Reflections on a Visit to SVS1

Don Yates

 

            Welcome to Letter 3-10 of Creating Extraordinary Organizations. In the last letter I looked at the second issue we have to deal with in creating an EO – getting those currently in control to release it. I said that I would cover one of two topics in this letter. The first was another creating issue. The second was a report on an upcoming visit to the Sudbury Valley School. As it turns out, this visit was everything I hoped it would be and more. Therefore, I am going to devote this and the next letter to what I experienced and learned from that visit.

 

Activities during the visit

            In order to provide some context, let me describe some of the activities I engaged in during the 1½ days I was at the school.

 

• Daniel Greenberg [one of the four founders still a member of the staff] gave me a tour of the main building.

• Hanna Greenberg [also a founder] gave me a tour of the outside, which included conversations with some of the students.

• I attended the weekly meeting of the School Meeting [open to all students and staff members with a single vote each].

• I attended the daily meeting of the Judicial Committee on each of the two days. This committee is the steward of the School Meeting Lawbook.

• I engaged in a half to three quarter hour conversation [leaning against the wall in the hall] with a delightful thirteen-year-old girl who I will call Joy, because she was.

• I engaged in a number of conversations with other members of the school.

• I observed all that was going on around me, which was a constant atmosphere of activity and engagement.

 

Reflections

            I want to do two things. First, I want to give you some thoughts I have had on various aspects of the school that I experienced. Second, I want to comment on how these aspects relate to business organizations, especially Extraordinary ones.

 

Systemic nature of SVS as an organization

            I have read a great deal about SVS. I have also corresponded with some of the staff. However, I realized that I had not really comprehended the whole. I knew a lot about pieces, but I had not synthesized them into a whole. As I immersed myself in the school, I began to understand it as a system. This in turn helped me to understand various parts better.

            It is essential to see any organization as a system. Without doing this you neither understand nor integrate the various pieces properly.

 

Intentional activity

            One of the first things I observed was how intentional all the activities were. There was lots of activity all around. However, it was not random. Everyone seemed intent and focused on doing whatever she was doing whether playing games, reading, talking, or whatever.

            Everyone in a business organization needs to carry out activities with the same amount of intention and focus I saw here. I do not think it matters whether the members are all adults, all youth, or a mix. Nor does it matter what type of organization it is.

 

Interpersonal age equality

            I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect. Age was simply not a factor in any interaction. I do not mean that age did not carry some difference in terms of knowledge, maturity, and so on. However, those interacting just took those differences in stride without paying any attention to them. In the conversation I had with Joy we talked as equals. Or maybe I should say she treated me as her equal since I was definitely learning from her. I saw this going on around me all the time. It was a true breath of fresh air.

            Most business organizations consist of only adults. Still their ages will vary widely. Without hierarchical roles to define people, age may become a differentiating factor. It can certainly become a positive one as individuals of different ages learn from each other. Possibly people will look on age and experience as more important when they do not have hierarchical roles getting in the way.

 

Age mixing

            I experienced the great value of age mixing. The whole atmosphere was one of a melding of all ages. In the JC for instance, the two teenage Clerks supported the younger children that came before the JC. This was even more impressive because even while supporting them they had to deal with them as individuals who had violated rules set by the School Meeting.

            It was also clear that age mixing was providing learning of various sorts through modeling as well as direct exchange of expertise. Since members of the staff are equal members of the community, students are able to draw on their expertise as well as that of other students. The reverse is also true as the staff is continually learning from each other and the students.

            Age mixing does not go just one way, from older to younger. Being with younger students provides the older students many opportunities for learning such as the JC interplay I described. In addition, it was clear that the younger members of the school were adding a level of energy and fun that the community would sorely miss without them.

            We can use age mixing to advantage in creating EO’s. Even though we do not generally think of business organizations as having great age differences, they do. In fact, the spread of ages is probably greater than in the school situation. If we intentionally see to mixing those ages everyone will gain in more ways than just learning the “business.”

 

Staff modeling

            It became clear that one of the strongest modes of learning for the students is the way staff members behave and interact. This became clear to me in the School Meeting, although not immediately. I noticed and asked about the fact that staff members participated overtly more than students. At first this seemed to me out of place. However, after discussing it with Dan and thinking about it I saw the great value in their participation.

            Many of the topics that came before the School Meeting had complexities that would not be obvious to a student with limited life experience. The staff members did not lecture on these points. Rather, they brought them into the open through grappling with them as full members of the meeting. They were just being themselves. They were not being “teachers.”

            In doing this they provided more than just information on the subject. They were also showing how one expresses himself and stands up for his ideas in front of others. It was clear from the way that students participated that they had learned a great deal about handling themselves in such a situation.

            Of course modeling goes on all the time in business organizations. However, I think few people understand this or how much impact it has on the system. Unfortunately, much of this is modeling behaviors that we want to eliminate in EO’s. We need to be sensitive to and explicit about this aspect as we create a new organization. This is especially true as people new to this paradigm will need to learn from those with more experience. This learning can be passed most effectively or only through modeling.

 

Attention and concentration

            If anyone thinks young people cannot concentrate and pay attention over a long time period, they need to attend a School Meeting. The one I attended lasted two hours. Everyone in the room no matter what age was fully there every minute. It was clear that everyone felt an equal and important part of what was going on. It was truly impressive.

            How can we replicate this in a business organization? I think only by carrying out all the other aspects in the way I experienced them happening. This level of concentration is the result of many factors. It is not something we can create directly. We must make certain that each person not only feels an integral part of the system but also acts as one. We must do this consciously and continuously.

 

An important concern

            I started this list of comments with the systemic nature of the school. My concern is that in listing them individually I have made it harder, not easier for you to sense this. Unfortunately, writing such as this letter is a linear process. Therefore, I hope you will step back from the list and look at it as a set of interacting parts.

            In other words, try to get a sense of the whole. Of course, you cannot do this fully. I was able to experience the parts together. I did not meet them in a linear fashion as presented here. This allowed me to integrate them internally leading to a sense of the whole. None of the parts can stand alone. Each gets its importance only from being a part of the whole.

 

Until next time

            In this letter, I have not covered two of the most important functions of the school. These are the School Meeting and the Judicial Committee. I cannot do justice to them in a couple of paragraphs. The experiences meant too much. The two functions are too important. I will take them up in Part 2.

 

 

 

 

1. Reprinted from Creating Extraordinary Organizations, Eletter, Volume 3, Letter 10, 10/14/2005, www.extraordinaryorganizations.com.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.®

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a Visit to SVS1

Part 2

Don Yates

 

            Welcome to Letter 3-11 of Creating Extraordinary Organizations. In the last letter, I gave you some of my reflections on my visit to the Sudbury Valley School. In this one I look at two parts of the school that I believe warrant a more expanded look. These are the School Meeting and the Judicial Committee. I see these as the two most important bodies in the school.

 

The School Meeting

            The School Meeting is the governance body of the school. Its membership consists of every student and every staff member in the school. It is responsible for all day-to-day operations of the school. Each member has a single vote. The members elect a School Meeting Chair at the beginning of each school year. He or she runs the meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. Attendance is voluntary and those present make decisions by majority vote.

            There are at least three impressions I carried away from the meeting I attended. The first concerns the participation of staff in the meeting. It is worth drawing on some of what I said about this in the last letter.

            Some of the topics that come before the School Meeting have complexities that would not be obvious to a student with limited life experience. The staff members do not lecture on these points. On the contrary, they grapple with them as individuals. They are just being members not staff and certainly not teachers.

            In doing this, they provide more than just information on a subject. They also show how one expresses himself and stands up for his ideas in front of others. It was clear from the way that students participated that they had learned a great deal about handling themselves well.

            The second impression concerns the amount of concentration on the part of all present. Again, let me draw on the last letter:

 

If anyone thinks young people cannot concentrate and pay attention over a long period, they need to attend a School Meeting. The one I attended lasted two hours. Everyone in the room no matter what age was fully there every minute. It was clear that everyone felt an equal and important part of what was going on. It was truly impressive.

 

            The third impression concerns the quality and freedom of student participation. At all times anyone speaking was respectful but also spoke with considerable thought and even eloquence. One situation was particularly impressive. The year before several girls had committed a very serious act. As a result, the SM had restricted them to the campus for an indefinite length of time.

            One of these, a girl in her early teens, came before the SM to argue that she now deserved an end to her sentence. She pleaded her case in a very reasoned, well delivered, and persuasive way. I would definitely have voted for her, and that seemed the sense of the room.

            However, two members disagreed vehemently. They did not make personal attacks but dealt with the request. It was a very real demonstration of the right and willingness of students to voice their stand on a touchy topic. In this case, they did not carry the day; and the meeting approved her request.

            I was taken with every aspect of the meeting. The participation of staff and students together was outstanding. Members considered each issue with serious, clear thinking and great concern. I have never seen the health or operation of any adult organization in better hands than the School Meeting.

 

The Judicial Committee

            The JC meets daily at 11 to handle any violations of the rules set out in the School Meeting Law Book. The School meeting has developed, passed by majority vote, and can change every rule it contains. The committee consists of two elected Judicial Clerks who serve for two months. Besides the JC clerks there are five members chosen by the SM Chairman who serve for one month. The five include one each from the three youngest groups of students and two from the oldest two groups together. There is also one staff member each day on rotation. As in the SM, the staff member adds balance and experience but only as a participant not a teacher.

            One of the first things I learned about the JC is that many if not all members of the SM consider it the most important function in the school. In the talk with Joy that I described in the last letter, she told me that it was the most important part of the school. She did say that the SM was also important, but it was clearly in second place in her mind.

            The JC meeting is open to anyone who wants to sit in and watch. I attended both days I was there. It was a fascinating experience. The process in each case was reading the complaint, which any member of the SM can make when she sees someone breaking one of the Law Book rules. Then the committee investigates the allegation. First, it asks the accused about the situation. Then it calls in other individuals who may have relevant information. The committee decides by majority vote if there has been an infraction. If there has, they decide under which code to charge the person. If the person pleads guilty, they move to choosing a sentence. The ones I saw related to the “situation” for instance, emptying the trash for littering. They were only as hard as necessary to get the point across to the rule breaker. If an individual pleads not guilty, a rare occurrence given the thorough nature of the “process” there will be a trial.

            I was very impressed with how these students handled each case. Even the youngest member participated with care and thoughtfulness. Many of the charges concerned some of the youngest students. The clerks were very careful to explain to them the charges. They were also quite solicitous of their feelings and took pains to get them to understand that they needed to change their ways. This was important because many of the young ones were repeat offenders. Watching the interactions between these very active and energetic students and the JC was sometimes humorous but always intriguing. It was obvious that one of the most important functions of the judicial system is to help these young ones understand and integrate with the larger social system.

            There were also cases involving older students. Again, I was intrigued by the way the two clerks handled the older students, some of whom were not always respectful, with strength and authority. Even though the clerks were younger, they made it clear that the JC was in charge. In one particular case and in one involving a young student who had been a continuous offender, the JC referred the case to the SM for sentencing something they can do for any case. In their opinion, these cases needed a stronger response than just a sentence given by the JC.

            For me this whole process appeared to be a great learning experience for everyone involved. This included those who had just come to watch. The list of things that those present were learning is too long for this letter. As for me, I was finally beginning to understand the value and importance of this part of the judicial system as well as the whole system.

            In a talk given to a summer congregation of SVS type schools, Dan Greenberg explained the great significance of the judicial system. Whenever an individual joins a larger community, he must give up some of his individual rights and freedom. This sets up a constant tension between the rights of the whole and the rights of the individual. To deal with this the community sets up rules and laws to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior within the community. However, it is impossible to have boundaries that one or more members do not cross at times. It is the job of a judicial system to deal with these crossings. In doing so, it ameliorates the tension between the individual and the whole. By maintaining these boundaries in a fair and equitable way it protects the stability of the community.

 

Conclusion

            At this point, I feel that I have done an inadequate job of telling you of the importance of these two parts of the school. There is so much to tell and so much I experienced that I could not convey it all even in a very long paper. I am even less able to communicate my learning and the feelings arising from experiencing the school and its members as a whole. Describing the pieces just does not give justice to the whole. The visit was indeed a gift given to me by the members of the School Meeting.

 

 

 

 

1. Reprinted from Creating Extraordinary Organizations, E Letter, Volume 3, Letter 11, November 11, 2005, www.extraordinaryorganizations.com.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.®