There's a saying in web design. "If everything's important, then nothing's important." We use it to mean that the most important elements on a page need to stand out. Place too many elements on the page and none of them stand out.
Education seems to take an opposite approach. In traditional schools, everything matters. You have to be good at language and you have to be good at math and you have to be good at science and you have to be good at history and you have to be good at literature. If you don't excel at all of them at once, there must be something wrong with you.
But that thinking dilutes concentration. If everything matters, then nothing matters.
Not so here. Sudbury schools give students plenty of time to go into depth with one or two subjects. It alone matters. They can master it, then they can move on to something else that's important. Less clutter, better impact.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
The writings of Alfie Kohn helped convince me to join the Sudbury movement. Which is a bit ironic, given that Alfie Kohn doesn’t agree with the Sudbury model.
So, given that, what are the points of commonality? Kohn wrote Punished By Rewards, a book that details how punishments and rewards reduce the likelihood that someone will pursue something once those constraints are removed, and how schools thereby make students avoid learning when they can. He also wrote The Homework Myth, which aggregates all the studies that disprove the supposed effectiveness of homework. He’s also been paramount in criticisms of standardized testing and believes students should have more say in the classroom.
And yet Kohn still thinks teachers should take charge. There shouldn’t be standardized assessments, but there should be imposed assessments. And teachers should still decide what children learn. Notably, while he offers studies and other proof for his other opinions, he offers none for these. These he takes on faith.
Kohn knows centralized authority weakens education, yet he’s still willing to keep a vestige of it. It’s common enough for revolutionaries to turn around and demand control with power in their own hands. It becomes quite frustrating to see so many people demand greater freedom and respect for our kids, but who balk at the logical conclusion.
Yet here we remain, we who distrust power over others so much we don’t even want it for ourselves. And we’ll be here as more and more people realize this is the only proper way for someone who believes in freedom in our children's education.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
I didn’t always love JC (the Judicial Committee). It was something I put up with because it was part of the larger whole that I loved. I’d come to Mountain Laurel for the freedom and the chance to treat students like human beings who deserve my respect, not to get people in trouble. So I sat there because they needed me, but I tried to solve every problem without JC if possible.
Intellectually, I knew we needed it. People are not angels. We are capable of wronging other people. So without a set of rules and means to enforce them, kids would be free to hurt anyone they wanted. Adults, too, for that matter. So, I accepted it. I just didn’t embrace it.
Slowly but surely, that feeling changed. The first time I used JC, it was over purposeful flatulence in my face. The student who did it had to leave me alone for awhile as a consequence. It’s sad that it had to come to that point, but after that I held JC dear in my heart, not just my head.
Now I use JC all the time. To warn students who feel they have a right to harass me. To report messes. I’ve even written myself up for accidental breakage.
So, for those who doubt JC, know that I’ve been there. But also know that it’s exactly what our schools need.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
I recently ran into a former student from my days as a high school Spanish teacher. She told me she'd never taken notes, because I didn't check to make sure they took notes. This was after speaking to me in fluent Spanish. I told her I didn't care if she had the knowledge on paper. I cared if she had the knowledge in her head.
Walk into a public school classroom and you'll see everyone furiously taking notes. You might get the impression that these notes are important, perhaps even vital to the educational process. So much so that teachers will often assign part of a student's grade based on the notes they've taken rather than demonstration of their mastery of the subject.
And so notetaking has come to be associated with the necessities of education. Then, when people with this association in their minds walk into a Sudbury school, they see no notes of any kind. How can this be a serious school, they wonder, without notetaking?
The human mind doesn't need notes to learn. Someone who is interested in a subject they've chosen will simply remember without need for aids. Notetaking comes into play in an environment where it's taken for granted that the students will be bored and disengaged. Notes are required in traditional classes because the teacher expects that the students won't remember anything she said! That's why they need it on paper, so they can find it there rather than their minds, and perhaps cram it all into their brains for 24 hours for the next test.
That's not learning. Notetaking is a sign of educational inefficiency. There's no reason to place it on a pedestal. If you want to see real learning, you should be happy to see a school without notes.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
There is a common refrain in compulsory schools: that a teacher may know their content area, but they have “no control” over the kids. After this, the hearer is meant to twist their lips and shake their head. Nobody ever seems to reply: of course they have no control over the kids. The kids have their own forebrains and make their own decisions. The kids always have control over themselves. Nobody ever has control over anybody else.
Yet the assumption saturates the entire institution. Students will often demand why a teacher doesn’t make them do something in their best interest. The reply should be, of course: if you know it’s in your best interest, why didn’t you make yourself do it?
This is a terrible way to raise our children, under the belief that other people have control over them and they have no responsibility for their actions. At Sudbury schools, we recognize that we have no control, and thus the students embrace their own. And the irresponsibility and chronic behavior problems evaporate.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
The following blog entry was originally posted on the Psychology Today blog Freedom to Learn, by Peter Gray. A link to the original post follows this entry.
I have previously summarized evidence countering the common fears about video games (that they are addictive and promote such maladies as social isolation, obesity, and violence). I also pointed there to evidence that the games may help children develop logical, literary, executive, and even social skills. Evidence has continued to mount, since then, concerning especially the cognitive benefits of such games.
The most recent issue of the American Journal of Play (Fall, 2014) includes an article (link is external) by researchers Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green summarizing recent research demonstrating long-lasting positive effects of video games on basic mental processes--such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. Most of the research involves effects of action video games—that is, games that require players to move rapidly, keep track of many items at once, hold a good deal of information in their mind at once, and make split-second decisions. Many of the abilities tapped by such games are precisely those that psychologists consider to be the basic building blocks of intelligence.
Such research employs two strategies—correlational and experimental. In a correlational study, regular gamers are compared, on some perceptual or cognitive test, with otherwise comparable people who don’t play video games. The typical finding is that the gamers outperform the non-gamers on whatever test is used. This suggests that gaming is a cause the better performance, but doesn't prove it, because it is possible that people who choose to play video games are those who already have superior perceptual and cognitive abilities. The best proof that video-gaming improves these abilities comes from experiments in which all of the participants are initially non-gamers, and then some, but not others, are asked to play a particular video game for a certain number of hours per day, for a certain number of days, for the sake of the experiment. In these experiments, the typical finding is that those who play the video game improve on measures of basic perceptual and cognitive abilities while those in the control group do not.
In what follows, I’ll simply list some of the findings that have come from this sort of research, all of which are summarized in the article by Eichenbaum and his colleagues. The reference I cite for each finding is to the original research report.
Improvements in basic visual processes
• Improved visual contrast sensitivity. Fifty hours of action video game play (spread over ten to twelve weeks) improved visual contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish subtle differences in shades of gray) compared to controls (Li et al., 2009).
• Successful treatment of amblyopia. Amblyopia (also called “lazy eye”) is a disorder arising from early childhood in which one eye becomes essentially non-functional. Li and colleagues (2011) performed experiments in which some adults with this disorder played action video games using only the bad eye (the good eye was covered). Other adults with the disorder did other things with the good eye covered, such as knitting or watching television. The result was that those in the gaming condition showed great improvement—often to normal or near-normal functioning—while those in the other conditions did not. Many in the gaming condition developed 20/20 vision or better in the previously “lazy eye,” and visual attention and stereoscopic vision (ability to coordinate input from the two eyes to see depth) were restored to normal.
Improvements in attention and vigilance
• Improved spatial attention. Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to locate, quickly, a target stimulus in a field of distractors--a test that has been found to be a good predictor of driving ability.
• Improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distractors. Action games improved the ability of children and adults to keep track of a set of moving objects that were visually identical to other moving objects in the visual field (Trick et al., 2005).
• Reduced impulsiveness. Action games improved performance in a test of the ability to refrain from responding to non-target stimuli, in a situation in which most stimuli called for a response but an occasional stimulus called for no response (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009).
• Overcoming dyslexia. Dysexia, in at least some cases, seems to derive from problems of visual attention. One study showed that as few as 12 hours of video game play improved dyslexic children’s scores on tests of reading and phonology (Franceschini et al, 2013). In fact, the improvement was as great or greater than that achieved by training programs that were explicitly designed to treat dyslexia.
Improvements in executive functioning
Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to allot his or her mental resources (such as perception, attention, memory) in ways that allow for rapid, efficient problem solving or decision-making. Many experiments have shown positive effects of video-game training on measures of executive functioning. Here are two examples
• Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Chiappi and colleagues (2013) found that 50 hours of experience on an action video game significantly improved performance on a test called the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, which is modeled after skills required in piloting aircraft. It involves using a joystick to keep a target centered on a screen, monitoring fuel levels, responding to lights on an instrument panel, and listening and responding to radio communication. High scores on this test correlate well with real-world piloting performance.
• Increased mental flexibility. A number of researchers have shown that experience with action video games improve people’s abilities to switch rapidly and without error between tasks that have conflicting demands ((Anderson et al, 2010; Green et al, 2012; Colzato et al, 2014).
• Reversing mental decline that accompanies aging. Cognitive flexibility, attention, working memory, and abstract reasoning all tend to decline with age. Many experiments, with elderly participants, show that video game play results in improvement in all of these abilities (e.g. Basek et al., 2008). One study found that such play led not just to cognitive improvements, but also to better self-concepts and enhanced qualities of life in elderly participants (Torres, 2011).
Improvements in job-related skills
Many studies indicate that video games improve job performance, especially for jobs that require good eye-hand coordination, attention, excellent working memory, and quick decision-making. One correlational study, for example, demonstrated that video gamers were better than non-gamers in ability to fly and land aerial drones and were essentially as good as trained pilots on this skill (MKinley et al., 2011). Another correlational study revealed that young, inexperienced surgeons who were also avid video gamers outperformed the most experienced surgeons in their field (Rosser et al., 2007). In an experiment, novice surgeons who were provided with experience with video games improved their performance in laparoscopic surgery compared with a control group of surgeons who did not have that experience (Schlickum et al., 2009).
To cognitive scientists, such research on effects of video games is fascinating in part because it demonstrates that the brain is far more moldable, throughout a person's life, than was previously believed. Until fairly recently most psychologists believed that the basic building blocks of intelligence were rather rigidly set (hard-wired) by one’s genes. But the research summarized here, coupled with much other research, indicates that this is not true. It's interestng to note that video games appear to build these components of intelligence faster and more efficiently than any other intervention anyone has devised.
If you are a parent who has been limiting your child’s computer play because of the claims you have read of harmful effects, the research summarized here and in my previous posts on video gaming might give you pause. The bulk of the research suggests that the claims about negative effects of video gaming are largely myths and the positive effects are real. As children know in their bones, the kinds of mental skills that video games help to develop are among the skills that are increasingly important in today's world.
Peter Gray, PhD
Reprinted from Psychology Today blog: Freedom to Learn, by Peter Gray
Link: Psychology Today blog
Peter's new book Free to Learn is now available in paperback as well as hardcover
Anderson, Ashley F., Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green. 2010. “Speed-Accuracy Tradeoffs in Cognitive Tasks in Action Game Players.” Journal of Vision 10: 748.
Basak, Chandramallika, Walter R. Boot, Michelle W. Voss, and Arthur F. Kramer. 2008. “Can Training in a Real-Time Strategy Video Game Attenuate Cognitive Decline in Older Adults?” Psychology and Aging 23:765–77.
Chiappe, Dan, Mark Conger, Janet Liao, J. Lynn Caldwell, and Kim-Phoung L. Vu (2013). “Improving Multi-Tasking Ability through Action Videogames.” Applied Ergonomics 44:278–84.
Colzato,LorenzoS.,WeryP.M.vandenWildenberg,andBernhardHommel.2014.“Cognitive Control and the COMT Val (158) Met Polymorphism: Genetic Modulation of Videogame Training and Transfer to Task-Switching Efficiency.” Psychological Research 78:670–78.
Dye, Matthew W. G., C. Shawn Green, and Daphne Bavelier. 2009. “Increasing Speed of Processing with Action Video Games.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18:321–26.
Eichenbaum, A. E., Bavelier, D., & Green, C. S. (2014). Video games: Play that can do serious good. American Journal of Play, 7, 50-72.
Franceschini, Sandro, Simone Gori, Milena Ruffino, Simona Viola, Massimo Molteni, and Andrea Facoetti. 2013. “Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better.” Current Biology 23:462–66.
Green, C. Shawn, and Daphne Bavelier.. 2012. “Learning, Attentional Control, and Action Video Games. Current Biology 22:R197–R206.
Li, Renjie, Uri Polat, Walter Makous, and Daphne Bavelier. 2009. “Enhancing the Con- trast Sensitivity Function through Action Video Game Training.” Nature Neuro- science 12:549–51.
Li, Roger W., Charlie Ngo, Jennie Nguyen, and Dennis M. Levi. 2011. “Video-Game Play Induces Plasticity in the Visual System of Adults with Amblyopia.” PLoS Biology 9.
McKinley, R. Andy, Lindsey K. McIntire, and Margaret A. Funke. 2011. “Operator Selec- tion for Unmanned Aerial Systems: Comparing Video Game Players and Pilots.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 82:635–42.
Rosser, James C. Jr., Paul J. Lynch, Laurie Cuddihy, Dougls A. Gentile, Jonathan Klonsky, and Ronald Merrell. 2007. “The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century.” Archives of Surgery 142:181–86.
Schlickum, Marcus K., Leif Hedman, Lars Enochsson, Ann Kjellin, and Li Fellander-Tsai. 2009.“Systematic Video Game Training in Surgical Novices Improves Performance in Virtual Reality Endoscopic Surgical Simulators: A Prospective Randomized Study.” World Journal of Surgery 33:2360–67.
Torres, Ana Carla Seabra. 2011. “Cognitive Effects of Video Games on Old People.” International Journal on Disability and Human Development 10:55–58.
Trick, Lana M., Fern Jaspers-Fayer, and Naina Sethi. 2005. “Multiple-Object Tracking in Children: The ‘Catch the Spies’ Task.” Cognitive Development 20:373–87.
They say that children rise to expectations. And by they, I mean the traditional authorities in education. Yet rarely do you see them living up to that dictum. Kids are expected to do little more than parrot information. They aren't even expected to go to the bathroom and come back when they deem fit. No wonder so many school kids seem so irresponsible.
Whereas at Mountain Laurel and other Sudbury schools, we do take that motto to heart. Trust a kid to think about the consequences of a rule, and they will. Trust a child to balance a budget, and they do. Trust them with their time, they use it well. We have high expectations, and they do rise.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Look around a traditional school. Misery everywhere. Students shuffling from place to place. Loud sighs from students and teachers alike. Constant shouting. Bored students pumping their legs or fidgeting and checking the clock. Torment in the halls.
Now look about a Sudbury school. Students and staff laughing. Smiles everywhere. Jokes about the latest thing they’ve learned. Sharing ideas without fear. Play. Research with big goofy grins. Complete absorption in tasks. Eureka moments left and right.
That really says it all. That one reason alone should be enough to choose Sudbury over tradition: the omnipresence of joy.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
From August to now, I've watched a young man - he would be a freshman in a typical school - progress from no knowledge of Spanish whatsoever to expressing himself in the manner I'd come to expect from seniors in Spanish IV.
How did he do it? Well, it all began with a single lecture during our summer session. This was a lecture that he demanded from me, mind you, not one I forced upon him. He wanted me to explain every possible conjugation of Spanish verbs in every possible tense. And he retained it.
Come the regular school year, he used Duolingo to learn more vocabulary and grammar. He watched shows and videos in Spanish and even set his video games to Spanish mode. Not to mention reading books in Spanish. Every so often, he'd ask me a question or test a sentence construction with me. Now he's conversing on many topics with little hesitation. And he's still improving.
Keep in mind, this student didn't learn to read until he was 9. I shiver to think how a traditional school would have treated him. Right from kindergarten, they would have made him remedial. Every day, for years, they'd make it clear in their treatment that they thought he could not keep up. Even if he didn't internalize that much negativity, even if he kept his curiosity through years upon years of condescension, I can't imagine him in a high school Spanish class, the kind I used to teach. He'd want to speed ahead, and the teacher wouldn't let him. The teacher wouldn't be allowed to let him.
I should mention that he's been learning German and French at the same time. Or that one of his fellow students attended that first lecture on conjugation, before deciding he'd rather go back to learning Italian. Both boys share their thoughts on comparative linguistics with each other. They even crack jokes about comparative linguistics with each other. Because they think it's fun.
When I tell people what I do - people who have never heard of a Sudbury school, have never seen it in action, have never even done research or read about it - they tell me it could never work. Yet every day I walk into that building, and every day I see it work wonders.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Most everyone can agree that we need rules for people, let alone for children. Even anarchists such as Joel Spring and Francisco Ferrer have written that schools need rules. The only question becomes: exactly where do you draw the line?
An insight is, perhaps, offered by the Wiccan Rede. It states: do as thou wilt, an it harm none. Updated to modern English, it would read: do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. Note that it doesn’t say “an it harm others.” It says “an it harm none,” which would include yourself.
You don’t have to be Wiccan to appreciate the Rede any more than you need to be Christian to support the Golden Rule. Plenty of people embrace the idea even though they’ve never heard the Rede. So it should be no surprise that the rules at Mountain Laurel tend toward that ideal. We have rules against crossing other people’s boundaries - such as taking property without permission or disturbing their activities - as well as safety rules - such as needing official certification to use the stove or the paper cutter. Rules about whether or not you’ve caused some kind of harm to someone.
It was never stated in terms of the Rede. Yet you could probably shorten most of our lawbook to “Do as thou wilt, an it harm none.”
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Sometimes visitors express concern that our students will often try something and then quit it. That this may well happen often, one discarded interest after another. Wouldn't it be better if they learned the discipline to follow something to its completion?
They say that quitters never win. But that seems incomplete. Really, it's that quitters never win... at the thing they quit. They still can and do win at the other efforts they haven't quit. Efforts they can put more time into because they quit something else.
Sudbury schools give kids a chance to explore potential interests. Often enough, they discover they weren't all that interested. Quitting gives them a chance to realign their efforts and focus to something they find more fulfilling. And when they find interests that fill them with meaning, then they don't quit.
Quitting is part of life, even for the most successful people among us. Perhaps we as a adults forget how many paths we've quit in our own lives, but still came out functional. Quitting an instrument means you'll never be good at that instrument, yes. But quitting an instrument to learn programming means you can succeed at programming... perhaps even more so because you quit the instrument.
And in that way they do learn discipline, by doing everything in their power to master something that matters to them.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Part of the justification for authoritarian schools is that kids will have to face similar levels of authoritarianism from their workplaces when they grow older. Ignore for a moment that no law forces anyone to attend a job they haven't chosen. The premise is also demonstrably untrue.
As time progresses, more and more workplaces become more and more "flattened." That is to say, less power is invested in managers, and workers have more flexibility in how they handle the work, from hours to dress code. They'll probably be able to contribute their own ideas. It's less about maintaining the boss's power, and more about letting the only worry be that the work has been done to a professional level by the deadline.
Add it to the long list of reasons to prefer Sudbury. We're already flattened.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Every Sudbury school is going to handle rough play differently, based on the values and experiences of that particular community. At Mountain Laurel, how we’ve chosen to handle rough play such as playfighting has changed as we’ve struggled with the dividing line between liberty and license. Like anything else, we determined it as a whole community, debating and voting and negotiating.
As it currently stands, Mountain Laurel’s rule 20.21 reads “Roughhousing is permitted in the building as long as it's not disrupting another activity.” This includes the possible use of foam "swords." It's also understood that all playfighting must be consensual between all parties, and must stop if anyone doesn't want to take part. And real violence, of course, is strictly forbidden.
Why do we allow roughhousing at all? Because it has benefits for those who choose to participate. It helps them learn boundaries. It helps them negotiate frustration and pain. And it helps them learn that they can overcome obstacles. All well established. Plus, we know that pretend violence reduces aggression and the likelihood of real violence, most likely because it gives children a chance to consider the consequences of violence in a real way.
It makes them more resilient and more empathetic. So we allow it.
So that’s how things stand for now. But who knows? New students might well arrive and change it.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
One of the most prevalent arguments against trusting children - or even younger adults - is that the brain doesn’t reach full development until age 25. Of course, this argument ignores a number of factors, including the fact that our brains begin to deteriorate beginning at age 26.
So, age 25 is only the precise moment in time when our brains are at the peak of their growth. It assumes that this will also be the pinnacle of reason and responsibility, but it begs the question: how do we know the two are correlated?
Are we to believe that the benefits of a full-grown 25-year-old brain come automatic to all and sundry, that practice at thought and responsibility have nothing to do with it? Well, we have data on that, too. It turns out experience is the best predictor of responsibility. Drivers, for example, are worst when they’re new, and that holds true equally for new drivers who are 16 and new drivers who are 25. We also find that those raised to think about their choices demonstrate more empathy and responsibility and creativity.
So, it’s not about the exact formation of the brain. It’s about its usage, at age 25 or at any other.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
Show and tell. It’s one of those activities you often associate with traditional schools. It’s another activity you shouldn’t expect to find at Mountain Laurel. Why? Isn’t the whole idea of the school to celebrate children and let them be themselves? Well, precisely. We don’t spend the whole day demanding conformity, with one little release that lets the children’s individuality shine for a brief moment. So, no, children won’t wait turns to stand in front of the others and demonstrate who they are. They have all school day to that, but without the rigidity and pressure. They just spend the day being themselves.
In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham imagined a building called a Panopticon, from Greek roots that meant “all-seeing.” It was a prison built such that a watchman could always see every prisoner at all times. Bentham made no secret that his invention was all about control.
Since then, the Panopticon has been referenced in many cases where privacy is at stake. When people worry about the NSA or Facebook having too much access to our information. Yet, even those who fear the total surveillance state often seem to have no trouble with the constant oversight of children, using the same justifications of security.
Those same people will come to our school, and even after we discuss our philosophy of freedom and trust for children, will express shock that we don’t watch the children at every waking second. We let them stay in other rooms and close the doors. Where is the supervision?
The staff will make routine passes to know where everyone is and that they’re safe. But we know that we don’t need constant supervision. Sudbury schools have created mechanisms to let the children police themselves. In a traditional school, for example, a teacher has to see bullying before anything can be done about it. Here, it doesn’t matter if one of the adults sees the culprit or not; anyone can take it to JC and have it resolved.
It wouldn’t make sense for a school built on freedom to watch a child’s every move. They need privacy, just like anyone else, to be alone with their thoughts and determine their course of action without any pressure from authority. We have no wish to build a Panopticon.
Teachable Moments are those situations that arise and, in so doing, give teachers an excuse to springboard into a lesson. In theory, the idea is to use the students’ (supposed) engagement to help them learn better. In practice, it’s amazing how often these teachable moments become impractical and even obnoxious.
There’s a story of a field trip to Washington, where a group of students met a veteran who talked about his experiences in war. Rather than let the vet talk and the kids ask questions, the teacher decided this was a teachable moment and kept interrupting to quiz her students. Or the story of inexperienced Sudbury staffers who, because a student asked a few questions on a topic, find in-depth resources that the child neither requested nor wanted. The teacher tries to use student interest, but still falls into the trap of trying to force that interest, which makes the whole thing just as artificial as the rest of the compulsory education model.
We don’t worry about teachable moments here. When the student is interested, they’ll ask someone, or - more likely - they’ll figure it out themselves.
The following article was written by a 15 year old student at Mountain Laurel Sudbury School:
People often categorize activities. They’ll decide something is work, recreation, rest, education or any number of other things. But sometimes what seems like one category actually fits multiple categories. One day when I was around twelve played a video game (something most people would not consider educational) where the object is to build a civilization. I was playing as India trying to find a new route to Spain because my ally Austria blocked my other route. I sent my conquistadors through a peninsula to Spain. On my way I found and invaded the Aztec empire. I asked one of the staff how to pronounce the name Tenochtitlan. He had studied Spanish in Mexico and know some about the Aztec language Nahuatl. I had never heard of Nahuatl. I had studied some Latin, but besides that I was not very interested in language. At the time I enjoyed the sound of the language, especially the ATL sound common at the end of Nahuatl words.
I later grew more interested in language. I had studied Latin before I had studied any other language or aspect of language, Including English grammar. I learned about tenses, conjugation, declension (changing the end of a noun to affect its meaning) and syntax. Then I learned about the history of the English language and I became interested in the grammatical features of different languages. I became more interested in Nahuatl for more substantial reasons than the fact that I liked saying the word ‘atlatl’. Nahuatl is an agglutinative language which means that you build words as complex and meaningful as English sentences with morphemes, the smallest measurement of linguistic meaning.
At the age of fourteen, I decided wanted to learn Nahuatl. I did a Google search and found a Yale summer Nahuatl course. When I talked to my parents about it, they agreed to pay tuition and drive me if I could get accepted. I emailed the program administrator, Jean Silk. I was told that they were not sure if a high school student could attend the course and that I should contact them again in January. January came and I contacted them again. They said that I should contact them again in a month or so. When I did they said that I could attend the program, but not through Yale. I wouldn’t be given the three Yale credits that my classmates would, but I would receive a certificate of completion.
The administrator also wanted me to meet with her. She told me about the course logistics. Every day, five days a week for six weeks, I would spend two hours studying Modern Nahuatl, taught by native speakers of modern Huastecan Nahuatl. I would spend an hour studying my cultural activity which was dance. Then I would spend two hours studying Classical Nahuatl, the dialect that the Aztecs spoke. In addition there were four days a week one hour one on one tutoring sessions.
Jean wanted to know if I had any questions. I only had one which was, 'Do I have to know Spanish to take the class?' To my relief Spanish was not necessary to participate in the class, although Jean said it would be very helpful. Jean asked me a few questions. How did I hear about Nahuatl, Why did I want to learn Nahuatl, Had I studied any other language before etc. At the end she said she would email me a modified application form. She also told me that there was a Nahuatl conference in a few weeks that I could go to. I said I would go. There were probably twenty other people at the conference. On the first day, for about an hour at a time someone would get do a presentation on Nahuatl or Nahua culture. I learned that some of the few million native speakers continued the pre-Colombian realign. I saw slides of people offering cigarettes and coke to spirits (god or deity isn’t quite the right word). I learned words like pantheistic. And saw that this was a modern religion. It was one of the most educational experiences of my life.
I remember walking in the first day completely terrified. There was food, water and a room full of people. I looked over and saw the professor who was going to teach the class, the five native Nahuatl speakers who were who were TAs for the class, and eighteen other students. As I met them, the first question most of them asked me was what institution was I from. They all seemed shocked when I told them I was a high school student. I would later learn that the other students in the class were: four undergrads, a professor from Fordham and thirteen grad-students including doctoral candidates and post-doctoral students. I began to learn the basics of Nahuatl grammar. In Nahuatl every noun has a person. In other words there is no word for man. I can say: I am a man, he is a man, you are a man, we are men, you guys are men, they are man, but not man. I learned that you can’t have a vowel next a vowel or a consonant next to a consonant in the same syllable (tl and ts are considered complex consonants.). I also learned about the many prefixes and suffixes you put onto a verb or noun: verbers, nouners, possessive prefixes, abstractors, positional prefixes, etc. (Note that many of those are the informal names we gave them, so that their meanings would be more intuitive) Not to mention the fact that you can make infinitely long compound words.
The first Modern Nahuatl lesson was one of the hardest things I have done. It was in a strange mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl. I could understand most things by context alone. When instructors spoke predominately in Spanish, I often asked my classmates for clarification. Then first thing we learned was pronunciation. We then learned greetings and then basic conjugation and commands. With a vocabulary of maybe fifteen words we played a strange version of Nahuatl Simon-says. We broke up into groups of three people. One person would command a second one to do something and then ask third person what the second person was doing. In future lessons we would learn how to ask complicated questions, how to count and do basic math in Nahuatl (although counting itself feels like math in Nahuatl as they use a base twenty system), how to read and write, the names of animals, how to give directions and many other things of such a nature. One day about two or three weeks into the course when we were learning a song about an elephant which in tone and rhythm reminded me of ring around the rosy I released that the Modern Nahuatl class form me was something like going through the first grade in two languages neither of which I understood very well.
After Modern Nahuatl we had cultural activities. For an hour every day learned how to dance. Which dispute being something I have no natural talent for, was interesting and enjoyable. In between Dance and Classical Nahuatl there was a lunch break. I spent most of the lunch break either pacing or sitting outside eating and talking to my classmates. Classical Nahuatl for the first few weeks was mostly about breaking words down and learning grammar. Early on in the class the professor said that he wanted to meet us all. I decided to meet with him at a coffee shop. He wanted to talk about why I was interested in Nahuatl, my school and my other interests. When I told him that I like Science Fiction he told me that when he was a kid he met Ray Bradbury. He also told me how he got interested in Nahuatl. That he believed that every culture has its own world view, only accessible through its language and that he wants to make Nahuatl a household word.
As the course went on the activities in Modern Nahuatl class became more complex. We started to receive homework which included videos to watch, writing a paragraph about anything in Nahuatl, writing directions to your house in Nahuatl, etc. Onetime we had to create a dialog involving corn. One of the doctoral students in my class came up with “painting corn with Bob Ross”. In Classical Nahuatl we started to translate texts for the most part wills and other legal documents. One day instead of our normal classes we cooked tamales and we learned about traditional Nahua cuisine, as compared to modern Mexican cuisine. Soon thereafter we planted corn, which is a religious activity for most traditional Nahua communities. The previous evening we had performed a ritual on the kernels. We blew onto our hands, as it is believed that by breathing on your hands you are breathing skill onto them. Not dissimilar to breathing onto dice before rolling them. We then picked the kernels that we thought were larger and healthier. We then placed them into a bucket of water. The following day we started a corn planting ceremony. We setup an altar on an open outdoor fire place. We began by sweeping the dirt off. We then placed a table cloth, candles and food on it. We blew on our hands and took the bucket of water with the seeds in it, pouring out the water and all of the seeds that floated. We took the seeds that sank and planted them in small holes that we dug with a seed drill. Once we had planted all of the seeds we went back to the altar. The altar had a goblet with burning herbs beside and a picture that looked like the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ depending on how you looked at the top of it. One by one we smudged the altar with the goblet. Once everyone had smudged it we took the food and offered it to the people besides us. We finished by eating burritos. It was an interesting experience.
At the end of the class I took a test for the first time. It was an oral exam. I had to talk to one of the TAs for about ten minutes only in Nahuatl. There was some food. We all sang the elephant song one last time. Group by group we performed our cultural activities. We played a few games in Nahuatl (It really was like the first grade). We all ate lunch and said our last goodbyes.
I now realize that to pursue my interests in the Nahuatl language and Nahua culture I must learn Spanish. To learn Spanish I spent about a week going over the conjugations with a staff member at MLSS who is a former high-school Spanish teacher. I then played through a video game in Spanish asking him the meanings of the words that I came across and the occasional grammatical question. I found it difficult to keep Spanish and French straight in my head. There was an easy solution to this problem though. I found a website from which you can learn French from Spanish. I works through translation so I can translate French to Spanish, allowing me to learn both at once. I can also translate long texts from French or Spanish to English. So I sit here, a fifteen year-old writing about how I learned things some people learn as a grad-student because I got bored translating Journey to the Center of the Earth from French to English, all because as an eleven or twelve year old I decided I that I wanted to play a video game. Who says that children do not learn of their own volition?
Liam Marshall Butler
Some Sudbury staff are trained to be teachers. (It just so happens that both staff at Mountain Laurel have Master’s Degrees in Education and experience in public schools.) However, many Sudbury staff aren’t, and traditional teacher training isn’t required. This is partially because we don’t value the same structures as teacher preparation courses value. And it’s partially because teacher preparation tends to be woefully inadequate.
Most of the time is spent on theory. Yet so much of the theory is unproven. For example, while it's true that everyone has different strengths, there is no evidence to support the specifics of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, that people can only learn in certain modalities. (Gardner even admits he chose seven modalities because it was a convenient number, not because he had any proof to back to his claims!) Or take Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Yes, it's hard to self-actualize when you starve to death, but the Hierarchy doesn't explain kids who forget to eat lunch because they're lost in curiosity - something we see here quite often.
Education majors are shown plenty of research that recognizes the importance of intrinsic motivation that they will not be allowed to offer in their class. Instead, they're taught how to threaten detentions.
Much of the time in teacher colleges is spent congratulating each other on choosing to be a teacher. Very little time is spent practicing to teach. There’s a semester of student teaching, then they are sent to be teachers.
Yet teaching comes naturally when the student is willing. It doesn’t take all that theory and practice and self-congratulation, only honest sharing. Senseis, professors, dance instructors, corporate trainers, Sunday school teachers... none of them need teacher prep, yet they do just fine. Much like Sudbury staff.
When we tell parents about how wonderful our schools are, and about all the problem-solving institutions we have here, perhaps we oversell it. Apparently, some parents take the impression that we're perfect, or some kind of utopia where trouble will never befall their child. So when their kid comes and runs into a problem, many withdraw.
It would be nice to believe that our children will never have to face adversity. However, that is simply not the world we live in. The world is imperfect. We must all face challenges and overcome them. When your children turn 18, they're going to be responsible to face those challenges alone. They can either have practice confronting adversity, or they can face it for the first time after a lifetime of being sheltered. They can have the skills necessary to persevere, or they can learn those skills on the fly for the first time as an adult.
So, yes, your child will face issues at a Sudbury school. And we'll let them. It's not a perfect Shangri-La, just like the rest of the world. But we'll offer tools to help face it, and they will grow from it.
You don't want to guard your child from all adversity, nor should you.
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
“For the first time since I was a kid I am wondering if the description of freedom and democracy should come first, as the basis of a new person’s exposure to the school, or should it be later on as the mechanics of how your kid will be put through an experience that will make them a powerful person. Maybe it is the powerful person that your kid will become that should be emphasized.
“They will learn to think for themselves. To do intense analytical thinking. To deal with multiple viewpoints in subjective situations where there is no ‘truth.’ Along the way they will pick up reading, writing, basic math, an ability to make clear, logical arguments in matters of deep ethical complexity. They will learn how to find the information they need through multiple sources (internet, books, trial and error, talking to people who are in the field). They will learn how to set priorities and allocate resources. They will learn how to be useful to others and how to be responsible participants in a complex society. They will learn how to create, enforce and obey the rule of law in an environment with no tolerance for violence, theft or vandalism. At graduation, they will be adult in ways that most traditionally schooled students can never hope to be, as a reading of our graduation thesis defenses will immediately confirm.
“They will possess the set of powerful character traits that the Sudbury system imbues in those who have spent sufficient time in the program. Above all, they will live an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful and fun.”
From The View From Inside, by Michael Greenberg
Since January, I've been teaching myself how to code in preparation for a career change to programming. And as I've done so, I can't help but notice some similarities between my own studies and the studies of the children at a Sudbury school.
I had actually had a class that taught me HTML back in college, except I didn't take the class to learn HTML. It was a publishing class that I didn't realize would include online publication. So I only barely learned what I needed to pass, and had to constantly refer back to the reference sheet because it didn't stay in my head. In the space of a semester, I remembered only how to make paragraph tags.
See the difference? Personal motivation. Even though I don't have a Computer Science degree, that motivation gave me the wherewithal to continue to grow and learn no matter the challenges, finding as many avenues for that learning as I could find.
It's the same self-motivated growth that I see with our kids all the time. And you could just as easily call their brand of learning open source. I learned coding from online sources, without formal classes. Some of our students are learning second languages from online sources, without formal classes. What difference is there?
Now, here's the thing. Nobody doubts my learning. They see the proof in the websites I build and accept that I've learned how to code on my own, because I wanted to. So why does anyone doubt it could work the same for children?
Sean Vivier, MLSS Staff
In arguments about the propriety of one activity or another, you'll often see one side saying it should be banned because of all the dangers, while another side argues it should be allowed and even encouraged because of all the benefits. But the world is far more complicated than that. It deserves a more nuanced argument. Most things aren't all good or all bad, but a combination of both. And for that reason, they should be allowed, so that everyone may weigh the risks and rewards themselves.
For example, there is evidence that screen time within the last 90 minutes before bedtime can disrupt natural sleep cycles. However, there is also evidence that video games increase executive function and decrease anxiety. Wouldn't it then make sense to let each person decide which means more to them and whether to limit their screen time or not?
Or take the eating of meat. Animal protein increases your risk of cancer, especially processed meat. But a recent longitudinal study also found that people who eat meat along with lots of fruits and vegetables have better lifetime health outcomes than strict vegetarians, especially when it comes to mental health. Meat also improves heart health. Again, it's each person's health, so it's each person's decision which aspect of that health is more important to them.
We at Mountain Laurel see no reason why that same respect for autonomy shouldn't be extended to children, as well. It's their lives, after all, so it should be their choice when it comes to weighing activities with both risk and reward. From screen time to diet to exercise to their studies, let them decide.
One of the least effective ways to learn something is “cramming”: forcing it all into your head over several hours in one night’s sitting, so that you can remember it the next day and then forget it. It’s also so commonplace in compulsory schools that teachers pretty much expect that’s what most students will do the night before a test.
There’s no cramming here. Students learn their interests at a steady pace and keep using it on a regular basis. That’s a much more effective form of education.
The concept of a “living democracy” is introduced by Frances Moore Lappe in Educating Real World Problem Solvers as a way to revitalize democracy in the United States. Lappe envisions a dynamic culture of community cooperation and problem solving. A living democracy means people in all sectors of society directly make decisions regarding their communities’ problems, needs, and goals. She illuminates this concept further with the following excerpt: “the best solutions draw on the insights and creativity of those who have had direct experience of the problem at hand” (Lappe, 1995). People gain the skills of listening, conflict resolution, long range planning, compromise, mediation, and analytical thinking through practice (Lappe, 1994). How do we raise democratic citizens? Lappe points to the obvious: our schools. We say, Sudbury schools.
Lappe suggests creating school systems that are more than “factory models.” She wrote, “But in truth, the factory model of education allots teachers very little. They just work the learning assembly line: Screw on some science here, attach a little math there, pound in a little history, and out comes a shiny new graduate. Teachers aren’t co-creators of the process: they simply are conveyors of mandated data” (Lappe). Alternatively, we can revitalize the culture of education to create a living democracy in schools so that youth realize that democracy is not just a form of government, but a way of life (Lappe). (emphasis mine)
When first considering these ideas some imagine students with limited decision making power. Perhaps they would vote on a given set of choices for an assignment. But Sudbury schools give Lappe’s ideas new meaning. We needn't theorize about participating in a living democracy, students at MLSS are experiencing one. We fully embody the concept of a “shared culture of responsibility” (Lappe).
As the United States helps other countries establish democratic practices, it is important to take a closer look at freedom and democracy in our own country. How free are children that have to ask to do something so innately human as go to the bathroom? Why do we demand that they follow rules that they did not help form? This practice conditions them to accept a role of subordination. This has nothing to do with democracy and egalitarianism. If we want our children to be democratic citizens, then schools that practice democracy are necessary.
paraphrased from a Sego Lily Sudbury School blog post
by Tara Maher
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.