Oh, neglected blog! In the true spirit of all things organic, dynamic, and under pressure: things have been happening but time to stand back and reflect on it has been limited. However, sharing our experiences of this journey is as vital as the stories taking place within the walls of our new school, so friends and supporters, please allow me to focus on a few personal moments, which have concreted this project in my head and heart…
Sitting on the toilet.
Yes. C’est vrai. One of the pivotal moments of this project for me so far followed our weeks of intense refurbishment at the school. With the help of the wonderful professionals at Les Ateliers Nobile, the building we inherited from l’École Dynamique was given a new coat of paint, some fresh lino and a pillar wrapped in cartridge paper to become a drawing wall (no more “don’t draw on the walls!”). Welcome to life without a prescribed programme: thought you were moving to Paris to open a school? Throw out romantic ideas of walking beneath the Eiffel Tower with a group of art-enthused students – time to chip concrete, paint walls, attach skirting, glue lino and sweep, mop and dust!
And at 10pm at night, with the final skirting attached to our bathroom walls, I took a satisfied look around me – empowered with new skills I never even knew I wanted, out of the necessity to reach a greater goal – and I realised this school was already working its sneaky magic on me.
On the 13th of March we opened our doors to help celebrate and inaugurate our new building as the Sudbury School Paris. With staff, families, friends and lots of delicious food, we had a lovely afternoon of chats, discussion, play, and the launch of our new video. Any doubts that remained in my head about the necessity or viability of an English speaking Sudbury School in Paris were dispelled with one very moving conversation with some parents, and then watching as one of our students and their son began to spontaneously play together.
The couple explained to me how their son had proudly and enthusiastically presented his hand in greeting to his teacher on his first day of school in Paris. They explained to me how this first year teacher told him to sit down, be quiet and wait for instructions. This was his introduction to school. Mirroring similar conversations I’ve had, they explained how they were told their son had a “problem” because he asked questions, solved mathematics equations in different and creative ways, and had a lot of energy. He is nine.
This particular conversation made things real to me in a new way. As someone who came to education motivated to offer a holistic and empowering experience to young people, I was reminded of the acutely painful experience of parents attempting to navigate a compulsory education system which actively damages children. I was reminded how challenging and confusing it must be to be told your child has a problem, despite clearly engaging in the world in a healthy, curious and positive way. I was reminded of how isolating the process of searching for an alternative can be and how the intense desire to provide the best opportunities for your children does not provide a clear moral path in and of itself. I wasn’t then, and am not now, about to evangelise about the possibilities of democratic education, and I am aware of the leap of faith involved in engaging with our model, but I was proud to be able to feel, confidently, that by offering students the framework for free play, for engaging in academic materials on their own terms, and for learning through life, we are offering a model to educate, ultimately, with love.
Boring and exciting developments.
And so began the school. After our first week, sophrologist Benjamin Bouguier, from l’Ecole Dynamique facilitated a meeting for the staff team to review our internal workings. It was a moment of emotional truths, analytical reflection and authentic sharing. It was also a moment to celebrate something which was hard for us to see from so close to the project: we had just succeeded in opening a democratic School in two months. Now, this would not have been possible without the ground work of l‘École Dynamique and the encouragement and support of people from all over the world, as well as our first students and their parents, but nevertheless it was a good reality check: We did it! It is possible!
So, what remained was to integrate our little School Start-up Group into daily school life, with accessible and transparent processes for our students to participate in. Easy as that? Perhaps. The beauty of the Sudbury model, I realised – as we opened our doors and began to live and breathe this theory – is that our lives as staff are our “real lives,” and our personal commitments to authentic communication and self-responsibility are central to that philosophy. I cannot underestimate how different this is to my experience in the traditional school system in Australia, where as a teacher it was expected that I relate to students in a hierarchical manner, and act as an authority in all senses of the word. Anything else would be considered unprofessional or at worse a transgression of legal requirements, to the detriment of both mine and students’ shared experiences and possibilities for learning.
So, as Wolfie*(9) emerged from a ‘Game Theory‘ YouTube video discussing the reproduction methods of fungi via a conspiracy of Toad characters in Super Mario games, shouted “hugs!” and launched himself onto me with a surprise embrace while I typed away at a School Meeting agenda item about shared cleaning responsibilities, I felt grateful for this opportunity to allow natural human interaction to prevail over the illogic of modern day institutions.
Wolfie was also involved in one of the highlights of my experience so far: pulling up one of the staff in a transgression of the rules. His exasperated “I thought the whole point of this school was that we do things for ourselves!” in response to an overly prescriptive moment of direct instruction, was an assertion of his autonomy and indeed the Sudbury concept itself – brilliant! And I don’t think anyone appreciated this or laughed harder than the staff member themselves. Nobody is perfect, and we’re all learning new patterns of relating, but it is a relief to know that we are all sure of what we are trying to work towards and to know that we are willing to work with each other to get there.
Which brings me to one of the most exciting mechanisms in democratic education for me, the conflict resolution processes, which offers a completely different paradigm for dealing with interpersonal conflict and transgression of the School Rules. As staff and students have an equal vote on the rules and everything is subject to change through the School Meeting, anyone breaking the agreements can be held accountable to the community through our Judicial Committee. The idea behind it is to offer an objective space to allow all parties to air their version of what happened, and to come up with a sanction (or warning) through a panel of peers. It’s not a punishment so much as a safety mechanism for ensuring that the culture of mutual respect and liberty without license is protected in the school community. So, as the first two Judicial Clerks, Papyrus (13) and I have been working on what this will actually look like, and what happens from the first step where a complaint is made, through to a sanction being issued. He summarised this whole process beautifully, 45 minutes into our meeting, that “this feels exciting, and boring, all at the same time! It’s exciting because it’s a whole new system but it’s boring because it’s like this. is. how. this. works. now.” Yup.
So, with two students and five staff and our brightly painted building in our little corner of this big city, life is happening. And I, for one, have already learnt far more than can be captured in a single blog post. Prospects for our expansion come in every day with a growing list of interested parents and people wanting to contribute to the project. Within 6 months of each other l‘École Dynamique and ourselves have started, and by the end of this year 2 more Sudbury Schools are in the making for wider Paris. With Ramin’s TED Talk gaining popularity, a EUDEC France meeting planned for May, and IDEC@EUDEC coming up in July, there is a shared excitement that democratic education is a concept whose time has well and truly come.
Walking through Parc Montsouris on Friday and coming across six École Dynamique students, from age 3 to 13 playing together on a see-saw in the idyllic Parisian springtime sun, it was blatant how this method speaks for itself. Let kids be kids. Let people be people. Don’t get in the way, and let life, learning and joy happen. And frankly, it is an honour to bear witness to and be a part of it all.
*Names have been changed (to a name of the student’s choice), to respect privacy.