(This article is written about and refers to experiences at Sudbury Valley School, which Mountain Laurel Sudbury School is modeled after.)
Were you ever forced to eat broccoli when you were a child? Or carrots? Did you grow up hating them, having nightmares about dinner plates heaped high with brussels sprouts and kale?
Everyone likes to eat. Nature has seen to it that this is so, for survival. But even such a popular pastime can be made repugnant through force feeding, because more than anything else in the world, people hate coercion.
We Americans know this better than anyone. We are the land of the free, and our freedom has made us the most creative, vital, innovative nation on earth, ever.
If you think about this for a minute, you'll understand why "Johnny can't read."
Man is by nature a communicator. Many scientists feel that our ability to create and to use language effectively is what distinguishes homo sapiens most clearly from lower animals. People love to talk, and children will even invent whole languages if they are raised in isolation. Nothing absorbs more energy and concentration in infants than the effort to learn how to speak — a struggle children initiate on their own and pursue relentlessly when they are ready. And we all know that once they get going, it's all but impossible to shut them up!
The invention of writing many thousands of years ago gave mankind a whole new dimension in communication. Left to their own devices, people have been enjoying the written word ever since. So here is a human activity, verbal communication, which people love to do, and which reaches its highest form in the written word.
You'd think that educators would leave well enough alone. As with any other human passion, all you have to do is make the stuff available, and wait. When the children are ready to go after it, they will, and nothing will stop them.
Instead, we are impatient. We sit our children down when they reach the age at which we think they should read, and force it down their throats. The result is that a lot of them come to hate reading, many never learn, and some 10-15% of them develop "reading disorders" such as dyslexia, for which they pay dearly — and we too pay ever so dearly with expensive reading therapists and remedial programs.
Not long ago, in 1968, Sudbury Valley School decided to take a fresh look at reading. Children were left alone and never forced to learn how to read. The result was stunning. During the years that have elapsed since the school was founded, all the children learned how to read, but at widely different ages. Some learned at 4, others at 6, others at 8 or 9 or even later. By the time they were teenagers, you couldn't tell the difference between early readers and late readers. No one hated reading, all did it quite well, and there have been no observed functional disorders at all.
Isn't it time for other schools to take a new look at reading? Force feeding doesn't work. Neither does force reading. Is that so hard to believe?
So please pass the vegetables. And could you also lend me that book when you've finished with it?
This article appears courtesy of the Sudbury Valley School, Framingham, MA. It comes from the book Education in America, by Daniel Greenberg, who has been a staff at the school for its entire existence (over 30 years).
Books by the SVS press are available at http://www.sudval.org/books.html, by calling (508)877-3030, or by fax to (508)788-0674. You can write to the Sudbury Valley School press at The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701. You can email the school at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Permission to freely copy and distribute this document is given, provided that the text is not modified or abridged and this notice is included. For more information about SVS available electronically, check http://www.sudval.org.
Sudbury Valley is a democratic school run by a School Meeting. Students and staff each get one vote on all matters of substance; including the school rules and hiring/firing of staff. The school has no grades, tests, or scores.
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