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A Bird's Eye View of Sudbury Valley

n the spring of 2000, Mimsy Sadofsky was interviewed by Dr. Daria Brezinksy on her live radio show, "Children Come First" (see www.rlc.net/prokids). An audiotape of the interview is available from The Sudbury Valley School Press. The wide-ranging and searching questions asked by Dr. Brezinsky on the show mirrored those that are often asked during enrollment interviews and other conversations about the school. The transcript was edited in 2012 to reflect current practices.

Daria: How did this school begin, when did it begin, and for what reason?

Mimsy: The school began in 1968. A group of people – some of whom were just interested in education and others of whom had children of their own – were trying to figure out what they thought was the best idea for educating young people. They decided to start with nothing and see what made sense. So they discarded ideas that were givens for other schools and came up with the fact that children, like all people, are naturally curious and naturally work at all stages of their life to increase their understanding of the world. It didn't seem as if it was necessary to push them, especially because little by little people get exposed to a tremendous amount of information over their lives. So it's not as if they're never going to learn that they need arithmetic to use money, for instance, or that they need to be able to read in order to read a sign.

Daria: So learning for children, quantitatively speaking, has to do with meaning in your estimation – the meaning and the relevance of everyday life – rather than subjects that are irrelevant to whatever is happening concurrently in a child's life. Is that what you're trying to say?

Mimsy: Yes. Of course, as life goes on for every one of us, what we're interested in shifts and changes and becomes more and more sophisticated. We expect that to happen with every single child.

Daria: Describe for us some of the things that are happening around the school. The children aren't in classrooms studying English, Social Studies, Mathematics. What are they doing right now as we speak?

Mimsy: They're playing basketball and riding bikes and reading books. They're talking about what they did over the weekend, talking about political issues, talking about anything that might come up in a conversation between two people. They're meeting new people, swinging, eating. Almost anything you can imagine people doing in a large family – in a really large family because we have 210 kids – they're doing here today. That means that some of them will be studying traditional subjects in a traditional manner and most of them won't. So if you think of going to a large party with 200 people, there will be people stuck away in a corner reading some book they found on the shelf, other people stuck away in a corner reading some book they brought with them, and lots of other people mixing in various ways, or doing sports and things like that, playing Dungeons and Dragons or cards.

Daria: Your facility is a very large large house, and there are grounds. What is the physical space like, for those who haven't visited there?

Mimsy: It's a beautiful place. It's ten acres of gorgeous land in New England. It has a granite building on it and also what used to be a pretty large barn. Both of those buildings are in constant use. In the barn-type building there are sound-insulated music practice rooms with lots of equipment, there's a video games area, there's a big area in which you can have meetings or performances. The main building has a kitchen, a photo lab, an art room, an internet room with a bunch of computers that are on a very fast internet line, an office, and many rooms of various sizes which are probably the most important rooms in this building because they can be used for anything under the sun.

Daria: So no one can walk into a room and say, "This is the English room," or "This is the mathematics room."

Mimsy: Well, that is a little hard to do since English and mathematics don't really need specific areas. But, for instance, if you wanted to work with some people and you needed a blackboard, there are only three rooms that have blackboards, so you might have to ask people to vacate one of those rooms so you can use the blackboard.

Daria: Do you have teachers in your school?

Mimsy: We have adults. They're called "staff members" and they do sometimes teach, as do many of the kids, but their main purpose is to be here as resources, as people who help make sure the school is running properly, and as role models for what it's like to be a grownup. Hopefully we're okay at being grownups.

Daria: So there are not specific staff members who do specific things like the secretary, the janitor, the English teacher, the art teacher.

Mimsy: Well, there are and there aren't. There are specific staff members whom you would be more likely to go to for certain things. For instance, if you were interested in playing the drums you would not get anywhere near me. There's a person here who's a musician and you'd talk to him about how to get started and what you would do and how to use the equipment. Some of us are generalists, some of us are specialists. We're all elected for one year at a time – there's no tenure – and I think what we're elected for is who we are rather than our specific teaching abilities. That doesn't necessarily mean that we don't have those abilities. We often do – most of us do – and most of us do some work in areas in which we have expertise. It's just that that's not necessarily how we're going to be spending most of our time.

Daria: You said you get elected every year, there's no tenure, and having a job one year doesn't necessarily mean you'll be back from year to year. How is that election process held? Who elects you and what's the process that goes on here?

Mimsy: There are scheduled School Meetings every spring for the purpose of discussing and electing staff candidates, and for offering contracts to those who were elected.

Daria: The students, then, are the people who vote in those who will be staff members next year. Is that correct?

Mimsy: Well, yes. I have a vote too, but there are eleven staff members and 210 students. So as you can see, it's the students who really vote people in.

Daria: Do the staff campaign for jobs? How does that work?

Mimsy: If you have never been a staff member here, then you need to visit for long enough to get to know everybody and for everybody to form some sort of opinion about whether or not you'd be useful to have around. You could call that campaigning. It doesn't look quite like a national campaign, but it's not completely different either.

Daria: This sounds like the ultimate democratic process. Is that what it is?

Mimsy: It's a very democratic process. The idea of the school is that you are not only responsible for your own education here, but you're responsible for the whole community in conjunction with other people. That makes being responsible for your own education a little bit less of a fairytale and more down to earth, because it's a very real community with very real responsibilities and very real calls for judgment on many, many different subjects everyday for everybody – not just for grownups, but for every child also.

Daria: You are a private school. Are you recognized by the state of Massachusetts?

Mimsy: In Massachusetts, it's the town's approval that you need in order to operate, and we have been approved by school officials in the town of Framingham since 1968. We have a very good relationship with them; they're very respectful of what we're doing.

Daria: How are problems dealt with in the school, since there are really no administrators, so to speak, and there really aren't teachers, so to speak? How do you deal with discipline in the school – for example, if one child hits another? How does that function in your democratic process?

Mimsy: I will talk about it, but first I will say that it is unlikely for one child to hit another here. It's a very nonviolent environment and that's actually something that we try to screen for at enrollment time because every child in this school is totally free to be wherever they want to be, which means you have unsupervised four, five, six, seven-year-olds. So you want to be pretty careful that you don't have people who hit, which does not mean that we are without problems or that everyone here behaves perfectly.

We have a judicial system that is an arm of the School Meeting. It meets daily and investigates written complaints about possible rule violations. The Judicial Committee (JC), as it is called, is made up of students – two of whom are elected and five of whom are selected by lot from various age groups – and a staff member chosen on a daily basis. The JC meets every day at 11:00AM. Anybody in the school, whether you're 4 or 44, can make a complaint – a written complaint – about anything they think has happened that might be a violation of the rules. The complaint is examined by the committee and investigated, and the committee decides what they actually think happened, which may have nothing to do with what the person who wrote the complaint thought happened. Based on their findings, they may charge someone with having broken a rule. It's like a little court system – very little and not very scary.

The Judicial Committee is mostly an investigative body. Once it makes a charge, the person has the right to plead guilty or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, then you're going to have a trial, and you might ask someone to help in defending yourself. You may decide to be defended by almost anyone. The Committee has to find someone to prosecute you. Trials are very orderly, but they don't happen very often because mostly you're not accused unless you've done something. The Committee is pretty careful about its work and mostly when you've done something you say, "Yeah, I did it," because that's sort of the atmosphere here. So trials are a rarity; they usually have to do with a dispute about the interpretation of a particular rule rather than somebody saying they didn't do something and somebody saying, "Yes you did." It's more like somebody saying, "Well I don't think that was against the rule," and the Committee saying, "We think it was."

After either a guilty plea or a guilty verdict, if such a thing happens, you can be sentenced by the Judicial Committee in many different ways. The sentences usually run to, "Warned never to do that again," or, "You can't go into a certain room for a day," or, "You have to do the trash an extra time," or something like that.

Daria: So the process is much more relevant than the actual consequence, is what you're trying to say?

Mimsy: Absolutely. The consequences are mild, in general. It's my feeling, after watching it over the years, that people like the idea of having a sentence and sort of expiating the sin – having it over with, not having to think, "Oh my God, I was so stupid" forever; just getting it done and not thinking about it anymore.

Daria: Suppose someone did something such as steal money, for example. He wouldn't just have a slap on the wrist, I'm sure.

Mimsy: I'm afraid not. That would probably lead to a suspension. It's very much a school based on respect and trust and theft is considered a tremendous violation of trust and a tremendous de-stabilizer in a community like this. We all leave everything we have lying around and expect it to be respected and not harmed by others. So stealing – when it has happened, which is not very often in the history of the school – has been dealt with very severely.

Daria: Let's go back to the learning strategy of the school. We presuppose that all children learn, they learn at their own pace, and they learn because they're passionate about learning. How does this prepare a child, for example, to go on to college when they must have SAT scores and must function in a very different setting in a college situation?

Mimsy: Kids who leave here are usually extremely well-prepared to go to college. First of all, they're quite knowledgeable, and they're very articulate. If you want to go to a college for which you need SAT scores (which certainly is not every college at all) then that's one of the things you're motivated to do, and you apply yourself to learning how to do well on the SAT's. This is not a strange idea. Recently, a guest came to the school, and he said, "Oh, I knew someone from this school once," – this person was a teacher – "I tutored him in math. He had graduated from your school and yet he knew very little math and he wanted to take the SAT's.

But within six weeks, he had learned everything I had to teach him." That speaks to motivation. This child was not interested in learning math until he needed it for the SAT's and when he needed it for the SAT's, he learned it quickly. Colleges are not as different from Sudbury Valley, I think, as high schools are, because you're expected to have a lot more autonomy and a lot more responsibility for doing what you need to do in college than you have in most high schools.

Daria: So then what you're saying is that students, when they are motivated to learn, will learn rather quickly instead of being drawn out, taken into bits and pieces and little bitty segments like we tend to do in our schools today. When they are motivated, they can learn instantly.

Mimsy: Well maybe not instantly but quickly yes, and the SAT's are a big motivating factor. What is meaningful to you is easier to learn than what is not meaningful to you. It's as simple as that. So if you're excited about something or interested in it, you tend to learn it much more quickly which is one of the reasons we don't worry about the fact that many kids spend very little time doing what looks like academic work here; we know they're perfectly capable of doing any of that stuff whenever they want to. They usually find when they get to college that taking tests is scary at first and other than that, there's only one thing that gets to them at college. Kids who go to school here are used to doing their best and when you go to college you can only do your best some of the time. You can't do your best all the time because you have to balance a lot of pressures. So they have to learn how to not always do their best.

Daria: That's ironic.

Mimsy: It is really ironic, isn't it? But that's okay, it's something you have to learn in life. You have to learn to set priorities in life and they do that.

Daria: What types of things do the children learn at Sudbury School?

Mimsy: Well, I think they learn every type of thing but there are some things that I think every kid has to learn here because you can't be here and not learn them. One of those things is to love the outdoors. Kids can spend as much time outside as they want here and that's very healthy for their minds, their hearts, their souls, their bodies. There's not a kid who's gone to school here who doesn't afterwards talk about how important the outdoors was to them.

I also think the whole idea of the governance of the school means that they have to constantly examine ethical issues and that's another thing I think kids who go to school here cannot possibly avoid learning. Once you've gotten past those things, then it can be anything – it can be physics, it can be art, it can be music, it can be all those things – it can be whatever you're passionate about or excited about or whatever you happen to be accidentally exposed to, which happens a lot too. One of my children who went to school here (my children all went) was in college and had to take a foreign language course and he chose Spanish. I said, "You can't do that! You don't know what a noun is, or a verb!" He said, "Of course I do." I said, "Well, okay," thinking maybe everybody in the world knows what a noun or a verb is, and I said, "You certainly don't know about pronouns or adverbs." This is the supportive mother, right? And he said, "Yeah, I do." I said, "How?" He said, "Well, looking things up in the dictionary when I was playing Scrabble." And he did. He knew plenty. That's an example of totally accidental, incidental learning, but maybe not really. Maybe it was really stuff that he was interested in and that's why when he looked things up in the dictionary he noticed things about words that you or I might not have noticed.

Daria: So students learn at their own pace the kinds of things that they want to learn and end up with a much broader perspective on life with greater resources, critical thinking skills, a love for the outdoors, and the ability to examine ethical issues.

Mimsy: That's exactly right. What we think is most astounding about the kids who go to school here is that they feel they're in control of their lives. All of us are only in limited control of our lives – things can happen to anybody – but the kids who go to school here feel very profoundly that they can influence their lives in any way they want and that they can influence the world. That's a miraculous thing: not to feel that they're being pushed and pulled by the tides, but to feel that they can take charge and do what they want in life. It's never occurred to them that there's any other way.

Daria: That is absolutely extraordinary because for the most part our children feel that they have no control and grow up as adults who feel that they have no control over their own lives and are just prone to whatever comes down the pike in terms of adult business, educational controls, legislation, whatever it is, and these children have just the opposite points of view. I find that extraordinary.
There are many books that you have about Sudbury Valley School, published by the Sudbury Valley School Press. You also have videotapes (and audiotapes). Where can people find these?

Mimsy: Our website has a complete listing and you can order right through it. You can also contact us and we'll send you a listing.

Daria: I suggest to people to purchase the Japanese documentary video, because it really gives a tremendous amount of information about the school. What was that all about?

Mimsy: A group of people filming for NHK, the major educational network in Japan, came and spent about a week and a half here filming. It was quite an experience for all of us. I think that everyone of them who came – there were four people – was changed by it, and I think we were changed by it too because they were such remarkable people to work with. Their program included commentary on our educational philosophy by several people knowledgeable about education and children in Japan and, amazingly enough, it was pretty positive commentary which was kind of exciting. We didn't have any idea what it was going to be beforehand, of course.

Daria: Why did they come and visit your school?

Mimsy: The short answer is there's a lot of turmoil in Japan now about their educational system, even though it is held up as a model by other countries (especially in many parts of the United States). They feel that they're not educating people to be creative and that their educational system causes tremendous stress among kids. They have a high child suicide rate and a very high dropout rate, and college students often fall apart. They're trying to figure out ways to make changes. There are a lot of people in Japan now working on schools that are similar to ours, and maybe not so similar, but free in various ways.

Daria: Let's go back to Sudbury Valley. If children don't choose the basics to learn, do they waste their time year after year after year? What happens if they choose to go fishing, an example you have in one of your books?

Mimsy: The child who chose to go fishing wasn't exactly missing the basics. He was reading about fishing and doing research on fish and doing all sorts of things that had to do with fishing. We think that if something's basic, then it will be quite obvious to each person that they need it. That doesn't mean that every child decides reading is basic when they're six. Some may decide when they're four and some may decide when they're ten or older; we don't make any value judgments about this because it only means that for that particular person, reading wasn't important if they didn't do it until they were ten. Reading wasn't something they needed in order to gain knowledge. Many people gain knowledge more through reading and others more through conversation or visual stimulation, so we're not worried about the basics. We think if they're basic everybody will figure that out for themselves, and they do. Also, it's not as if they're here in isolation, because they're here six, seven hours a day and then they go back into the rest of the world and they have a very clear idea from the rest of the world, and from their friends who are students here, what people think of as important and as basic.

Daria: Tell us a little bit about the boy fishing, because I think it's really important. How did he get there and what happened to him?

Mimsy: Well, there were two boys who fished all the time. The first one had been in a public school, but he wasn't very old – he was eight or nine – and he was not comfortable with being told what to do, which is true of most kids who come here over the age of five or six. He just was not that happy and his parents thought that it wasn't good for him to be told what to do, that it was better for him to be able to figure out what to do on his own. I think parents who have children who have been very self-motivated before going to school often feel that once their child gets to school, s/he becomes less self-motivated, a little bit duller. So he was enrolled here and he got very excited about the pond and about fishing and he met a friend who got very excited with him. They spent years and years together fishing a lot of the time, and making mischief a lot of the time too. They were kind of rowdy and rambunctious and they had lots of good friends at school, so they weren't loners. But they spent time researching fishing, watching fishing videos which I didn't even know existed, reading every book that had to do with fish science (ichthyology) and they became very knowledgeable fisherman. This particular concentration, which for them was on fishing, was also something that both of them switched: they're not fishermen now. They may still like to fish, but that's not their prime focus. One of them is a computer scientist and one of them is a musician. But the ability to focus on something and pour yourself into it was important to them as they developed other interests through their lives, and they're both very focused, committed people.

Daria: So it took learning to just be focused and committed on one subject to allow them the space to know that this too shall pass – it's just a passing phase for them to sit fishing every day.

Mimsy: Well, it didn't look like a passing phase when it was three or four years, but yes it was a passing phase.

Daria: And what we can infer from that then, is that the kind of skills that they learned were patience – especially fishing, if anybody's ever gone fishing. They learned to be patient, they learned how to be resourceful, they learned how to investigate a subject, they learned how to stay focused for long periods of time when the results weren't necessarily there. The underlying objectives and the motivation and the passion of fishing definitely taught them so many different skills from what might look externally like two boys who are lazy and don't want to do anything. I really applaud you for your respect in understanding that children have an innate ability to learn and they will learn no matter what.

Mimsy: I think fishing was the 1970's version of video games today because people still feel the same way about video games. They watch kids who come to school here and spend tremendous amounts of time playing video games and they see it as mind- numbing. We know – because we see the kids and we know the kids – that it's the opposite of mind-numbing, that they only play a particular video game until they've mastered it and then they go on to something else. They also play in an extremely social situation with other kids, talking all the time, and they develop very deep social relationships. And we know that the kind of concentration they put into each video game is mind-building and not mind-numbing, but people still feel the same way about video games that they felt about fishing in the '70's. It's just sort of a more modern version of it.

Daria: Well, generally the context of video and computers is the fact that people are isolated and alone. So you have additionally added a different dimension to it which is the social context of students talking. That dialogue is what we now know facilitates learning and creates more capacity for the child to learn. So I think there's a different set of circumstances here than just playing video games and I want to make that point clear because everything that is done at Sudbury is also in a social context as well as an environmental context. It is not just an isolated incident, for the most part. Although there are children sitting reading in corners, they also have interactions with other children as well. So there is much more here going on than what appears on the surface. Am I correct in that?

Mimsy: You're correct, and that is something that we talk about a lot when people say, "Well, why wouldn't I just homeschool my children? Why would I send them to your school?" We feel that what goes on in a place where there are a lot of other kids – a lot of equals, a lot of peers – is very different from what can go on at home. It's not that what goes on at home is not going to give you an education, but the full holistic value of the education in a place like this is very high we think.

Daria: Do your children go on to college for the most part, or what kinds of careers do they go on to?

Mimsy: They go on to every kind of possible career. We have studied what happens to kids after they leave here and found that some eighty percent, in general, went on to college. The more years you had spent here, the more likely it seemed that you were likely to go on to college. But it's not a college-centered school and a lot of kids who do end up going to college don't go directly to college when they leave here. They may leave saying, "I'm probably going to go to college someday," or they may leave saying, "I'm going to travel next year, or work next year and save money, and then I'll go to college." Or they say, "Look, I've got a great job in the computer industry," or "I know what I want to do, and I know how to work on what I want to do, and I don't need college. College has nothing to offer me." So we don't make any value judgments about people making those decisions about their lives. Sometimes I think that the people who are the most concentrated and the most brilliant are the ones that are least likely to go to college.

Daria: How in the world did you personally come to the understandings that you have and allow yourself to free yourself of former opinions, beliefs, and judgments about children?

Mimsy: For me, it was a very personal journey to get here. I grew up just like anybody else and I went to college just like anybody else and I had children just like anybody else. Suddenly I had a first-grader who my husband and I thought was a wonderful child and very bright and he was going to school and having stomach-aches every day and complaining. We had learned through the six years of getting him to be a first-grader that the less we interfered with what he wanted to do, the happier he was, and therefore the happier we were. He had sort of trained us from early childhood. So when he was unhappy in school we said, "Wait a minute, maybe it's not the child. Maybe there's something wrong with the system." This was late '60s, and we started doing a little research into education and of course that was the time when lots and lots of books were being written. We read Summerhill, and we said, "Wow! We think what he needs is freedom, not structure."

Daria: So you basically helped develop this school for your own children and came together with other people to design something in order for your own children to be a part of it.

Mimsy: Yes, that was the primary motivation. But of course once you get a hold of these ideas they're too exciting to put down. It's so wonderful to be in a place where children treat you like a person instead of like somebody that they're afraid of, somebody they're supposed to be nice to. It's so liberating for an adult to be treated that way that it's a fabulous place to be every day.

Daria: Are there any other schools around that are Sudbury-like schools?

Mimsy: Yeah, there are quite a few in this country and there are a few in other countries and more and more being worked on and talked about. These are all listed on our website, www.sudval.org.

Daria: Is life chaotic at Sudbury Valley? I saw 200 children everywhere – from in the house to all over the buildings and outside, inside. There was constant movement all the time and I would consider that chaos, except I believe what you are telling me is that there is direction and intentionality to the chaos.

Mimsy: To each person's movement; and 210 people moving with their own intention can feel kind of chaotic if you are not part of it. The idea is chaotic. It's less chaotic if you're part of it because you realize that people are very aware of everything around them and very aware of the community and they're not just rushing madly off in all directions. The one comparison that I think of is that if you go to an elementary school, during recess the kids burst out of the building and they're a little bit wild. The kids here, although they're very exuberant, are not wild at all. That's part of why I don't think that it's chaos. Each person is not chaotic in their own mind, but they're also not chaotic in their actions. They're playing, they're happy, they're full of fun, they're running around a lot, but it's not wildness at all.

Daria: Do you allow people to come and visit your school?

Mimsy: We allow families who have children that they're thinking of enrolling to come and visit, and a few other visitors. There's a tremendous pressure to visit, but we just don't have the physical or the mental facilities for a huge number of visitors, and children get tired of being looked at as goldfish in a bowl.

Daria: Is there anything you'd like to say to sum up Sudbury Valley School and any information that we perhaps missed?

Mimsy: I think this is a wonderful idea as a way to educate children. I think that this produces kids who feel very good about life and about themselves. If people are interested in making that possible for children, we will help them in a lot of ways and we offer a lot of materials that can help them start a school. So maybe it's something they should think about doing in their own area.

Another question often asked is this: What type of person do you look for to staff the school?

Answer: A person seeking a career that is meaningful and varied. We are always looking for people with strong executive skills, knowledge in maintaining an institution, excitement about being part of a team that keeps a cutting edge school vibrant, commitment to treating children and adults with complete respect, and significant relevant experience. Someone interested in exploring the possibility of joining our staff should contact us.


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