First published in The Courier - Newsletter of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
The act of creating and working at EC Stanton Community School has become my expression of social justice work. I have worked in public schools and through the foster care system in a country where there is no federal Children’s Bill of Rights. While children can no longer be placed in factories to physically suffer manual labor, we have created work for them in mandatory schooling systems. As an educator, my goal was always to provide students ‘incentive’ for continuing this type of work. But my time in the public sector made me realize most of the adults there did not believe they are providing a service to kids, but instead kids should arbitrarily respect and follow along with what adults deem worthy and in ways specific adults think appropriate. It never sat well with me that we adults have given ourselves so much authority over other individual humans in this way. Their biological immaturity should not diminish their value to our society as expressive, creative, thoughtful, and important individuals. Though there are inevitably arguments that can be made about how private schools have no place in social justice work, that we should be working within the institutions that already exist to create positive change for all kids, I think that one of the things we can all agree on is that democratic schools and Unitarian Universalism share many of the same goals and missions and our partnership can be beneficial.
First published in The Courier - Newsletter of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
I have had a lot of questions thrown at me since the founding of EC Stanton Community School. One that never comes up with people who know me well, is; “Why did you feel compelled to start your own school?” Personally, I have followed a very traditional path toward education. I went to pre-K, did public schools all the way through K-12, attended a large state university into graduate school, and then taught in traditional school settings for a decade. I excelled at the game of school. I could please the right teachers, push against the ones who enjoyed challenging personalities, and enthusiastically involve myself in sports, band, academic teams, and volunteer activities. Using the genetics, privilege, and people-skills I learned from my mother, I navigated school quite successfully. At least I did on paper. But, the reality of the matter, is that I hated school. Did I find comfort in the routine? Sure. Did I find the prescribed questions with equally expectable answers appealing to my need to please the people in my life? Definitely. Do I have an underlying love of office supplies? Yes! Was I so good at and driven by school that I couldn’t figure out another path for my own life? Unequivocally, yes. Despite enjoying these parts of school and being quite successful at it, my own mental health suffered during my time in structured schooling. All because the structures in place did not care about my happiness and sense of worth, but about my scores. I learned that my success was nothing more than the scores I could produce and the number of activities I put on the application. If I was miserable in the process, it was totally okay. In fact, it must be the expectation because all the adults in my life were showing me in their actions the importance of success over happiness. This became one of the founding pieces of why starting EC Stanton and joining the Self-Directed Education movement, looking back, seems like an inevitability.
Beyond their lack of focus on mental well-being, I could write a book expanding on all the other ways that I think structured schooling is a disservice to humanity. In fact, there are multiple books already published on this topic. But what I personally discovered over the twenty-seven years that I participated in public school systems, is that they are not meant to feed the hearts and spirits of students. They are created to pass along the smallest fragments of human knowledge, decided by some stodgy old white guy in an office. That is not the legacy I wanted passed on to the kids in my care. This knowledge is full of pedagogical lies, lies of omission, and is not representative of what our kids need to succeed in the new technological frontier. I mean, who got to decide that the study of art was less important than the study of history (one is an elective and one is not)? Why are we focused on getting students to calculus level math understanding, when there are just as many jobs for musicians as there are mathematicians? Progressive educators tend to acknowledge this but they believe that adults are the only ones equipped to decide what skills and knowledge are best for kids to know. At this point in my career, I can unequivocally say that I don’t know what is best for each student to learn. All we can do is create an environment where learning is deemed a positive, where your life is your own, and where your learn to make decisions for a whole community. Critical thinking, problem solving, grit, tenacity, and learning to learn are at the heart of the school rather than the periphery. I wanted to create a school that is authentically aligned with the adult human experience, since that is what we are ultimately training them to be. And thus, EC Stanton Community School came to be.
First published in The Courier - Newsletter of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
EC Stanton Community School was founded in 2017. It is modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham Massachusetts and the Summerhill School in Suffolk England. All three schools were formed with the belief that children are natural born learners, inherently worthy of respect, and capable of making important decisions regarding their own life and the life of their community. There are three basic structures within the school that form the basis of our community. The Law Book is a list of all rules and regulations concerning the school. The rules of the school are written by the School Meeting and enforced through a Judicial Committee. Judicial Committee is randomly comprised of a variety of students and staff each day, to deal with any rule breaking or interpersonal issues. Their rulings can involve anything from consequences that help the student or staff undo the wrong they have committed against the school community or mediation to help students deal with interpersonal challenges. The School Meeting is the governing board of the school. At School Meeting students and staff all have an equal voice and vote when it comes to the policies of the school itself, such as rules, staffing, budgets, field trips, classes, etc. The school uses a democratic, majority vote to come to each decision, but also accounts for dissenting opinions by letting minority voices have the last say on each matter if Meeting cannot reach an easy consensus.
EC Stanton, and all Self-Directed Learning environments, are based on the psychological theory of Self-Determination. It is a well documented understanding that high performance and motivation correlates to being allowed autonomy and given trust. Extrinsic motivators can serve to make individuals compliant or dedicated for a time, but true understanding and desire to learn are drastically diminished. ECS does not offer grades, unless requested by the student. The staff do not attempt to even guess what facts, figures, or principles will help each student find happiness and success as an adult in our society. Students who are Self-Directed Learners, like at EC Stanton, are given ultimate freedom to pursue activities of interest to them. This may involve traditional classes, committees, 1-on-1 mentoring, practice, experimenting, online exploration, or play. There is never any more value placed on a teacher-led science class than on an elaborate game of pretend. All experiences are learning opportunities and valuable to our students. ECS believes that the interpersonal and community skills learned at school, along with the intrinsic motivation learned by pursuing their own path every day, leads our students toward adulthood with invaluable skills they would not have necessarily learned on a traditional path.
"From sermon delivered on 10/20/2019 by Annie Foerster for First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church Fort Worth, Texas.”
E. C. Stanton: the Woman, not the School
Rev. Annie Foerster
When I first saw the sign for the E. C. Stanton School two years ago, I didn’t immediately think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I didn’t really think about the name at all until Cammie mentioned to me she had named the school after her. Then, startled by my own lack of recognition, I thought, “That’s nice. We know about her.” But it wasn’t until I began to put together this service about the school, that I began to wonder, “What do we really know about her?” Friend of Susan B. Anthony; check. Great influence to the Suffrage movement; check. First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York; check. Surely there was more to her than that. Surely. And I was right.
Elizabeth Cady was born in 1815 and had a good education. Not all of her female contemporaries did. Many women in her day were limited by circumstances and expectations to quit school as teenagers to embrace the roles of women available to them—namely wife and mother. Elizabeth Cady looked forward to those roles when she married Henry Stanton in 1840, but they were not the only things on her mind.
Henry Stanton was a firm abolitionist and Elizabeth agreed with him on that point of justice. In fact, they spent their honeymoon in London, attending a World’s Anti-Slavery convention. There Elizabeth met abolitionist Lucretia Mott, who, like her, was angry about the exclusion of women at the conference proceedings. Yes, her husband attended the convention, while she and the other women waited outside.
Mott and Stanton, became fast friends. They vowed to call a woman’s rights convention when they returned home. Eight years later, in 1848, Stanton and Mott held the first Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth was living. There Elizabeth Stanton read from “The Declaration of Sentiments,” which she had co-authored and which expanded on the Declaration of Independence by adding the words “woman” or “women” throughout. This pivotal document called for social and legal changes that would elevate women’s place in society and listed 18 grievances, from the inability to control their wages and property or the difficulty in gaining custody in divorce, to the lack of the right to vote.
Elizabeth and Henry had seven children. Elizabeth did wait for God to give her children to her. She carefully planned her pregnancies, spacing them to give each of her children her time and attention to their raising and education. Her daughters, she believed, should be educated in the same manner as her sons, for this would prepare them for their righteous place in society.
Besides chronicling the history of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton took on the role religion played in the struggle for equal rights for women. She had long argued that the Bible and organized religion played a part in denying women their full rights. With her daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, she published a critique, The Woman's Bible, which was published in two volumes. The first volume appeared in 1895 and the second in 1898. This brought considerable protest not only from expected religious quarters, but from many women in the suffrage movement. Stanton realized she could not alter all her grievances at once.
Stanton was motivated by liberal humanist ideals of egalitarianism and individual autonomy, which were an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. She was familiar with the philosophical thinkers whose works and ideas were discussed among American intellectuals at the time. She was friends with Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a follower of the Transcendental movement that came out of some Unitarian thinking. She never joined a Unitarian Church, for she was too angry at religion as a whole, but she agreed that the Unitarians had better ideas than some of the rest.
Stanton, caring for her seven children, was unable to travel as much as her friend Anthony, who was single, but she wrote most of Susan B. Anthony’s speeches, as well as stories for local and continental publications. She was interested not only in suffrage for women, but in the temperance movement, agitating to make drunkenness a reason for divorce, and in the equity-in-education movement. She died in 1902, eighteen years before women achieved the right to vote, but she is given credit in full for helping to make it happen. Her name lives today in a school, just down the hall from us.
"From sermon delivered on 10/20/2019 by Cammie Justus-Smith for First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church Fort Worth, Texas."
I have spent a lot of time in traditional schooling. I went to pre-school, attended a public K-12 school, and eventually worked my way toward a graduate degree at a large state university. I have recorded thousands of hours in hard plastic chairs. Positioned there, I encountered a lot of well-intentioned adults; caring, kind, and intelligent, but with one vision of what they believed success to be. Their focus was limited to the next test, passing grades, standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. These adults liked the nature of school and excelled within its framework. Due to my own privilege, I was also well-positioned to carry on that tradition. Not to disappoint, I followed a fairly predictable path along my way. I pleased the right teachers, rebelled against the ones who liked challenges, and in general excelled at the game of school. I met their pre-formed visions of ‘success’. At least, I did so on paper. But, the reality is, I actually hated school. Despite craving the structures of a school day, I really suffered during my time as a K-12 student. I really lacked any sense of identity outside of this school world. In school, I learned to place more value on the tangible products of my labor - test scores, grades, resume builders - than the process of learning. I prioritized a paper version of myself that seemed to justify the cost. The fact that I was miserable, even with the achievements filling in the blanks on paper, led me to believe that this must be some sort of expectation. The adults in my life continually modeled a singular value system: “success” trumps fulfilling learning experiences and the happiness found in finding your own path.
I don’t think that my experiences in traditional schooling are very different from those our current students face. Spending ten years teaching in public middle and high schools leads me to believe that the pressures on our students are even greater than they were in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I graduated. Mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are pervasive and rising.. And while caring adults are doing their absolute best to provide care and help children manage these symptoms, the actual systems that may be creating these symptoms remain largely unchallenged. I found the inability to examine ourselves as contributors to the problem, unacceptable. Our kids are not doing anything wrong in this scenario. They are participating in the world in the only way they are allowed, and they are suffering. Research and evidence suggests that the pressures at school are the primary culprit of much anxiety and depression in our kids. At EC Stanton, we take the ironically radical approach that a child’s happiness should be the absolute, number one priority of a school. And I am not talking about the ‘I just got a new toy’ kind of happiness or any other superficial feeling that comes with consumption or risky activity. But we are talking about the kind of happiness that someone experiences when they know they are safe, when they know they are loved, and when they know that anything they want to do in their life is absolutely possible and 100% their responsibility.
Another radical approach we have to education, is that we are absolutely certain that no one person or committee reserves the right to tell students what is the most important pieces of information to know. On some level, all of us know this. There is this vast, limitless world of information at our fingertips now. Adults use the internet to answer questions, solve problems, and train themselves in new skills. Antithetical to the information era in which we live, specific state and national curriculums are designed to teach every student what they need to know. One inherent issue with this approach, is that pedagogical lies and lies of omission are pervasive throughout national curriculums, as is evidenced easily in places like social studies with how we teach students about slavery, focus on european and american histories, and where we tend to repress minority voices. With the advent of the internet, students can access people, places, and realities that were once unknown. There is zero need to rely on an authority to decide what to know, but instead an immense need for teaching students how to separate fact from fiction and how to make sense of this knowledge within the context of their own life. The vast web of knowledge should be treated with awe and reverence and a critical eye. Instead, states and agencies have taken it upon themselves to piece out a core set of knowledge that everyone should ‘know’. I don’t think this is with malicious intent, but it comes from a place of absolute arrogance. Why do we teach a white, anglo version of world history? Why do we call art, music, and home ec optional while algebra is not? Someone decided what and when we would teach a very small fraction of our universal knowledge and insisted that their own valuation of the world was right and just and the best for students. We want to turn that on its head. The things that bring us joy in life should not be electives. The curriculum that feeds the heart and soul of our students is what we value, not a biased version of this reality. One of the jobs of adults at our school is to help students make sense of this rather than determine what is worth knowing.
The last thing that democratic and Sudbury schools do that is radical is the absolute trust that young people can and should be given the autonomy to manage themselves. The adults at our school are not in the driver’s seat, and don’t want to be. Children are amazing, limitless beings full of creativity, persistence, and grace. They believe the best about our world and want everyone to be treated fairly. They can stare at the limitless web of knowledge in our world, and be in awe. They can find their personal existence within the lyrics of a song and address world leaders to condemn their slow actions on climate change. They are these absolutely mysterious and fascinating beings that are biologically designed to challenge norms and push our human evolution forward. At EC Stanton, we don’t want to stamp any of that down or hold it back. We radically encourage students to do what brings them joy or gets them where they want to go. Nothing more. Nothing less. Adults do not issue rules or demands, they use their experience to make suggests that are evaluated by the whole community, dominated by children. Children are more than capable of this kind of freedom and responsibility, if only we will hand it to them.
I became a teacher to help kids. And not in that way of thinking that I could save all of the unfortunate, underprivileged communities. But instead, in that way that I thought I could help children just learn how to survive it. I knew I had specific skills and a specific personality that could show students there are many ways to be a functional and happy human on our planet and that after school “it gets better”. Over the past decade, this has drastically changed for me. I am no longer just trying to help children. Providing safe spaces for students has become a social justice priority for me. Schools have to make radical changes in order to prepare our children for the exponentially changing world within which we live. Whether public schools can do that as they are, I don’t really know. And I am not in the habit of bashing the systems that are providing the life support for the individuals in our communities most at risk. However, I don’t think life support should be enough. At EC Stanton, we are taking a non-traditional stand to show the world that children should not be pathologized, that the world is too complex for an old white man or woman to determine what is worth knowing or what is not, and that trusting students is the only way for them to develop the autonomy and responsibility necessary for this crazy world. It is totally radical, but yet I don’t find it any different than the values professed at this very UU church.
At EC Stanton Community School, we believe that each student that enrolls in our school is a gift, worthy of dignity and respect. We actively practice and preach restorative justice, equality, and compassion within our community. We believe that every student is on their own path, at their own pace, and that we can best grow our understandings of this world through our interactions together. We believe that each child should be on a quest for their own understandings and their own meanings. We believe in and use the democratic process to make every decision for our school. We believe that peace, liberty, and justice are the cornerstones of a fully functional community and world. We see the interconnected world we live in and stare at it in awe and know that our own mission in this life is to figure out where we fit within it. These are radical premises.
EC Stanton Community School has a radical approach to education. But Unitarian Universalists have also always had a radical approach to seeing the world. They are the first to recognize injustice and try to rectify it. They have been active in the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement. They start to examine hard issues, sometimes before the general public is starting to be aware of them, and work hard to figure out how to fit these beliefs into their existing frameworks. UU’s don’t apologize for trying to understand this world and do the best they can within it. Nor did Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Nor does EC Stanton Community School. Our school is so grateful for this partnership, because we know that sometimes hard change takes radical work and radical partnerships of diverse and independent thinkers. We also know that the active practice of trying to better the world, is always worth it. Even when it is messy, or loud, or chaotic, much as our school itself can appear to be on the outside. My hope is that together we can continue to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice in our own ways and raise each organization up in the process.
I am going to end on this Elizabeth Cady Stanton quote, shortened from the original text. Her feminist, abolistionist, radical-self encouraged me when starting this project. I hope that some of her words can do the same for you:
“The new religion will teach the dignity of human nature and its infinite possibilities for development. It will teach the solidarity of the race -- that all must rise and fall as one. Its creed will be justice, liberty, equality for all the children of earth…This radical work cannot be done by what is called charity, but by teaching sound principles… Those who train the religious conscience of the people must teach the lesson that all these artificial distinctions in society must be obliterated by securing equal conditions for all: this cannot be done in a day: but this is the goal for which we must strive. The first step to this end is to educate the people into the idea that such a moral revolution is possible.”