Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Discovering the Power of Their Voices

by Shawna Lee, Clearwater staff member

When I was seven years old, I was a chatty person--so chatty, in fact, that my 2nd-grade teacher told me over and over again to stop whispering to my friends in class. My chattiness was such a problem that she pointed it out on all four of my report cards that year. When I was 10 years old, I helpfully corrected my 5th-grade teacher when she said something that was contrary to information I had heard from my dad just days before. Apoplectic, she told me in no uncertain terms that my father was not the teacher.
Johnna (7), Zoe (8) and Krista (18) spend a lot of time making art together
I learned powerful lessons from both of those experiences. First, that it was imperative to figure out what teachers did and didn't want to hear and behave accordingly; second, that my thoughts and experience of the world were neither welcome nor important.

Johnna with her LEGO sculpture of a Minecraft creature
A stark contrast to my schooling experiences and one of the many things I love about The Clearwater School's community of students and staff is that every day we talk about and listen to each other's thoughts, opinions, experiences, crazy ideas, knowledge, rants and stories. Student voices are no less powerful and important than adult voices.

Ceilidh and Kallisti hanging out
Hundreds of times each day students of every age state their opinions in collective and individual matters, tell someone to stop being annoying or unsafe and are usually obeyed, eat and go outside whenever they feel like it, hang out with people they choose, initiate activities and projects, decide how to spend their time, and constantly define together and individually what it means to be responsible. In short, because they alone are in charge of their lives and their learning, they find out quickly that using their voices is essential to achieving whatever is important to them.

Samuel and Jaime
This sampling of photos and anecdotes illustrate the ownership and relaxation Clearwater students experience at school, and how they develop the power of their voices.
  • A 13-year-old, who's been at Clearwater since he was small, runs for the position of School Meeting Chair because he wants to more actively contribute to Clearwater as a whole. Although he's never held a high-profile leadership position before, we've all known him for years and have personal experience of his calmness, intelligence and interpersonal skills. He  is elected and competently runs the meetings, continuing to gain experience wrangling agendas and discussions that include 40+ people.

  • Gregory creating one of his intricate and ornate doodles
  • One of his 15-year-old friends, who ran for but was not elected to the same position, sits next to him during the meeting, quietly supporting and lending authority to him as Chair. This same boy is always available to offer skilled help with a variety of tasks around the school. He is well-liked and has huge personal influence because of his honesty and kindness. 
    Creating and playing in a huge, complex block town
  • An eight-year-old, who in his first year at Clearwater dealt with conflict by flinging insults and fists, discovers people listen and work with him when he uses Clearwater's judicial process to resolve conflicts. He also unexpectedly befriends and takes a leadership role with three- and four-year-olds.
  • A 13-year-old is a skilled leader in a variety of situations. She has been at Clearwater since she was little, is strong and comfortable in her own skin, and approaches everyone, regardless of age, with integrity and an assumption of equality.
    Zoe dancing with abandon to Cass and Leo's music
  • A 15-year-old who rarely noticed the youngest students, becomes a favorite of a seven-year-old girl, leading him to tap into his patient and affectionate side without embarrassment or harassment.
    Jackie dons a chicken mask to play Foursquare
  • A six-year-old raises her hand during School Meeting to make a suggestion that is not germane to the topic. The Chair patiently explains that she is out of order, and she experiences what it's like to speak in Clearwater's decision-making body. Three years later she comes to School Meeting to ask for--and receives--authorization to go off campus with friends. She makes her case and answers questions with poise and confidence. The vote is an acknowledgement of her increasing maturity and responsibility.

  • Vera with Jason and Margot
  • A 17-year-old boy runs for and is elected Judicial Committee clerk because of his vision and plan for making JC more effective. He wields his authority with fairness, firmness and empathy. In an all-school meeting to debate suspending a student, his valuable insights into what underlies the student's behavior, change the tone of the debate. During one JC meeting, he unhesitatingly admonishes a staff member who broke a rule, just as he would another student.
    Almost everyone at some point makes art at Clearwater
  • When an announcement in School Meeting informs everyone of a two-week closure of some of Clearwater's play area because of nearby utility work, a 7-year-old suggests that Clearwater instruct the utility workers not to do the work. No one laughs or tells him he doesn't know what he's talking about.
    A group of friends, ages 10-16, regularly play the Yu-Gi-Oh card game together
  • Students of every age frequently enter into myriad discussions, games and projects with staff members as peers, and just as importantly sometimes work on things alone and don't seek recognition or attention.
Meghan and Gregory


S. said...

This is very much why I think it's so important that Eden goes to Clearwater. In public school he got tons of praise for his ability to sit quietly. In fact, during parent teacher conferences, that was the only strength his teacher could identify when I asked. He's a quiet kid, but that's definitely not the best thing about him! I really feel that at Clearwater he will be able to comfortably expand himself naturally, without unnecessary praise for being quiet or punishment for being loud. That's going to serve him so much better than learning that it's best to always be quiet!

B.C. said...

You've hit on one of my favorite parts of Clearwater with this post, Shawna. Both of my kids have blossomed at Clearwater, overcoming some of their shyness and really becoming/knowing who they are. They are so insightful into what is behind different people's behavior, and often far more understanding than myself. I am so proud of them and thankful that they go to such an amazing school!

Karen H said...

A Lego sculpture of a Minecraft creature - that is pure genius.

As a parent of one of the kids written about above, I thank you for the blog. It's the only way I hear about most things.

Unknown said...

Sometimes at home I think my kids are a bit TOO empowered, by which I mean that sometimes I just want to get my way and not have to justify it. I'm grateful my kids put up with this kind of behavior, and I'm grateful they speak up when they need to be heard. Balancing life and school are huge challenges for us, and hearing the things I say helps me understand the kind of people (and parents!) I want my children to be. A Clearwater education is not just for the kids and staff who are part of School Meeting, but for the whole family.