Our society, for the most part, does not understand the concept of a non-coercive educational environment; let’s just say there are many misconceptions about what this is and what our students do here, even when couched in the language of self-directed learning.
Over the past few days, I have been pondering how to best explain “non-coercion” within our current cultural landscape. Then I realized that (sadly) the social media phenomenon of #metoo, lends itself perfectly.
Coercion, quite plainly, is when a person is either not allowed to say “no”, feels uncomfortable saying, “no”, or is forced to do something despite having said, “no”. I’ll let that sit right here, for now.
Deep Root Center is different, because, it is a safe facility where the one, and only, rule is respect for self, others, and the space. And, everyone here is completely responsible for their own education. This pronouncement goes beyond simple words; it is woven into the very fabric of our community. No one is here unless they want to be. Classes are not mandatory, in fact, no activity is compulsory. Every single person, student or staff, is allowed to, sometimes actually encouraged, to say “no” to anything – suggestion, activity, event, or class that does not feel absolutely right at that moment.
Many interpret this philosophy as easy, lazy, or even irresponsible. I will agree that it is sometimes chaotic, messy, loud, and at times, even overwhelming – easy; however, is not a synonym I would use to describe non-coercive education or Deep Root Center. Our students frequently have a difficult time figuring out what they are actually interested in studying or pursuing. They discover that they are expected to make important decisions – often, for the first time in their lives. They are faced with making mistakes and learning from them. They come to realize that self-directed learning is actually hard and sometimes ask for direct intervention with imposed structure. As a staff, we recognize these signs of discomfort and instead of mandates offer guidance along with strategies to learn self-discipline and motivation.
Our students also learn that they have a responsibility, as members of this community, to name, and bring into open discussion, those behaviors or attitudes that may be detrimental to or inconsistent with our culture of kindness and consideration – even though those conversations may make us feel uncomfortable or squeamish. With that being said, there is also an unmistakable understanding that this community is open to everyone’s opinions and core beliefs as long as all of those differences are presented in a respectful and nonjudgmental fashion. To be clear – this process is rarely painless and not always rosy or perfect. We are all human beings who are learning and growing as we negotiate our way through emotions, as well as personal dogma and crises.
In modeling, free choice – we are teaching kids how to successfully navigate, survive, and actually thrive in a wider world that may not be as safe as our little community of learners. They understand that saying “no” is not only OK, but in some cases, absolutely essential for their personal well-being. They recognize that standing up for themselves is neither disrespectful nor illegal. In addition, Deep Root Center students are learning how to communicate respectfully with people who may disagree with them. They are acquiring these skills, because they are able to practice them now – every day - in a non-coercive environment where “no” is not only an acceptable answer, it is celebrated.
DRC FAQ (a new feature of the DRC weekly blog) Q - Do DRC students go on to college? A - Absolutely. In fact, we expect that all of our students will go on to further education, training, or inspiring work.
DRC teens will present a varied and compelling transcript of learning and experiences. Colleges are very familiar with nontraditional and portfolio based transcripts.
DRC students are able to audit classes at both SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam. By auditing one college class per semester (for a nominal fee) DRC students are gaining experience in a college classroom. These classes are included in their high school transcript.
Just as if a teen were to continue to attend traditional school, substantial work is required to prepare for college and to be accepted to competitive universities. However, pursuing your studies at Deep Root Center allows greater flexibility and freedom in what you study and how.
Using North Star as an example, not only do the vast majority of North Star teens go on to college, North Star has three alumni who are now university professors, and one who is a superintendent, in addition to hundreds of successful professionals. *Deep Root Center is a member of the Liberated Learner Network – all of whom are following the North Star model. *altered by permission – LightHouse Holyoke
… is one of those words that acts as a double edge sword. At Deep Root Center, we accept every student as they are. We embrace and honor their individuality, along with their idiosyncrasies, uniqueness, originality, and, even, plain old lovable wackiness; however, everyone here is also encouraged to be creative, kind, to think for themselves, and constantly question the world around them. Yes, therein lies the conundrum; our student members, in fact, are discouraged from believing something (anything), merely, because it has been normalized by our society, or, because someone in authority told them it was true. As mentors, we expect them to research and investigate those pervasive behaviors, rules, and information surrounding - racism, xenophobia, educational systems, poverty and assistance programs, misogyny and the objectification of women, or, for that matter, the judgment of anyone’s physical attributes, clothing, or personal decoration, etc. - which are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they are simply accepted as true or inevitable.
Active engagement, respectful debate, responsible inquiry, and an underlying commitment to change detrimental cultural norms are where acceptance and accountability merge; it is, indeed, the sweet spot where all real learning happens.
DRC FAQ (a new feature of the Deep Root Center Blog)
Who is Deep Root Center for?
DRC is for young people who for one reason or another are dissatisfied with their current schooling experience and are bold enough to try to live their lives in a more empowered way.
In most Liberated Learner centers, the students tend to fall into one of a few wide categories. The first group are the Inspired. These are students who have passions and interests and want to pursue them, or they believe in the possibility of having passions and interests and they want to have a life that prioritizes meaningful learning. Young people like this tend to thrive in Liberated Learners settings with a relatively short transitional period.
Another type of child our centers tend to attract are struggling in some way or another. They’re oppositional, or anxious, depressed, bullied, ostracized, struggling academically, or managing some other challenges. Often they used to be an inspired type, but somewhere their light started to go out. There are those who are somewhere in the middle- open to the possibility of being Inspired, but not really there yet. They are often doing fine in whatever academic environment they find themselves in, but while it may be easy enough, it doesn’t feel rewarding or meaningful. They suspect that there must be more to living than just getting through it, and they are ready to start now. DRC also attracts those families who have always had an alternative mindset and are seeking a non-standardized, personalized education for their children where they can follow their interests and embrace their love of learning.
Language altered by permission – LightHouse Holyoke
Propaganda and basic psychology have been used brilliantly to convince (dupe) an entire culture to avoid and fear those things that, in fact, hold no menace for the majority of us. You know – the “bad” stuff – the unusual, risky, offbeat, and kooky - from germs, contraband, and dirt, to unorthodox concepts, individuality, and (weird) people who look and sound different from us. We now know that exposure to bacteria and soil help to build a healthy immune system, for example, while an openness to new ideas as well as differing views and opinions can bring about revolutionary transformations that benefit the entire community.
While those everyday things (processed food, chemical cleaning products, and over prescribed pharmaceuticals, as well as social constructs), that reside in our cupboards, closets, and minds, are the things we should worry about - they are perceived as safe, ordinary, and, yes, conventional, simply, because they have been sanctioned by our government, and, more importantly, by cultural norms.
The real threat comes from those same cultural rules that state being smart is good, but smartness is only acceptable when it can be tested with a confining set of finite and prescribed answers within an unimaginative, traditional, and standardized box - that intelligence, as defined by the ability and desire to seek out and disseminate information and a willingness to break the rules, is taboo. Conformity, blind obedience, and homogeneity are cloaked in the disguise of duty, morality, wisdom, integrity, and goodness.
Life outside that culturally approved, regulation filled box may appear scary, daunting, uncomfortable, and undesirable; however, many of us have learned by expanding beyond our comfort zones, trusting our instincts, and embracing our individuality, the world is not nearly as dangerous or terrifying as we once believed.
DRC - FAQ (a new feature of the weekly DRC blog post) Q - I have heard of Deep Root Center, but what exactly is it? A – Deep Root Center (DRC) is a small, safe learning community designed for any student (ages 5-19) who is dissatisfied with their current educational situation and is looking for a chance to create their own learning plans based on their interests and questions about the world. DRC is a completely non-coercive learning environment that provides a multitude of opportunities for group and individual classes, as well as space and time for independent study, hands on projects, nature study, and social interactions. Each youth has access to a mentoring session each week to discuss their progress as well as their ideas and goals for the future. If you know of someone who has questions about Deep Root Center, please share this post. Thank you - MLC
When a young person becomes a member of Deep Root Center, they are explicitly authorized, and, expected to take on responsibility for their own education and life. This mandate, in the beginning, is sometimes not clearly understood by the student (especially teens), which can lead to confusion and a belief that they are not fulfilling all the necessary requirements as dictated by societal perceptions about education (as discussed in last week’s post).
Self-directed learning, by definition, assigns personal decision making squarely on each individual. At Deep Root Center and other the other Liberated Learning centers, however, that jurisdiction comes with intense and caring support. No, we won’t, and, simply, don’t tell any student what to do or make them try anything that does not feel comfortable or right, none the less, we always offer suggestions, ideas, and guidance based on a strong mentoring relationship with each youth.
At times, this philosophy becomes a double-edge sword. In taking charge of their education, these students are expected to ask for help when they need it, but, sometimes, don’t because of misconceptions they hold about the term - self-directed. Unless I, as their advisor, clue in to those, mostly invisible, signs, before it is too late, they flounder or feel uncomfortable and decide to go back to the place (conditions) they understand and recognize.
When this particular scenario happens, I compulsively step back to closely examine the situation. What could I have done differently to encourage that student to seek out support? Was I oblivious to some obvious hints? How could I have changed the outcome?
In the end, however, I always come back to our philosophy, mission, and vision. It is imperative that I trust my instincts, and, those of our kids --- in trusting, I am displaying a confidence in each child’s ability to self-regulate, which is, absolutely, crucial for developing their own personal decision-making process.
Yes, we will always be amenable to scrutinizing our processes and altering them to meet the needs of our members; however, a fervent belief in our overriding mission of providing a safe, supportive, dynamic, and non-coercive educational environment for those young people who are excited about living and learning without school will always be at the core of what we do.
DRC NEWS Water, Woods, & Wild Wonders Camping Trip Our students had a phenomenal camping trip this past week. The whole crew left the Center at 3:30 Monday afternoon for Clear Pond in Parishville. They set up tents, played along the edges of the pond, built a campfire, and cooked pasta, veggies and hotdogs for dinner. Then they paddled in the moonlight and roasted marshmallows for s’mores. Tuesday was spent splashing around in the shallows, canoeing and kayaking, and investigating the many nooks and crannies along the shoreline. They came back tired and dirty Tuesday afternoon and immediately began discussing their next adventure. Thank you: Trish Pielnik for inspiring and coordinating this amazing program with your warmth and contagious excitement for all things wild.
Christopher Raymo for your willingness to jump in and facilitate our kids never ending exploits with humor and kindness.
Glen Butler for volunteering your skills and outdoor adventure expertise to our excursions while injecting bits of silliness and tons of fun.
And, an additional thank you to Alicia for chaperoning every single week and sharing your beautiful photos with us.
… is a question I hear frequently – the last time being 1 pm Friday afternoon, from a DRC teen at the end of our mentoring session, when she decided to try to set up a pen tablet (which has never been functional) on one of the DRC laptops. My vehement response, per usual, was, “of course, why wouldn’t it count?” Her startled expression was all I needed to understand why she was asking the question in the first place.
Even though she has decided to take her education into her own hands at Deep Root Center, she, like most of us, still has the underlying, obsessively pesky notion that education is only valid if it fits neatly into one of those four main subjects. And, that it should comes top-down from a teacher, textbook, or workbook and the specific content must be memorized long enough to be regurgitated on the final exam, because that is the only way to measure “real” learning.
My response to her, with that insight, was, “anything you are interested in pursuing is legitimate because it induces excitement and guides you to new knowledge and skills which ultimately lead to other opportunities for exploration. Once you have the basic skills, your education is whatever you want it to be.” Installing the pen tablet on the laptop, along with, exploring GIMP (an open-source version of Photo-Shop) and learning how to use it, making pancakes after looking up the recipe, grocery shopping for a camping trip, knitting, discussing and debating what she found when researching Gandhi, and, conversing with a SLU student and another DRC teen about psychology were just a few of the activities she was completely immersed in that one day.
You will notice that none of the above endeavors was a formal class or from a textbook. She certainly wasn’t filling in worksheets or memorizing anything for a test. Everything was based purely on what she is interested in, and, she instigated every single activity on her own. If I began to number all of the tangible, as well as abstract lessons learned from those few examples, the list would go on for a very long time, and, you would probably stop reading out of sheer boredom Therefore, simply yes, if you are focused, involved, and motivated to ask the next question – it absolutely counts.
Water, Woods, & Wild Wonders
This past Tuesday, DRC students explored the SUNY Canton Trail and learned about monitoring the Grasse River. They enjoyed spending a copious amount of time in the river, on an unusually warm fall day. Thank you to Emlyn from Nature Up North for facilitating the “MOW the Grasse” lesson. We look forward to future collaborations.
This week the kids will be camping at Clear Pond in Parishville Monday evening. Stay tuned for all the photos heading your way.