I recently went out to dinner with some friends; it was a fun evening in a quiet but colorful Louisiana inspired restaurant. During dinner, one of my friends turned to me and said, “so what was a typical day like at The Circle school?” My answer took up the remainder of the dinner conversation. It was as if someone turned on a fire hydrant and could not figure out how to turn it off. I could not stop sharing stories, debating philosophy, and reliving how inspired I was to be part of a community that truly trusts kids and their natural capacity to learn. I left the restaurant and whispered to Jack, “Did I talk too much?” He smiled and put his arm around me, which I took to mean yes, but that it wasn’t a bad thing.
This past month, I got to intern as a staff member at The Circle School in Harrisburg, Pa. The Circle School is a democratic school that offers students a chance to be part of a community of peers living and learning together. The school has 70 students and 5 staff. There is , no curriculum, no grades, no tests, and students are not segregated by age. Students and staff are given equal responsibility in running the school.
I was there to see what I could glean from this intentional community in which students are empowered and self-determined. I had hopes to learn more about how culture is formed, and how conflicts are solved when adult control is not the default authority.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE SCHOOL
If you are familiar with democratic schools feel free to skip this paragraph.
Students and staff create the law book that consists of community standards, rules and regulations that each member of the school is responsible for holding others accountable to. The Legislative body of the school is called the School Meeting, which is held every Wednesday. It is run by an elected official who is usually a student. During the meeting, laws might get passed, amended, repealed or otherwise scrutinized. Committee members and chairs of various school corporations also report their weekly business to school meeting. The school also has a judicial system. If a member of School Meeting feels that someone has broken or violated a rule, they might write that person up using a complaint form. The Judicial Committee (JC) then hears the complaints. The Judicial Committee is made up of one student under 10, one student older than 10, a staff, a scribe, and a chair (both the scribe and the chair are elected positions). The JC is responsible for investigating and charging School Meeting members with the law that they broke and assigning a consequence that is aimed at helping to remind the student or staff what the rules and standards of the community are.
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT LEARNING
Kids learn by talking, playing, fighting, laughing, and being bored. Every day at The Circle School is different. There are scheduled meetings, student initiated classes and events that might take place. However, most of the day for the majority of students is spent in pursuit of whatever lets them feel happy and fulfilled in the moment. This might be practicing instruments in the music room, playing video games in the sun space, playing cards in the upstairs kitchen, playing 4 square outside etc. There is so much to do that more often you hear from students that they are very busy rather than bored. Sometimes, however, students do say “I’m bored,” to which the response is often, “What do you want to do?”. In this moment real learning and critical thinking about what you like and what you want to invest your time in takes place. What happened next was amazing to watch. Often students got up to stuff like producing a short film, initiating a new corporation, inventing and playing an intricate board game, watching enough YouTube videos to learn how to make a website, baking brownies to fundraise for a zip line, or other equally rich self directed activities. This is project-based learning in the truest sense.
One of the things that was surprising to me was the kinds of risky play that kids engaged in. I have read article upon article about the importance of risky play and how it leads to self awareness and resilience. I was also aware that at schools like this one, tree climbing and other risky stuff was common; however, it wasn’t until I watched a 10-year-old girl shimmy herself high into a pine tree, and felt my stomach lurch, that I recognized the extent of risky play that happens and also its value. I observed that students at The Circle School were often more confident, not only in their social and emotional skills but also in their decisions and actions. Students are used to taking full responsibility for the ideas and decisions they make, which they learn by slowly finding the edge of their comfort zone and pushing it a little further. This process leads to self-determined and self-actualized kids. It was so refreshing, and freeing to be around people who recognize and assume responsibility for themselves.
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM AT THE CIRCLE SCHOOL
One of the things that I was curious about when I got to the school was how conflicts were solved. The justice branch of the school is modeled after our society’s justice system, a system that I think is beyond broken. I was concerned that a culture of blame and shame would therefore rule at school as well. I was concerned that students would abuse or thwart a system by constantly calling each other out or trying to hide their actions as to not get caught. What I found instead was that for the most part, students took pride in the laws and used the JC system as a tool to hold each other to the previously agreed upon standards. Sure there were times when students held contempt for JC or felt worried about a what a JC might decide, but most members of the school trusted the system and placed natural authority on its power to decide what is fair and just. For some, being sent to the JC was how they found out about a particular rule, for others it was a friendly reminder.
I think it makes a huge difference that everyone in the school, 4-year-olds to 18-year-olds, take a turn sitting on the JC for a week at a time. There was so much empathy for the other side because everyone in the room had literally been in the other person’s position before. My favorite consequences were the ones that the defendants thought up themselves, such as ways to help remind them to sign in when they got to school, clean up messes in the art room, or keep their cool in an argument. In the beginning of my time at the school, I had lots of questions about this process for staff. I did not understand the apparent lack of resentment or why students could not just talk it out and solve whatever their conflict was in the moment. Jim, one of the founders of the school and long time staff member said that there is an incredible sense of power and ownership that a student feels when they are given the control to see that others follow the rules. He noted that some of the younger students especially are extremely rule conscious; for them this is the first time they have been given such power and control.
TRUST THE SYSTEM
Another one of my big takeaways was that I desperately needed to slow down and trust the system. On my third day there, JD, a long time staff member, pulled me aside and said, “It is ok just to watch.” He said he could tell that I felt anxious and concerned that I was not doing enough. I am used to running around like a chicken with my head cut off at camp, constantly conscious of what is un-raveling. It took me a while to relax and trust the system that they have in place. The Circle School community has been around for 32 years, and in that time they have had a chance to find and patch thousands of holes in their process. However, more impressive than their established rules is the complete trust that the staff and the students hold for the system. They trust that if something breaks, the community will come together and decide how to proceed. There is so much trust in the system and trust in each other and the collective wisdom of the people there. So as we move forward as an emerging summer camp, I am feeling extra conscious about how to create systems that empower our community members, systems that create foundations of trust.
In my final days in Harrisburg, I spent a lot of time reflecting and feeling grateful to the families that welcomed me into their homes. I stayed with 4 different host families over the course of my stay, each with a different story and relationship to The Circle School. I loved getting to know each of them, each place colored my perspective differently. I was treated with such warmth and love just for my interest and association with the school. I think that speaks volumes for the strength of their community. I felt honored that each family would share their stories and be vulnerable with me.
I left The Circle School feeling assured in my beliefs and passions. I am aware now, more than ever, of the work that needs to be done to provide an alternative to the conventional, outdated school system that most young people and teachers struggle with. I also know that there are passionate and intelligent people who believe more is possible and are creating these alternatives. I am aware that the most powerful and meaningful tool we as educators and youth advocates have is trust. I am grateful to wake up every morning driven to create more spaces where kids are trusted and empowered.
A Short Video I Made After My Time There
****I would love to hear what you think and am always looking to talk more about these ideas. If you stay up late thinking about this stuff too, send me an email.