Kindred Spirits from Denmark

During the Fall of 2017, Sudbury Valley hosted three guests from a school in Copenhagen called “Den Demokratiske Skole” which was inspired by SVS. Rikke Faxoe founded and was staff at the school for its seven years, until it closed in 2015. Rikke is keeping her dream alive, working to find a way to start fresh and open another school. She and her daughters Nina, who is twenty-one, and Emma, who is sixteen, visited SVS for a week. All three are fluent in English and so were able to observe our school, talk to staff and students, sit in on JC sessions and attend the School Meeting, and in general mingle with the community comfortably. I imagined that it would be fascinating to hear from them how they experienced our school, and I was not disappointed.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Rikke: I think that from running a school similar to Sudbury Valley School for seven years, and from reading all the books staff members from Sudbury Valley wrote, and reading on your website of course, and from your YouTube videos that I’ve seen, I think that the idea I had in my head and pictures I saw of how the school would be was really how it is. It’s well described in the literature, and the way I’ve seen it here for almost a week now is really the same as the things I’ve read and watched. I think that’s really nice. It’s always not nice if you expect something and then you get something totally different.

Hanna: And the fact that this is the U.S.A. and you come from Denmark—was that a big difference to you?

Rikke: Well, of course there are some cultural things. In this country, you can sue people fairly easily, and your school has a lawyer to look at all the official documents. In Europe, you’re not able to sue people if your kid is hurt somehow at school; you don’t have to be so very careful with that. Of course, we do obey the fire regulations and stuff like that. 
       But after the first day here, we looked at each other and said, “It feels like home”—it feels like our previous school. The feeling is the same. It’s really nice that we were able to read all the books and visit other Sudbury model schools in Europe and then make a school similar to yours.

Nina: Another thing we talked about was that one of the first things we noticed was that the culture at the school is really solid. When you start a school, for example, you start out with maybe twenty kids. Maybe some of them have some previous knowledge about the model, but they all need to get used to the school and get into its culture. That can be difficult with a small number of people. The first thing we could feel that was really different here was that definitely more than half of the school—students and staff members—were just completely attuned to the culture of the school, and that creates a calmness and sense of peace at the school. That’s quite unique.

Hanna: I think every new school has to create its culture. People have to learn to be part of a social group. It takes time, and it’s always interesting to see how they transition.

Rikke: That’s the interesting part about being together with other human beings, right? That they’re all so different. I’ve always liked that. I think that’s probably my main interest in being in a school like this: I like being with people.

Hanna: Were you a teacher before you began your school?

Rikke: I took more than half of the state school teacher training, and then I quit. I did it because I was thinking about opening a school, or applying for a job in the other school in Denmark that was running as a Sudbury school. I thought it would have been helpful to have that diploma. It wasn’t that interesting. But I did get certified to teach Danish, art, and sewing.
       I certainly know that it helped me deal with authorities. I had to do a lot of negotiating with municipalities, during the inspections our school went through, and communicating with educational administrators.
       Our school was founded under the law for non-state schools in Denmark. There is a sentence in the law saying that you have to provide teaching that is adequate compared to the state school teaching. We knew from the beginning that we would probably have an inspection case. We hoped that we could be in existence for five years or so before that happened so that we would be able to establish the school and have a lot of students. But it happened after a little more than a year.
       We asked the inspectors, “How do you interpret that sentence? And they couldn’t really say. They were like: yeah, it could mean blah, blah, it could mean blah, blah—wavering back and forth. But in the end, when they gave their final report, they said that they would take away our right to be a school, and that we would also lose our state subsidy. That was after 2-1/2 years of existence.
       Then the staff members decided to work as part-time volunteers and run the school under the law of homeschooling, which allows people to homeschool, and requires the municipality, instead of the state, to inspect the teaching. So we had to work with the municipalities, but there wasn’t any money involved. And that was way easier, except that in the beginning the municipality where the school was located was also part of the state inspection case! So we actually had to work together with the same inspector as in the beginning. He was very hostile, and tried to convince us that we couldn’t do it this way. We said, “Oh, yes, we can, because there is a legal right to homeschool.” He said, “Yes, you can homeschool your own kids, you cannot homeschool other people’s kids,” to which we replied, “The law doesn’t say anything about that. It only says that you can inspect the teaching, and if you want to do testing, then the one who is responsible for the teaching has to do the testing.” So that means it could be the parents, it could be other people. So we found a way around. Finally he agreed to it and then we managed to work together with him and a lot of other municipalities. It was a lot of work because kids came from different places—Copenhagen, and different municipalities. So that’s what happened.

Hanna: So you have twenty kids, some of them very young. Did you feel pressure from the inspector to teach them to read?

Rikke: No, I didn’t. But the kids felt the pressure, because the inspectors almost always wanted to test the kids, and they had the right to. The law didn’t say that they should, but it said that they could.

Nina: I think what really went down was that we all knew that this was the way of our society, and if we wanted to stay at the school, we had to somehow satisfy these people who came once a year. None of the staff members ever pushed anything on us. We could definitely come and say, “I have this test soon and I need to look it up. I remember I did that with math. So I sat down with one of them who knew some stuff about math.

Hanna: So how did you learn to read, Emma?

Emma: I think it came pretty naturally. I thought it was really annoying that people could read all the signs on the streets and in the supermarkets, and they could sit and read books, and I couldn’t be a part of it. It frustrated me so much so every time we were in the car, riding around, or every time we were in the supermarket, anywhere that had some letters anywhere, I always read them out loud and I said: is that correct? 

Nina: I remember that Emma would be on a chat forum, and it took her a really long time to write a sentence, but for a year or so we would always get these questions from her, like: how do you spell this? We helped her out, and one day she just didn’t ask anymore.

Emma: Oh, I did that. That’s how I learned to write.

Hanna: Do you believe, now that you lived through it yourself and you observed the school with younger kids, that kids would learn how to read without the inspection pressure?

Emma: Definitely. I don’t think you need anything pushing you to do it. If you want to be able to read, you can learn it somehow. If you don’t want to, well, then you don’t do it. I don’t think that you have to be worried about it. A lot of my friends are not very good at reading or writing because they got forced into it.

Nina: I think reading is like walking. Reading is so necessary to be able to get around. Some people can survive fine just being able to read the signs on the street that say “stop” and things like that. But I remember I learned to read before I even started state school. At one point my mom said: “I don’t want to read the subtitles on this movie out loud.” We’d watch English-speaking movies with Danish subtitles, so I would say, “I want you to read it, I want to understand.” She was like “No, I’m tired, Nina, I don’t want to—you can learn yourself.” So she was tired, and I was really frustrated. That was a really good start for me because I realized that not everyone will always be there for me to help me to read this stuff, so I’d like to do it myself. It would be like having somebody assisting you with walking all the time. That’s also boring, you want to be able to do it yourself.
       When I started in school, we got these really small, square books with a big picture and a little bitty line of words. I was just so bored. I was reading Harry Potter instead.

Emma: When I was six or seven years old I would sit at a computer and I would be banging on the keyboard, and I’d say, “Mom, come over—is there any word in this?” And she would say, “Oh, it says ‘tiger’ there.” I was so excited that I wrote something!

Rikke: Kids are really engaged with the letters and the words, and once you start correcting them and trying to teach, it just creates a depressing atmosphere instantly. I think it’s way better just to let them handle it and if they want feedback, give them feedback.

Rikke: I think the calmness and the respect that you can feel about everyone here comes from people being grounded. Maybe they have parents who accept the model, and they’ve been here a few years and have friends around them who have been at the school for several years. It’s another reassurance for everyone. So if you just have this big group of kids and parents who are grounded and like and respect the school and its philosophy, it creates this kind of culture.
       When you start a new school, there are many difficulties, but one of them is definitely that a lot of parents will bring their kid primarily because they’re not doing well. The kid will definitely love the freedom in the school, but it’s also a big transition. They need to figure it out, and that takes time, but it also takes patience from all of the people in the community. And if there is a majority of new people that needs to go through this, and a minority of people who grasp the culture, that is always difficult.

Rikke: The JC here appeals to me. The structure of it is very different from our JC. We always had the door closed when dealing with cases, and the JC panel was sitting on one side, and the accused and the witnesses on the other side. It was more like a courtroom. But I found the way it’s done in your school has a more casual atmosphere. People come in all the time to listen. I had to get used to that. But after getting used to it, I actually found it very nice. I saw that the JC clerks were very serious and efficient. They were really moving on with business all the time, even though the atmosphere was very casual. They still have time to crack a joke, or laugh a little bit, but then it’s right back to business. I think the whole atmosphere contributes to equality and responsibility in a very different way than our JC did.

Nina: Since we were a small school I was in JC most of the three years I was there. It was very different coming to your JC, because we had this totally rigid setting. I was part of making rules that people should not sit and slouch too much, and things like that. Stupid rules. But I think that came from the fact that they did not take the JC seriously. They were sitting and playing with things, making noise and being annoying and I didn’t find it that serious or fun to be in JC with other people that were just sitting and slouching. It was not fun.

Emma: That was an impressive thing about this JC—that they can sit with their phone but they still know exactly what’s going on—the details—they’re very focused but they can just sit, even if they are almost falling off the chair. 

Rikke: I see here that people really respect the JC and when people come inside the room and they are told by the clerk, “You can stand there or sit there,” they do it. They really respect the institution.

Hanna: I’m not letting you go before you tell me the Celeste story. 

Rikke: So little Celeste—I think she’s 4-1/2 years old—was in the small hallway by the coat room when we came yesterday. We came in and she said, “Aah.” She pointed at all of us, one at a time, and said, “I know you, I know you, I know you.” And I said, “Yes, we were here yesterday. We’re guests. You see, I have a label on, telling that I’m a guest.” And Celeste said, “Yes, I need to get a new label, because mine is broken.” And then I said, “And you’re a student here, right?” And she said, “No, I work here.” Then she offered to give us a tour around the school. She started off following us up to the office so Emma and Nina could get new labels.
       She gave us a very detailed tour and told us the rules that apply to each room: This is the quiet room. You have to be quiet here. And stuff like that. She’s been here only four or five weeks. But she’s really picked up on everything. She knows about it already. The whole culture.
       This morning I talked with her, and then later on I was sitting on the grass and she called to a young girl, a little bit older than her. And the girl came to her and gave her a hug. I think, from experiencing younger kids in our school and also here, that what they get is way much more love and care than they would get in any other school. The teenagers also love the little kids. They want to spend time playing with them, they hug them, they push them on the swing, they are really cared for. I love that. The little children, usually bring out the good in you. It’s so good for everyone. It was one of the first things I said when we arrived here: “It’s so nice to be with some small children!”

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