Is There Another Way?

We talk to many parents who want the benefits of a Sudbury education, but wonder if there are less extreme options. Can you “do Sudbury” at public school? Can they attend Tallgrass some of the time but supplement with at-home or online academics, to make sure the student gets “the basics”?

To us, the most important thing is listening to what your child really wants. And sometimes that’s hard, because it may not be what you want to hear.

I remember hearing a girl of 8 or 9 talk about her current school--the typical story of how bored she was, rules that didn’t make sense, and what she would really like to be learning instead.

“But you don’t hate it that much, do you?” her mom asked.

“Not THAT much,” the girl said.

It was painfully clear to me how much the mom needed to hear that her daughter didn’t hate school “that much,” and how much the daughter wanted to make her mom happy. Kids pick up quickly on cues that show them what you want them to think.

Some kids thrive in conventional schools--they like classroom learning, the curriculum lines up closely enough with their interests, and the social atmosphere is positive or at least not harmful for them. Public schools often have lots of resources, support for special needs, and have a diverse student body. But to get those benefits, kids have to sign up for the hidden curriculum of passivity, coercion, and boredom.

Some freedom is better than no freedom, so we support all options that give kids more control over their education. But there is a limit to how much good can be done by, say, allowing kids to choose the format in which they do their 8th grade report on the Civil War. The students are still forced to be in that particular class, with no choice on whether they would rather spend that time learning about the Incas, or playing the violin, or practicing how to talk to someone they’re attracted to.

At Tallgrass, we don’t think the benefits of mainstream schooling outweigh these costs. But if a traditional school seems like the best environment for your child overall, or other options just aren’t practical, you can try to offset some of the damage through support at home about what you think is important (critical thinking, creativity) and what isn’t (their scores on standardized tests, “busywork” homework).

Forcing some things but not others is, if anything, even more problematic. The true benefits of self-directed education come from the practice your child gets making their own decisions and learning from the results of those decisions. Saying “you can make a few decisions, but not the ones we think are important,” sends the wrong message. Saying “we trust you to be self-motivated in art, but not in math,” teaches kids that math is something that people have to be forced to do, making them value math less.

We know a Sudbury school isn’t practical for all families. They don’t exist in all communities, the commute may be too far, or you may not be able to convince a partner to go along with the idea.

So is there another way? Yes and no. We think the most important thing is giving your child choices. Depending on your family, those choices may include a neighborhood public school, a private school, homeschooling/unschooling, or a Sudbury school like Tallgrass.

Meet Will

Will attended Tallgrass from age 16 to 18. Here's his story.

Current age and occupation: 25, master's student

Schooling previous to Tallgrass: Will unschooled (a type of homeschooling) before attending Tallgrass during its first two years. He never went to a conventional K-12 school. 

What are you doing now?
I’m currently a master’s student at Roosevelt University. I’ll be getting my MA in Economics in May of this year. I got my BA in Economics, also from Roosevelt, a few years ago.

How did you spend your time at Tallgrass?
A lot of the time at Tallgrass I was hanging out with my friends, but also talking about stuff, and generally trying to figure out what to do with my time, what I enjoy most. I played less video games after I came to Tallgrass than before. I tended to play much more nerdy strategy games, that fit into that whole economics thing, but they’re much more solitary games. When I was at Tallgrass, I wanted to be with people and talk to people, not type numbers in.

Were you planning to go to college while at Tallgrass?
I was already thinking about college when I started at Tallgrass, but didn’t have any firm plans. I knew I wanted to study economics, so a lot of what I did at Tallgrass was directed at that one way or another. I went to a community college as a stepping stone to a 4-year university. I ended up taking economics classes at night while I was at Tallgrass.

How did you get into college?
I think I had to take a placement test to start at community college, and then when I went to Roosevelt they transferred my credits. Somehow I managed to do all this without ever taking a standardized test, which could be good thing or a bad thing, but I like to think of it as a good thing. If you can’t stand standardized tests, you can still get a master’s degree. I think taking one class to start with really did help, because I know when I signed up for that class, I didn’t know what to do, but it turned out that class wasn’t too difficult. Building step by step really helped. With math, I went from taking prealgebra to calculus in less than two years.

Would you send your child to Sudbury school?
Yes. It obviously depends on what the child and my partner would think about that, but I think it’s a great option for a lot of kids with varied interests. All sorts of kids can benefit from going to a Sudbury school. 

See more from Will and from other Tallgrass alumni in our alumni panel discussion video
 

How You Can Support Us

Love the idea of Sudbury education, but not the parent of a potential student? There are many other ways you can help support our school and Sudbury education!

The best way to support us is to share information about Sudbury education with someone you know who is looking for educational alternatives.  Most of our students first hear about us through word of mouth. You never know who may be looking for a new school! Mention Sudbury in conversation about education, post Sudbury-related thoughts on social media, or share our contact information with someone who is seeking a new school.

You can also support us by:

  • Contributing part of your online purchases to us by shopping through Amazon Smile or Goodshop (does not increase the price of your purchase).
  • Making a donation. Tallgrass is a 501c(3) nonprofit, and financial and physical donations are tax-deductible. 
  • Volunteering. Tallgrass often has a need for adult volunteers to help out around school. For more information, contact us at info@tallgrasssudbury.org. 
  • Like our Facebook page and like and share our social media posts so they are seen by more people and potential students.

The Unschooling School

Pioneered by education reformer John Holt, unschooling has grown from a niche phenomenon to garnering attention from mainstream media like the Washington Post and The Guardian. The basic concept is simple: don't send your kids to school, and instead, let them do what they want. It looks something like this description from the Christian Science Monitor:

On a late Monday morning in this rural New Hampshire town, Dayna and Joe Martin’s four children are all home. Devin, age 16, is hammering a piece of steel in the blacksmith forge he and his parents built out of a storage shed in the backyard. Tiffany, 14, is twirling on a hoverboard, deftly avoiding the kaleidoscope-painted cabinets in the old farmhouse’s living room. Ivy, 10, and Orion, 7, are sitting next to each other using the family’s two computers, clicking through an intense session of Minecraft.  

It looks a lot like school vacation, or a weekend. But it’s not. This, for the Martin kids, is school. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s their version of “unschooling,” an educational theory that suggests children should follow their own interests, without the imposition of school or even any alternative educational curriculum, because this is the best way for them to learn and grow.

Adults unschooled as children report that:

  • "they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas"
  • "the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals"
  • they appreciated "having a broader range of learning opportunities; a richer, age-mixed social life; and a relatively seamless transition to adult life."

Unschooling and Sudbury schooling have a lot in common. Like unschooling, a Sudbury education gives children the freedom to explore their interests and learn in the ways that work for them, free from the forced march of tests, bells, and grades. Staff at Tallgrass and other Sudbury schools support students' natural curiosity and motivations, much like unschooling parents do. And graduates of Sudbury schools use similar language as unschoolers do to describe their experiences--and, as adults, report similar high levels of satisfaction with their childhood education.

The major difference between unschooling and a Sudbury education is the role of family versus peers. Many unschooling families are part of homeschool groups, Scouts, sports, and other activities, but geography and scheduling, it can make it difficult for children to have as much peer interaction as they want. At a Sudbury school like Tallgrass, students are part of a wider community every day -- a community that learns and plays together, spends time working through conflicts, and makes decisions democratically.

For families who believe in unschooling but don’t have the flexibility to homeschool or want a more social environment, a Sudbury school can be the perfect solution.

For more information about unschooling, check out the list of resources compiled by Peter Gray.

For more information about enrollment at Tallgrass, visit our enrollment page or contact us.

Staffing Opportunity at Tallgrass Sudbury School

Tallgrass Sudbury School, located in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago, is a democratic K-12 school community where students are free to pursue their interests at their own pace and in their own way. Tallgrass is seeking a staff member to start part-time and potentially transition to full-time as we grow. An integral part of Tallgrass is School Meeting, a body made up of students and staff, which makes all schoolwide decisions. The students and staff have an equal vote in all matters of school governance, including making school rules, approving expenditures, and even staff hiring.

 In a typical week as a staff member at Tallgrass, you might:

  • engage with students, staff, and the greater community
  • respond to inquiries about enrollment or from potential visitors
  • work with committees that include staff, students, and parents to make decisions collaboratively
  • write or revise policies or rule changes and propose them to school meeting
  • talk to parents about questions and issues
  • teach classes in response to student requests
  • act as the staff member on the Judicial Committee
  • be an active participant in School Meeting
  • be part of a dynamic community dedicated to living out its democratic principles

 Required Qualifications:

  • Belief in the natural impulse of children (and adults!) to strive for personal growth; commitment to one’s own personal growth.
  • Excellent communication and literacy skills, including expressing thought in writing and interacting effectively with children and adults from a wide variety of backgrounds.
  • Be an interested, interesting, engaged, and passionate person.
  • Strong self-management skills, including high levels of initiative and ability to authentically and effectively prioritize.
  • Ability to maintain confidentiality of student and family data.
  • Pass required background checks before beginning employment.
  • Ability to solve problems creatively with limited resources.
  • Ability to trust in the school’s democratic School Meeting and peer-based judicial system to adequately resolve rule infractions.

You will join a team of two full-time paid staff as well as regular volunteers, and will have a wide variety of responsibilities. Tallgrass hopes to grow our small community significantly in the near future, and the ideal candidate will be willing and able to act as one of the leaders in this effort. While you do not need to have marketing experience, a willingness to gain skills in this area and to think flexibly and creatively about how we can promote our school are essential. Our school is open 9:00 to 4:00 Monday through Friday, with some hours outside of school hours expected for meetings and administrative or marketing work.

Staff members should be able to act as models of responsibility, resourcefulness, initiative, and good conflict resolution, and be willing to listen to and accept feedback. Staff are expected to work within the Sudbury model.

Please submit a letter of interest and resume to info@tallgrasssudbury.org or, if you have additional questions, contact us either by email or by phone at 708.777.1037.  The application period will close on April 13. 

If Kids Could Vote

A student at Tallgrass asked me recently, “If you could do anything to change the direction our country is going in, what would you do?” As a school, we don’t take political positions, but the contentious election has naturally been on people’s minds.

I said, “I would let people under 18 vote.”

Our school ballot box, used for staff and clerkship elections.

Our school ballot box, used for staff and clerkship elections.

I said that if your goal is to create social change, letting young people have a real voice would be the best way to make it happen more quickly. Studies show that attitudes about issues like race and LGBT rights split clearly along generational lines, with younger people more and more in favor of equality for everyone.

We talked through the pros and cons: Should you have to prove yourself competent to vote? What about adults who aren’t well-informed—they don’t have to prove themselves. What if parents tried to influence their kids’ votes?

In the 1960s, political pressure lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, since 18-year-olds were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam, yet had no voice in choosing the leaders of the country. Fifty years later, that same issue is on the minds of some Tallgrass teenagers, who are worried about being forced to fight in a possible war started by people that they never would have voted into office. (NB: At least one student thought Hillary Clinton would have been equally bad if not worse.) They were angry that they couldn’t vote in this election, even though they will have to live with—and be personally affected by—the results.

Could we lower the voting age again? Should we? Takoma Park, Maryland, lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16 in 2013, and in some other cities those 16 and up can vote in school board elections.

The chair of our school aesthetics and use committee (right) consults with an interior designer about changes to the school. 

The chair of our school aesthetics and use committee (right) consults with an interior designer about changes to the school. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone at the national level is seriously considering lowering the voting age. But at Tallgrass and other Sudbury schools, kids CAN vote—and they vote on real issues, with their votes equal to those of adults. When we’re talking to people about our school, we often point out that the kids far outnumber us—only four adults are eligible to vote at school meeting, versus about 20 students. Students vote on everything from field trips, to the budget, to who the staff should be. As in the real world, not everyone chooses to vote on every issue. But when they do vote, they take their votes seriously, weighing the issues to the best of their ability.

We say that kids are equal here—and we mean it.