual , moral, spiritual, and even physical development. That is no small trick. And, yes, a lot of the time they are squirming, suffering, struggling to shoulder these burdens or to escape from them. The adults around them believe that, in the atmosphere the school provides, the likelihood of them deciding to shoulder the burdens is as high as you can get. So we let them struggle. We let them suffer. They offer each other a tremendous amount of support. All the adults in the school can do is tell them we understand how hard it is. But what every parent must understand is that support offered from the parent must, first and foremost, take the form of confidence that the struggle will be fruitful. This also maximizes the chances for it being fruitful.

We feel that the student who grows up learning that the most productive motivations is self-motivation, that s/he can in fact learn how to fail and how to succeed has the best chance for a life that is rich. We also notice over many years of history that children given the gift of trust by their parents become closer and closer to their parents, and often the kids provide the insights and strength to work to solve family problems that have developed over time.

And students at a school like ours will surely be practiced in ethical judgments. Moral questions are the bread and butter issues of Sudbury Valley and the schools like it. This community has very high standards for ethical behavior. Standards that have forced me, over time, to raise my own. The school is run democratically. That doesn’t mean that every kid has something to say on every issue. No one polls every person in the school every time something comes up. It does mean that for every issue that comes up, the School Meeting is a forum in which each person is treated respectfully and equally, and has an equal vote in decisions. But there is much more than that. The system for solving problems that have to do with behavior involve a changing sub-group of the entire population, a sub-group with total age variation in it, that investigates, reports on, and comes to grip with dealing with, problems of a social nature. This means littering, this means irritating noisiness, this means taking another child’s cookie, this means not doing the trash when it is your turn. It also can mean more serious violations of the community norms. Each community’s members spend a great deal of time informally and formally defining these norms, to themselves and to others, till they have worked out definitions that will serve them, at least till the issue comes up again.

I would like to end with more of the hopes and fears of Alex’s father, and then with the retrospective glance of a former Sudbury Valley student:

I hope that SVS will offer some opportunities to cultivate and practice these skills. Letting my imagination run wild, I hope that when Alex is ready to leave SVS, he will move on with an empowering sense of purpose and direction. I realize that this is asking a lot. It’s certainly not something I could have done when I was his age.

Most of all, I hope that SVS will help each one of its students to find happiness deep down inside, to feel loved and appreciated, and to pass that love along to others. I don’t have too many fears about this, because it seems that this is what a whole lot of people around here are hoping for.

My very first impression when I enrolled was, “This is cool!” It was almost too good to be true. I was responsible for my own actions! That was very clear. It was clear in a lot of my upbringing too, so it wasn’t a big shock. I think my parents recognized that when they read the school literature. They knew the philosophy, but there was still some doubt. But for me, discovering how much time there was to waste or use constructively, and that I was in charge of that, was the key issue.







What Did You Learn Today?

Having been involved in schools for many years now, I came to wonder what they were actually for. Compulsory schooling is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of people on this planet. Mozart, for example never went to school, yet his achievements were incredible. So the idea that you have to be in school in order to learn seems redundant. People do learn things in school, don’t get me wrong; but they also learn things everywhere else too.


If I think back to my time at school and the time since I was at school for thirteen years of my life, I can say with confidence that since then I have learned much more about the world around me and how to navigate through it than during my time of being a servant to the system. Thirteen years of being told what I had to learn and how I had to learn it. Thirteen years of counting down the days to Saturday or the next vacation where I could (after completing my homework) be free to explore, climb, read about something that interested me or play.

We often hear parents say to their children when they come home from school, “What did you learn today?” This seems like a perfectly legitimate question, but one that you rarely hear from a parent on a Saturday after their child has been with friends playing for the day. The question reverts to, “What did you do today?” – a distinction which implies “learning” takes place at school and “doing” takes place outside school. People can choose to learn everyday wherever they are and whatever they are engaged in.

So, you might ask, what are schools for? Why do I spend my days within a community of children and adult learners called Glacier Lake School? The answer is that our school is different from the mainstream. We, like many other schools similar to us, trust children to decide for themselves what they choose to do each day. The curriculum for each child is only limited by their own imagination; their passion for learning is natural, organic and personal. Studies and analysis of children who are given the freedom to pursue what is important for them show that 90-100% of them enter adulthood going to the college of their choice and the others pursue careers and experiences that they choose. They leave school happy and eager to continue learning throughout their lives.

So, next time you find yourself saying to a child, “What did you learn today?” when you pick them up from school, think about what your answer would be if they asked you the same question, “Mom/Dad, what did you learn today?”

Ben Kestner    November 2015

The decline of free, unstructured play and the rise of depression amongst our teens

Below, is an article published in the Missoulian newspaper on October the 5th by Ben Kestner in response to an earlier editorial.

I read the editorial section of the Missoulian this Wednesday with particular interest as a parent and as a teacher/administrator of some 25 years. Again, we see another report showing more and more of our teens are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts (see Missoulan September, 30 2015). And again, there is a cry for more training for school employees, parents and peers in suicide awareness and prevention, which is of course, crucial. But instead of only looking at prevention we should also focus on the causes. The editorial, importantly, also says, “(p)arents, peers and others must help create an environment in which youth know their feelings will be taken seriously.”

Home and school are the environments where children spend most of their lives. So it seems logical to focus on these environments in order to reach the cause – like preparing the soil and conditions for a flower to grow. According to research including that of Peter Gray – (Ted Talk “The decline of Play and the Rise of Mental disorders) and his excellent book, “Free to Learn – Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” – the correlation between the decline of opportunities for kids to experience unstructured play at home and school is directly related to the rise in mental disorders in teenagers.

Not so long ago, we could walk down neighborhoods and see children playing in the streets – the school days were shorter, the school year was shorter and there was a lot more recess time for kids to socialize and play in and out of school. Now, kids are put under more and more pressure at school and at home to succeed academically. They are taking high stakes tests and are being given more and more homework. The emphasis is on ‘core’ curriculum areas and, as a result, other subject areas that encourage and develop critical thinking and innovative practice are on the decline.

When do kids get the chance to experience the important aspects of play that we know helps them to structure their own lives and behaviors?

My plea to parents and educators is to look for ways where kids are given the chance to interact with each other away from adult control and influence. In schools, we need to restructure days to allow for longer recess. We need to cut down on homework. (Did you know, for example, that there is NO evidence that homework has any real benefit to elementary-school-aged kids? See Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth”.) When kids are given more freedom and autonomy, they grow up to be happier and more successful members of society. We need to give children their childhood back.

A.S. Neill, a famous educator who founded Summerhill School in the UK, a democratic self-directed school once said, “I’d rather our school produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Politician”.

We, parents and educators, above all, surely, want our kids to be happy, right?

We, parents and educators, above all, surely, want our kids to be happy, right?

The 6 Essential Features of a 21st century Education

In his introduction to John Gatto’s book “Dumbing us Down-The Hidden Curriculum of compulsory Schooling”, David Albert lists Dan Greenberg’s six consensus points which he says leading educators, business leaders and government officials agree are the essential features of an education that would meet the needs of society in the 21st century.

After reading them, think about whether the school system you are immersed in provides these features. Whether you are a teacher or a student- whether you have children or know of children at a school.I would argue a democratic-self directed learning approach is best for this. I have been spending the last few months working on setting up a new school in Montana, USA which is based on a free-democratic approach. A school where self-directed learning is the key driving force. Influences include Sudbury Valley School (of which Dan Greenberg was a co-founder in 1968) and Summerhill in the UK.

Our school is called Glacier Lake School and we are currently enrolling for a March/April start.

Six Consensus Points- Dan Greenberg

1. As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that a content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted on students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult lives.

2. People will be faced with greater individual responsibility to direct their own lives. Children must grow up in an environment that stresses self-motivation and self assessment. Schools that focus on external motivating factors, such as rewards and punishments for meeting goals set by others, are denying children the tools they need most to survive.

3. The ability to communicate with others, to share experiences, to collaborate, and the exchange information is critical. Conversation, the ultimate means of communication, must be a central part of a sound education.

4.  As the world moves toward universal recognition of individual rights within a democratic society, people must be empowered  to participate as equal partners in whatever enterprise they are engaged in. Students (and teachers) require full participation in running educational institutions, including the right to radically change them when needed.

5. Technology now makes it possible for individuals  to learn whatever they wish, whenever they wish, and in the manner they wish. Students should be empowered with both the technology and the responsibility for their own learning and educational timetable.

6. Children have an immense capacity for concentration and hard work when they are passionate about what they are doing, and the skills they acquire in any area of interest are readily transferable to other fields. Schools must thus become far more tolerant of individual variation and far more reliant on self-initiated activities.

Whether you agree or disagree with these points, pass this on to someone else who might be interested in discussing this important issue. I believe passionately that the current public (in the USA) and State ( in the UK) education systems do not go anywhere near meeting these six points.


What the Tests Don’t Measure

Diane Ravitch's blog

Just received from a friend, Joan Baratz Snowden:

My daughter’s new elementary school principal sent this to all the students as they received their state standardized testing scores this week:

“We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or…

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Common Core

If you don’t follow this blog…it’s well worth it.

Nicholas Meier

I have been hearing from many friends who work as K-12 teachers, as well as some teacher educator colleagues here in California, that they are excited to see the coming of the Common Core standards. They see in them a move away from an emphasis on teaching by rote and a move toward emphasizing higher order thinking skills. I truly hope that they are right about this. A shift in balance from a preponderance of rote and conformist styles of teaching to more emphasis on creativity and the other aspects of what are called the higher order thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy is needed.

On the other hand, I have been hearing some critiques from other colleagues, especially early childhood educators, about some of the specific standards that they say are developmentally inappropriate. One of those that I hear mentioned often is having young children doing more expository reading…

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We know so much more about the brain than we did even 10 or 15 years ago thanks to research around the world led by organizations such the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS).

Individuals such as JoAnn Deak, Brian Knutson and Daniel Willingham have analyzed this research over many years and have written and presented compelling arguments and information for schools and teachers to improve teaching and learning.

In education we use this research (not enough in my opinion) to help us understand the best ways to learn. An example of this is how we now understand that the brain processes information in ‘working memory’ and transfers this information to ‘long term memory’. Another example is the way teachers help children to understand how they learn best –metacognition – as an important part of educating the whole child today.

We know from research that for us to learn most effectively, the learning needs to be at exactly the right level of difficulty. Too easy and we get distracted, too hard and we switch off. (How many times has a student described a lesson as ‘boring’ when it was actually too hard). This is what makes teaching so difficult and is why teachers require so much training and experience to meet the needs of their children.

I like to say that a teacher does not teach a class of say, 28 students, she teaches 28 individuals. If she is to personalize learning and help the child to learn at exactly the right level for optimum effectiveness, she needs to understand each individual child’s learning style and differentiate to support that child. So many schools and school systems don’t support this personalization of learning and teachers are forced to generalize or differentiate their teaching to reach groups of kids in their class rather than the individual child.

Computer games companies spend time and money on analyzing the same brain research as we educators do. Their motive (to sell lots of games and make money) may be completely different to ours at school but the goal is the same. Computer games companies want their games to be ENGAGING, ACHIEVABLE and ADDICTIVE.

Achievable, for the reasons I have mentioned (not too easy and not too hard). Educators need to focus on these things. If we can get kids to be ‘engaged’ and ‘addicted’ to learning, we’re on the right path!

Frappuccino Drinker or Philosopher?

Tweeting for Teachers

Twitter has been around for a few years now (July 2006 to be precise) and has evolved from being purely a micro-social networking opportunity to tell your followers that you are say, in Starbucks enjoying a nice strawberries and cream Frappuccino, to a useful tool for sharing ideas, opinions and stories.

We all know how influential twitter has been in recent uprisings around the world and has given us the power to be journalists one and all. The first on the scene (sometimes the only one on the scene). Like many of these social media start-ups, the public has taken the idea and re-shaped it into something useful to their lives. True, some people still talk about their Frappuccinos, but I find these tend to be either celebrities or people with rather sad lives (sometimes both). Take Justin Bieber for example. He currently has the most followers in the world on Twitter (just over 34 million people). He, like many other celebs, has turned from just being quite a good singer (debatable I know) to a wanna be philosopher and social commentator. A recent tweet to his followers read “If U wanna succeed U gotta put in the work”. Thanks Justin, for that pearl of wisdom.

What about us educators? How could twitter be useful? Well I can honestly say that I find it the most useful professional development tool I have come across. If you select the people you follow carefully and make lists so that the account doesn’t become unmanageable, it can be very useful. I for example follow a number of Middle School principals from around the world who tweet really useful links to articles and personal observations. I follow teachers, politicians, news organizations, NGOs and comedians.

And then there’s the classroom. Yes it can be an extremely useful tool, but I would always say you need to identify a need that will support your class before you try. The link below has many links to uses for twitter in the classroom.

I haven’t written about how to use twitter in this article because I think the best way to learn is to:

1) Ask someone who’s using it


2) PLAY with it.

In case you’re interested, my twitter name is @kestnertweet

Give it a go it might change your life!

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