How a very different school changed Judi’s son’s life
When I finally realized that my son was never going to fit the mold of the typical student in the typical learning environment, I checked out my options — and I found the place that saved him and my family from endless hours of angst, pressure and failure.
It's called Jersey Shore Free School in Little Silver and it's a Sudbury School. A Sudbury school is a type of school where students have complete control of their own education. It's run by a direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.
Students individually decide what to do with their time, and tend to learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through coursework. There is no curriculum or instruction. Everyone — adults and children — are treated equally and there is no authority other than the students themselves. When students are given this lofty responsibility, you wouldn't believe how they will rise to the occasion.
Case-in-point: My 17-year-old son, who has gained a confidence he never had in the traditional teacher/student school model. His self image was so boosted by the freedom, trust, respect, responsibility and democracy that Sudbury advocates and practices, that he is like a different person since he's been there.
Sudbury schools operate independently and aren't connected, but are based on the same beliefs — namely, that children are extremely good at (and therefore do not need to be taught) the main behaviors they will need as adults, such as creativity, imagination, alertness, curiosity, thoughtfulness, responsibility and judgement. What children do NOT have is experience, which can be gained if adults guide students in open ways.
Another core belief — and what I think gave my son the most self confidence — is that having full democratic rights in childhood is the best way to become an adult who is comfortable functioning within a democracy.
My son would be junior in high school, but there are no grade levels in his school, the idea being that that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group. He'll graduate when he and the group really feel he's ready. He has become a much more responsible teen since he's been enrolled there and I believe it's because of the freedom he has there.
For all humans (especially for a kid like mine, who was a square peg being slammed into a round hole), that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility. Everything in his school is governed and determined by the weekly school meeting, which passes, amends and repeals school rules, manages the school's budget, and decides on hiring and firing of staff. Parents have limited to no involvement in the school administration. At school meeting, students and staff participate equally. Each individual present — including students and staff — has an equal vote. Most decisions are made by simple majority, including complaints and rules, the breaking of which are adjudicated and students, just like in life, face the consequences of their own behavior.
The idea is that there are many ways to learn. And the traditional one wasn't a fit for my child.
Sudbury Schools believe that learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you. The presence and guidance of a teacher are not necessary. The free exchange of ideas and free conversation and interplay between people is what some kids thrive on. It's interesting to them. In this model, students of all ages mix; older students learn from younger students as well as vice versa. The presence of older students provides role models, both positive and negative, for younger students.
I love that students in Sudbury are given responsibility for their own education: The only person designing what a student will learn is the student. Sometimes, a kid will ask for a particular class or arrange an internship. For example, my son has a weekly delivery job where he learns more about math and commerce, economics, finance, social skills, language and plain old personal responsibility in that single day than he did in a month of traditional schooling. Sudbury schools do not compare or rank students — the school requires no tests, evaluations, or transcripts.
Reading is treated the same as any other subject: Students learn to read when they choose, or simply by going about their lives.
And believe it or not, they do. Some learn from being read to, memorizing the stories and then ultimately reading them. Some learn from cereal boxes, others from game instructions, others from street signs. Some teach themselves letter sounds, others syllables, others whole words. In the words of one Sudbury advocate, "To be honest, we rarely know how they do it, and they rarely tell us."
While students learn to read at a wide variety of ages, there appears to be no drawback to learning to read later. (After all, these kids get accepted to fine colleges if they choose to.)Only a few kids seek any help at all when they decide to learn. Each child seems to have their own method. I push my son a little, (it's that Jewish Mother thing) some parents don't.
There are no "classes" in my son's school, but the kids' interests guide things, with students studying what they want to study. There are generally no classrooms, just rooms where people choose to congregate. What used to be a struggle and a challenge for my son, is now a pleasure where he really learns.
My feeling is that the Sudbury school model works because it takes into account (and in fact is tailored to) the way human beings REALLY operate; the way they think and the way they learn. Not just the way we think they should, but the way they actually do.
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