I wish I was ten years old and I can go to Summerhill, but since there is no rewind button in life, I wish my sons can go to Summerhill. However, I would ask them first. I’d take them around the world to visit alternative schools and if they’d like to see traditional schools, that’s fine, too. Then I’d ask them which school they’d like to attend or would they like to continue homeschooling / unschooling / roadschooling. The choice is up to them but my secret wish is Summerhill because I met and heard Henry Readhead, grandson of A.S. Neill who started the ninety five year old institution.
It’s not about what he said but how he said it but I think if I went there I’d be less screwed-up in the head, less afraid to be myself. In turn, I don’t want to screw up my kids with my style of parenting which sometimes is too helicopter for comfort but it’s a process, I know.
Henry attended Summerhill from the age of three and if his talk is any gauge of how students from that famous almost-hundred year boarding school turn out, then they have their Peter Pan inside intact even as they become responsible, productive adults. And I believe that’s a good thing.
I went to the APDEC conference with two of my friends who also teach at the Tianjin Foreign Studies University in Dagang. Donna teaches Psychology and has a seven-year old daughter who is a close friend of my son, Joshua. Lucy teaches Chinese literature and is into history big time. Although I’ve never met her seven-year old son, I saw his artworks and complex models he built by himself.
Donna, Lucy and I wish our children can attend Summerhill, although I’d like to also check out Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts to be able to compare. That’s where Peter Gray sent his son when his son rebelled against regular school, insisted on going to Sudbury and was happy from then on. Summerhill is a boarding school while Sudbury is a day school.
After his talk, Henry plays Zombie Apocalypse with the children milling around. He gets tired and takes a break under the shade of a tree but continues to talk to the child full of stories and questions.
Notes from Henry Readhead’s Keynote Talk and Open Space:
- We are all different in every way – our emotional patterns, the way we learn, the time we need to find out what we need to do.
- Finding out what you want to do with your life is important but there’s no set time when you will find it. It doesn’t have to be when we are young.
- Social and emotional development is our fundamental aim at Summerhill. Students find out who they are and how to live with other people. Understanding who we are and how to live with others is the most important thing. Social and emotional development happens at Summerhill from the first day a child arrives until they graduate and move on.
- Learning happens purely through experience. It happens through living.
- I attended Summerhill from the age of three and I didn’t even know what I was getting. I had a really happy childhood but I didn’t know what I gained. It was only when I visited it from the eyes of a prospective parent did I see. It was mind-blowing.
- Summerhill is designed as such so that it doesn’t get in the way. It’s a good thing to be away from their parents. The kids make their own decisions and do not rely on their parents all the time. Each term is two months long.
- The process is important. The kids build self-confidence and independence. It’s about understanding boundaries – what’s okay and not okay. Children are always pushing each other’s boundaries. In Summerhill, there’s so much time for that.
- In Summerhill, social time is not battling with learning time. Social time happens twenty four hours a day.
- In an average day at Summerhill, the kids get fined if they don’t wake up in the morning. There’s screen ban, work fine and other fines thought up by the students themselves. The twenty four hour screen ban is very effective.
- There are scheduled classes but it’s up to the student to attend or not. If the student wants to study a particular thing, he can get together with other students and request for a teacher who can be from inside or outside the school.
- There are open learning spaces and twelve acres of land.
- Using screens (tablets, phones, laptop, television) is not allowed between 5am and 3pm.
- It’s not about freedom meaning you can do everything you want. It’s about responsibility and being considerate of everyone in the community.
- There’s time to experience boredom and this is not a negative thing because it fuels enthusiasm and creativity.
- One eleven year old came to Sudbury with an amazing talent for playing the piano. They hired a teacher for her but the teacher begged off because the student’s level was too advanced and recommended to look for another teacher. They had to go through another unwilling teacher before they found one who was qualified to teach her. When the student turned fourteen, she decided she didn’t want to play the piano and turned to mathematics. After university, she ended up in a bank with a high position earning lots of money. After some years, she decided to go to Thailand and focus on kick boxing.
Some quotes from A.S. Neill:
- All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.
- The function of a child is to live his/her own life, not the life that his/her anxious parents think he/she should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educators who think they know best.
- I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.
Read about a former Summerhill pupil who’s now sending his two sons there:
There’s a lot of stuff about Summerhill in the internet, but this one is my favorite:
The BBC made a series about the school’s famous battle with the government who tried to close it down. The students rallied to raise funds by asking former graduates for help.
You can read about A.S. Neill here:
The range of formal subjects offered in Summerhill includes: Science – Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Math, English (Language and Literature), German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Woodwork, Art, Drama, History, Geography, Music Technology, DJ Work, Studio Sessions, Information Technology, Vocal Music (by arrangement). The range of Class 2 projects offered or suggested by students include: Gardening, Bug Study, Whitewings (airplane construction), The Game of Diplomacy, Magic Lessons and Show, Psychology for Kids, Thinking Skills and Games, Mosaics, Photography and Photoshop, Afternoon Walks, Plasticene, Computer Strategy Games lessons, Writing and making a video, Making a Radio Play, Chess, Macrame, Warhammer and much more.