Its summer and it always seems that by the time we really get into the swing of summer everybody is already talking about the school year starting up again. They are already setting up the “Back to School” displays at the stores and I’m already getting asked “What grade will Mark be in this year?”
More often then not I straight up lie to this question, because I realize its not about the question. People really don’t care what grade your kid is in, unless they are going to the same school as their child. This question is the same as “What are you doing for Christmas?” It is a polite seasonal conversation maker. More than anything they are trying to relate to my child’s age.
There are times that I am close enough to someone to give them the long full version. It usually starts with, “There are no grade levels at my child’s school.” Then maybe I’ll explain how children are grouped based roughly on age into three “rooms” and how my son will probably stick with room A this year, but that will be up to him and his teachers.
Democratic schools do not arbitrarily divide students up based on birth year. We know from experience and studies that dividing children up this way isn’t even the best way to educate children and people really struggle grasp how radically different a democratic school is from any public school. Its harder to explain than unschooling most of the time. Its easy to tell you what there isn’t. Its much harder to communicate what there is and how magical the environment can be.
In a democratic school there are no grade levels, there are no grades. There are no tests. There are no report cards. There are no traditional classrooms. There is no age segregation. There is no ability segregation. The only times the kids are divided up is for a short morning meeting, and then for classes they choose to sign up for. There are no punishments or requirements.
In a democratic school there is community, and freedom, and respect in a way that just isn’t possible when teachers must coerce children to comply to state standards of learning and testing. At Village Free School there is extremely little the children must do and values that are held highest are taking care of yourself, taking care of others, and taking care of the school, and when it comes down to it there is always a community surrounding you ready to help you do those things so you are never alone in it.
One of the biggest daily challenges is getting the kids to eat (which falls under ‘take care of yourself’). With the youngest kids (room A) they put lunch on the whiteboard with the plans for the day (none of which are required, unless its an all-school trip). They talk about lunch and then give the kids reminders when 12:30 rolls around that they should maybe take some time to eat. I often check my son’s lunch box when I pick him to find it mostly full. No one makes him sit in a lunch room for 30 minutes, so he’s still learning to find the discipline to listen to his body and feed himself. Luckily the car ride home is a great time to catch up on some eating.
My son spends his days playing with people of literally all ages. There aren’t a ton of babies and toddlers around (becuase the school starts at age 5) but they are there. Younger siblings and teacher’s kids are welcome and there are at least two toddlers that are regulars and the kids adore them. The teachers are often right in the thick of things playing with the kids or are nearby for when the kids need help, usually when a conflict arises.Thats when things get really radical.
If there is a curriculum it is human relationships and learning how to be decent person though listening to others and solving problems together. Much of the day is spent solving conflicts or working out things in groups. What to play, where to play it, what will the rules be, will we let this late comer join in, how to we keep it fair for smaller kids? The kids spend a lot of time working though these questions. Justice and fairness is a high priority for most of the kids, and they will become very passionate when there is a real or perceived injustice towards themselves or one of their friends. This is where the amazing adults can step in and guide them though “challenges” using various peaceful techniques to solve the problem to the best of everyones ability and satisfaction.
That doesn’t mean that everyone is always happy. Sometimes kids walk away from challenges feeling like they didn’t get the outcome they wanted, sometimes kids cry or get angry, sometimes the adults don’t know exactly what to do. But the focus on respecting each other and letting everyone feel heard and cared for goes a long way all on its own. The lack of hard structure to the day allows lots of time to work though challenges with no rush and this is key. Real conflicts don’t get solved in five minutes and kids have real conflicts.
My son is not starting first grade this year. He is beginning his second year at the Village Free School. Where he will spend his days playing and learning though play. He will have time to read books and be read to, he will engage in art whenever he chooses and to whatever extent he choses, he will be surrounded by capable loving adults who are available to help him explore any questions he has. He will have the opportunity to participate in “offerings” taught by teachers, fellow students, and outside instructors. Last year he choose no to sign up for any, and that was perfectly acceptable. He still occasionally jumped in and participated when he saw something fun going on as an offering. He will be part of a community that accepts him for who he is today and has no expectations or timelines for his growth. They understand that children grow all on their own when given the fertile environment to do so. Some flowers grow faster than others, some grow tall slowly, but they all are beautiful flowers deserving of sunshine, water, and fertilizer.
But sure, yeah, my kid is starting first grade this year.