My Experiences at Tallgrass Sudbury School (Part 2)


FACEBOOK UPDATE (April 19): Cutest moment of my day: C (5 yr old) approaches me and asks a seemingly random question……

C: Do you like guinea pigs?

Me: Err… yeah, I guess so.

C: Did you know my guinea pig died last night?

Me: Oh… no, I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry.

[After a few moments of silence C throws her arms around me for a hug.]

I found it very touching to think that Cadie should be willing to share something so personal with me after knowing me for such a short time. There was a great deal communicated during those few moments of silence. I felt no need for patronising words, such as “There, there, your pet is in guinea pig heaven now.” It was enough for her to see the compassion in my eyes; I offered an unspoken blessing, to which she reciprocated with a hug before skipping off to resume her play.

Later that day, Cadie invited me to join her in drawing animals. I agreed, though pointed out that drawing wasn’t one of my greatest strengths. “Don’t worry,” she replied. “I will show you how to do it.” She led me to the art supplies station where she helped herself to two pieces of paper and a box of pens, asking me to assist her in completing the sign-out sheet: “How do you spell felt-tip pens?” Once we had found a space on the floor in the Main Room, Cadie shared with me her technique for drawing ants and butterflies: “Always start with the body like this….. hey, that’s pretty good for a first try, David – almost better than mine!” Yes… the students are the teachers at this school.

FACEBOOK UPDATE (April 20): This school is confirming what I knew in my heart but had to experience for myself… that children are perfectly capable of directing their own education (life) when they are in an environment that accepts, trusts & respects them as the unique, curious, creative & unlimited beings that they truly are.

On this particular afternoon, Danielle (18 year old) asked if anyone was interested in playing “Bananagrams”, a word game wherein lettered tiles are used to spell words. Game play involves arranging your tiles into a grid of connected words faster than your opponents. There were only three other takers – Lucy (aged 12), Peter (staff) and myself. I have always considered myself to be “good with words”, but nothing could have prepared me for the shire brilliance of Lucy. She was able to create her grids at least twice as quickly as the rest of us and one could only marvel at her mastery of the game.

I was so impressed with Lucy’s performance that I approached her later that day to ask for a few tips on how to improve my game. “Don’t fall in love with your words,” she answered with a knowing smile. “As you pick up new tiles you need to be prepared to rearrange the tiles already in your grid and keep creating new words. Also, lots of practise helps. I have spent many hours practising at home.” Here was a 12-year-old sharing with a 32-year-old her hard-earned wisdom on how to be a champion at Bananagrams; not something you would find taking place in many other schools.

After four or five rounds, we were all ready to play a different game. An 11 year old who had just entered the room (I will call her Natalie) suggested “Scattergories” and this idea attracted the attention of three additional players: a 12-year-old boy (who I will call Kyle), a 13-year-old (who I will call Sara) and Cadie (the 5-year-old),. Scattergories is a creative-thinking game, the objective of which is to score points by uniquely naming objects within a set of categories, given an initial letter, and within a time limit.

The number of people sitting around the Art Room table had now grown to eight. Although Cadie was keen to participate, Sara respectfully explained to her that she needed to be able to read, so I suggested she join me as my team mate since I had never played the game before. Cadie sat on my lap throughout the game; I whispered category headings into her ear (pointing to the words on the card), while she whispered suggested answers into mine. It occurred to me that, even though Cadie could not yet read, she was contributing to a fun-filled activity that generated lots of laughter, and in which she could clearly perceive a “need” to be able to read.

So often, teachers and other so-called “experts” operating within The System concern themselves (completely unnecessarily) about children who have not begun reading at a certain age. Who decided that every child needs to start reading at age 7? There are 13-year-olds in some Sudbury schools who have not yet learned to read or write. Nobody expresses undue concern because they know that, when the time is right, these children will either perceive a “need” to read, or the “desire” to read will surface naturally within them. Then – and only then – do Sudbury staff intervene – and only if the child has first requested their assistance.



My experiences at Tallgrass Sudbury School (Part 1)

Tallgrass Sudbury School is located in Riverside, a beautiful suburban village in Illinois, just outside of Chicago. There are currently 20-25 students enrolled, aged 5 through 18, the majority of whom travel considerable distances from throughout Chicagoland to attend. Tallgrass adheres to the same ideals as Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Framingham, Massachusetts – the original Sudbury school – which has been operating successfully since 1968. Here is a description of SVS:

“SVS is a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. Here, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how and where they will do it. This freedom is at the heart of the school; it belongs to the students as their right, not to be violated. The fundamental premises of the school are simple – that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.”

I have immersed myself in the Sudbury philosophy for the best part of three years, reading numerous books and articles, visiting a Sudbury school in Florida in 2009, and incorporating key aspects of the philosophy into my private confidence coaching practice. During my three-month trip to Chicago earlier this year (I will share the fascinating story behind this trip in a separate post), I had the pleasure of spending six weeks observing life at Tallgrass. In the next few posts I will be sharing some of my experiences at this extraordinary school, together with my thoughts, reflections and realisations.

Throughout my trip to Chicago, I was posting regular updates on my Facebook page so that friends and family back home in the UK could follow my journey.  I have included some of the Tallgrass-related posts here, in order to aid my recollections.

FACEBOOK UPDATE (March 24): Ventured into suburbs of Chicago today to visit small alternative school where kids are free to direct their own learning within the framework of a democratic community. VERY excited because strong chance I may get to do a mini-internship there… to experience working model of kind of school I’ve been dreaming about creating in UK for several years. Yee-hah!

I attended a public talk, held at Tallgrass and led by Peter Gray (Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College), the title of which was: “How children educate themselves through free play and exploration“. Peter delivered a fascinating and inspiring presentation in which he highlighted the similarities between the approaches to education in hunter-gatherer bands and in Sudbury schools. He identified five conditions that optimise children’s self-education and are common to both:

1. The social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility.

2. Unlimited freedom to play, explore and pursue own interests.

3. Direct exposure to the values, lore, tools and skills of the culture.

4. Presence of a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges.

5. Free age mixing among children and adolescents.

Peter concluded his presentation by pointing out that the conditions for learning in conventional schools are the opposite of those listed above, adding that in his lifetime he had observed a continuous erosion of children’s freedom, coupled with the sky rocketing of childhood obesity, anxiety, depression and suicide: “We have moved children’s lives out of the range of what is biologically acceptable and created physical and mental pathology.”

After Peter’s presentation, the audience (comprising mainly parents) were invited to ask any questions they may have. I didn’t have a question as such, but I took the opportunity to express my gratitude at having finally met someone from an academic background who was actually advocating the Sudbury model! Academics who grasp the need for a different paradigm of education/life in order to improve conditions for children on this planet (rather than futile reform of an obsolete school system) are few and far between; I feel genuinely blessed and honoured to have met Peter in person. For those who are interested, here is the link to his blog:

Having introduced myself briefly to the audience by explaining that I was a school teacher-turned-confidence coach from England with a passionate desire to open a Sudbury-inspired school of my own, I was approached at the close of the meeting by (another) Peter, one of the Tallgrass staff members. He informed me of plans for a free school in Frome, Somerset, England, of which I had not been previously aware: [Given that Students will be free to choose how they spend their days is listed as one of the defining features of the model, it will be interesting to see how the Government responds to this proposal]. I asked Peter about the possibility of spending a few weeks at Tallgrass in April and he suggested I send an email making a formal request to visit, which would be put forward as a motion upon which students and staff could vote at the next School Meeting.

FACEBOOK UPDATE (April 11): My school internship has been approved – I start next week!! Dropped by school to meet students and staff today. Youngest student (5 yr old girl) took me on tour of building… cutest thing you EVER saw!

I arrived at the school at around 1pm. Tallgrass occupies the second floor of the education wing of a church. Upon entry through an outside door, you climb two flights of stairs and the room directly opposite the stairs is the Art Room, which doubles up as the main gathering place. I was warmly greeted by two teenage boys at the entrance – who were on their way off campus to get some food – and spotted Peter (staff member) sitting upstairs at the large table in the Art Room.

I had yet to hear back from the school regarding my internship request and had decided to drop by that day because it was advertised as “Open House” on the school’s website. Peter was pleased to inform me that he had sent an email earlier that day confirming that my request had been approved and that I could start the following Monday! Wonderful news! He was busy preparing the school’s budget on his laptop so I chose not to bombard him with too many questions. I decided instead to sit back, relax and take in my surroundings.

There were two teenage girls working at the table with us – both painting; a younger female student on the sofa to my right with her head buried in a book; a teenage boy engaged in informal conversation with a member of staff on the sofa opposite; and a much younger girl – who looked about 5 or 6 years old – playing with a couple of dolls on the floor. The two students working at the table had both greeted me with a smile and a friendly “Hi” and, although I was keen to speak with them about their experiences at the school, I chose to sit quietly and observe them at work rather than interrupt their creative efforts.

After a few minutes, the student sitting closest to me (I will call her Danielle) stopped painting and initiated conversation with me. Danielle was the oldest student at the school (aged 18) and spoke with great enthusiasm of her time at Tallgrass, having been previously homeschooled. She explained that she was in the process of writing her graduation thesis, which she would have to defend in front of the School Assembly at the end of the school year (more on this later).

A few minutes later, I observed the youngest student (I will call her Cadie) approach Peter and whisper something in his ear. Peter then turned to me and asked if I would be interested in a tour of the building – led by Cadie. This was an early example of a student taking the initiative, as well as a heart-warming gesture of consideration for the needs of others. Cadie – at just five years old – was prepared to abandon playing with her dolls in order to show a stranger around her school. Not only that, but she was volunteering to do so – without any encouragement from an adult.

It was a wonderful tour, complete with running commentary. “This is the Art Room where we draw and paint, and sometimes we play games and sometimes we just chat….. This is the library. It’s the quiet room where you can get some peace. As you can see, we have lots of books….. This is the JC room where we talk about people who have broken rules and make decisions and stuff. I find some of the meetings a bit boring, ha ha…..” I had never before met such a confident and articulate five-year-old; I followed her around the school with a huge grin from ear to ear.

I must have made a good impression because, at the end of the tour, Cadie asked if I would join her in playing with her dolls and a big toy truck in the main room. After a few minutes, she was climbing on my shoulders and asking for a ride around the school… and I had been in her life for barely thirty minutes!!

Before long, another student (I will call her Laura), aged 16, approached me and – having heard my English accent – asked a few questions about life in the UK, before sharing more detailed information about how the school operates.  She showed me the notice board and explained the purpose and functions of the school’s committees and clerkships. All in all, it was a wonderful introduction to life at Tallgrass and I was taken aback by the openness and kindness of everyone I met.

FACEBOOK UPDATE (April 19): School internship going great! Highlight today was seeing oldest student (18) teaching youngest (5) how to play ukulele – powerful demo of the beauty of unrestricted age mixing. Also inspired by 13 yr old girl who struggled in public school… a joy to watch her excitedly leading small group of younger students in planning a haunted house night.

Danielle had saved up her earnings from a part-time job in a restaurant to buy her beloved ukulele, and had taught herself how to play it by watching YouTube videos. Observing her older-sister-like interactions with Cadie – who sat in her lap excitedly stroking the strings, while Danielle took care of the chords – was one of the highlights of my entire trip.

The 13-year-old mentioned above (I will call her Sian) has to be one of the most inspiring young people I have ever met. It is easy to see why some people feel a little intimidated by Sian at first; she is not afraid to express her individuality through her clothing, hair and make-up! But I could see – even before we had spoken – that beneath the surface was a sweet and kind-hearted person. It is difficult to describe in words, but there was something about her that I “recognised”. I felt so much compassion in my heart for her; an intuitive “understanding” of and immense respect for her.

Sian was soon sharing with me her experiences in public schools; in particular, how she had suffered at the hands of bullying teachers. She described the devastating effects of these experiences on her self-esteem (suffice it to say, it’s a miracle she is still alive) and I realised that I could see so much of myself in her: the sense of not belonging, not fitting in and not being understood by anyone within The System; the refusal to conform, despite immense pressure to do so; the courage to stand up for oneself and to speak one’s truth; etc. However, I had experienced all of this as a teacher – as an adult with life experience behind me – whereas she had experienced it as a child. Despite all the odds being stacked against her, she had somehow found the strength to come through her ordeal; this is what accounted for my deep feelings of compassion and respect for her. To me, she was the embodiment of the word “courage”.

Sian also reminded me of some of the students I had been working with back home in the UK who – just like her – could see straight through the lies and hypocrisy of the education system but – unlike her – did not have the option of attending a school like Tallgrass. Even Sian’s route to finding Tallgrass was similar to my own. We had both been told by well-meaning friends and relatives that we would never find a school in which we could “be ourselves”. We had both held on to our dream of finding such a school… and we had both succeeded in finding what we were looking for!


Anastasia on raising children

The following excerpts are taken from The Space of Love, Book 3 in ‘The Ringing Cedars Series’ by Vladimir Megre. Words in [square brackets] are my own, inserted to aid the reader’s understanding of the context of each excerpt. Words in bold are my own added emphasis.

pg. 6

“[Your son] doesn’t need any material goods in your sense of the term… You are the one who needs them for your own self-satisfaction, so you can say: ‘Look at how good and attentive I am!'”

“The child doesn’t need senseless trinkets, they’ll only do him harm, distract him from the truth

pg. 39

“[A mother’s milk feeds] not only the flesh. It is capable of transmitting a huge quantity of information, as well as a keen sensitivity… It is inextricably linked to the feelings of the mother. The taste of the milk can change according to her feelings.”

pg. 123

“And are there many happy people amongst your acquaintances? … Then think about it: how can [a child] avoid [feeling unhappy] if you deliberately squeeze him into the system everyone is brought up in? And think: might there not be a certain pattern in the fact that all parents want to see their children happy, and yet they grow up and turn out just like everyone else – not very happy?”

pg. 124

“See the trees, grasses and flowers growing. How could one possibly draw up an advance schedule of the days and hours when they should be watered? You would not go watering flowers when they were being washed with water from heaven simply because  someone worked out a detailed schedule for watering them.”

“This is exactly what does happen in life. No matter what the system. It is still only a system. It is always calculated to wean the heart and soul away from Man when he is still small and subject him to the system. So that he grows up like everyone else, in a way that will fit the system. And so it goes on for ages on end, so as to prevent the human soul from experiencing clarity of vision. To prevent Man from discovering himself in his beauty as a whole, with a God-given soul. Yes, Man! The ruler of all the Universe.”

pg. 125

[Parents] must not intefere, they need to see their children clearly in their own thinking the way God himself has wished. It is the aspiration of all the forces of Light in the Universe that each newborn child can be endowed with the very best of creation. It is the parents’ duty not to hide the creative Light under the erudition of invented dogmas.”

“Debates arise where Truth is hid from sight… But one has only to open the door and it will be clear to all, and there will be nothing to debate, since everyone will be able to see the Truth for himself… [The door] is already open. All that remains is for the eyes of the soul to be opened to see and gain awareness.”

“Anastasia, along with her forebears through the ages, treats a newborn as a deity or an immaculate angel. They consider it totally unacceptable to interfere with the child’s thought process.”

pg. 126

“Anastasia’s grandfather and great-grandfather were able to observe for long periods at a time how their little grand-daughter would be fascinated by a bug or a flower, or the contemplation of something. They tried their best not to distract her with their presence. They would converse with her only when she herself paid attention to them and showed a desire to communicate.

“According to [Anastasia], a bug is a more perfect mechanism than any manufactured product, let alone a primitive construction set… A child provided with the opportunity to communicate with these perfect beings will himself become more perfect than through communication with primitive lifeless objects… Every blade of grass, every bug, is interrelated with the whole of creation and subsequently aids the child in becoming aware of the essence of the Universe and of himself as part of it, to become aware of his innate purpose. Artificially created objects have no such connection and do not arrange priorities and values in the child’s brain in the right way.”

pg. 127

Everything has already been provided for [the infant] by the Creator. Through a bug, a tree, a blade of grass, a seemingly ferocious beast, the Universe is prepared to be a good nurse for him.”

“Of all the beings in the unfathomable Universe only one is capable of influencing his destiny by coming between God and Man… There is nothing in the world more powerful than Divine inspiration, but there is a being equal to it in power, capable of coming between God – the most tender educator – and the angelic child… That being is Man the parent.”

“Everyone wants happiness. But they have forgotten the path to happiness. That is why they are perpetrating violence out of good intentions.”

“There are many systems. But there is only one Truth. And this alone means that the many are leading in the wrong direction.”

pg. 129

“You are reluctant to remember how you, the ruler of the Universe, lay all by yourself helpless in your crib. You were so tightly wrapped up, it was like being bound in a cocoon, and smiling people decided when you should eat and when you should sleep. You wanted to think everything through for yourself, to make sense of what was going on. But so often they would simply make cooing sounds and toss you up toward the ceiling. But what for? You never got the chance to think about that. After growing a little, you began to see a great many things around you that had no voice and no heart. But you were not allowed to touch them. You could touch only those things which people handed you.  And you resigned yourself  to trying to figure out: where was the perfection in any of the joy-toys you were offered? But there was no way you could have found, in this absurd primitive object, what had never been there in the first place and never could. But still you kept searching, you did not completely give up – you felt things with your hands, you tried to bite them, but to no avail. You did not find any explanation. That was when you first wavered, you who were born to be ruler of the Universe. You decided that you were unable to decide anything for yourself. You were betrayed by those who gave you birth, and you betrayed yourself.”

pg. 130

“Like all the other children, you believed in the kindness of people around you, you believed in your parents, you began more and more to repress your own desires. And you accepted their belief that you were nothing but an ignorant, insignificant youngster. And the sensations inculcated in you by the abuse of your childhood keep on haunting you throughout your life, even to the point of attempting to reproduce themselves in your offspring. You went to school like everyone else. There you were told how Man was nothing but a monkey. How he was a primitive creature. How foolish he was to believe in God.”

pg. 131

“And then you became a parent. And unthinkingly you handed over your daughter to the new system, as though you were doing her a favour… Having accepted abuse yourself as a normal state of affairs, you began abusing your own child. Century after century various systems have come and gone, one after the other, but all with a single goal – to kill you, a ‘ruler’ and wise creator, and transform you into a soulless slave.”

The system always operates through parents. And through those who proclaim themselves to be wise teachers… And it does not take much investigation to see clearly that they are motivated by the age-old ambition to separate you from God.”

pg. 147

“There is just one thing that is important, and it will find the right path under any conditions… one’s attitude to one’s child. The thoughts surrounding the child… if the parents have the same attitude toward their child as they would to Christ or Mohammed, their offspring will follow this thought. And he will become whoever he aspires to become.”

pg. 149

The children! Their souls must be liberated from the tryanny of theories.”