Even now, after 35 years as a founding staff member, I half dread being asked by a newcomer to explain The Circle School. It could be a neighbor, the friend of a friend, or recently my dental hygienist just before she asked me to open wide.
My anxiety arises not from a lack of conviction in the school’s solid gold principles, but more because I often feel inadequate to effectively explain. I find myself hesitating and feeling not quite skilled enough to do justice to the concepts.
But no more! As I read the new book, When Kids Rule the School: The Power and Promise of Democratic Education by Jim Rietmulder, words and phrases I had heard hundreds of times floated up from the page, but never before in such a compelling, organized manner with such adept articulation. My reading slowed down as I encountered myriad morsels to savor and digest before I moved on to the next. And sprinkled throughout the book, like candy, are 29 engaging stories that flesh out daily life at school. Such fun!
Elements of The Circle School that I have always found valuable and compelling, yet so hard to describe, were explained to me so articulately, so systematically, clearly, sensibly, reasonably, and convincingly, that I came to a much deeper understanding of those long familiar but almost ineffable elements! Since finishing the book, I am in a much better position to describe the school and why it is so important.
I feel ready to engage the world with more confidence and faith in my ability to do justice to the very big ideas that are the school’s bedrock, and feel better prepared to answer questions such as the following, and many, many more:
• “What’s a democratic school?” (pages 7-8)
• “But how do the children learn? What about multiplication tables, figuring out how to read, remembering what the capital of Oregon is?” (pages 75-103, an entire chapter!)
• “What if we have to move and my child has to go to a more traditional school? How will he manage?” (page 221)
• “Should I give my child worksheets to do at home? What can be the harm?” (pages 67-70)
• “My child needs structure. How will she fare without it?” (page 219-220)
• “My child gets bored if no one tells him what to do. Will he learn anything if left on his own?” (page 65)
• “Will my child get into college?” (pages 209-216)
As I started reading the book, I harbored a hope that finally I’d master a 30-second elevator speech to haul out when people ask me about The Circle School. What I got was much better than that. I realized that, like trying to describe any game changing concept with its invitations for personal epiphanies and paradigm shifting, it’s a process requiring patience and time. What a gift to be equipped with better language and organization as I continue with the endeavor.
As the beautifully crafted chapters unfolded, I also began to better appreciate how a self-directed democratic school can be challenging to those of us who grew up in an entirely different educational environment. Our notions of how people learn best were set in place as we listened in classrooms, sitting still at desks. It takes quite a wallop to shake us from our conceptions about what constitutes education. Thankfully Jim’s book packs that wallop.
I invite you to sharpen your ability to talk about The Circle School and other democratic schools by immersing yourself in Jim’s new book. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself experiencing many “Aha!” moments, chuckling to yourself, and feeling clearer and more grounded in your understanding of democratic education.
-Beth L. Stone
When Kids Rule the School: The Power and Promise of Democratic Education
$19.99 / 6 x 9″ / May 2019
New Society Publishers
Available here and from booksellers everywhere