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The reluctant pinball wizard

Background: I work at a progressive independent school in Seattle called Puget Sound Community School. We offer a full slate of classes that can help students earn credits towards a Washington State diploma, but we do not require students to take any academic classes. Some observers have a problem with this.

* * *

On the last day before Winter Break, the teaching staff at PSCS scheduled a special fun activity for students. A few blocks away, there is a “museum” that showcases a variety of pinball machines dating all the way back to the 1930s. The machines have all been refurbished, and the cost of playing is very reasonable. We convinced the owners to let us rent out the space for an hour.

We kept the activity a secret from the students until the last minute, with the idea that it would be more fun to make it a surprise. After the announcement, a few students asked, “Do we have to go? Is it required?”

“Yes,” I said, “Everyone is going!”

One student wanted to talk to me about this decision because very few activities at PSCS are mandatory. She wanted to express her opinion that this should not be a mandatory activity. Instead of having a fun social time a few blocks away, she preferred to have a fun social time on campus. I was feeling worn down, exhausted from the pre-holiday madness, and got lazy. I said, simply, “No complaining, we’re all going to go and have fun together.”

On Monday, the first day back from Winter Break, this student approached me. She wanted to talk to me about the mandatory “fun” field trip from two weeks ago. It was not consistent with PSCS philosophy, she argued, for this kind of activity to be made mandatory. More importantly, she felt that her efforts at engaging me in a dialogue at the time were dismissed.

We had a really interesting back and forth exchange in which she respectfully and articulately shared her perspective. After asking me a question, she would listen actively to my response. In the end, we came to healthy mutual understanding of each other’s position. I apologized, admitting that I should have taken the time to process these thoughts with her at the time.

By the way, she’s 13 years old.

* * *

In talking about PSCS, people often challenge me, “How will your students cope when they get out into the real world?” The question implies that students who are educated in an environment that’s based on respect and kindness will be unable to deal with the harsh realities of society. The answer is clear. Every day, the students are internalizing a sense of what it means to feel respected. When they encounter a situation in which they’re not feeling respected, they have the self-awareness, confidence, and poise to stand up for themselves. It’s really that simple.

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10 thoughts on “The reluctant pinball wizard

  1. Steve, Fantastic! What a great post. Can I come visit your school next time I’m in Seattle?

    Posted by Kirsten | January 4, 2011, 4:47 pm
  2. Steve,

    Thanks for sharing this. The argument about the real world is always there, and yet the people asking it, often don’t ask it of repressive, dumb down, institutions that they promote. How might a child act in the real world, when asked to work for the common good of company, or to think for themselves, or be motivated by something other than grades…. either way we can not continue to repress children based on the idea that we are doing it for their own good…or their futures.

    I am glad your student challenged you, but also that you challenged her. It is the conversation that was important not the actual disagreement!

    So glad to have you in PNW and on the Cooperative!


    Posted by dloitz | January 4, 2011, 5:00 pm
  3. Wow. This is a great example of the “real world” skills that are learned by giving students the room to learn. It is also a great example of a trusting teacher/student relationship where dialogue is not only encouraged by reciprocated. What outsiders don’t understand is that a culture has been created. They can’t imagine it working because they imagine it within their own culture. They are probably right, it wouldn’t work in the culture they are in.

    Posted by ktenkely | January 5, 2011, 12:29 am
  4. Sound like you folks are doing “it.” Keep up the good work.

    Posted by Moe Zimmerberg | January 5, 2011, 10:24 pm
  5. As a parent, learning about your school and the relationship with the kids is offering hope that school can indeed play a great role in supporting the kids’ learning. Thx for sharing the story about the 13 y/o girl! It reminds me of Paula’s experience at

    As for the “real world” argument I agree with David’s comment … the argument is usually one-sided and whoever makes it does it without taking a broader view of what “real world” skills do the other options offer. What you’re trying to offer and what learning really is about is to accept challenges and challenge back … to accept owns mistakes and learn from them!

    Posted by kima | January 6, 2011, 2:08 am
  6. cool story. thank you Steve.

    kids amaze me how gracefully they respond to situations. situations that we often encounter, yet with less tact and tenacity, to not only comply, so that we don’t ruin the moment, but also have the where-with-all to come back and deepen understanding, and trust.

    Lisa Nielsen’s recent post on unschooling: , intro’d me to Kate Fridkas. in this post of Kate’s: – toward the bottom, is a link to her interview with the Radio Free School. a telling convo on this very topic. how we often take public school as the given, questioning how alternatives will cope in the real world, when public school can be the furthest thing from the real world.
    Roger Martin first pounded this into me when he writes of the dominance and often blind acceptance of reliability-oriented thinkers, in his Design of Business. validity-oriented thinkers are easily dismissed or made to jump through ridiculous hoops. i wonder how often kids feel that…

    also from Lisa’s post, was intro’d to Idzie. Idzie has a great post on unschooling 101, worth a read if you haven’t:

    listening deeply. gracefully questioning everything. i love it.

    so Kirsten, next time you go to Seattle, give us a holler. great place for a meet-up, i’m thinking.

    Posted by monika hardy | January 7, 2011, 8:34 am
  7. I witnessed an amazing meeting at school this week that reminded me likewise of children’s innate capacities for candor, civility, and agency. We have to get more schools invested in helping students learn healthy habits of independence and interdependence; we have to reduce the number of schools rowing backwards into time to the beat of compliance’s exacting drum.

    Great share, Steve – any new plans or protocols to anticipate, allow for, and encourage this kind of discourse from kids? Might there be others waiting for a chance to speak on similar matters?

    With admiration,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 8, 2011, 3:58 pm
  8. ” . . . any new plans or protocols to anticipate, allow for, and encourage this kind of discourse from kids? Might there be others waiting for a chance to speak on similar matters?”

    You know what’s crazy? This particular incident wasn’t even out of the ordinary. I barely noticed it. The only reason I wrote about it was that I needed a story to blog about, and that was what happened on that particular day. We had a board of trustees meeting the next evening in which a student rep on the board asked incisive and challenging questions related to approving the budget for 2011-12.

    Last fall, there was an incident in which a student had pitched a class that was scheduled to take place in the mornings on days when we invite prospective families to visit. I was concerned that this particular class might not be impressive to folks seeing the school for the first time, and initiated a movement to get the class rescheduled to a different day. The student had already arranged his classes and didn’t want to reschedule. He made a powerful, passionate case calling on the school to practice integrity: if you say you want students to pursue activities that give them joy—that there is no hierarchy of academic classes vs. non-academic classes—then you should have nothing to be ashamed of when visitors arrive. He was right, and he felt empowered by the school culture to speak up.

    I could go on and on, but I you get the idea.

    Posted by stevemiranda | January 8, 2011, 5:48 pm
  9. My short reaction to this post is that your students are learning how to communicate effectively. In this age of drill and kill, scripted programs and with the world getting smaller and smaller, it is vital that our students learn how to communicate effectively and self-advocate.

    Sounds like your school is a wonderful place!

    Thanks for sharing the story.

    Posted by marybethhertz | January 8, 2011, 7:03 pm

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