Michael Carwile: May 2010 Archives

What it Looks like - Justice at a Democratic School

"About as much as it looks." That was the answer I got when I sat down at the table in the main room and asked what was going on. There was origami and crossword puzzling, I could see, and there were markers out, though no one seemed to be doing anything with them. You might say the seven or so students there, spanning in age a decade, up to age eighteen, were doing nothing, or you might say nothing in particular. You wouldn't think anything out of the ordinary about their conversations about TV and movies, not even when they rhythmically fell into talk of glass vials, guns, knives, and surgery, once you realized they were quoting a song from Repo! the Genetic Opera. There is quite a lot of breaking into song at Tallgrass Sudbury School.

But the conversation will soon grow tenser, or at least it did for me the day I visited, when two staff members took their seats at the table. Larry, a good-natured, middle-aged man under a mop of curly gray hair, I had met just previously. It was early still, and he had just arrived for the day. Jennifer, a younger and feistier redhead, had welcomed me in maybe twenty minutes ago. Larry doesn't come in on Mondays, and so after saying hello to each of the students this new week, he asked what had happened without him the day before. Nobody was quick to respond.

"We had a physical altercation," it fell eventually to Jennifer to say. The students all turned their heads to her, as if expecting her to elaborate. "What? Am I supposed to say there was a fight? There wasn't a fight. One student called another an effing c-word, and there was a physical altercation."

Those are some big words for it, one of the students told her. You call it that in order to dehumanize it, a cynical one explained. But in the end, the issue wasn't what to call it, it was what to do about it.

Tallgrass Sudbury School is three blocks from the zoo in Brookfield, which doesn't explain why I got off the train at Riverside the day I went to visit. There was no sign for the school out front the United Methodist Church of Riverside, so I was hesitant to ring the bell. "Church Offices" read the door to the annex. When I did ring, after half a minute I was met by a tiny old church-lady within. "I'm looking for the Tallgrass Sudbury School?" I told her, as my statement inadvertently became a question.

"They're not here yet." she said.

I was taken aback. I knew they did things differently at Tallgrass, but it was almost ten o'clock. "When do they usually begin?" I asked.

"No, they haven't moved in yet. They don't start here until the fall." Now it clicked. The "new location" I had read about on the school's website was just a teaser, a preview of things to come. The old location was the current location and was in Brookfield, I remembered, though it may as well have been Hammond or DeKalb - it wasn't like I knew my way around the western suburbs.

Darlene, that was the church lady's name, had been a schoolteacher for thirty-nine years. This she told me in her car on the way to Brookfield, which it turned out was only five minutes away. She had graciously offered me a ride, and I asked her what she thought of this admittedly different model of education.

"It never crossed my mind, this kind of school, in all my years of teaching," she said, and went on, "We had a man come to give a talk on Sunday, the son of the founder of the original school, the one in Massachusetts this one's based on. He was so animated and enthusiastic. He really sounded like he knew what he was talking about. He got up there and started talking, no notes!"

Darlene was not prepared to give her opinion on the school. When I asked her her what she thought of what the man had said, she answered, "Well, we had a Waldorf school before, so I know a little bit about non-traditional education. It's a shame they couldn't make the rent because they really were nice. And they teach those children to perform beautifully. All of them play a musical instrument. They write poetry. And when they recite it at the end of the year they have it all memorized! But they were so dirty. That's one thing I didn't like about the Waldorf school - they didn't look after the building. And they didn't pay the rent, so we had to let them go. But even the Waldorf school still had structure. They had a curriculum, they had classes, just different from what you see in public school."

"When they left," Darlene continued with her story, "they left all their furniture to us, so we could have it for another school. There was this big old couch in the teacher's lounge. I thought we would have to move it to the basement and put it up at the rummage sale. Then I showed the Sudbury school the space. The woman said she loved it, but that she didn't want the desks, just the couch. They don't use desks, she said, they just wanted couches. No desks! Just couches!"

Tallgrass Sudbury School's current building is a dental-office-turned-Church-of-Christ-community-center-turned-schoolhouse. Larry's mom had teeth pulled here. The former waiting room is now the main room of the school, and the exam rooms are a TV room, an arts-and-crafts room and a library. The last room, at the end of the hall, is where JC meets.

"In a very real sense, the Judicial Committee is properly the school's grand jury, collecting all the evidence, and then preparing charges for trial where there is sufficient reason to proceed. And the very constitution of the JC, being a cross-section of the school, assures everyone of fair treatment by their peers." So wrote Daniel Greenberg, a founder of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, and he meant what he said. He meant it too when he said, "The School Meeting consists of all members of the resident school community - namely, all the students and staff, each of whom has a vote. The School Meeting has full operational authority to run the school." and when he said, "Our view has always been that everybody in the school, aged four and up, should have an equal access to power."

This was the school I had come to visit, so differently conceived from anything else around that I had to see it in person. Well, not exactly the school I had come to visit. Greenberg's school is in its forty-second year, with two hundred students and a ten-acre campus. Tallgrass has twenty-five students, two years under its belt, and a dental office. Still it embraces the same radical commitment to freedom, trust, and responsibility, plus, I could get there by Metra.

I encountered the democratic governance of the school early on. When I first emailed the school, expressing my curiosity and asking whether I could come visit, I got a rather frosty response. The school has been inundated with outsiders wanting to interview, videotape, and observe, and it was putting a real strain on the community, Melissa, a staff member, told me. I didn't mean to impose, I told her, and wished them luck. My visit though wasn't Melissa's call but the School Meeting's: the staff and student body voted on me, a majority gave me the thumbs up, and I was allowed to visit. As long as I didn't bring any video cameras.

Now, I was invited to see the Judicial Committee in action.

Around a large table taking up most of the room sat the five members of JC that month. Leah*, age 14*, Megan, age 4, Lucia, age 12, Kevin, age 15, and Larry, middle age. Rob, 17, served as clerk. JC's docket this Tuesday was heavy, and one case in particular weighed over them. But the subject of their first was only marginally heavier-than-air - paper planes. Lucia had to recuse herself from the proceedings, as she was implicated in the mess of paper that hadn't been cleaned up the day before, even though she claimed, and JC would later find, that she was not involved. She was replaced by another student, and the investigation continued. JC summoned students, suspects and witnesses, questioned them, but when it became clear that the culprits were not in school that day (Tallgrass students are only required to come three days a week) the investigation was tabled. The offending students would taste freedom for at least another day, but eventually JC would have its way. Though it has only advisory power, School Meeting usually follows its recommendation. Last week, two four-year-olds were barred from using art supplies for a week after failing to clean up their paper mache. A nine-year-old got away with a warning.

Next up was the case of the empty box of donuts, abandoned on a work table. The proceedings were momentarily derailed when Maura, lean, no-nonsense, seventeen years old, showed up for the meeting, and permanently derailed when she took charge. She came in in a huff, complaining to Rob that she had served on JC last month and had little interest in sitting through it again. Rob apologized but reminded Maura that with only a few students in her age group, there wasn't any other way about it. Once situated though, she certainly didn't seem reluctant to serve on JC, and tore into the deliberation:

"Is this anther one of Jenifer's complaints? How many did she file yesterday? We're talking about an empty box of donuts and yesterday a student got punched in the face. Motion to table the complaint."

The motion carried. When pressed, Megan, who was spending most of her time looking at me rather than deliberating, voted in favor. Because of the seriousness of the upcoming matter JC was closed to non-members and I was asked to leave the room.

When I returned to the main room, students were still sitting around the table, some of the same ones and some new faces. Two of them weren't students at all, Zelda, who was training to be a staff member at Tallgrass and who had been a student at the Chicago Sudbury School, a venture a few years back that didn't get off the ground, and her daughter, who at 15 months would have to wait a couple years still before enrolling. Tallgrass admits K - 12 students, but does nothing to separate them based on age once admitted. A decade's worth of grade levels crowded around the baby, and then when she had to be fed, occupied themselves with other pursuits, such as exploring the sound of one hand clapping. One student could make sound just by waving a single hand, his fingers bouncing back and forth off his palm. He could also pluck his lips to make the sound of water droplets.

A school day at Tallgrass Sudbury School is nothing if not low-key. As a democratic institution, the only requirements are the ones that the School Meeting (composed mainly of students) sets for itself. The students talk and read, draw - sometimes intently, sometimes to pass the time - knit, and play foursquare, but they do not decide to sequester themselves in classrooms lightly. The approach has not just its political-philosophical, but also its pedagogical foundations. The Sudbury philosophy stems from a belief that the drive to learn is fundamental to the human experience and formal schooling is a good way to kill it. By not forcing anything upon a child, the school forces each child to take responsibility for his own life, her own education, his own actions, her own needs. The goal is to produce self-motivated, entrepreneurial citizens who have cultivated their passions, addressed their weaknesses, and can navigate the world around them with ease.

Did I see this in action? Larry does. Larry is a convert from Waldorf schooling; he taught in Darlene's church. He too, when I talked to him about it, brought up the mess of the place. It particularly disheartened him, he said, when he would ask students if they had cleaned up their mess, and they wouldn't answer him one way or another, or even look him in the eye. Too many coddled kids from affluent homes never encouraged to take any responsibility, that was his verdict. He tries not to be too critical of Waldorf education, but he didn't see a solution within the system, which led him to Sudbury. He's impressed by the trust and friendliness he feels in his interactions here, by the way the older students help the younger ones, and by the shipshape order the students keep their school in. "When it comes down to it," he sums up his educational philosophy for me, "it's not your talent, not your smarts, not even your work ethic, but your ability to deal with people that gets you places in life."

There are in fact classes for the students to take, classes students propose and vote on at School Meeting. There is the famous story, in Sudbury circles, of the group of 11- to 13-year-olds who came up to Daniel Greenberg wanting to learn math - basic arithmetic that is, what they had previously avoided but now had decided they wanted to understand. From Greenberg and a 1898 textbook they mastered in fourteen hours - 25 minutes a day, twice a week - six school years of arithmetic. Algebra with Melissa, I'm told, is an exacting time, but Melissa doesn't come in on Tuesdays. Watercolors was canceled for the week, I saw the sign, but Creative Writing was meeting that afternoon.

The creative writing class consisted of five girls, age 11 to 15, and met in the arts-and-crafts room with Peter, a skinny young Saskatchewanian in a concert t-shirt. Peter has his M.A. in education, though in undergrad he majored in music technology, which he says he won't bother explaining to me because it's complicated and unrelated to anything he's doing these days. He got interested in Sudbury education as a summer camp counselor, where he met kids so excited and involved in what they were doing, who he knew would be the same kids bored and frustrated by a traditional classroom setting. And though he came to class with a serious, black-covered book in hand, his summer camp demeanor shone through.

"Today I thought we'd try to write about the symbolic meaning behind an object," he proposed. The class was skeptical, and asked him to explain. He searched the room for an example, and his eyes fell upon Megan, who had decided she wanted to sit in on the class today. "Okay, so you see this toy cell phone Megan carries around with her? It doesn't make calls, it doesn't do anything, but Megan carries it around, I don't know, maybe because it makes her feel grown up."

The class remained unconvinced. Liz, the oldest of the group, suggested, "Well, since we don't really get what you mean when you say symbolic, how about we do what we did last week." And so the creative writing class began an exercise that I definitely did once at summer camp, where each person starts a story, passes it on, and each next person contributes a paragraph until the story makes its way back around the table.

Peter says he comes to class with an idea, and either the students will take to it, or they'll run with it and come up with an idea of their own. Even he was not entirely satisfied with the day's lesson, and ended class with the remark, "I still think next week we should try the symbolism idea I was talking about at the beginning of class." The students, for their part, did not shirk the assignment they had chosen for themselves, they applied themselves diligently to the page, and in the end their stories seemed heartfelt in the way they dealt with topics important to girls of that age - strange boys, harsh teachers, adults who don't understand them and friends they can't seem to understand. Their spelling was often non-standard, but spelling fetishism is one of the things Sudburians love to criticize traditional education over.

Mid-afternoon brings restlessness to schoolrooms everywhere, and Tallgrass Sudbury School is not spared. There was jumping, onto people's backs, from tables onto couches, more singing (Shipoopi! Shipoopi! But you can win her yet) and without warning an irregular meeting of JC. By statute JC may not meet for more than an hour a day, but these were extenuating circumstances, the committee reasoned. They wanted a verdict prepared before School Meeting the next morning so that justice would not have to wait another whole week. And so a sign was drawn up, "Closed JC," pasted to the door of the TV room, and the seven students and staff member once again disappeared from sight. The rest of the school didn't quite know what to make of this, all they knew was that Jennifer, who was opposed to prosecuting the case in the first place (the punched student was not in school), was not going to like it.

They were right about that. Jennifer had been out, but when she returned to the school and was told the news, she scowled. "What is this? This isn't how the law works. This isn't how Sudbury works. If this is what Tallgrass is going to be ... I don't man."

But whatever the misgivings in the main room, in the TV room JC carried on. And on. Then came Drew, the alleged assailant. He was the type. Maybe sixteen years old, dressed in a dark purple sweatshirt and skinny black jeans, his black hair hanging down past his eyes. Or so I might have thought if he didn't smile when he caught sight of me, ask my name, and extend a hand in introduction. He then passed out of the room, but soon reemerged in a less cheerful mood. "I had to go get my stuff from the TV room and I got written up for contempt of JC. Why are they meeting in the TV room anyway? I'm probably going to miss my train now."

"You let them write you up?" Jennifer was incredulous.

"There was a staff member there. And I didn't want to make them any madder, or else they'd write me up for leaving before the investigation was over."

This Jennifer couldn't take. "First of all," she said, "It doesn't matter who's a staff member and who's not, we have no more power than you do. Second of all, they can't write you up for anything, because they're not JC. The rules are very clear that JC meets for an hour each day. If they wanted to change those rules they could call a School Meeting, but they didn't, they're just taking it into their own hands."

"Whatever," and with that Drew left. Jennifer would soon go in herself and be written up for contempt of JC.

The end of the day came, and as Larry had promised me, without being told everybody took up their clean-up duty, like in some PBS fantasyland. Students traded future chores to make sure their task got done even if they planned to be absent the next day. Megan had vacuum duty in the main room, and she waited around nervously until Kevin finished with the vacuum in the hall and brought it over to her. The girl then wrestled with a machine as tall as she was - Larry ended up helping. I left and Jennifer and Larry sat down to an intense conversation about the day's events.

- - - -

School Meeting on Wednesday started routinely enough. Kevin had come to school only two days last week and was given a warning. Leah wanted to be excused for the rest of day so that she could attend a public presentation by the animal trainers at the zoo. School meeting, Jennifer says, usually sees about six members in attendance; today's was at least double that. Melissa joined the three staff members from yesterday, most of the older students were assembled, and Lucia and her younger sister Roma watched the whole process intently.

The agenda came to the first item of controversy, a procedural matter, but behind which lurked the political altercations of the day before. Maura had drafted the proposed change to the school rules, allowing JC, in extenuating circumstances, to vote to continue beyond a single hour, and was vocal in its defense. Rob also spoke up for JC and the virtues of expediency. But it was as if they'd shown up pumped for a fight only to find out they'd been stood up. Melissa questioned the wording, and Jennifer gave her two cents - and no more.

Maura, still ready to take on the opposition, wherever it might be, tested the firmness of the ground on which her victory rested."Is everyone sure they don't have a problem with this? I know yesterday there was a lot of controversy, and I don't want people grumbling about this after today."

But nobody grumbled, no one had a problem. The day before, Peter told me that he doesn't get too wrapped up in the rules of the school. Maybe JC didn't have the authority to meet longer than an hour, he figured, but Jenifer certainly didn't have the authority to stop them and made a mess of things by trying. Maybe she had now come to the same conclusion, or maybe she saw that public opinion was against her and let it go. Regardless, the motion passed.

The assembly then turned to the one issue at the source of the air of tension hanging over the school. The School Meeting clerk, Zelda, read out complaint #100: "Hailey, Rob, Jordan, Liz, Carla, and Emily were watching a movie in the TV room. Drew and Chris came into the room and were disrupting the people watching to movie. Hailey aggressively told them to be quiet or leave. While leaving the room, Drew called Hailey a "fucking cunt". When the movie ended, Hailey announced to the TV room that she was going to go slap Drew. Everyone in the room, excluding Rob, followed Hailey to see the outcome, without trying to stop her. Hailey walked outside and slapped Drew severely. As Hailey was walking away, Drew grabbed her and began punching her. Hailey fell to the ground while Drew walked back outside. Drew pled guilty to the preamble, A1.1, and A2.1. JC is recommending a suspension."

Maura again let herself be heard. That girl's voice carries. Student or staff, everybody raised their concerns. Roma and Lucia watched on. Should Drew be sentenced without Hailey's input? Would anything Hailey have to say change anybody's mind? What of Drew's clean disciplinary record and Hailey's well-known problems? Is it right to compare them even, or should they be judged separately? They've made up, you know, they're on good terms now. That's not at issue, they broke the rules and poisoned the environment of the school. He punched her in the face. I don't care if only one his punches actually hit her, he punched another student in the face.

No factions emerged in the discussion, Jennifer was still uncomfortable with the precedent of sentencing Drew without Hailey, but won no supporters in her appeal to legal principle. She eventually left the room. All voices, in one way or another, called for suspension.

Drew stood to his defense. It was no poetry, set to no music, but for a time his strains held the attention of the room. He tore into JC for framing everything around his faults and ignoring Hailey's. Her "get the fuck out" they glossed as "told him aggressively to be quiet". Their partiality and power-tripping alone landed him a 'contempt of JC' charge. And what of the onlookers who watched and did nothing, don't they deserve some of the blame? But never did the act descend into huff, hiss or whimper - such antics would be unproductive at School Meeting. Cool and collected, he addressed the body, "Look, I know what I did. And I think suspension is," he searched for words. Standing alone, in front of the crowd, no notes prepared, he settled on, "a good idea."

Drew was suspended for four days. Rob suggested five, Melissa four, Jennifer two to three. By a vote of 10 to 0 a four day suspension was approved. This is what justice looks like at Tallgrass Sudbury School, bound and sometimes tripped up by statute, restrained by parliamentary procedure, but ultimately popularly determined and incontrovertible. Though I was glad to see this spectacle, in the end such business may be mostly incidental to the purposes of the school, which is decidedly more than one big exercise in mock trial. Once the chairs were removed from their rows, the couches repeopled, and the rule of law reaffirmed, the students could return to what makes them students and the school a school. Justice is on the clock and must meet Wednesday deadlines, learning may take a much more leisurely pace here, like a Sunday outing or drifting continents that will one day produce the Alps. I saw a young man suspended during my day and a half at the school - I cannot say I saw anything learned. And that is more or less the point of Sudbury education. Who knows what learning looks like but the learner, and who knows how to foster it but to provide a maximally free, open and trusting environment? I have no verdict to render on this model of education, I have met friendly, engaged people, and I would like to thank them for having me and wish them luck in all that they do.

*All names of students have been changed for their privacy. Most ages are estimates. Since exact age does not matter much at Tallgrass Sudbury School, I hope it will not matter here.

Her Royal Highness Sylvia, Queen of Polonia

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Students at the University of Chicago accomplish many great things, but few become royalty. Sylvia Prokopowicz is the exception. By day Sylvia is a third-year English major, by night a Polish Scouting instructor, and last Saturday she had the honor of queen of the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade, leading Polish schoolchildren, fraternalists, and businessmen and -women through Grant Park. I talked to Sylvia about her reign, and about being a part of both the University of Chicago and the Chicago Polish community.

Michael Carwile:
What is the Constitution Day Parade like?

Sylvia Prokopowicz:
All Polish people go every single year. There are Polish schools and Polish clubs that march. I don't think I missed one. Well, maybe when I was studying abroad.

What does it take to become queen of the parade?

SP: There are dance practices, photo sessions, and then there's voting day. The competition involves three different dances, each with its own outfit, to show how you carry yourself. There's a speech, in Polish - the whole competition is in Polish - you have to have a talent, and they ask you a question. I was asked what I would do to get Polish youth involved in the Polish community in Chicago.

MC: And what did you say?

SP: First I said I really liked this question, because this is what I do. I am an instructor in Polish Scouting, I lead Girl Guides in the 11 - 16 year old age group. Polish Scouting is the Polish equivalent of the girl and boy scouts, and it was brought to the United States by people emigrating from Poland at different times during the twentieth century, who wanted to maintain ties with Poland until they went back - except a lot of them never went back. It's like the girl scouts, there are badges, in dancing, singing, Polish history. I was involved since I was five, though I dropped off somewhat during my first two years of college.
The focus is on service, to help people and to be a visible presence in the community. We sing at mass, we do a lot of singing. We sing at retirement homes, and it's really great for those people to hear their native language. And what's great I think is for them to hear young people singing in it.

MC: Did you think you would win?

SP: I didn't even think I had gotten into the top five. I was sure I had messed up my talent. Towards the end of the night, the ceremony got especially nerve-wracking - every time we thought the announcer would say who won, there were gifts to hand out and speeches to make. Every five minutes minutes the announcer would stop to read off a message from this or that union or the bank of such-and-such. The last moments were very drawn out for me. And that night, whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see were camera lenses.

MC: So you have to tell me about your talent.

SP: I showed my paintings. What was supposed to happen was that my dad and my brother would walk them around the room, but they got there late and nothing went like it was supposed to. Sometimes when I was trying to explain a painting, they were holding the wrong one, and there was one abstract painting that my Dad held upside down. Everything seems much worse at a moment like that, and at that moment it seemed to me that all the other contestants were much more put together than I was.

MC: So how did you feel when you won?

I was so surprised and so happy. I think it was the surprise that really made it for me. But I was proud of it, it's an honor to head the parade and I was proud to be a role model for the girls. It's an instinct for young girls, I think, to want to be queens and princesses, and when I went up to them after the parade they were so excited.

Did anything happen afterward the competition?

SP: Well, the event ended at two. Afterwards there was a lot of telling me what I had to do when, do this, do that, you know, bureaucracy.

MC: Besides appearing in the parade did you have any other duties as queen?

SP: There was a meeting with the Mayor at the Cultural Center on Friday, with the leaders of Polonia, the Polish community in Chicago. I had to go to a Polish American Police Association Banquet and a lot of other events like that, where I just stood with people and got my picture taken. It's an isolating thing to be this kind of person - I spent so much time curling my hair and getting ready and then having these really very quick interactions. I see what it would be like to be a person who does this all the time. I took a ton of pictures - I believe that was some sort of service.

MC: How was the parade?

SP: I don't know, I didn't see most of it. It was cool to be in the spotlight, though. It felt like the first step in something. I definitely want to keep working in the Polish community in Chicago. After the parade, I was so tired that I fell asleep at the Millennium Park Concert. It was in honor of someone. Chopin I think, and of course the victims of the Katyn massacre [of 1940] and the recent plane crash [which killed the president of Poland and other Polish dignitaries].

MC: What is it like to be a member both of the University of Chicago community and the Chicago Polish community?

SP: Well, it doesn't overlap too much. A lot of what I learn here, I feel I can take over to the Polish community. There aren't a lot of people there whose goals are to go into academics, but I want to inspire the next generation to do so. On the other side of it, I can show Polish culture to my friends. I cook for them. The Polish community in Chicago really feels like a family, and I'm glad I have them, because life here can feel isolating. We are a very elite place.

MC: Are there any parts of the Polish Community in Chicago you would recommend to people who know nothing about it?

SP: The Chopin Theater. It shows European avant guard, sometimes Polish things. It's this small, laid-back place with old furniture - sometimes there's wine after the shows. And Polish churches. They're beautiful and ornate because they're often based on medieval churches in Poland. If there's a big church in Chicago, it was probably built by Polish people.