I’ve been answering the question, “What grade is your son in?” for nine years, and even now I’m never quite sure what will come out of my mouth. In some ways, it’s actually getting harder to answer. The older G gets, the farther off the map of traditional education we seem.
G has been attending The Clearwater School since age four. Clearwater is a Sudbury school, a democratic school based on freedom, trust, and responsibility. Kids have as much of a say in running the school as adults. Not only are there are no grades, tests, or homework, there is no curriculum: G has total responsibility for his own learning. It is kind of like unschooling in a big mixed-age group.
When G was elementary-school age, people were often surprised to hear he spent his school days doing whatever he chose, but there is more mainstream acceptance of the value of play for younger kids. Now that he is 13, their surprise borders on alarm as they ask, “How long will he stay there? Won’t he go to a ‘real’ high school?” Somehow, it no longer sounds cute, and when I say he’ll stay there through high school if he wants to, I get looks of disbelief.
I chose this school because I didn’t want G to feel the pressure that kids can get “to live up to their potential.” I wanted him to know what makes him happy, and to follow his interests. I didn’t want his natural curiosity dulled by school, and it hasn’t been. Everything he’s learned has been something he wanted to learn — but usually he learns by doing things that society doesn’t recognize as educational.
Each student has a vote in all decisions about the school’s day-to-day operations, and the meetings can feature vigorous debate.
For years his focus at school has been computer and role-playing games, but now he also plays a lot of Ultimate Frisbee and soccer (he was in a neighborhood soccer league for two years, but he prefers the ambience of a mixed-age, co-ed, pick-up game — go figure). He is captivated by the party game Mafia, and often spends a few days thinking up a new permutation of the game, and then recruits a group of people at school to test it out. Right now he’s in an acting class, and recently recruited two other students to perform a scene from The Tempest with him at the annual school festival. As a member of the Computer Committee, G helps maintain all the school computers.
He is also increasingly active in the democratic life of the school. Each student has a vote in all decisions about the school’s day-to-day operations, and the meetings can feature vigorous debate. When G was younger, he didn’t participate unless an issue especially interested him, but he now attends every meeting. A staff member (at Clearwater, we don’t call them teachers) who has known G since he was four told me she appreciated his involvement in a recent discussion about a proposed rule. She was impressed by G’s heartfelt commitment to individual rights and the way he stuck to his guns. (My son’s version was “the whole meeting was basically just me and R arguing.”)
Clearwater staff model a high level of respect for children and their interests, and relate to them without a trace of condescension. (Says G: “They don’t assume that just because they’re adults, they can help.”) Older students also treat younger kids like people — not that they’re always nice to the little ones, but they don’t put them down just because they are younger. G has friends of all ages, and is passionately against all age-discrimination. He’s argued to his grandfather that a four-year-old can be a valuable participant in making a serious decision. He’s taken me to task when I jokingly suggested that we not invite my parents to a party because “we can’t have as much fun with the old people there.”
Being involved in this community has shown me how much children are capable of, and recently I realized I’ve come to look at adults differently, too. I haven’t just learned to profoundly respect children — I’ve learned a lot about respect, period, and taking people as they come. I’m not free of judgment, but my mind is more open, and I’m more aware of my assumptions about what is and isn’t worthwhile — about judging books by their covers. If somebody’s hobby or job sounds weird to me, I put aside my knee-jerk reaction and try to find out what (for them) is compelling about it, just like I do when my son tells me about a new game.
The level of respect and trust I have for my son and his choices may seem radical, but to me it has become second nature. My confidence in this model of education has only grown as I’ve watched how it has helped G become the knowledgeable, eloquent, sensitive person he is. I don’t believe that spending hours on the computer designing cards for Magic: The Gathering is a waste of his time, and I think he has as much right to do that as I do to spend hours reading blogs. Sure, I sometimes suggest he rest his eyes or get up and take a walk, and he’s been known to say the same to me.
Once or twice when I’ve said he should do something “because I say so,” he’s shot back, “that’s not the way you raised me!” He’s right, and I’m so thankful.