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Learning at its Best, School Stories

Real Education Is Human

This post kicks off Blog for IDEC 2012 week.

Photo by taylorgreene flickr

At an extraordinary and unusual school I visited recently, I observed a seven-year-old girl come before the school’s judicial council. The day before she had violated a cardinal rule of the school.  She had failed to look after her own safety.  She and four of her friends had ventured to a pond dock on the school grounds, where they saw a water snake.  Intrigued, they wanted to catch it.  Using a Tupperware container, string, and some duct tape, they made a trap and dipped it into the water.  The little girl, her heavy backpack still on her back, leaned too far out over the dock and fell into the water.  Some of the older, high school boys saw her fall in, rushed to the pond, and pulled her out.  The water was only waist-deep and slow moving, but in the life of the school, where children are allowed full freedom to roam the school grounds as long as they look out for their safety, no kid had ever fallen into the pond before.  The adults at the school, understandably, were beside themselves.

As I watched the judicial process unfold–the judicial council is run entirely by students with a carefully developed set of understandings and procedures evolved over many years–I wondered, how could holding a seven-year-old responsible for her own behavior in this way be “human,” the topic of this post?  Developmentally, aren’t seven-year-olds just a bit too young to be expected to think about these kinds of things for themselves, especially in moments of intense curiosity?  What were the implications of sanctioning this little girl more severely than her four friends, perhaps simply because her backpack made her unbalanced in ways she was unaccustomed to?

Human education is about exactly these sorts of questions. Real and important questions about individual liberty, collective responsibility and accountability–and how ironically, safety can sometimes be achieved only in a confrontation with danger.

The love and care with which the students on the judicial body, ages 8 to 17, gently questioned the little girl, was touching, beautiful and very serious.  When she entered the room (each little girl was questioned separately), she was asked to explain what happened.  She said, “I’m afraid,” and an adult she had chosen to accompany her to the meeting held her in her arms.  A fourteen-year-old girl gently queried,  “How far were you away from the edge? Can you show me on this table?” “Did you hear the older boys calling to you to be careful?” The little girl answered in calm, clear tones. “This far.  No.”  The council asked her: you know that you are going to be charged?  Yes, she said.  Do you know why?  Yes, she said.  A member of this community for a couple of years already, this child understood what was afoot, and perhaps also, why it was a very big deal.  As I watched this little girl, in a pink t-shirt with a peace sign on her tiny flat chest, I saw her grow under the gaze of this serious attention.  Charged and unforgettable, it was a moment of human beings in real consideration of the right way to hold each other and love each other, and offer each other freedom and boundaries at the same time.  And how little people can grow into themselves in such a circumstance.

Later in the day, when the whole school deliberated the recommended punishment–lack of access to the pond and a suspension–the adults in the community passionately disagreed with each other.  They debated the philosophical principles the incident represented. If a fence goes around the pond, then what?  When we tell parents that we expect their kids to be responsible in this way, and we live it, then it creates a “charge,” real and important, for us, the parent, the child. Powerful human education continued on for everyone, in all its unvarnished complexity and lack of clear answers.  Small, squirmy nine-year-old boys sat through the entire two-hour meeting voluntarily; older girls knit while the talk went on.  The whole-school meeting was ably run by a senior girl.

Without writing at length about the circumstances of this fascinating incident–and its complex and multi-hued punishment–what I saw at this extraordinary school was almost the direct opposite of what I observe in many American schools, where children are schooled down to size almost from the moment they enter.  They are–even now with our slightly-better-informed understandings of human capacity–still tracked into ability groups, labeled and sorted around learning abilities and disabilities, and denied creation of a truly accountable community, because adults are almost entirely in charge. (It is inconceivable for them not to be.)  In the conventional educational system, the places where children are allowed to show initiative and to be in charge, are all around individual attainment (get good grades, do well on the state tests), competition, and engagement in adult-sanctioned activities.  Legally and morally, students are inmates in a system that denies them access to the complexity of the question of what to do if a seven-year-old falls into the pond.  When one of our members has violated a rule, what does this mean for all of us, when we are all truly bound together?

A tiny girl becomes big, through contemplation of the seriousness of her own actions.  A community becomes more complex and interknit through passionate disagreement, not bland adherence to a set of rules.  Children are allowed genuine and near-complete adult authority, and they handle it ably and maturely.  Human education means that we will break some of the old rules because they no longer serve us.

International Democratic Education Conference, March 24-31, 2012, Caguas, Puerto Rico

How big are you willing to let kids be?  How big are you willing to let yourself be?  How many rules are you willing to break in service of a new kind of education?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


33 thoughts on “Real Education Is Human

  1. Kind of heart-breaking to think about the humanity, safety, and learning we lose on a daily basis in public schools.

    Where have you seen the “charge” be implemented most successfully in a traditional setting, despite the setting?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 1, 2011, 8:32 am
    • Hey Chad, To be honest, I’ve rarely seen anything like this in a conventional setting. I’m thinking of a lot of highly managed situations, where adults “allow” student councils to “decide” things, but none of it is consequential and all of it is sanctioned. The thing about this incident is that it was real, live, and had a connection to the profound. Something big was happening.

      Have you seen this in any of your settings. Felt it? You know what I’m talking about–when something really big is on the line and everyone knows it…

      Happens in parenting sometimes too, when you know you are in a profound moral moment that will shape you and the child forever.


      Posted by Kirsten | November 1, 2011, 5:00 pm
  2. This simple process is essential for children and is well described in “Restorative Discipline for Schools,” by Amstutz and Mullet.

    Posted by Elly Faden (@EllyFaden) | November 1, 2011, 2:50 pm
    • Hi Elly, Thank you for this great connect. At this school, adults and children have absolutely equal authority in everything–students sign the teacher’s and director’s contracts. There are also no grades, no courses, no prescribed readings. This is a part of their vision of community-making.

      Posted by Kirsten | November 1, 2011, 5:03 pm
  3. This is awesome. A school where children are learning what it means to be human, how to survive and care for themselves and one another. A lot of adults could surely learn from this. When children learn about their interconnectedness to other people, this prepares them as no math, science or any other subject class can do. Like you said the old rules are not serving us anymore. It is time to recognize this in every facet of our lives, including education where children become indoctrinated to the rules set forth by the institutions. It is time for a new set of rules for a global society. Yes, real education is about learning to be human.

    Posted by betsydoula | November 1, 2011, 4:08 pm
    • Betsy, This is just what I found myself thinking too: few adults are really in communities that are anything like this. I’m not sure (based on Elly’s comment above) that I’ve described the visceral realness and also profoundness of this situation. The adults were really being stretched to think and say out loud, what matters? to what am I really committed?

      I agree that THIS is the kind of education most of us were denied in conventional settings, and I think it might also scare us just a little bit, those of us conventionally schooled, just how truly competent kids are.


      Posted by Kirsten | November 1, 2011, 5:07 pm
      • @Kirsten- very good article. Thanks for this! And also Betsy (in reply to both of you) So great to see more and more articles of this type popping up on sites all over seeing as education is a major issue globally. Yes I can understand some adults being hesitant (a bit scary) to this widened demand for a new system for schooling. If we look deeper into matters we can see how we are conditioned and so effected(influenced) by our environments (a major part of that is from the amount of years in school) and how it separates us into categories, where after we integrate into society and remain separated here also and must deal with social crisis issues which are unfortunately growing daily. Its time we all begin together as adults (for the sake of ourselves and for this amazing creative young generation) strive together for a drastic change in the direction of a more humanistic co-creative education system, Yes, we live in a global interdependent world and we need to begin to learn and explore how we can mutually unite together to form a humanistic society.
        Best regards, Ruth

        Posted by ruth avraham | November 2, 2011, 4:14 am
        • Ruth, I am moved and charged by your comment. At this school, there is a deep philosophical COMMITMENT and lived belief that children and adults have truly equal rights and authority in adjudicating and determining the course of their lives. This is truly inconceivable to many adults. It has taken fierce and singleminded determination to make this school possible and to live to its ideals. It requires constant and ferocious attention.

          It deeply inspired me. I raised my own children largely in this way, and they have lived into their own lives in ways that amaze me. It is a terrible thing to go into schools where none of this can live into being for kids, or adults, because of adult beliefs and prejudices and mindsets. To me the OCCUPY movement in part is about the kind of world young adults can create, the kind of protest they can mount, and it will move to schools.

          I want to be a part of supporting that.

          Thanks for your comment and your vision.


          Posted by Kirsten | November 2, 2011, 8:38 am
        • Hi Kirsten, funny you mentioned the Occupy movement, I was thinking the same thing yesterday whilst reading and commenting here . Im definitely with you on that! I also feel it is in favor of the potential of our younger generation in their capabilities to what can be created, This movement is part of something much bigger and brighter for the world ( although at the moment it may appear a bit confusing). This system isn’t working anymore and unsustainable, and these young kids are so smart and definitely in my eyes, truth seekers. Im trying to keep up globally whats going on all around especially for drastic education reform issues and I can see more and more groups of teachers parents and students being formed since this occupy movement started and this for me is very assuring in our chaotic times> I myself live in Israel and Im happy to say that similar things are happening over here, although its still very small scale, some (including myself) are very involved in this and strongly believe people like you and readers and commentors etc. here there and everywhere will gather more and more to discussion and action and thru mass public awakening and pressure through this entire system this will influence humanistic change for a more than deserving generation and towards a mutual sustainable future.
          Yes I can more than relate to this feeling for all the kids (including mine) and world wide who are still not receiving this type of nourishing creative schooling. And, as for the adults who are still under influential conditioning from this industrialized system, hopefully this will influence change by more of us moving in this more empathy based mutual cooperative direction to gather together! Im really feeling its our only chance as a human race for survival for future generations.
          Thank you two for your vision and commenting.
          🙂 Ruth

          Posted by ruth avraham | November 2, 2011, 9:59 pm
    • You hit the nail on the head. Adults should be learning this! Why do we think that children, who initially, are often taught to share, be kind, etc. – but then grow completely out of this? It’s because the adults set the example for them for the complete opposite behavior! We all need to go back to school in this regard. To realize we’re all interconnected and that means that we must fundamentally treat others in a different capacity from how we treat others now. Just think, such education could actually help us fashion a fair society, solve our ecological, economical, and education problems (because the education they get is only partly and school – most of it comes from home and the outside world).

      We need to all go back to school. And that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to enroll in a university, but to study our interconnection, our nature, why things are the way they are in the world, and why we can’t get along.

      Posted by Dave Prosser | November 2, 2011, 6:08 am
      • Dave, in my own life I am gradually moving away from the idea of “school.” I am really exploring, in my own writing and research, how learning is moving away from the thing we call school, in all kinds of ways–which provokes the question–what is the purpose of school? What does it have to offer children and young adults, if they can largely learn what they want and wish to elsewhere? This school I wrote about here offers a powerful example of what a purpose of school might be. The founders believe that children of mixed ages (5-18) need to places to go away from their parents and learn in community with other children and adults–about the kinds of things explored in this post.

        That seems like a reasonable proposition to me. This school is offering something valid and morally-defensible in terms of human experience.

        What do you think?

        Posted by Kirsten | November 2, 2011, 8:43 am
        • I agree. The problem with education is much the same with other topics such as economics. We have all sorts of framework which has existed for a very long time so our analysis usually only ends up being under that framework. And this makes it difficult for us to question things fundamentally, since our analysis is usually from the level of effect and not cause.

          In regards to education society has to answer these questions: What is the purpose of education? Where is freedom of choice in this process? And what is the best fashion to combine these two questions, keep a person’s individuality, and help them expand to their full potentional.

          We can see with traditional organized education that individuality is basically left to the age group you are in and perhaps what sex you belong to. Students are not so much allowed to develop but are told that “this is the goal.” So the aspect of discovery, which makes this school you mention such a breath of fresh air, is largely absent in our education system (which is similar across the globe).

          I do not think the purpose of education should be to produce workers as quickly as possible. I also do not think that children should all be in the same grade level because of their age. And I do not agree that teaching kids that there is usually “one answer” helps them to develop as a human being.

          And that is primarily what I think lacks in education. This idea of “helping to fashion, or steer a person towards reaching their potentional/becoming a human being.”

          But as long as the education model holds that chief goal of “producing workers” I think that we will continue to discredit our children and rob them of their individuality.

          But this school you have written about, and others like it, can perhaps shed some light on the situation.

          Posted by Dave Prosser | November 2, 2011, 3:46 pm
  4. How amazing to read this. I think you were at my kids’ school. I heard the story unfold from them..I’m glad you were there to witness and share the incident and the school’s handling of it. All three of my kids, 10, 14, and 16 feel really lucky to be part of the place and as their mom, I learn from their experiences whenever they share them with me.


    Posted by mariawest | November 1, 2011, 6:53 pm
  5. Hi Kirsten,

    Thanks for this beautiful portrait of a child and a school being true to its vision. What a privilege to witness such an important moment of becoming.

    I’m afraid I do still wonder about issues of development and what kinds of responsibilities are appropriate for kids of different ages and stages. Despite your picture of a clearly beautiful moment of growth in this case, I think schools like this can sometimes inadvertently create too much pressure on kids through the intention of giving “freedom.” Is it possible to work towards the goal that there is always room, space to grow into, without it necessarily being an unbounded space? Does room to grow have to imply a chasm? While a fire indeed needs more than fuel, hastily applied, and it does require space in between the sticks to burn well, too much space is a risk as much as not enough. And is there still a place for elder wisdom? Is it possible to bring such a concept to bear in adult-child relationships and in education? Does authority have to imply “power over?” Just because loving mentorship, including careful and judicious adult decision-making and guidance, doesn’t happen in conventional schooling much, does it mean it can’t?

    I also always worry about “democratic” processes, inasmuch as they can create classes of disenfranchised minorities – whether they are in adult or youth communities. Is “one person – one vote” the best decision making model we’ve got?

    What are schools for? What a terrific question to explore further. I would like to continue to think about post-modern, (not linear, top-down models) where information, skills as well as wisdom, and a vast multiplicity of nurturing encounters with a goal of “being human” and “becoming (growing into) yourself” are the focus. I do think there is still a place for schools, at least for many kids and families. And I still believe there is a place for a special role for “the elder” as an authority.

    I appreciate the opportunity you provide for me to think and re-think through this as well as all my assumptions about “school.”

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 2, 2011, 10:48 am
  6. Kirsten,

    Until a few minutes ago, I’d never read an article that made me want to clear my desk and put everything else on hold. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    In a world where lots of smart people are trying to understand how to improve education and inspire passion in learners of all ages, this simple, humbling tale about personal and collective responsibility speaks volumes. I will be listening for more of the same.


    Posted by Jeff Hayes | November 2, 2011, 6:03 pm
  7. Kirsten,
    Your posting has opened many doors of conversation for me, which as you know is what I love best.
    I shall try to be uncharacteristically brief, as each one leads to a whole journey in itself.

    First, bravo to you for recording the specifics of the judicial council meeting and for giving us such an in-depth sense of what unfolded. Too often, all we get from observers, whether complimentary or critical, is too glib to be of any real value.

    Second, I, too, find value in extrapolating from specific situations and “what-iffing” the implications, such as “What if all schools worked this way”, or “What if all young people had these same opportunities”. It seems to me that such generalizing is a mandatory part of process improvement. Otherwise, all we are doing is noticing, then moving on, and not taking any new learning from what we’ve seen and making use of it somewhere else.

    Third, on the other hand (or rather, balancing that thought), I find I must be very, very careful about generalizing. Yes, some people respond to such an account with a defensive, “yeah, but” statement: “Yeah, but we could never do that at my school because the kids would either be way too harsh or way too lenient, depending on whether or not they liked the person on trial.” In so doing, they fail to appreciate the opportunities implied in the story; they fail to ask themselves, “What *part* of this might we be able to integrate into our system and thereby improve it even ever-so-slightly?”

    At the same time, the yeah-but-ers often (not always) do have valid concerns that do suggest that the moral to the story cannot, should not, automatically be applied to their situation lock, stock and barrel. (The leaders of the British Infant Schools in the ’60s and ’70s tried to warn us about imposing their approach on an unwitting American public, because they knew of the massive cultural differences–beginning with the status of teachers in the US vs. the UK; but “we” didn’t listen, and as a result, Open Classrooms were a flash in the pan reform, like so many others. But I know that you know all that already.)

    As inclined as I am to shout hooray to the story you offered, I find myself ALSO (not rather) having additional thoughts, such as:

    • how would this story have gone differently, and thus led to different results, if the girl had drowned?(Township officials step in? Lawyers?)

    • should we assume that *any* 17-year-old girl could have facilitated this process with equal aplomb (and apparent success), or was she in some way special? could she have been replaced with any of the other 17-year-olds at this school with equal satisfaction? (I don’t know if this was the same young lady who is featured on the school’s website; if she is, believe me, she is exceptional, even at a school such as this one; not unique, perhaps, but certainly special.)

    • could the same result be expected if, say, the same thing happened the next year, but with an entirely different student body–one that was comprised exclusively of first year students–so that there had been no prior experience in dealing with issues like this, in this manner, by the youths involved? (By implication, I’m suggesting that part of what makes this system work at this school is the long history of practice, which has resulted in a kind of institutional knowledge; hence, another system would not likely achieve the same outcome instantaneously.)

    • what would have happened if there had been no adult in the room, starting with the moment that that girl said she was afraid and an adult took her into her arms for comfort? could another youth have provided the same measure of comfort to her, or by definition do young people need the assurance of actual adults? And how much of the “institutional knowledge” to which I referred earlier was developed initially under the careful guidance and modeling of adults, which, once learned by the youths, could be modeled by them for future generations of young people? (I think there is a relationship here with what Paul Freedman was getting at: that there is a role for adults to play in the development of our young people. My preference is for the Relationship model that Riane Eisler offers vs. the Dominator model that permeates our culture and drives most of our schools.)

    Okay, that’s more than enough for now. Again, thanks for the inspiring story.
    Peter Bergson

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | November 9, 2011, 5:42 pm
    • Hello Peter and Kirsten,
      As a mother of three kids at this school who witnessed much of what was described, one of them a 17 year old, all three friendly with the 17 year old you mention, as a product of, student teacher in, and attempted creator of US Open Classrooms, a family day care provider, including homeschool, young kids and school age kids, and currently working on founding a progressive urban charter school, I’ve been asking myself these questions practically my whole life..I don’t know the answers to your questions, but I have lots of thoughts on each of them..

      Yes, if the child had drowned, things would have been different. The same could be said for a child dying in any school. The consequences of that would be devastating in any school, and at this one, I could imagine various scenarios I am most grateful did not occur. I do think, knowing the school and the setting, that drowning is an unlikely outcome..I won’t say more, but that is my opinion. Running a day care, I worry every day about the liability issues of allowing children to take risks of all kinds, as well as the interpersonal responsibility I have taken on by agreeing to care for children in my home. It’s enormous and the source of many a nightmare for me and my are parenting children, making great personal changes in life, and not doing things we once dreamed of doing.

      We should not assume any 17 year old could have facilitated that meeting with equal aplomb. My 17 year old would no sooner take on that role than offer to decorate our house, which my 10 year old takes on daily. All kids and people are different, and special, and the girl leading school meeting seems to be doing a fine job, as many of those before her have done. My children are however, learning an enormous amount about justice and democracy and moral and ethical thinking, about accountability and personal responsibility, about empathy, wisdom, and caring. My fourteen year old is on the Judicial Committee this month and takes it very seriously. My ten year old attends School Meeting and Judicial Committee regularly and is learning every day just from what she refers to as “Hanging Out” which I must remind myself means observing, interacting, reflecting, living life. What happens to kids at this school is very hard to describe, but in the case of each of my children, and in the cases of all of the students I’ve known, it has been transformative, mind blowingly so in many cases.

      Would the outcome have been different in a different year? Possibly, but having been around the school for over three years, I do feel that there is a consistency in this school which I can trust. And, yes, if it were all new students, or all younger students it would be different. And yes, there is a long history here which builds. In my family day care, which has been running sixteen years, our practice has built up so that now I can trust our outcomes much more so than I could in the beginning. That being said, I think this model has something to offer from the beginning, and it’s worth looking at other schools which are smaller, newer, and with younger populations to see how those differences work in real life.. Even our family day care twos, threes, fours, fives, and sixes can have very nuanced discussions about situations and dilemmas and have a very highly developed sense of what is kind, fair, just, necessary. You don’t have to be a teen to know those things. What I find striking in my experience with after school care looking after public school children is how children as young as five can tell me who the mean teachers are, what the rules are, who is punished and why, what their misbehaviors might indicate, and how to avoid punishments themselves. Children are wise and wonderful from the beginning, at least in my experience.

      Absolutely adults help in this school. They are wise, knowledgeable, compassionate, models, helpers. They aren’t hands off, they are part of what makes the school work, no questions asked. The students, however, may be even more powerful than Kirsten’s piece shows. In fact, my kids did not describe an adult comforting the child after the incident, but they did describe her young uncle, who is a student at the school, taking her into his arms and how others offered her hot chocolate and a blanket and everyone gathered around her in the kitchen. This again, could have happened in my family day care, but I wonder in how many schools. I hope in some.

      And lastly, though I have many more thoughts, is that I don’t see Open Classrooms as a flash in the pan at all. I see them as a piece of the history in some things that are now somewhat mainstream, even in our often rigid, standards based classrooms..the workshop model of literacy instruction, the inquiry based math programs, the thematic, integrated instruction…as well as in many alternative schools which surviver or have recently opened based on those who knew that era and their work, writings, mentoring, etc. I attended one of the best conferences in my years working with children at Lesley College a few years ago, where a huge group of educators celebrated the work of David and Frances Hawkings, early developers of the Open Classroom model. Believe me, their spirit is still alive, as the room of awed folks celebrating their lives is a testament.

      Perhaps more than I should have written. This stuff is the heart of what I wish we were all talking about in the world of education. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to join in your discussion.


      Posted by mariawest | November 10, 2011, 1:25 pm
      • Maria,
        Thank you for taking the time to respond in depth to my posting and for adding valuable detail to Kirsten’s already-enlightening essay.

        Whenever I respond to people, places or programs with whom I feel simpatico, I am always concerned that my remarks may obfuscate my overall position of agreement. Similarly, I am reminded of the caution I should have exercised when using various metaphors or common expressions, such as “flash in the pan”.

        Let me start there: I totally agree with you that there are lingering–even powerful–reminders of the Open Classroom experiment, if I may call it that. In fact, the true believers and practitioners of what I refer to as open education are still very much in evidence and continue to inspire new start-ups all the time (well, regularly, anyway). What I meant to be referring to was that group of policymakers and administrators who were merely playing around the edges of genuine transformation, more concerned with keeping taxpayers happy by showing that their district or school was at the cutting edge of the latest trends, research, etc. For these fair weather friends of open education, however, all it took was for there to be some mild backlash and they would fold their tents and rush to the next new fad–or, more likely, head for cover back to the old and the familiar. Schools in my area (suburban Phila) literally tore down walls one year and re-built them a year or two later, and sent their teachers to North Dakota (or imported various consultants) for intensive workshops in “Messing About With Science”, “New Math”, etc. etc. only to reject the new thinking that they represented in less time than you can say No Child Left Alive (sic). *Those* are the kinds of experiences to which I was referring when I made the “flash-in-the-pan” reference.

        Interestingly (to me, at least), in a radio interview that John Holt gave when we sponsored a couple of engagements with him down here in the early ’80s, he mentioned that he thought that no more than “two or three percent” of educators and schools were actually providing what he considered truly learner-centered environments. “In the traditional classroom”, he said, “the kids see the hoops they are expected to jump through. In the so-called new classrooms, they hide the hoops behind a curtain–but the kids know that they are there.” (I’m paraphrasing here but only slightly; I took the liberty of using quotation marks to signify what were John’s comments back then as distinct from mine, now.)

        One other point: I have no doubt that other youths in other places can and have replicated the kind of compassionate and intelligent behaviors that Kirsten described. In fact, I see it all the time (well, again, regularly) at the various schools and resource centers I observe–for example, North Star in Hadley, MA and, if I may, Open Connections, from which I retired as executive director a couple of years ago. (Such places also give support to your point about the continuing influence of the Open Classroom experiment.) The point I wanted to make was simply to warn those who might respond to Kirsten’s account with “it could never happen that way at my (youth’s) school” that those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it. And also that such an environment does not spring magically full-blown out of the head of some charismatic leader but rather is built, slowly and carefully over time, by the community itself. Again, those who think they can legislate such transformation are bound to be disappointed early and then revert to old practices, saying “See, I knew it wouldn’t work here.”
        (I love the quotation on this topic from Eugene V. Debs that Debbie Meier included in her book “The Power of Their Ideas”, in which he says, “I do not wish to lead you to the promised land, because if I do, someone else can lead you back.” Better that people stay in charge of their own transformation, yes?!

        Thanks again,,
        Peter B.

        Posted by Peter A. Bergson | November 10, 2011, 6:16 pm
        • All good thoughts. I’m headed to the Coalition for Essential Schools Fall Forum early in the morning, where I hope to hear Deborah Meier talk, once of those from Open Classrooms who is still lighting fires..Thanks for taking the time to reply. My mind is primed for the next couple of days with the questions and thoughts here.


          Posted by mariawest | November 10, 2011, 10:59 pm
      • Maria, Maybe I’ll see you at CES? I’m heading there this afternoon.


        Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 11, 2011, 9:14 am
        • So sorry I missed this comment and seeing you at CES. It would have been fun to hear more about your work at the kids’ school. Til next time..Maria

          Posted by mariawest | November 25, 2011, 12:17 am
  8. Peter, As always, your mind is a pleasure to behold and interact with. As a longstanding alternative school starter yourself, I respect your questions deeply. As another one of our bloggers says, you speak with the voice of experience. I am going to be writing about the 6 exemplary and incredibly different schools I have seen in the last weeks for my next book. Thank you for all the questions you raise, and for the deeper issues they bring to the surface.

    I don’t know the answer to any of them.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 9, 2011, 9:21 pm
    • “As always, your mind is a pleasure to behold and interact with.” Back at ya’, K.

      “Thank you for all the questions you raise, and for the deeper issues they bring to the surface.
      I don’t know the answer to any of them.” Hmmm. Not so sure about that. I think you might be selling yourself short. At the *very* least, you are well on your way to building such answers. It’s a pleasure to be on the journey with you.

      Peter B.

      Posted by Peter A. Bergson | November 10, 2011, 6:20 pm
  9. Every time I read something that supports democratic education I get excited, and it is happening more and more. Honestly, I didn’t know if I’d live to see a real public discourse on the subject, but maybe I was wrong.

    Having been a parent of a Sudbury school student (for 9 years) and a staff member at one (for 3 years), I am very familiar with the scene you describe. It plays out in dozens of schools throughout the country every day. As I told prospective families when they toured the school, the judicial committee is the heart of the school – as tedious and stressful as it may sound, it is the truest expression of the freedom, respect and responsibility members of the immediate community are expected to demonstrate. (Well, staff elections are pretty powerful, too.)

    Thanks for writing this, and keep it up. Maybe we’ll be seen as visionaries rather than oddballs some day.

    Posted by karendanzah | April 18, 2012, 5:27 am
  10. Karendanzah, Your comment greeted me first thing this morning, and I loved it. Having recently returned from an International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where 1000 democratic educators from all over the world gathered to describe school environments just like this one, and the one in which you teach, I increasingly believe there is a global shift occurring in how education is regarded.

    What if we decide not to regard ourselves as oddballs? What if we move out of a sense of marginality and say, “We are the vanguard, what the mainstream will become.”

    Shall we join together in that?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 18, 2012, 7:35 am


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