The most common misconception about Self-Directed Learning is that the learner has to be, by default, super motivated. In reality, Self-Directed Learners become self-propelled by the virtue of having the freedom to follow their interests and aspirations in an open environment filled with resources and materials that feed those interests, along with supportive adults. Those guides, then step back to allow all that amazing exploration and discovery happen naturally, all the while, being readily available to offer comfort, positive reinforcement, mentoring advice, the occasional nudge of encouragement, and the periodic gentle reminder about their commitment of respectful behavior towards the entire community.
“But,” you ask, “what does this all look like in practice at Deep Root Center?” Well, it is usually “messy” and chaotic; it oftentimes looks a lot like play, and, it frequently sounds loud and boisterous. Believe me, when I say, no two days ever look or sound the same. We encourage spontaneity, along with a willingness to jump into new adventures and make mistakes, all while remaining true to themselves. Within that extemporaneous atmosphere, the kids soon understand that flexibility, and openness to all the possibilities are necessary skills to acquire when you are a self-directed learner. Consequently, there is usually something happening in every room of the DRC house, as well as the backyard, instigated by one or several student members, based on whatever they are interested in exploring and/or creating that day. Some would describe it all as pure chaos, those of us who recognize raw and real learning when we see it, call it pure artistry.
Thursday and Friday this included: kids gathered for our first community meeting where we introduced ourselves to the entire group and talked about our one rule - respect yourself, each other, and this place. We brainstormed ideas for a more extensive guide called DRC Basics, and, chose a committee to produce a draft of that document. This was followed by a session where the Teens listed ideas for classes, clubs, and workshops. Then, spontaneously, several kids decided to make pancakes for lunch and form a core cooking crew to plan and make lunch every day (pasta and sauce on our second day). A few others started exploring the materials in the art room and making cool projects from tubes and cardboard boxes and playing freeze tag and murder mystery in the backyard. On the second day some kids decided to organize and revamp the music room, and then play some music (one wrote chord progressions for a new song), another finished writing a research paper for a SUNY Canton Class - with some feedback, another group generated their D&D characters, and some played chess and checkers, more spent nearly the entire day in the art room producing awesome pieces of art, others designed and hand sewed the new flag that will hang from our porch, and some started sorting out the garage. One teen spent the entire day in the classroom drawing a very cool free-form design – insisting that he wanted to use a pencil and not add any color. Then there was a six-year-old who drew pictures and wrote stories in her own notebook, with the help of a sixteen-year-old. The Seedlings planned themes and ideas to work on together, explored all of the toys in the Seedlings room, and took long walks on the SUNY Canton campus – rolling down the hill and getting soaking wet from the dew-covered grass. And, finally, the teens signed up for mentoring sessions and started developing their personal weekly schedules.
This next query usually follows hot on the heels of that original one. “But, how do you make sure they are learning all the stuff they need to know?” My answer is usually pretty diplomatic, “all of those essential skills are woven in through whatever they are interested in exploring.” To be completely honest, we can not make sure any child is going to learn something that we might deem important, even when they are following a specific curriculum within the coercive system. There are no guarantees. What we do understand is that all humans learn best when they are having fun, and when they are not coerced. As a species, we have been doing it that way since the dawn of time, and, in modern times, this fact has been proven over and over again (study after study).
With the exception of those first couple activities that involved our group meeting and logistics, everything else that happened on Thursday and Friday was instigated by the kids. Besides providing information on where resources and materials can be found, my main job for those two days was to say, “yes” to most requests, get to hell out of the way, and then offer honest feedback on all the awesomeness being produced. I am so very honored to have the opportunity to spend my days with this amazing group of engaged, and brilliantly creative DRC Peeps; I sincerely can’t wait to see what transpires next week. (And, what they make us all for lunch!)
When Deep Root Center opened in January 2014, with one student member, I had, absolutely, no concept of how much this thing would evolve over the next 5 ½ years, how many amazing people would show up to participate, or how drastically my life would change.
For those of you who were not around for our humble beginnings, one sentence can sum up that first year and a half: DRC was a, less than inspiring, one-room space (shabby, unheated for the first couple weeks, overheated in the summer, but most importantly cheap) with a few pieces of ancient furniture donated by SLU, a few kids, who randomly participated, me, and my (slightly insane) vision.
Because we made a promise at the very beginning to accept any child, whether their family could pay the tuition or not, I knew that the financial aspect of keeping DRC alive would always be the hardest part. To this day, we honor that original policy (fee reductions each year have ranged from 45,000.00 to 85,000.00), and, we continue to struggle financially, but somehow, year after year, always manage to pay our bills and remain viable. This has been due to a few well-timed donations and grants, my incredible sidekick, Christopher Raymo, who is willing to take a stipend, instead of full salary, and that I was able to work without a salary for four years, and with a small stipend since then.
Like most new ventures that require people to show up and buy-in, for the first five years, we accepted anyone who said they needed us. A fair number of these kids didn’t really want to take charge of their education, they were, simply, disenfranchised and desperate to leave the place that was traumatizing them. This de facto policy helped us grow from three committed and dedicated students in 2015, when we moved to our new, two-room, home on the 2nd floor of 7 Main, to seventeen by the end of that year – a number we hovered around for the entire time we remained in that space, with many kids coming and leaving. I do not want to diminish the courage it took all those young people, who joined us, but did not show-up or fully engage, to leave school. In the end, we will never know the impact (if any) we had in helping them abandon a system that was making them miserable.
Over that time, we hired Andre as our part-time Program Director, for 1 1/2 years, introduced our Seedlings Program for kids between 5-10, and hired Christopher as the Coordinator for that program and as our Music Director. The space was always humming with the activity of happy, engaged kids working on hands-on and independent projects, as well as small classes. We also developed some much-needed policies to address all the new challenges we encountered along the way. In late winter, 2016, Trish showed up as one of our volunteers. At her instigation, at the beginning of the 17/18 academic year, we started our Tuesday outdoor program, Water, Woods, & Wild Wonders. Our student members have the opportunity to immerse themselves for the entire day outside, to learn through observation and to develop an appreciation for our natural world.
By that same year, we had also increased our number of rooms to six, as well as the amount of rent we were paying. It was also at this point that we realized that we needed to purchase our own property. Those twenty-five steps from the street level, as well as the space itself, was limiting our growth potential, and the opportunities we could offer our kids.
Long story, short – after viewing several houses, with a ton of folks sending out positive vibes, lending us the down payment, and, quite simply, believing in us, we made an offer on 48 Riverside Drive (the first house we ever looked at), at the end of June 2018. A long summer of drama around zoning ensued, but finally, on September 26th, we closed on our new home. Thanks to many completely awesome folks, who volunteered their time, we were able to address some needed repairs and officially move in November 1st, 2018!
This house has made it possible for us to grow exponentially, in both numbers, and opportunities we are able to offer our kids. The basement and garage are now workshop spaces, where we can create larger more complex hands-on projects. A full kitchen allows us to cook together and for each other. We are also partners with Central NY Foodbank so we can access free or reduced cost ingredients. The property consists of ½ acre. The backyard is a huge space which allows for hours of free, unrestricted play. A landscaping project is planned for this fall to beautify the front yard.
We have also been able to step back and recognize that DRC is not right for everyone. We, simply, can’t help those people who really don’t want to be here and don’t want to participate fully. As a result, we are much more deliberate with our application process and have instituted a two-month trial period for all incoming members.
The staff and board are incredibly grateful to provide this non-coercive space, where together, with our members, we can create an environment, where everyone feels safe, comfortable, and inspired to try new things.
Which brings me to our latest milestone, as of this Friday, when we signed on four more student members, DRC has reached capacity. I never, in a million years, would have thought that, in this relatively short period of time, we would reach a point where we would have to start a waiting list. Nonetheless, that in fact, is what we have done, not to mention, it already has one name on it.
What does this all mean for our future? In the short-term, in addition to serving our existing members and supporting them to reach their very own milestones, I will continue to offer consultation services to those kids who are desperate to leave school. There are infinite ways to become a self-directed learner and I am dedicated to supporting anyone who wants to explore a new way forward. In the long-term, 48 Riverside has the potential of expanding by building a room over the garage. That endeavor, of course, requires money. It has always been my plan to open Deep Root Centers all over the NoCo, as we are able. Which means we have to get Canton fiscally sustainable first! The possibilities are endless, and I am committed to exploring them all, as they present themselves. Onward!!!
* Additional notes of appreciation: First to our ever-evolving Board of Directors, which currently includes- the excellent Kara Mcluckie and Candace Cowser (who have both been on the board from the beginning), Steve Hamilton (our new Board President), Bart Harloe (our VP), Matt McAllister (a parent of two DRC members), and Andrew Carpino.
Thank you, to Ken Danford, co-founder of North Star: Self- Directed Learning for Teens, for creating the original vision on which all Liberated Learners Centers are based. Without him, there would be no DRC.
I would be remiss, if I didn’t thank all of the volunteers who, over these 5 1/2 years, have shared their knowledge and talents with our kids. DRC would be, a whole lot, less awesome without their contributions.
Imagination Station 2019 - DRC's Summer Program has concluded for this year. We had a blast. See you all next August. Thanks again to Kelly, founder of the brand new Flying Lotus Yoga and Juice Bar, opening soon on Main Street, for sharing yoga with our summer kids. Go and support this new business in our wonderful village.
DRC's first day is Thursday, September 5th. We are looking forward to a completely amazing 19/20 filled with growth, compassion for one another, and an abundance of personal milestones.
You have no idea what a person has endured throughout their lifetime, even if you think you know, based on what they have chosen to share with you. Many folks have survived traumatic experiences that remain so very raw, intensely personal, and painful that the act of telling about it, feels more like a confession than a release. Therefore, their traumas remain shrouded in secrecy with internalized feelings of guilt and shame.
Despite our very best intentions, we end up helping very little or not at all, since, we, simply, have no idea that we don’t know the full story. Which was the case for me earlier this week.
During an impromptu mentoring session, instigated by a teen while working on their learning plan, I offered ideas on how to move past some behaviors that were hindering their growth. My assumptions and resulting suggestions were fully based on, what ended up being, the tiny pieces of information that I was privy too. Even though I have known them for a while, I discovered that I wasn’t just missing a few pages, but almost the entirety of the beginning chapters of this young person’s life story.
This, right here, is the lesson I needed to learn this past week: I don’t know all you have gone through to become the person you are right now. I can’t possibly understand the pain that has shaped your perceptions about the world. I will never fully appreciate the work you have done already and the struggles you will face, as you continue on your path to healing.
I can, however, ask you if you want my help, or, solely, a listening ear, before immediately jumping into problem solving mode. I will listen without presumption, judgment, or blame, especially when you are only able to comfortably reveal an incremental piece of your tale at a time. I will hug you when you are sad and dejected, and celebrate with you when you reach an important milestone in your journey towards emotional health. And, please know that I will always provide unconditional love, support, and a safe place to be exactly who you are, at that moment in time.
Please remember to share our Amazon Wishlist. Our kids have some fantastic projects planned this year, but we need your help to purchase the needed supplies. Please contact Maria if you would like to share your talents and knowledge in carpentry, DIY, crafting, sewing, metal working, and gardening.
Monday begins the final week of Summer Programs. There are still a few spaces available.
We are once again volunteering at the final Aid Station for the Lake Placid 70.3 IronMan – September 8th. Last year we received a grant for $500 because we had 20 volunteers working with us. Thanks again to the Todd and Rodriguez families, and board members, Candace Cowser, and Kara Mcluckie, along with their families, as well as a couple of DRC student members. We are looking for at least 20 folks to join us again. Each person has to register themselves. Get in touch and I will provide the link to the volunteer registration.
In case you missed the ubiquitous memo, it is once again back to school time. The retail rush is on – get all your school supplies and new clothing before the sales are gone. Parents are sharing memes about getting their kids back on a schedule and out of the house. And, everyone is trying to shove that final bit of summer-time energy into these last two weeks before the first bell rings.
What if I told you, all that retail therapy was intentionally designed to distract kids from the fact that they will no longer have all the time and space to explore the things that truly interest them? What if you knew that rushing around to get all those summer-like experiences is not necessary? What if I told you that it is OK for a child to be bored – that it is, in fact, the catalyst for most creativity? What if you discovered there is another way for kids to learn all they need to survive, and thrive, without the ridiculous stress, timetables, restrictions, intimidation, or coercion? Would you believe me if I told you that back to school propaganda is one more way to convince you and your child that they are not capable of learning without the societal institution known as school?
For many of the families I work with at Deep Root Center, the call to action went far beyond the unhappy kid who was still complying, to the utterly disenfranchised, despondent, child who was acting out and no longer cooperative. In all fairness to parents, most kids will not blatantly say, “I hate school! It makes me feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and anxious.” Instead, all that stress and anxiety around school take on many disguises from seemingly unprovoked melt-downs to sleepiness or insomnia. Your child may suddenly lose the ability to choose clothing and get dressed in the morning, or become indecisiveness around food choices. Or, they lose interest in all the things that formerly excited them. A formerly chill kid may become decidedly un-chill and overly sensitive.
No, for the most part, they will not say, “I want to leave school.” Since, the two main concepts they have learned from the institution are that: 1) they cannot be trusted to make good decisions, and 2) they will not be motivated to do what is required without all the punishment and rewards schools employ to get them to do what they want them to do.
When a child has reached that deeply flawed understanding of learning, it takes tons of time filled with constant, gentle, nurturing reassurance before they fully comprehend that they can be trusted to, capably, make good choices about their life and education.
Slowly, they begin to understand that all their interests and passions, which are often shunted to weekends and summertime, can become the fuel for all of their learning. I know they have begun to reach this point when they start to ask, “does this count?”
This is the point in this post where all the disclaimers are obliged to live – yes, most of us went to school, yes, most of us survived, and, yes, some of us did just fine – with no major complaints, and no (or little) residual trauma. However, most of the adults I speak with usually say something like, “where was DRC when I was growing up?” Or, “man, my child could have used you guys. We went through Hell, getting them through school.” (The latter is actually the reason DRC received a $10,000 anonymous donation last August.)
Imagine that you had the opportunity to focus on the things that only received part of your attention because you spent the majority of your time locked into a system that required your full concentration to simply survive. How could your life have been different? Would you have followed a different career path? Would you be more curious and open to exploring all the possibilities? Would you be happier?
Now envision your child – what would happen if they were allowed to get completely engrossed in those things that they normally save for their “downtime?” What would it look like if they were able to shake off all that societal pressure that holds them back from fully exploring the abundance of subjects that they are interested in? What if they could fill their personal buckets of knowledge from a place of contentment, excitement, and wonder? Would they be happier?
These questions about our system of education are all receiving national attention through respected sources and outlets. Dr. Peter Gray, the author of Free to Learn and a regular column in Psychology Today (here is one related to back to school from 2014), is a well-respected developmental psychologist who has spent much of his career researching the role of play throughout human history. Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and the author of, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom. She also had this opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, recently, and here is another related to back to school. Jeremy Stuart just released the independent film Self-Taught, which follows six young adults who were unschooled through much of their childhood. Not to mention, Ken Danford's new book: Learning is Natural. School is Optional. These are just a few examples of media around self-directed education in the past couple of months. You can learn more from the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.
*note – Deep Root Center owns copies of Free to Learn and Learning is Natural. School is Optional. We are happy to lend them out to anyone interested in borrowing them. We also have a license to screen Self-Taught and we are looking for suggestions for venues. The film is also available for private viewing at Deep Root Center. Simply let us know if you are interested in watching it.
You can support DRC student' s independent hands-on projects by purchasing items from our WishList on Amazon. Simply click this link, add the items to your cart and they will be shipped directly to us. Thank you!
DRC is still accepting applications for membership; however, we are closing in on capacity pretty quickly. Contact us today.
Summer Programs begin tomorrow. There is still room either week. Register today!
I am a firm believer in the power of Universal energies, and within that, the type we send out into the world will be the ones that return to us. Affirmative, kind, loving, and nurturing energy and language attract all the positive vibes, and, I am pretty sure we all understand where hate and other negative vibrations originate from.
With that being said, most people, even if they are not aware of, or believers in, Universal energies, are conscious of being helpful, gracious, and generous when they interact with others; however, they forget those very same principles apply to their own personal dialog, and thereby, beat themselves up daily. Stop! You wouldn’t think of behaving that way towards others, so why do it to yourself?
In addition to all of that, I was reminded a couple weeks ago (thanks to my little sister, Melanie), that even when we are placing most everything in a positive context within our own minds, if we are not intentionally sending those messages out into the great beyond, achieving our goals is harder and far less likely.
Use all those Universal energies to your advantage, write it all down - every dream, every aspiration, every damn single brainstorm, whether it seems plausible in the moment, or not. And, the most beautiful thing is - no one, necessarily, needs to read them – the act of inscribing them is enough.
Since taking my sister’s advice, the most delightful things have happened. Not only am I more aware of my own goals, and attracting positive into my life, my internal radar is, actively, receiving the intentions that others are putting out there, as well.
I have discovered that even when we don’t think we can be helpful, our skill set, or the resources we have access to, are exactly the support someone else needs to inspire them to renew their focus and work towards making their own dreams come true. The added bonus to each of these interactions, beyond the immediate enriching conversation, is the potential for future collaborations, and friendship, whether professionally, personally, or in some (most) cases, both.
In this way, together, we can, intentionally, make the world (our corner of it, at least) a place we are all proud to inhabit.
Imagination Station, DRC's Summer Program, begins the 19th - one week from Monday. Remember to register here.