Last year, when my daughter started kindergarten at our local public school, I had a lot of misgivings. I’ve read for years about the damage No Child Left Behind had on schools and teachers, restricting their abilities to teach the way they wanted. I worried about the huge class size, the new curriculum that was introduced that seemed both demanding yet unimpressive. I worried about the uniforms. I worried about the lack of recess, art, music, and movement of any kind. Most of all, I worried about the emphasis on standardized testing.
But what I didn’t worry about was the bullying and whispers. I didn’t worry about the fact that my daughter spent over an hour of each day lining up to go outside, or to lunch, or to the bathroom, or to recess. I didn’t worry about the mere 15 minutes of recess each day. I didn’t worry about homework. I didn’t worry about “behavior notes” and how they’d crush her each day.
I was wrong. I should have been worried. My daughter was miserable when she got off the bus. Every single day. So when I heard that a Free School had opened in my city, I knew what to do.
Free Schools (also known as Sudbury Schools) operate in a way that is as unrelated to a traditional school as you can imagine. From the outside it’s easy to say the kids just play all day, a kind of beautiful chaos, but that there is no actual learning happening. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
A Sudbury school is a school that practices a form of democratic education in which students individually decide what to do with their time, and learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than adopting a descriptive educational syllabus or standardized instruction by classes following a prescriptive curriculum. Students have complete responsibility for their own education and the school is run by direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.
You read that right: there is no curriculum.
The school offers, instead, a group of room featuring different activities: art, computers, music, library, gym with mats for playing, a quiet room for studying, and more. There isn’t a playground outside, but the kids can play on the sidewalk out front and they have several opportunities for play inside.
My daughter started at her Free School this fall, and here’s what’s different already. She can’t wait to go to school in the morning, and she complains when it’s time to come home that she doesn’t want to leave. Instead of getting scolding behavior notes that she has to carry home, she meets with the school’s justice committee (made up of students and adults) and participates in her own discipline process (this has revolutionized her behavior, by the way), and we stay out of it as parents.
So how are we tackling the “three Rs”? Truth be told, we’re not. Tori is already a great reader, and she gets better each day (thanks in no small part to the copies of Cricket Magazine and Highlights we get each month that she tackles with great enthusiasm). Plus she plays math games on her computer. As far as writing goes, well, she recently helped launch a new “daycare” at the school (there are two kids that are under 3 that are at the school occasionally) and her job was to write the list of rules on a sign.
In other words, she’s doing just fine. Plus she does art and music and plays each day, and that joy and creative spirit is the best part of being a kid, and she’s getting to enjoy it every day.
But the most impressive thing is this: her thinking process has changed. She has learned to step back and view things in a larger context, instead of focusing exclusively on her wants and preferences. I realize some of that is age, of course, but a great deal of it relates back to the school’s systems for doing things and their emphasis on the big picture.
It’s been an incredible blessing and our family couldn’t be happier with our choice, even as we know it would not be possible for many families (it’s a Free School, but it ain’t actually free; tuition is about $10K a year) nor would it be a good choice for some kids. But it works for us.
I’m sure you all have some thoughts, but I’ll ask you this: what would you change about your children’s educations? What would you have changed about yours? I’d love to hear about it.
More from Cecily:
Cecily has been blogging since 2004, and now she’s making a living as a writer which is totally what she predicted in 9th grade as she penned terrible love poems during class.