Fifty years ago many of us gathered frequently in each other’s living rooms as we discussed and planned and wrangled with the ideas that eventually brought the Sudbury Valley School into existence in the summer of 1968. Yes, there were many people involved, but the genesis of the philosophy and the practicality of the structure must be credited to Dan and Hanna Greenberg. Their ideas, their efforts, their clear thinking were necessary to make the School a reality.
Then (and now) our ideas, our efforts, our goals, were to establish a school for our kids and their chums and others like them. Some of us recalled our own schooling and rearing and thought “that is NOT what I want for my kids.” We wanted to give them the opportunity to pursue their personal interests and individual dreams as deeply and in as much detail as they desired. We wanted to assure them that those personal interests would NOT be constrained by the demands of someone else’s agenda. That there would NOT be interruption of their activity with a “classroom bell” that would mean it is now time for X or Y or Z. That when they found something of interest and wanted to pursue it to another level, there would NOT be a teacher saying “We don’t have time for that now.” That there would NOT be a curriculum, a set of activities, of interests, of classes, … that someone else established and enforced. That they would be truly free to follow their interests and their dreams at whatever level they might be expressed.
But we had one other goal in mind. We wanted to accomplish this with professionalism. We wanted to do it well; we wanted to do it with precision and with expertise; we wanted to do it so that competence and thoroughness and excellence were evident in its execution. We weren’t naive; we knew that we didn’t have all the answers, and we expected that we would make mistakes. But we sought to learn from our mistakes. We sought to create a set of systems and procedures, and then to modify and adapt them as we found better ways to do things.
And so the years went by. Our initial structure with a Board of Trustees (that included adults from the larger community) and an internal Assembly (that included parents—with voting rights on budgetary and diploma procedures) gave way over the years to a simplified structure with all operational and management powers vested in the School Meeting—a dynamic group that consists of the current students plus the staff that the School Meeting itself hires.
Internal rules and procedures covering day to day behavior and operational procedures undergo constant review and revision in order to enhance understanding of the school’s structures and systems. Rules that might deal with specific behaviors under one set of circumstances might later be generalized to address a broader set of conditions. Such changes are proposed, discussed, debated, and voted upon. This results in a code of behavior and a system of operation that is well documented and well understood by the School Community.
As this was accomplished over the past five decades, members of the School community documented the thinking, the process, the decisions, the results, in papers, books, pamphlets, audio and video recordings: really, every imaginable media. And somehow, Sudbury Valley School has become a model for others across this wide world. We didn’t set out to do this. It was never a goal, and it was never even a thought in our efforts to sustain ourselves. We knew that we always needed to make ourselves better known in the Framingham and Boston areas in order to enroll enough young people to sustain the School. But to describe other schools as “a school like Sudbury Valley School” or “a Sudbury Model School” were NOT terms we had begun to put in our lexicon.
What did happen as we became a little bit known and recognized in the world of alternatives to typical government managed and operated schools in the USA, was that some people sought to create their versions of a Sudbury school. We liked the idea; we felt then (and now) that the more the idea(s) were discussed (and the more widespread the discussion), the more impact it would have locally for Sudbury Valley School. We certainly didn’t discourage this interest; some might say that we helped it by publishing what we did and facilitating an exchange of thoughts and ideas through correspondence, publications, and eventually an email group. And somehow this world of similar schools got a little larger and a little larger and spread beyond the USA.
So why am I writing this now? I just got back from Mexico City where I represented, and spoke about Sudbury Valley School at the 2017 International Colloquium on Education entitled EDUCACION LUCES Y SOMBRAS. You can read about the conference here: http://www.iisue.unam.mx/lucesysombras/
Dan Greenberg had been invited to speak but was unable to travel on their dates, and when the sponsors asked for a substitute representative, my name was offered. The organizers really wanted someone to speak about SVS at their conference. They made that clear both before the event and at the event. I was the ONLY foreign delegate at the Conference, and the only speaker representing a non-traditional school format. There is clearly interest there in other ways of schooling.
While I don’t anticipate a Sudbury model school in Mexico in the immediate future, people there are curious about alternatives and interested in the model and what it is able to achieve. Mexico has a significant issue with its education system. Schooling is driven from the national level, with little or no ability for the individual states or municipalities to innovate or to direct resources.
Much of the Conference discussion was about inequities, drop-outs, illiteracy, and lack of physical resources (especially in rural areas). It was particularly interesting to me that in the final panel session, a “wrap-up” entitled: the Future of Education, Dr. Tomas Miklos cited my presentation and specifically spoke of the Sudbury Valley School as a model that should be considered. In a side conversation, he had earlier told me that he is well aware of SVS and supports the approach.
For the Spanish literate, highlights of each speaker’s presentation may be heard in the wrap-up session by Ing. Javier Jimenez Espriu, Consejero FMED, which remains available on the website noted above (where the entire Conference was streamed live). Individual sessions are also available on YouTube (in Spanish).
If Mexico were the only non-USA interest I was aware of, this paper wouldn’t be worth writing. But it isn’t. The issue of how to raise and educate young people for a rapidly changing world is global. Educators, governments, researchers, parents, (and kids) everywhere are concerned about how a system designed for instilling simple literacy, numeracy, and conformity in an earlier era, can be adapted and made relevant and effective today. We all know of the widespread interest in SVS and its approach to schooling that exists throughout the USA. We all know and hear about interest and start-up schools across western Europe and Israel that have adopted the Sudbury model and attempted to make it work within their cultural and political constraints. But the interest is broader than that.
It is now approaching 20 years since I flew to Australia (in 2000) to represent the School and provide a modicum of support to the Booroobin School which described itself as “Sudbury model.” With all their efforts to survive, this School was eventually forced to close by the Government of Queensland, when that government was unable to accept the absence of a “curriculum” with attendant “testing”. Three years ago I spoke about Sudbury Valley School to several gatherings in Hong Kong. I’ve made similar presentations in Germany and Denmark. Others have addressed groups in Israel and elsewhere in Europe.
Japan was among the earliest countries where the media picked up on this unique approach to child development with National TV coverage and the blossoming of a handful of small schools that call themselves Sudbury schools. Dan and Hanna Greenberg have spoken there, as has Mimsy. Today there is active interest in Sudbury Valley publications in mainland China, with two local publishers selling translations of SVS books. And in India, another domestic publisher is doing the same, and has recently asked Sudbury Valley School to send a representative there to speak.
Several years ago, when SVS initially put its “toe” into social media, I began to look for mentions of Sudbury Valley School on the internet. I’ve been amazed at how widely the name and the ideas are known. Many of the citations I find are in social media and in the popular press. Others I’ve found in mainstream journals where Sudbury Valley School is cited (and often described) as a positive example.(I wish I’d logged all of these in an easily retrievable form, but unfortunately, I did not.) But I recently ran across an article from a Russian University that prompted me to look at the “academic” literature.
Unfortunately, much of the “academic” literature is “locked” behind a “fee for reading” system that I don’t have access to. But I have been able to see enough of it with the use of “Google Scholar,” (a no-fee feature from Google) to reach the conclusion that follows.
What I find is that Sudbury Valley School is being cited and addressed in academic writings not only across the United States and Israel and Western Europe (where such schools are operating), but also in the Scandinavian literature (from countries where the schools are often cited as “models” for the rest of the world), in the Baltic nations, in Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, Belarus, and the Czech Republic). I find papers from Greece and Turkey, and from Bahrain, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, countries where I would not expect the model to have much exposure; but it is evidently known there as well. In Africa also, academics cite Sudbury Valley School: examples include—Nigeria, Eritrea, South Africa. In South America, I find articles from Brazil and Argentina. And in a wide set of countries of Asia: India, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan; and, of course, in Japan.
Throughout the world, education and schooling has become a major issue of concern and discussion, and the model that Sudbury Valley School created, appears more and more as a topic in their discussions of a way to achieve the goals they seek. We should take pride in leading that way, even when that was never our intent.
I mentioned that I monitor the Internet for notations about Sudbury Valley School. I do this because my conclusion about the efficacy of social media (for an institution like Sudbury Valley School), is that the more often the school is mentioned (in a positive sense), the more likely it is that the word will filter to prospective parents/students and to media people who might help spread the word. Think of social media as kind of an “echo chamber,” with each “echo” reverberating in a unique chamber (personal network).
Should any reader of this wish to help in this regard, you can follow me on Twitter (@MikeSadofsky) or “friend me” on Facebook (Mike Sadofsky) and make your individual decisions as to whether to forward my posts to your own personal networks.
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