Monday, September 14, 2015

Coming Back to Sego Lily School

Last spring, I (Jen) wrote a post called "When self-directed learning means going to school... somewhere else." It was about my oldest, who had been a Sego Lily student from the age of 5, choosing to attend a pubic high school. When that ended, it was hard to write about. I ended up posting the 'results' on my personal blog, rather than the Sego Lily School blog. It was too raw for me to write about in a more public way.

However, many people have asked how it went. Below are some excerpts that outline the basic experience. I am happy to say that Corbin is back at Sego Lily School this year, and plans to write a thesis for graduation. If you want to know more, stop by and ask Corbin. Just be prepared, he may have some colorful language to use to describe his time at Granger High.

First, the good stuff: Corbin did well in his classes. He was proud that he passed all of his classes at the end of his first term, especially since he started late and had to catch up to make those grades. He even did well with math - he and I spent several evenings together while I helped him with algebra and geometry, and he managed to pick up most of it very quickly. He enjoyed his photography class, and even won an award at the district art show for one of his 3-D art class projects. He learned a lot about free speech - including the fact that you will face resistance when what you have to say goes against the grain. He also made a few friends, and got to see what education looks like for most people his age.

The negatives, however, far outweighed the positives. Corbin felt bullied every day. As a non-straight, gender fluid person, he struggled to find acceptance. He listened to others debate his gender behind his back. Even at the GSA after school club (gay straight alliance), he found no one who could see outside our society's binary structure of gay or straight, male or female. He experienced bullying from teachers as well - when he chose not to stand for the pledge, one teacher responded with his personal views about his military service, leaving Corbin feeling as though he was being pressured to take actions he strongly opposes. Corbin also shared many stories with me of being the only person in a class with any knowledge of, or interest in, the subject matter. He was experiencing the all-too-real dynamic of kids who don't care about learning. He wasn't always enthusiastic about everything he was doing, but I heard in his voice the sadness of being the only one who seemed to care.

So much of what was happening, though, was intangible. My kid - the one who has always been opinionated, but has also always been up for a good conversation - stopped talking. He took on a victim mentality, and started speaking as though he was hopeless and had no choice in his life. One night we were talking about his future, and he stated that his only goal was to make enough money to live. He no longer cared about college, or any meaningful career, and all he wanted to do was get out of the house as soon as possible. Then some things happened, and we withdrew him from school. I knew it was the right choice, even though we had told him he would have to finish the year if he wanted to try public school. We negotiated a different solution, and pulled him out the next day.

Within a day, he was talking to me about where he was going (including exact addresses), how he was feeling, and what he wanted to do. Within a week, he had opened up about some personal stresses he has been struggling with. He got to work on Odyssey props, starting communicating with his brothers, and became happy again. It was like a light came back on in him.

Here's the thing about resiliency. We tell parents who come to Sego Lily School that yes, their children will learn to read and write, and add, and everything else they need to know to be successful in the world, but more importantly they will learn lessons about who they are, how they learn, and who they want to be in their lives. I can honestly say that those lessons are things Corbin learned. Yes, he needed a reminder and a nudge to remember that he learned them, but without those lessons I fear we would be facing intensive therapy with him right now. Instead, he bounced back into being my opinionated, vocal, amazing child. Yes, he's a tired teenager, busy trying to figure out how the world works, but he is OK. He isn't broken, that's for sure.

I'm not one to say "I told you so," but I will say this. When Corbin was little, I knew that a standard educational experience was not going to work for him. I decided to take on the joys, stresses, workload, and insanity of starting a school and keeping it alive for him, and for his brothers. I say to you now, my children - this is for you. It was the right thing to do, and it continues to be the right place for me to put my time and energy. I won't question that again after this experience (well, I might, but in those moments I will remind myself of this moment). I'm sorry we had to learn a lesson in such a painful way, but it was worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Happy to be back at Sego Lily School!

All I can say right now, is WOW. We haven't had a week one like this for several years! After spending a year holding school in a temporary location (The Quaker Church on 4800 south) and another year setting in to our new home at 447 West 4800 South, we have finally had a much-needed growth spurt. September first was our first day back for the 2015-2016 school year, and we opened with 8 returning students and TEN visitors! Then we added another returning student on Thursday, and yet another this week. We still have seven more visitors in the wings who will be coming in soon (well, the first five will anyway, then we have to start a waiting list!). Needless to say, it has been a week of steep learning curves, high energy, dynamic activities, and so many art projects we could start a museum.

Some of our older students get the
opportunity to be preschool helpers.
There are many new things besides new faces! Over the summer, we rearranged our building to create a better traffic flow, moved our art supplies into a more public space, and designated a whole room to be used for our new preschool program! Two mornings a week, we welcome a group of 3-4 year olds, and their teacher Erin, to play with us. The early childhood program is a play-based learning environment, and is a time for our youngest students to have a little more direction and a lot more supervision. Our older students have enjoyed working alongside our preschoolers, helping them with projects as well as participating in their play. In addition, the redesign of our playroom has created a nurturing play space for all of our students when the little ones aren't at school.

Rebecca (staff) teaching scissor certification.
Honestly, the last two years have been hard on our school. It's hard to bring in new students when you don't have a real home. It's hard to watch friends move away, and not be replaced with new friends. And it's hard to have many great ideas that you just can't carry through with, due to time constraints and a scaled-back staff. It feels so amazing to be back to 'normal' - a whole lot of people running around and doing a whole lot of playing and learning.

One of our students teaching the others
how to make duct tape roses.
So... what are we up to now? Yes, lots of playing and learning, of course. Picking weeds out of the back yard. Meeting new friends, learning new rules, eating lunches, earning and spending Sego Lily Bucks, and of course playing some more. Two students have applied to graduate this year; three are taking math classes with Alyssa; eight people joined the Pet Corporation; pretty much everyone joined the Art Corporation.

Workshop Wednesdays are starting up again next week, beginning with Owls (Jen will teach about owls, we will dissect owl pellets, and more), and Fairy Villages (create houses and other things our our backyard fairy world). Odyssey of the Mind is having our first meeting for anyone interested on Thursday the 10th. Field trips are being planned. Our weekly Art Challenge Competition began today. Can you say BUSY!

Sometimes we just need a quiet moment
and a good book.
Some of us miss the quiet of days with only 7-8 students in house - I'm sure all of us at times, actually. Most of all, we are happy to be growing again. Now all we need is a magical money fairy to fund the next phase of our expansion, and we will be able to take even more students!

I want to again welcome all of the new families to our communities. To those returning families, I say thank you for sticking with us through the changes. It's exciting to be where we are now, and we look forward to what the future holds.

If you are interested in joining the Sego Lily School community, please join us for our next Open House on September 15th at 6pm. We have a few spaces for our regular program, as well as 3 openings in the preschool. Come play with us!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's "passion" got to do with it?

Recently, a friend posted this article on facebook, "Our Push for 'Passion,' and why it harms kids" lamenting that her "10 year old has no thing he does (piano, soccer, etc)" passionately and she has "no energy to encourage him." As a proponent of passionate learning, my interest was piqued. From my experience working with kids in a self-initiated learning environment, I've rarely seen a student treat a single pursuit with the kind of obsessive focus that this article labels as 'passion.' A good thing, according to the article, which concludes that
"For most children, childhood isn't about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime."
Agreed. Childhood is a time of exploring our world, our selves, our relationships, our abilities and more. It's a time to discover which branches on the tree are strong enough to hold us and which ones will break under our weight. A time for us to sample all of the dishes in the buffet we call life.

I disagree, however, with the assertion that 'passion' and this kind of free 'exploration' are mutually exclusive. I find the definition of passion used here, an obsessive focus on an activity or pursuit that is "deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crowd," falls short. Daily, I watch children exhibit passion in everything they do, from climbing on the playground to video-gaming to creating works of art with crayons and construction paper. Kids live life passionately, for them, exploration IS passion!

Further, if we re-frame the term passion to mean not just something we do, but a way of being, then the idea that "millions of people have lived long, happy, useful lives filled with joy and contentment and devoid of a defining passion" can be replaced with (what I feel to be) a more inspiring statement that some people are able to retain their passion for exploration, for learning, for life into adulthood. These people can find joy and happiness in a balanced life because they are passionate human beings! And, while some people find a single focus that they are able to channel their passion toward, many of us are passionate about being parents AND teachers AND friends AND explorers AND lifelong learners AND everything else we spend our lives being and doing. We can immerse ourselves in researching and writing a blog post with the same focus and joy as we can hiking or learning to play guitar or whatever. Which is ultimately what I believe this article is saying, that just because many kids (and adults) don't settle into a well-defined groove that leads them predictably through a lifetime of refining a single ability, doesn't mean there is something wrong with them, it may mean there is something very right with them! Let's call THAT passion!

By Alyssa Kay

Monday, February 9, 2015

Being prepped vs. being prepared

It's Kids at the Capitol Day, put together by Utah Moms for Clean Air. Students from several different schools in the Salt Lake Valley are here, with signs, to send the message to our current legislative session that they're sick and tired of our city's air pollution problem. There are rows of chairs and a podium, the students are asked to sit and the adults to stand at the back of the group. Several legislators who are introducing bills to protect our valley's air quality, are going to speak to the students and the students get a chance to ask questions.

I'm a little nervous. It's not often that Sego Lily School students are required to sit still and listen and we're surrounded by other students who are used to doing just that, all day, every day. Our five students who have chosen to attend this event (ages 5-9) have made signs, they care about the issue, and they're here to make a difference. They take a seat in the front row. One of the legislator stands at the podium and starts speaking. He talks about his bill to upgrade the valley's fleet of diesel school buses. He asks if there are any questions. Three hands immediately shoot up, it's our students. I smile, knowing that whatever they ask is going to be good. “Can we run the school buses on vegetable oil?” The legislator happily answers the question, talking about biodiesel and other alternative fuels. The next few legislators speak, and every time they ask for questions, our students' hands are the first ones up. They ask more good questions, such as “Can we tear down all the polluting power plants and put up more solar and wind power?” These kids know their stuff.

I turn to another educator, a friend of mine, and say “I'm so proud of our students and the questions they're asking!” She replies back to me “Yes, you really prepped them well,” to which I get to answer “No, I didn't!” And it's true. None of these questions were prepped.

Next, it's time for the students to speak. A large group from one of the local private schools stands up in a line behind the podium. Wearing their school uniforms and gas masks for effect, one after the next they present very well thought out speeches with facts and statistics. These kids obviously did their homework. Once again, our students also have something to say. Two of our students get up to speak at the podium. They wing it, they speak from their hearts. They care about clean air. They worry when they have to breath dirty air. It stinks. It's ugly. And they don't want to have to wear gas masks. One of our students, who is barely tall enough to see over the podium from which he is speaking, is being photographed for the newspaper. I look around, adults are listening intently, smiling and nodding.

It makes me think, Sego Lily School students are not prepped. They are, however, prepared. They didn't do homework on the subject, they didn't write speeches, they didn't have to be encouraged to ask questions. Yet, their thoughts are just as compelling and shared with just as much confidence as the students who came with written speeches. Sego Lily School students are prepared to speak candidly on any number of subjects, with people of any age, because they do it every day at school. They ask questions because it's their right, and because they want to know the answers, not because it's a requirement. I'm proud of our students, showing up and making their voices heard in our halls of government. In this moment I know that what we do at Sego Lily School really does prepare our students for the real world.

The Salt Lake Tribune's photos of the event: 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

When self-directed learning looks like going to school... somewhere else

Those of you who know me personally, as well as many who are connected to Sego Lily School through Facebook, this blog, and other avenues, know that my children attend Sego Lily. In fact, were it not for said children, Sego Lily School would not exist. more specifically, were it not for my high energy first kiddo, there would more than likely not be a Sego Lily School.

When Corbin was younger, he was constantly on the move. This of course was challenging at times (ok, most of the time). Mostly, I knew that sitting at a desk was not going to really be his thing. One thought led to another, which led to plans, which led to actions, and voila, a school came into being. Corbin was one of the 19 students who arrived on opening day, ready to play and learn.

Corbin, age 5, volunteering at the Humane Society of Utah

Eleven years later, he asked if we could talk, and told me he wanted to go to a local charter high school that has a film emphasis. My reactions were all over the place: I was excited that he had learned so much about how to achieve his goals that he had found this program without help from me or his father; I was petrified about him going to a school that has had a not-so-stellar reputation when i comes to drugs; I was happy that he was so clear about what he wanted to experience; and I was heart-broken.

Yes, my personal reaction was heartbreak. I couldn't imagine him being somewhere else. I wondered why he didn't want to be at this place I had made just for him. I felt like maybe I wasn't doing enough to support him. I lamented the fact that he wanted to take such a different path. I knew I was going to miss seeing him at school every day. My baby was moving away from me, in a direction that I hadn't expected.

We went through all of the steps we needed in order to get him on the charter school's waiting list, and then we waited. And waited. And called, and waited some more. By mid-January, it was clear that path was not going to happen (at least during this school year). My secret hope was that he would stay at Sego Lily, and take photography classes through the community college, or one of the continuing education programs, but he had other ideas. He has been very clear that he wants to experience what traditional schooling is like, and he decided to enroll in the local public high school. So that is what we did.

Corbin in front of Granger High School. 7am, day one.

It took a couple of days, and some hoop jumping, but by February 5th, he was officially ready to start classes. At 15 years old, Corbin rides the trains and buses all over the valley, and I rarely think twice about it. But letting him walk into a high school, with 3,500 kids? I was probably as nervous as he was. I barely slept the night before, and all day I waited for 2:20 so that I could call him and see how it went. His father sweetly recorded the conversation when he picked Corbin up, and I was able to hear the whole run down, with all of the freshness of telling the story for the first time. He was excited, anxious, worried, happy, and tired. It had mostly gone well, and he was looking forward to the next day (the school has an A day, B day schedule). There was only one major problem...

First period, day one... Sophomore Math.  Corbin has never taken a formal math class. Ever. Oh, and they were taking a quiz when the class started. Finding the angles of intersecting lines. In his own words, "I just wrote down everything from the board in my state of complete panic." I only know that they were finding the  angles of interesting lines because I have now seen the paper they used in class - he could not have told you that was what they were doing. He simply wrote it all down, knowing that I, or another staff member, or his grandmother, would help him make sense of it. He needs to make sense of it, as they have a test on Monday.

So yes, my oldest is no longer attending Sego Lily School. Am I still worried? Of course, he is in an environment in which his voice is not very important, with people who will be really wonderful, or really awful, or anywhere in between, but if they are awful the only power he has is to go tell an adult about it, and hope it gets sorted out. I worry he will fail his math class (I'm not worried about his grades, but I am worried about his self-confidence). I worry he will get lost in the sea of teenagers changing classes. I worry about school violence, I worry about drugs, I worry about bullying. I worry he will get teased for the gaps in his knowledge, and at the same time I worry he will be bored - he already asked, after day one, how someone his age could NOT know about Newton's contribution to the understanding of gravity.

The other question that I have asked myself is this Am I still heart-broken? A little. I have worked so hard over the years to make Sego Lily School available, but I don't only do it for my children. Two of my boys are still here (and the toddler has already begun to say "me school with brothers"), and so are the rest of the students. We are getting more inquiries from new families right now than we have had in years. Also, Corbin is currently planning to return to Sego Lily School for his graduating year in 2016-2017, which makes me smile. He is still on the Odyssey of the Mind Team, and will be competing with us at both state & world finals competitions. I am happy that he is happy, and I miss having him at Sego Lily School every day. More than anything, though, I am proud to have raised a child who is so confident in his choices and direction in life that he is willing to make such a drastic change in his life in order to follow his dreams. I think that, more than anything, symbolizes for me what self-directed learning truly is, and that is why I stand by this model and by his choices.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blast from the Past, Part 3

I initially intended to create a weekly post, highlighting older article from the school's archives. Life got in the way (and by life, I mostly mean construction, and starting a new school year!), and this is only the 3rd of these installments. I will continue to post these, but no promises as to how often or how many there will be!

With all of the new students starting with us, it seemed like this was a good article to post. As for the returning students, I note that the challenges of being a "Sudbury Parent" don't go away - even after 11 years of doing this, I still have my challenging moments! With three of my own children at Sego Lily School, I find some of these reminders relevant even today. We did just spend Thanksgiving week with family after all!

"Flashback Kat" - fort building in 2008!

Congratulations! You are a Sudbury Parent! By Jen Schwartz, Staff

Take a deep breath and hold it for a year.”
-Hanna Greenberg, Sudbury Valley School Founder

I think this may be the best advice I have ever heard for parents in a Sudbury model school like Sego Lily School. Starting in any new school is a challenge for both children and their parents, but when you add in the variables that exist in a democratic, self-directed, educational environment, things get even more challenging. Parents find themselves asking all kinds of questions, such as “Why does it seem like he is doing nothing every day?” and “When will she settle down and start doing something more practical?” The answers to these kinds of questions are different for every student, but in the first few months of school the inherent distinctions of a Sudbury model school can sometimes be overwhelming.

September is always a dynamic month at Sego Lily School as old friends reconnect and new students find their place in the social community. This can be a time of making friends as well as discovering which staff members are best to go to with different kinds of questions or interests - such as Hollie for art, Kyle for a trip to the park, and Tara for a great conversation. It is also a time of finding one’s way through the system that is our school - locating the Judicial Complaint forms, sitting through a School Meeting or two, and maybe even making a first motion. We have already had a brave group of folks ranging from age six to eleven beseeching the School Meeting for exemptions to our microwave policy. With all of this activity going on, who has time for academics!

As the fall cools down, so does the frantic-ness of our environment. It is important to note, however, that not an October has come yet in which everyone simply ‘got to work.’ No, at Sego Lily School learning happens in so many ways that it can be difficult to spot. Like a well camouflaged animal, learning moments make themselves noticeable from time to time but are often hidden from our view. If you are waiting for the learning to become familiar - such as worksheets or ten kids sitting quietly in a class - you will more than likely find yourself disappointed. Think of our school as a safari - yes, you may drive right by a herd of elephants and have opportunities to take a myriad of photos, but you are just as likely to be looking through binoculars hoping to spot that elusive cheetah. Remember, though: the cheetah is always there whether you are seeing her or not, just as the learning is always happening.

The good news is that some time during that first year every child finds her or his niche. Maybe it’s the teens who decide to study the GED prep book, the ten year old who wants to be chairperson of the School Meeting, or the five year old who creates the coolest pillow fort ever - they all find opportunities to hear their inner voices telling them the direction to follow. Yes, they learn, but more importantly they find their place in the community and begin to discover their true selves. The second year is easier than the first, and the third even easier than that, simply by virtue of the fact that learning becomes so much more obvious over larger stretches of time. The child who wasn’t reading now tells you what the signs say; the teen who wasn’t speaking to you opens up about a difficult issue she helped handle in JC. You find yourself standing there at moments, wondering how it all happened, but grateful that it did.

So, my advice to new parents: take that breath, and let it out slowly over the course of the year. If you find your face turning purple, talk to a staff member or two. We’ve got plenty of experience and understand the concerns you may have! For those of you who have been around for awhile, I know that the challenges don’t go away. You are doing something unconventional - you are pioneers in the field of education! Pioneers always had it tougher the first year, planting crops for the first time, finding water, etc, but even though year two was easier, it certainly had its challenges! You, too, are welcome to talk to any staff member about your worries if you have them. We are excited to be on this journey with all of your children, and we are thankful for your pioneering spirit!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Oh my, how time flies!

After months and months of construction, inspections, changes, more inspections, and (finally) approvals, we managed to open our new campus on Wednesday, September 24th (at 1:35 pm, to be exact!). It has been a whirlwind since then, as we have settled into our new space, changed our Law Book, helped our four new students get adjusted to the school culture, and done all of the things we normally do around here. Things like our annual pumpkin patch & Cornbelly's trips, lots of chess games, Odyssey team meetings, reading many books, Judicial Committee meetings, School Meeting...

I could go on, but you get the idea. It has been, for the most part, a normal school year around here so far! Of course, 'normal' for us is not 'normal' in most schools around the world. Our staff, and a few students, have spent quite a bit of time this year discussing the differences between what we do, and what most schools do. This is not a new conversation for us, but we are finding new ways to frame who we are as we discuss these differences. Here are a few things that we are highlighting in our conversations:

1. PLAY. We have always known that play is important, and is an integral part of what we do. In fact, even our very early literature contained statements and articles about play. Our December 2003 newsletter (published 9 months before we even opened the school!) contained an article about playing in the snow, and the October 2005 newsletter included an article about a mixed-age four square game that was played at a Sudbury Valley school summer conference. Currently, what we are experiencing is that the world is catching up with us. For example, the International Journal of Play began its' publication in 2012, and the peer-reviewed articles focus on the importance of play throughout the lifespan. Peter Grey recently published Freedom to Play, in which he discusses children's natural ways of learning through play.  We have been using the hash-tag #playmatters in many of our Facebook posts, as play remains a central theme in the activities one can see around our campus every day. Allowing our students, and staff, the opportunity to learn through play is critical to our mission of Learning Through Living.

2. UNSCHOOLING. Yes, we know we aren't technically unschooling, after all we are a school. However, there are MANY similarities between what we do, and what unschoolers do. People in both environments get to choose what passions they are following at any time; both groups agree that learning is not limited to a classroom or the walls of a building; both groups use adults as resource rather than having teachers whose job it is to impart knowledge on the students. What more and more people are discovering is that when you allow the child to set his or her own goals, learning happens at a deeper level. The world of intrinsic motivation and learning (as opposed to the extrinsic model followed in most schools) is where we find true learning, and a desire for a deeper understanding of the world and the 'subjects' at hand.

3. AGE MIXING. It has always been part of what we do, but with our current population we see very clear groupings of 'littles' (4-7), middles (8-11), and teens (12-16). Watching how the 'middles', most of whom were here as 'littles' themselves, interact with the youngest of our students has been fascinating. We recently experienced some of the 8-9 year old students complaining that a new 5-year-old was "too immature" to be a student with us. When we talked to them about what it was like when they were younger, and had to learn how to interact with the school community, many of them could not remember ever being so young! They have all grown more patient and more understanding as our new littles make the transition to being full responsible community members.

The bottom line is that there is nothing new here, and there is SO MUCH new here! We all love having a REAL campus again (last year was quite a challenge!). Being in a space where we can create, that is OURS... well, words can't quite express what that entails. We look forward to enlarging this space and re-growing our community. And we look forward to more conversations with all of you!