Friday, November 30, 2012

Sudbury Assignment: Learn Math, Reading, Writing and More

Many parents want to know what their child is learning at the Sudbury School of Atlanta.  "Sudbury Assignment:" is a series of articles that help parents recognize what sorts of things their children are learning and the depth of experience their child gets at our Sudbury school. 

Sudbury Assignment #4: Learn Math, Reading, Writing and More

In understanding how students learn "the basics" at Sudbury, like reading, writing and math, let's begin with an analogy.

If your child wants to learn Spanish, you might sign her up for a traditional class in Spanish.  A Spanish teacher guides children through a text book and workbook in Spanish.  They conjugate verbs, learn vocabulary and do graded worksheets and quizzes.  In the end, you hope that a good report card means that your child can speak, read and write Spanish.

Or, you take your daughter to Spain where every interaction of daily life teaches her another component of the Spanish language.  In addition, she learns the culture, customs and expectations of a person growing up in Spain.  She may learn other languages too by playing with a child who speaks Spanish but whose family is from Portugal or France.  Your child might also learn about the politics, monetary system, art, music, cuisine and architecture of Spain.  Living in Spain provides a much richer and deeper learning experience that goes far beyond the simple goal of "learning Spanish."

For learning the basics of reading, writing and math, the Sudbury experience is like the immersion experience of living in Spain.  We don't break subjects down into worksheets, quizzes and vocab lists because deep learning is multi-disciplinary.  It spans many "subjects" and we want students to follow their interests wherever they may lead.  Here's a real-life example from our school:   

A Tale of Two Gerbils
The students loved the idea of having a school pet from the first day of school.  What kind of pet?  Big or small?  And how much care would it need?  How much would it cost to buy?  How much would it cost to continue to buy the supplies for it?  What is our budget and what is a budget and what is the procedure to appropriate funds within the school?  They wanted to form a School Pet Committee but first needed to learn parliamentary procedure to propose the motion and vote the committee into existence.  They started discussing what is an agenda for a meeting and how to get an item on it for the School Meeting.  How many people have to be present for a quorum and what is a quorum?     

Once voted into existence, the committee began a six-week negotiation about what kind of animal to get.

Students talked to each other and to their parents about what sorts of animals they all would be willing to care for, even on weekends away from the school.  Some students and staff were allergic to some animals.  This started discussions about what is an allergy?  What happens if a person has an allergic reaction?  What animals cause allergies for people and why?  Physiology, biology and medical discussions ensued.  Students submitted a motion for the School Meeting agenda, "No frogs, lizards or cats due to allergies."  The motion passed.  Progress had been made.

So what kind of animals might be feasible for the school?  The School Pet Committee had to schedule meetings to negotiate the next steps.  Gerbils were proposed but who knew about gerbils?  What kind of habitat do they need?  What kind of food?  What kind of bedding?  How much does it cost?  Can they be picked up?  How do you pick them up?  How do you build trust with animals so they are friendly?  One student had experience with gerbils as did one staff member.  They shared their experiences but had to negotiate with others to persuade them that gerbils would be a worthwhile pet.  And what about the parents that just see gerbils as rodents and don't want them in their home?  And what about the cats people have at home?  How can we ensure that the gerbils are safe from cats at home?

Older students on the School Pet Committee did research at home on the internet about gerbil care, wrote it down and presented it to the other students.  Note here that active reading and writing happened for students, unprompted.  It was not an assignment.  It was not a suggestion.  Younger students who did not have the ability to read and write, looked at what the older students had written and picked out words they knew.  They also wanted to write words just like the older students.  All students progressed in reading and writing.

The School Pet Committee voted to buy two gerbils but they had to get the School Meeting to vote to approve the funds.  Students and staff consulted the budget... about two-hundred dollars for that month.  What would the gerbils need?  How much would it cost?  What would be the ongoing costs?  Multiply everything by two for two gerbils.  Or do we?  And how do you multiply?  What non-gerbil-related items would the school want to purchase with that two-hundred dollars?  How do we prioritize?  What is a priority?  How do we persuade others that buying gerbils is worth it?  Math ensued to see what it might all cost.  Reading ensued to figure out what equipment was needed for gerbils.  Writing ensued to remember the results of the research.  Again, older students showed younger students the results bringing them along on the reading, writing and arithmetic bandwagon.

The School Meeting approved up to $100 for initial supplies and $40 for each month after.  Any funds not spent would revert back to the general School Meeting fund.  Students then spent the better part of a week negotiating with other students, parents and staff about when and where the gerbils would be purchased.

At the pet store, students had not anticipated a choice of habitat colors and different food choices.  Do we have enough people for a vote to count?  Motions were presented and votes were taken smack in the middle of the gerbil supply aisle.  Students furiously read labels, added figures so as not to exceed the budget and wrote down notes so as not to forget what information they had gathered.

Students eventually walked out of the store with two gerbils and all the needed equipment, all within budget.  Then the ongoing care negotiations began.  Who can hold the gerbils and for how long?  How should they be held and who should be the ones to hold them?  Who will clean the habitat, refill food and water?  How much food and water?  Who will care for them on weekends?

More reading.  More writing.  More math.  More negotiating.  More questions.  More motions.  More votes.  More decisions.  More progress leading to more questions, more reading, more writing and more math.

In a supportive immersion environment where students are given great freedom and great responsibility, "the basics" come naturally in much the same way that Spanish comes naturally to students living in Spain yet never taking a Spanish class.

The question is, which form of learning math is going to be more exciting, useful and memorable for students?  Worksheets with math drills?  Or collectively working toward a common goal and applying math principles to real-life situations?

Perhaps we should ask the two gerbils who live at the Sudbury School of Atlanta.     





  1. As it should be; a lovely, clear explanation of what learning is actually like!

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