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: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn.

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: http://fromefreeschool.co.uk/2011/06/03/proposal-sent-to-government/. [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!

TO BE CONTINUED…

3 Comments

  1. Ru Jones said,

    June 5, 2015 at 12:50 am

    It’s great that you will open a Sudbury style school in England, however, there is already such a school, one in fact, that is older than Sudbury – The Summerhill School in the Suffolk area. There are some differences, but they essentially allow students a voice in their curriculum and in the school governance.

  2. Ru Jones said,

    June 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

    Oh, after reading more of this blog site, I realize you already are familiar with Summerhill.

  3. prachi1002 said,

    November 25, 2018 at 5:24 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience!


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