My Sudbury Valley School

Our playground

Where I grew up is a very beautiful place. If you have a big enough tourist guide for China, you should be able to find it. But when I was a child, it was not developed yet, and thus was very quiet and provided a lot of fun for my childhood.

There is a very beautiful river just behind my home with a beautiful name: peach stream river. It goes through several different personalities along its short 2000 meters route through that area.

In the upper region is a big reservoir. The water is very deep (at least 3 meters) and quiet, with very high cliff along one side and beautiful mountains on the other side. It is kind of a challenge for kids to swim there.

As the river flows out of the reservoir, it rushes down stairs, roaring very loudly. We used to sit on the stairs, trying not to be taken away by the water and at the same time roaring together with the river.

Immediately after the reservoir, the river comes to a bed full of rocks (I guess the rocks are left from building the dam). The river is very shallow, just flowing slowly across those small rocks. There are big meadows in the river. There are usually cows herded on the meadow. Sometimes we can see one or two beautiful white horses. This is a very good place for catching fishes. My big brother is very good at catching fishes with bare hands. He just walked slowly upstream, putting his hands shaped like a bowl in the river. When he slides his hands under the fish (because he walked upstream, he didn’t disturb the water. So the fish wasn’t even aware of swimming in his hands.) He then quickly took the fish out of water. We then will have delicious fish soup which we cooked on the meadow, together with some crabs and vegetables. My younger brother and me never learned to catch the fish with bare hands. But we can get the crabs. Sometimes crabs can be hard to get when you go after them in fissures along the bank of the river. The fissure is usually very narrow, about one finger wide. You have to put your fingers in and use them as a kind of bait. The crab will then claw your finger. Then you endure the pain, pull the crab out of the fissure a little, and put your other fingers on the back of the crab and get your suffering bait finger released.

As the river flows down, it comes to a very beautiful region. This is where we usually swim. There is a beach of sand on one side of the bank. On the other side of the river is a slope cliff, covered with branches. There is a big cave on top of that, and the cold sprint water flowing down the cave. Thus we have a beautiful waterfall. The water under the waterfall is very cold. We used to have contests to see who can stay in that colder water longer. There is also a very small (5 meters in diameter) island right in the middle of the river. It stands out like a stage. We used it as a jumping platform, from which we jumped into the river with different postures.

Sometimes, we laid down on a used tire and flew down the river for about 1000 meters. Then we came to a section where people usually fish there. The water is flowing faster there, with a lot of rocks harboring home for fishes.

The river grew very wide there, with several large meadows in between. Flocks of cows are herded on the meadows. This is a focal point of that area. With a very big mountain called Belly Mountain looking over the whole area. On the other side is a big forest. An ancient temple sits in front of the forest along the river. We often ran over to the bridge to do morning exercises, and watch the sunrise. The sunset there is especially beautiful. I never saw the same beautiful sunset anywhere else later in my life. I guess it is because our sky is very low (we are on high mountains) and it is often cloudy. At the sunset, we see half the sky filled with different colors and shapes of clouds. We were always fascinated by that.

When I was about 4 years old, the big brother from my neighbor took me to walk on the bank of the river. That is the first time in my life to walk on the winding narrow “threads” (which separated the rice fields) along the river. The deep green grasses, the hopping grasshopper, the flying dragonflies, the butterflies, jumping over the gaps, all these are still very vivid before me even up to now. This river is going to teach me many things in my life.

There is a big wooden boat in the kindergarten hanging on chains. We used to climb in the boat and have other kids rock the boat. That boat has always a sense of mystery and romance in the bottom of my heart. Maybe that is how kids start on romantic feelings.

Some teachers in the kindergarten were harsh on kids. And kids were quite scared of them. But there is a white-haired teacher named Mrs. Hao, who is very good at telling stories. Kids love her very much. Every time she tells a story, the whole room is filled with all kids of the kindergarten. All quiet, not making any sound. Mrs. Hao would often pat on her belly, start by saying “let me see what story I have today in my belly”. This is the first time I heard of the stories of Monkey King in my life. Those stories painted many colors in my life. I think probably it is from that time my life is always colorful. Literature, romantic feelings, are all seeded right there. Even so many boring Chinese classes I had to take later at schools couldn’t kill those seeds. For my whole life, I am very grateful to Mrs. Hao.

China at that time had no companies. What they had were called “work units” which were kind of like the communes that the westerners were experimenting or trying to experiment in the 60s or 70s. There is a big grass field in the center of the “work unit”. People used to play soccer there. When we were kids, we liked to catch grasshoppers and dragonflies. Dragonfly is my favorite insect. There are many different kinds of dragonflies. We usually just catch those flying low among the grass and stopping a while on the grass leaves. The yellow and red dragonflies (we call yellow pepper and red pepper) fly very high in the sky and they are very fast. Thus it is very difficult to catch them. It would be a thrill and an honor if you ever caught a yellow or red dragonfly. Yellow dragonflies usually fly in large groups. Red dragonflies, however, fly individually.

Along the river, the dragonflies are different. There are those very big ones with very big green eyes. They are very beautiful. It is a big reward if you spotted and caught that kind of dragonfly. There are also another kind of dragonfly along the river. They are very thin, small, in black and green. They usually fly very low and thus it is easy to catch them. You might be able to catch them just in the air with your hand.

The spring time is our time to fly kites in the grass field. The big brother next door made a device for me so I can release thread quickly when the wind comes and pull in the thread quickly when the wind slows down. We usually buy a lot of threads and fly the kites very far away until it is just a very tiny point (smaller than the rice grain) in the distant sky. We can send telegraph to the sky (by putting a small piece of paper on the thread). We line up and lay down on the grass, watching our kites flying high in the sky among the white clouds. We can just lay down watching our kites for a long time. It is one of the most enjoyable things in my childhood. Even now I still have a habit of looking at the sky. I don’t know if it is because of that.

On there grass field, there are stone lions, yellow slopes. the stone lions are usually the place we kids gather and chat. The yellow slope is where we play the game of attacking a castle, with the offenders climbing up the slope and the defenders rolling down balls of earth trying to stop the offenders. We play all kinds of games in the grass field. This is our playground. In the summer, there will be full of little white flowers here. As you walk in the grass, it is like the whole world is with such green grasses and white flowers.

I learned the names of all these insects and plants from my little friends. My family don’t teach much of these. Maybe my parents don’t know much of these either. But some kids know quite a lot, and I learned quite tremendously from them. In the “working unit” or “commune”, older kids and younger kids are playing together. Our parents are coming from all over the country. So you can always learn many things.

We grew flowers in the gardens in front of our apartments. Some families had more experiences and they taught us how. We also play with the mud, making them into various shapes. We small kids can only make some simple figures. But the big kids can make more complicated ones, and are what we look up to. I remember I made a meditating monk on a cushion. I even put it in the stove and waxed it. In the kindergarten, we learn from older kids how to fold paper planes, paper rockets or boats, how to draw airplanes, boats, tanks, and so on.

My childhood is full of wonder and always very colorful. Having Grown up there, we always wanted to go back to take a look.

Encounter with death

When I was six years old, I witnessed drowning of a little friend. It greatly shocked me. That day in the kindergarten, and when watching movies with parents that night, it was always lingering in my mind. I kept thinking what happened to people after they died. I could not imagine there would be one day that I would not be able to go catch dragonflies anymore, or fly the kites. Death, is a very dreadful thing to me, but seems to be a thing that I have to face. But the adults always say once you get old, you are not scared of death anymore. When I look at their lives, I am thinking, that is probably because they have nothing worth living anymore. Their lives have become boring, and unlike the wonderfulness that filled our kids’ lives. Catching dragonflies, flying the kites, might get not as much fun after you have played for many times. So man should always have new worlds to play with so he can always play like a kid? This issue of death, is always something that comes up in my mind later. When I was a little older, I noticed that the adults in the working unit don’t change much after hitting 30 years old. It is all the same life over and over again. I am thinking then, no wonder you are not afraid of death anymore.


Finally it is time to go to school. I didn’t like the school from the very beginning. There are too many rules. But for our school, which is run by the working unit and taught by our parents, it is relatively not that bad. In the first grade, we only had two classes each day. So you only spend about 2 or 3 hours in the school in the morning, and you can play like before for the rest of the day. But I can sense the seriousness the adults have on our schooling. So even I didn’t like it, I know I should endure it.

In the winter or summer holidays, I often go to my father’s office. I saw many of the adults were reading newspapers at work (parents later said I didn’t get to see them doing experiments). I was thinking then how wonderful to be adults, no homework, no tests. So I was looking forward to the day that I don’t need to go to school and take tests anymore. When I finally finished my graduate study in America, after the very last exam of my life, I went to celebrate it with my friends.

There was entrance exam for going to school. I was already able to write a lot of characters. I don’t remember how I learned it. We learned Pinyin in the first grade. After that, we were able to read many characters by ourselves. So I started reading all the articles in the textbook by myself. The teacher didn’t seem very useful in this regard. I liked reading very much then. I would stoop down to read the piece of paper on the ground if there were words on it.

When I first got into school, mom made sure that I at least study 1 or 2 hours every night to review the classes of that day . Actually there wasn’t much to review for the first grader. So I usually finished reviewing quite quickly. For the rest of the time, I have no choice but keep reciting the book while lying on the bed. At that time, we need to go to school for half a day on Saturdays. So I was asked by my my mom to stay at home in the afternoon to review the courses. And on Sunday, i still need to spend the morning for course review. At the beginning, I remember it was a little difficult to form these habits. I still wanted to go outside to play. Later I feel accustomed. so my foundation has been quite solid from the very beginning. Now I wonder what role such habit of review and reflection have played? I am a person of reflection from very early on. So I think I should be able to develop the reflection habit and skills all by myself, just like how I did when in college. But with this habit, at least in the school centered learning, it kept me always having enough time to build up my foundation step by step so I wouldn’t fail the tests.

The teachers in our school are also workers of our working units. They are co-workers with our parents. So these teachers mostly taught us like teaching their own kids. For example, our math teacher is very caring of the students. She is really teaching you how to do math. And kids like us, due to family environment and environment in the working unit, we mostly have some interests in maths and are ready for such kind of math learning. So the process of learning math and so on are still pleasant for us. Some kids might be naughty and cannot control themselves, so they might get a little lower scores. But overall, students graduated from our school are very welcomed by the middle schools in the city and have a quite good reputation there.

My family has a science and engineering background. On the bookshelf, it is full of science and engineering books. My older brother have a very strong interest in science and technology. He bought many books on math and outer space. For me, probably because I heard too many of Mrs. Hao’s wonderful stories, I always feel the world is full of wonders, and I am more tuned towards literature and humanity. I can do math quite well, and I am willing to spend time on hard math problems. But if there are some literature books on the table, you can be guaranteed that I will pick up literature books first. So I finished my older brother’s Chinese and history text book very quickly (my brother is 5 years old than me.) After that, I finished his math books and outer space books.

Although I didn’t get to read many classic novels as a kid, I read quite many children’s books, sketch books, magazines, and so on. As kids, we often exchange books to read. Once in the middle school, we gathered and stood up for the whole night for reading and sharing what we have read.

We actually have a lot of time to play when in the primary school. In the summer, we often played until it got dark. So if you have a good habit in learning, it doesn’t take you much time. Every year, we still can focus on learning and playing with something from time to time. For example, playing table tennis, we focused on that for a couple of years, and we almost played it everyday. When the class bell rung, we ran out of the class to play table tennis. When it rung again, we rushed back. We played at noon and at weekends. Later we did the same with skating, biking, fishing, swimming, hiking, and so on.

There are a lot of mountains in our area. We used to go hiking a lot in the summer. It is always a kind of adventure since we always choose places we haven’t been to and we usually took a full day and walked very far. We once set out to look for the origin of a small stream. Along the way, we went through many different places. Growing up in the mountains, in my later life I found the plain can be so boring since there is no change and no surprise. I think it is when I was 15 years old I decided to go hiking just by myself. I went very far into the high mountains. It is an experience of myself and challenging myself. As Mr. Gatto said, people need large dose of solitude to develop themselves. Of course, people also need a lot of interaction with other people to be a complete human being. You need both solitude and interaction to be complete. Life is indeed very interesting. After I came back from my adventure, people were surprised that I did that just by myself. Other kids were inspired and wanted to do that themselves.

It is a great experience to climb to the top of the mountains. I always enjoy the view from the mountain top.

Sometimes we go very far away to seek the origin of the creek. The changing scenery along the road, the feelings of adventure, are all affecting my whole life. Sometimes we stand in the river fishing for the whole afternoon. With the sun shining over your heads, with all kinds of grasses in the water and insects swimming or walking, your ears full of the sounds of the nature, you keep your eyes on the surface of the water, waiting for the fish to bite the bait. Your whole body, together with the sound, with the sky, melted together. If you have owned that kind of world, it will be much easier for you to face the adult world later in your life.

The working unit is quite a safe playground for us. We always have many kids playing together, running around, playing hide and seek, or some kind of ambush attacks, or chasing… We climb to high chimney, or jump down from high ground, running on the wall. We got up very early in the morning– 5am, ran very far, came back and then played soccer or basketball. Big kids and little kids playing together. Sometime with adults. You learn tremendously from these playing. Kids today have nowhere to play and no one to play with. What kids need for learning is actually simply a safe playground where they can play with each other and with adults.

I still remember those summer nights when people gathered under the lamp in the tree, listening to adults talking about their stories, how they look back on their lives. I still remember them discussing how early they can remember stories of their lives. Some said the earliest went back to 6 years old. I was then wondering how much I can remember when I grew old. At that time I still could remember things when I was 4 years old. I thought I would not forget those.

I always feel that these things are really learning. They are the kind of learning we need for our lives.

In the school, there are a lot of sports or arts activities. A lot of parents in the institution are very talented. Thus we had a chance to be exposed to different things. The institution had a very strong soccer team that my brothers and I benefited a lot from. My younger brother is especially very talented in soccer.

So with this beautiful place, with many little friends to play together, some caring teachers in the school, not too heavy school work, still plenty of time of playing, people of all ages together. This environment, is my Sudbury Valley School. The only thing we don’t have as much as in Sudbury Valley School is the democratic participation in school management. Only in my 1st grade, we did run our little library , and sold scraps for charity. Although only two small things, they had great impact on my life, giving me the space to reflect on how we can make our environment better by our hands.

Reflection on schooling

I disliked school from the very beginning. I didn’t like the loss of freedom there. And later I felt more and more of the things that went wrong with school. It is a waste of my time. When in the primary school, in the summers, sometimes I went over my geographic textbooks or nature textbooks, I realized a lot of things in those books are quite useful and should be remembered. Although I memorized them when taking the test, I had forgotten them all by then. So what was the point to memorize them at the first place? so I learned that many things you read in the book are going to be forgotten anyway, what mattered is whether you remembered what you deemed important. So after that, before every semester, I would preview the textbook first, to see what I should learn in the textbook. Then I would just understand and remember those things. Then I think I accomplished the course. As for the tests, I just did a little preparation, memorizing a little more before the test. Then it is ok. The study became less burdensome. I learned what I think important, with still a good score.

When in the first year of the middle school, we finally had a new Chinese teacher. In the previous 5 years, our Chinese class had been repetitive summarizing the main content of articles in the textbook, just following the teacher’s reference book as it is. One day the teacher found that one of the students had one teacher’s reference book on his desk, and we all knew that this teacher was just repeating what was in the teacher’s book.

But this new teacher is very different. He was managing our school library for years before then. He really likes literature, and he reads a lot of books. He would reflect on the Chinese education in school, and find new ways to lead us to explore literature and writing. His reflection and self-initiative to change the existing environment inspired me greatly. This teacher later became a reporter in the local TV station. I also had a very good Chinese teacher in my high school. He is also a teacher who is very fond of literature, and very good at reflecting on Chinese education in the middle schools.

The tests and study in the middle school

Overall, these are quite boring years of my life. I didn’t get to learn much in these years. There are many things to do other than study. Later when in US, I often have dreams of my times in China. But they are mostly from my childhood times and from my college times. My middle school years never showed up in my dreams.

College, finally the time to learn freely

When I finally finished my middle school and got accepted into college, I knew this was the first time in my life that I would finally be able to learn freely. I treasured this kind of chance. I knew in my heart that I had lost a lot of time to the college entrance exam. I was supposed to spend a lot of time to explore my life, to accomplish the growth from youth to adulthood. But i seldom had time to do that kind of learning I needed because of the exam. When I graduated from high school, I still knew nothing of society. So when I got in the college, I knew that I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally I was in control of my time, I can learn freely and spend crazy amount of time to make up what I have lost in my middle school.

So I learned very crazily in college, utilizing all my time and all kinds of resources. In my college, only 5% of my knowledge is learned in school classroom. All else are learned through extensive reading, going to lectures in the city, social practices, and selling stuff on the street. Through extensive reading, i got to know what are the real nutrition of our culture. For example, the intellects 100 years ago, how they reflected on our culture. The history of culture revolution, which can teach you tremendously about our culture. I got to know many great people that are never in the textbook, found newspapers that are truly thought-provoking and full of humanity, and learned how to do critical thinking from reading these newspapers. Through selling stuff on the street, I learned how to make judgement, how to get myself out of the bondage of the traditional moral values taught at school but never worked in society, and get to know how to find the true principles to stick to, how to pursue the true values.

All these processes of growth are natural for Sudbury Valley School students, and should be accomplished before 18 years old. I have to make it up after I endured the college entrance exam.

While in college, I experienced 2 darkest time of my life. One is the short military training that is mandatory in all Chinese colleges. The other is the learning of history of culture revolution. I couldn’t believe people would do those horrible things. And these people are people around me. They didn’t disappear with culture revolution. The soil is till there. I am also part of it. This was when I lost my innocence. But maybe it is the wonderfulness of my childhood, that makes me believe that even so the world is still very wonderful, still full of colors. People’s nature got twisted. That is a very sad tragedy. But we can make efforts to find out how people’s nature got twisted, to find the cause and the process, to change the soil. And from my own experiences of growth and my experiences with school, I know that twisting has a lot to do with school.

My childhood friends, some of them went to college, some of them didn’t. I grew up with them. I know they are also very smart. If they could go to college, I believe they were able to finish the college too. Then they wouldn’t get subject to so much limitation in their lives. With their talents, if there is no such limitation, they should be able to contribute to the society a lot more. Of course, a society based on mass production doesn’t seem to think so.

Education and Sudbury Valley School

I always feel very close to Sudbury Valley School. Seeing how kids play there, I was often reminded of my childhood. I have too many similar things with them. Always busy, choosing what I like to do, willing to spend time, always playing with many kids of different ages and running around, hiking or swimming, plenty of opportunities listening to adults talking about their stories, always thinking that it is individual’s responsibility to contribute to society, and society needs participation from everyone, always confident with myself, believing I can learn anything The same colorful childhood, the same disbelief in the necessity of the conventional schooling. When later talking to Peter Gray, he mentioned how he had played in his childhood, I felt it was very similar to mine. I also have read in the past how Bill Clinton talked about his childhood in his book “My Life”, which are quite similar things. I guess in America Peter Gray and Bill Clinton’s generation still somehow had the freedom of play or we can say their schooling still had partially sudbury model elements. That is why they remember so vividly of their childhood time and thinking there are a lot of things lost for children growing up today, and why Hillary Clinton liked to say “It takes a village.”. I grew up in a different time and in a different country (China). Somehow I shared this with them. I don’t know if Daniel Greenberg, Hanna Greenberg, and Mimsy Sadofsky founded Sudbury Valley School because of the same childhood experience. But Sudbury Valley School does remind me immediately of my childhood and I feel very close to it. I recommended Sudbury Valley School to many people. They always have doubts. Or they may say they believe in it, but deep in their hearts, they have doubts. Like those parents who sent their kids to sudbury, and later withdrew their kids because they couldn’t stand their kids fishing all days, or even all years. But deep in my heart, I know that sudbury model is the most perfect model for child education. Children need a safe playground to play freely with other children, and sudbury is a place you can easily learn what you want to learn. For adults, the whole society is our sudbury. We need make self-learning easier, so everyone can learn in real life, and play better.

From my experiences, I know the sudbury model contains all the elements of child education, and is the most perfect model. There is no life wasted, and it suits everyone. The issue of why sudbury cannot spread to the whole society is not because there is some problem with the sudbury model. It is because of the problem of the society. It is the adults who have deep misunderstanding of education. When adults talk about education, they always talk about other people’s learning. It seems learning has nothing to do with them. They only know to pass down the wrong conceptions on educations they have got used to when they were in schools. So we have to ask for a learning revolution in the adults. Ask the adults to truly explore and feel what is the most effective way to learn.

Sudbury, is in the past, in the future, it is also in our daily lives. It is a dream, a hope, it is also an reality in this dreamy life.

This is my Sudbury Valley School. Where is your Sudbury Valley School? Let’s go look for it together!

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