I firmly contend that education is defined by empowerment and choices, and that all true learning starts with the opportunity to say, “no.” Because without the presence of real options, how do we know when to say, “yes?” This piece, in a very strange way, is a tribute to our phenomenal daughter, MacKenzie, who will turn eighteen, next week, on March 10th. The following is a story that I have imparted before, please bear with me through this repeat telling; I believe it presents insight into the power and possibilities offered by following a child's lead.
We learned that a brand new children's choir had been formed at Crane School of Music, when Kenzie, our delightful, headstrong songstress, was six going on seven. She was very excited to sing with a group of children and was completely enthralled with becoming a musician at the time. We contacted the amazing Professor Heather Eyerly, founder of the choir and set up an audition. The interview was scheduled directly before the first rehearsal of the spring semester. Dr. Eyerly asked MacKenzie to stand beside the grand piano and do a few voice exercises. Kenzie complied until the last request to sing “Happy Birthday.” She looked directly at her and very clearly and decisively said,“No.” I am eternally grateful to Heather. She didn't take it personally or get all huffy; she simply ushered Kenzie to her place amongst the other children in the choir. This was a defining opportunity that allowed MacKenzie, at the age of six, to fully explore her interests in music and practice her craft, weekly, with professional musicians for nearly ten years. And to this day, she absolutely adores and idolizes Dr. Eyerly.
This instance, as you may have guessed, was neither the first nor last time MacKenzie said, “no” to an authority figure. She was never rude or disrespectful; to be very clear, she was (is) just very confident about her abilities and she was (is) always true to herself.
I have to confess there were several times, as her parent, I was mortified and just wanted to sink beneath the floor boards. MacKenzie is, however, a poster child for self-directed/independent learning because of her ability see her life and education as a series of choices. She has always been willing to voice her opinion and stand up for what she believes is just. She is fierce and lovable, empathetic and passionate, loyal and determined. She is quite simply awesome and, whether offered options, or not, is always willing to say “no!”
Deep Root Center has become the educational equivalent to an urgent care facility in St. Lawrence County. We have helped seven kids leave school, in the past few months. Similar to any other crisis situation, when a parent has a child who is exhibiting alarming symptoms such as: resistance to attending school, severe unhappiness with school, physical illness related to attending school, personality changes, or depression they are desperate for help; many families have discovered that Deep Root Center offers prompt, professional, and compassionate assistance to their child's urgent needs.
Throughout the country the incidence of social anxiety among young people has risen dramatically. These growing numbers are reflected locally by the sheer number of phone calls and emails DRC receives each week requesting information and/or assistance.
Many articles on the Internet blame the symptoms of teen anxiety on the use of social media and technology as a crutch or reason to avoid social interactions. I believe, however, this flourishing phenomenon is actually a direct result of intense and unfriendly classroom environments, high stakes testing, opportunities for cyber bullying, old-fashioned school yard bullying, increased pressure from society, sexualization of girl's clothing choices, extreme competition, and media expectations.
Anxiety and stress, for most kids, really is a matter of extreme emergency. They, as a last resort, refuse to attend school because they have often done everything they can think of to express their despair within the system. This of course brings a legal element into play. Strict New York State laws dictate mandatory, compulsory school attendance for children ages 6-16. Schools call parents, threatening intervention by Social Services if the absences continue, everyday the child is not in school. These daily phone calls frequently feel like harassment to the families.
Deep Root Center provides a respite from this bombardment. If they choose to homeschool, with or without becoming a member of Deep Root Center, we work directly with them to complete the two initial documents required by New York State to officially leave school.
Each family first follows a simple template to write and submit a letter of intent to homeschool to their school superintendent. I then meet with the student (and family) to ascertain their particular interests. This is when I ask those questions that usually get a deer in the headlights response (see, I have to vs. I want to). Kids eventually start presenting ideas after some gentle prodding and encouragement. This process sometimes can take a couple of hours or even a few days. They simply can't believe that they are truly in charge of their education.
All of this information is transformed into an IHIP (Individualized Home Instruction Plan); the second mandatory written document that lists all of the required subjects. This essentially becomes each students learning plan. And, I always make a point of explaining to each youth, it is a guideline, an organic, living, breathing document that can be changed.
These, however, are only the first steps toward healing. Kids are then offered the chance to decompress, choose their educational path, and take charge of their own learning. This is where the “care” part of “urgent care” comes in to play. Our honest desire to help is communicated through our willingness to listen closely to everything a child says. Our empathetic response helps to build a profound and meaningful relationship with each young person and their family.
A student has to feel safe and understood, and then they have to take time to de-school. This means they actually need to take some time off from organized, scheduled learning. It is during this period that they will begin to gain self-awareness, self confidence, and actually discover what they are truly passionate about. This phase can't be hurried along, just like anything else related to life, it will resolve in its own sweet time. You can learn more about this process in Grace Llewelyn's classic, The Teenage Liberation Handbook. DRC has a copy you can borrow.
Parents often call me in a panic when their kids enter this stage because it looks like their child isn't “doing” anything. I offer reassurance that is perfectly natural and they aren't actually “doing nothing.” Their brains are working overtime to process this new way of looking at the world. It usually occurs to them within a of couple days, that being in charge of your education brings awesome amounts of freedom, along with a ton of responsibility. When your life has been centered around going to school and being told what and what not to do for three, five, or eight years, that is a scary realization.
This phase ends eventually and students come out the other side thrilled by the world of possibilities. They want to be engaged in life-long learning opportunities. They want to participate as a contributing member of their community. They are excited to take advantage of classes and internships. All of this is possible because they have been offered the option to choose their own path, as well as the support to discover their interests and passions.
Our job, on one level sounds very simple – listen, and respond with professional, thoughtful assistance. What we do at DRC every single day, is actually fairly complex; we hold the knowledge and power to change lives for the better.