Leaving the Canvas Blank

Exploring Kid interests, Teen Interests, Adult Interests

When friends and family find out that I’m working on building a school where almost anything is possible, the temptation is almost overwhelming to fill in the blanks, and to paint a concrete image of the school.

“Oh, so you’re starting a school where kids can do whatever they want? You should have a printmaking studio.” “You should have a maker space.” “You should have a theater program.”

Science projects, chemistry sets, math quizzes, foreign languages, textile work...the list goes on. I've largely moved beyond having specific *academic* expectations, but even I find myself falling into this trap, thinking of what “needs to be on offer” at a Sudbury school.

But where does this image come from? I have come to believe that when we paint vivid images of what students could or should choose to do with their time, this is probably some combination of what we wished we had once had, and a reflection of our own current interests and desires. (Of course there is also the fear that our kids won’t know what they need to be successful adults if they don’t have a fixed curriculum, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.)

So I’ve learned to hear it as, “I wish I had a printmaking studio.” “I wish I had time to join theater.” Seen that way, it’s a very wistful and poignant statement, and I’ve learned to honor that spark of desire for possibility in myself and others.

The problem with letting these ideas steer the shape of the school is that my adult interests and priorities are very different from kids’ or teens’ interests and priorities. The school belongs to the future students, and as much as making the school is my dream, the school itself will be filled with the dreams of the students who will come. I find myself needing to resist the temptation to fill in the blank canvas beforehand, when the whole purpose is to create an ever-changing community mural. A sketch is all I can offer, and structure for how that process of creation could proceed.

If I wanted to make amazing art to be admired, that’s fine and dandy, but the school is not the place for me to fulfill that dream, and the students are not there to be my followers or admirers. The school must serve the needs of the kids rather than the needs of the adults involved.

My passion might be for the cello, Jesse's passion might be tinkering, Deborah loves metalworking and weaving. But I don't expect kids at a future Pathfinder school to necessarily take advantage of those interests we have in a mentoring relationship. Even if we had an army of craftspeople, professionals, and scientists, what are the chances that the kids who end up at our school are interested in any of those particular things? I'd rather leave the door open to the possibility of exploring without telling the kids where to go.

What makes their eyes light up?

What makes their eyes light up?

I think it’s valuable to take a look at what kids actually like to talk about and do in their free time. I’ve noticed that many kids love things like playing dress-up, Minecraft, Pokemon, booger jokes, or making silly YouTube videos. Many teens may enjoy things like Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, anime and manga, debating politics, or listening to the latest indie music. As an individual, I am not going to share all of these passions with kids, and I wouldn't expect them to share all of my passions or necessarily be interested in any one of them. The great thing about the school is to mix many people together and give them time to discover their own interests, and to find people who share that interest, regardless of age. The process of organizing around the interest, the relationships formed, the obsessive research into crazy ideas, the self-imposed challenges met? That's where learning happens.

Assuming that children are tiny adults who need to be interested now in things they may eventually use in their adult lives is a false assumption, and in my view, a very harmful one. Who even knows what the world is going to look like 15 or 20 years from now, and what skills will be needed?

No, in my view, it is better to say:

This school belongs to you.

Your time belongs to you.

Your life belongs to you.

It will be what you make of it, and I’m here to support you on that journey, but I’m not going to try to control the outcome for you.

At a Sudbury school, we trust that once the kids grow into adults, they will know how to follow their passions and become competent in the skills they choose to learn. We trust that adult-oriented things will be more interesting to our students by the time they grow up simply because they will then want to engage in the adult world.

So, we’ll leave the canvas blank for now. And we'll focus on building the structure for a strong and sturdy canvas.