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  • Cara DeBusk

Back to School, Sudbury-style


August means Back to School for most of the United States. Time for new school supplies and clothes. Time for jokes about parents happy to get "rid" of their kids. There is a lot of this:

Setting aside the highly questionable and problematic assumption that parents (moms, mostly, apparently) are ecstatic to be separated from their kids, and totally disregard their children’s pain or fear, look at the kids. Are they happy? Why is it an accepted condition that kids dread the return to school? (We could also consider that perhaps the mom has been struggling to balance a full-time job or 2 with figuring out child care for 11 weeks and is happy for some relief, but that is a different topic).

And there is a lot of this:

Your Facebook feed, if you are a parent, is probably filled with helpful articles about easing your kids’ anxiety about returning to school. It’s obvious that for the most part, school sucks for kids. Perhaps even the ones who are very good at it. Summer is fun and going back to school, with the exception of seeing friends, is not. Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, documents the decline of children’s mental health when they return to school in “The Danger of Back to School.”

“Imagine a job in which your work every day is micromanaged by your boss. You are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. You are required to stay in your seat until your boss says you can move. Each piece of your work is evaluated and compared, every day, with the work done by your fellow employees. You are rarely trusted to make your own decisions. Research on employment shows that this is not only the most tedious employment situation, but also the most stressful. Micromanagement drives people crazy.

Kids are people, and they respond just as adults do to micromanagement, to severe restrictions on their freedom, and to constant, unsolicited evaluation. School, too often, is exactly like the kind of nightmare job that I just described; and, worse, it is a job that kids are not allowed to quit.”

For kids, summer means catching up on sleep, having time to do things they enjoy, having time to slow down and do nothing, being out in the world. It means actually getting to talk with and play with friends. Perhaps it is the only time of the year they have that is dedicated to classes or camps focused on something they are passionate about, be it art or gaming. Perhaps they hold down a job, and experience the agency that comes from earning your own money. It can be a time of discovery of new passions. No wonder they are sad when summer ends.

So, what is back to school like for students who do not live their daily lives in the environment described by Gray and for whom the whole school year is an experience of “summer”? Where they have freedom, empowerment, total self-directed learning, friends, conversations, sleeping in when needed, time to reflect, time to explore and make mistakes, freedom to move, eat, drink, work as they wish, all year. A school where they are not isolated from friends, and exist in a rich, interesting culture of their own devising.

Take an exchange between an HSS parent and child as an example:

Mom: L, how do you feel about going back to school?

L: Noooooo!!!!

Bother: L, she means Sudbury. Right, mom?

Mom: yes. I mean Sudbury.

L: (jumping off the sofa): yes!!! I'm so EXCITED!!!!

The summer break for HSS began with students requesting that we abolish summer break. It is ending with children genuinely excited to return to school. They are excited not because HSS is “easy” (it is not at all easy to be responsible for your own school, learning and life), but because they are free to pursue their passions, empowered in their lives, respected, and safe to be themselves. Who wouldn’t be excited about that?


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