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Midland School and Progressive Education: A Q&A with Derek Svennungsen, Director of Admissions

Derek Svennungsen, Midland SchoolMidland School‘s Director of Admission, Derek Svennungsen, spoke with AdmissionsQuest boarding school blog about the school and progressive education. Midland, located in Los Olivos, CA, is an all-boarding, co-educational college preparatory school. If you’re not familiar with the school, here’s a brief description from their site:

“As other schools get larger and build more buildings and create more overhead, Midland makes do with redwood classrooms and cabins, an intentional and profound educational philosophy, and a belief that students, and adults, benefit greatly by living close to nature. As our students learn to do more with less, they also live–on a daily basis–the values of independence, interdependence, and stewardship of the land. As we continue to stay close to our mission and philosophy, Midland remains a powerful antidote to society’s excesses and materialism.”

We thank Derek for participating in our Q&A series.

Question: How is Midland a classically progressive school?

Derek Svennungsen: Connection is core of Midland’s program. Academic classes connect students to the land in powerful ways. Freshmen take Midland 101, a class where students are on the property at least once a week. Students learn how to use maps and compasses, study the school’s geography and history, learn the native and non-native flora, and take several camping trips whose purpose is to connect their learning to their lives.

Other classes, such as Writing with a Sense of Place, Geology, and Naturalist Studies, all make extensive use of the outdoors. Sophomores, in their chemistry class, install a solar array to help power the school. And as a culmination of their academic experience, each senior writes and presents a senior thesis, an extensive paper based on some question they want to answer.

Our facilities further contribute to the experience; classrooms are simple redwood cabins, one of which has only three walls, and are wood heated. This simplicity connects students to the natural world, and to each other, because there is nothing artificial to interrupt the specific and unique learning experiences that Midland offers.

Beyond the classroom, Midland’s job system puts kids in direct control over the running of the school. Midland hires no custodial or wait staff; all campus jobs are done by students, and the job program is overseen by senior job heads. When a 14-year old is learning how to do dishes with a 17-year old, and they work together every day for an entire semester, an invaluable sense of pride, empowerment, and connection emerges.

Even in our rusticity and labor-intensive approach to living and learning, Midland is steeped in progressive values.

Q: What does progressive education cultivate in students?

DS
: Today’s youth don’t spend much time working on the behalf of others. In our “do this for me” society, it is rare to be of genuine service. Midland counters this attitude by directly involving students in the academic and job programs. So instead of looking for others to solve problems, Midland students learn to be active and engaged, and look for ways to contribute.
What occurs, then, is a unique combination of independence and interdependence. Students learn how to do things on their own, but most of what they do at Midland is done for the greater good of the community. This is a powerful lesson that can only be taught experientially and on a daily basis.

The best example of this is our Shower Fire system. The student showers are heated by wood fire, and each day, it is a different student’s responsibility to make and stoke the shower fire. So the student is sifting ashes, cutting wood, and starting and maintaining a fire, all on his or her own. And every other student benefits from this one student’s efforts. There is very little resistance to these job requirements, because it is the way the school is run, and the seniors are in charge of all these systems. So being of service becomes a natural, even a welcome, part of each student’s experience here. It gets in the blood.


Q: How is progressive education valuable today?


DS: Most schools present themselves as places where a wide range of things will be done for the student. The promotion of this value has dangerous effects on students, who learn to expect things to be done for them and available to them.

At Midland, we look at it the other way: if you come to Midland, think of all the things you can do to benefit the school. This is a progressive and student-centered way of looking at what education is really for. And the results are students who don’t expect to be pampered, who are accountable, and who want to be connected. This is why progressive education, and The Midland Experience, are so valuable today.

Q: It seems like understanding and connecting and sharing with others is a Midland cornerstone?

DS: We have two all-school assemblies each day, run by the two senior head prefects. Everyone has a chance to contribute during these assemblies. Five nights per week, we have family style dinners, in which faculty and students are mixed together by the senior head prefects, and each student stays at that assigned table for the week. This nightly chance to talk, eat together, and teach appropriate table manners is a centerpiece of our community. There is always something from our garden in the meal, often harvested by students earlier in the day or week. After dinner, many students study in faculty homes, which further connects students and adults.

It sounds like empathy is one the qualities that Midland students grow to understand?
Midland is a tough place to go to school. The daily demands of academics, jobs, athletics, the environment, and living in a small community pose challenges that no other school offers. Midland students, having made the choice to be a part of this unique experience, are naturally empathetic. They understand that it’s difficult, and they understand that everyone is making sacrifices here as we work against society’s “me first” attitude. They’ve made the choice to be here because they believe in connectedness, in hard work, and, whether they know it or not, progressive education. We think John Dewey would feel right at home here at Midland School.

For more information on Midland School, visit their web site of submit a catalog request.

  • Julie

    Wow, and what happens when the kids hit the “Real” World?
    Very interesting, I think very few schools are “Progressive” in the Midland sense, even though that is what they try to convey.

  • S.R

    In response to what happens to kids when they hit the “Real” world, well as a Midland Alum let me tell you. We are the well adjusted individuals you see taking on the challenges of everyday life. We are the students sitting next to your son or daughter in college. We are the people who don’t mind taking on demanding tasks at work, because in all honesty if we can survive the first year or two at Midland, we can survive anything! As a Midland grad I would have to say that I would never change my decision to attend Midland. Midland will always be a part of who I am as a person, and to this day I am still using the things I learned at Midland in my everyday life. Midland is more than just another college prep boarding school; it is a community filled with people who in all honesty have your best interest at heart, Midland is a family, and a way of living and co-existing with those around you. For anyone who ever gets the chance to participate in the Midland community, take that chance without ever looking back.

  • V.W.

    As a Midland parent, I would like to say that our decision to send our son there was the best decision we could have made for him and us. We would in no way be as close to the students in the public school that he attended prior to Midland. At Midland we are all very much closer, we know the other student’s names, and we know most of the parents. It is a family atmosphere all around. We spend Thanksgiving together.
    My son is a very well rounded person because of Midland, We do not have to worry about him having to take care of himself. By the time they are seniors they are able to take care of themselves as well as the underclassmen that they are given responsibility for.
    I love Midland and what it stands for, how many parents can say that about their high schools?

  • MH

    I’m an alum who recently underwent the transition from Midland to the “real world”. The adjustment for me, from Midland to University in another continent, has been in seeing pathways for the values and life skills inherited at Midland to be applied in any environment or living/work situation. In the end the difficulty has been in really missing that community, being surrounded by and working with people you have an automatic and very real connection with. The consciousness of a functioning community (or ecosystem) and sense of responsibility and empathy that I can only attribute to having been at Midland is without a doubt the most valuable tool I have for life.

  • SR – Midland Parent

    Unlike any of our other experiences with “progressive” schools, Midland is in every way exactly what they purport to be. In addition to Derek’s description of student jobs, responsibilities and shower fires, Midland prepares students for the “real world” through students’ interactions with faculty, requirements of formal, semi-and “quarter-“ formal attire for various events, speaking to the whole community about things that matter, and quality studies with a faculty of quite impressive breadth and depth. The “real world” has human and natural environments that have problems and require creative, compassionate and effective solutions. Midland students work these out both with faculty and each other such that their actions have direct, very real consequences on their living environment. As in the “real world,” sometimes others have control over situations, sometimes outcomes are not “fair,” and not all endings are “happy”; Midland, however, does not shy away from or hide difficulties. Midland also nurtures the arts and fosters appreciation for the diverse human talents that any successful community requires: the labor of building a shower fire, growing and preparing food, and keeping bathrooms clean, is just as important as intellectual labor. A “progressive” vision respects the “natural” world, human diversity and cooperation. I keep taking photos at school events where head of school, Will Graham, presides over the division of meal remnants into recyclables, compostables, slop for the livestock and the diminishing trash. Everyone must play multiple roles for the whole community to thrive. We feel so lucky that our children get to blossom at Midland. (And I’m someone who really criticizes just about everything!)

  • you know

    midland is a terrible school. the children are protected and ignorant. if you don’t play by midlands ways then they will eat you alive. oh and change. they hate it. they do not know what there talking about they think recycling is good when in fact it only is environmentally friendly when its aluminum cans. they have two phones so reaching your son or daughter is impossible. some of the teachers don’t help you at all. the n the rooms in upper yard are the smallest Ive ever seen.They are not a.d.d trained. this is a “hippie military school”. for the money you are about 10x better to apply for an east coast boarding school. midland is a great school with nice people. but unless they change then no one will be going there for any longer.

  • SH

    whoever believes midland is a terrible school probably either couldn’t adjust or got kicked out.
    Midland isn’t meant for everyone. If you are sincerely miserable there then you shouldn’t stay. Only if you’re comfortable with the school can you truly prosper. Unless you’re have severe social and mental deficiencies, you will probably do well at Midland. It’s not a military school, while I do agree it is rather hippie-like. You’re not forced to live there and even if you were that would be a privilege. So whoever it was who wrote midland is a “terrible” school, I’d like to know if you graduated from midland or even attended. Or are you from Dunn?

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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