Trust and respect are tricky, and, hotly contested concepts, especially in reference to kids, teens, and young adults. We often hear: “I’ll trust them when they can prove to be trustworthy.” Or, “they have to earn my respect.”
My response will always be – “how can they prove themselves trustworthy if they are not trusted to begin with?” And, “how does someone know what respect looks or feels like when it is never freely given to them?”
Frankly - one cannot dictate responsible behavior with control and coercion. And, one cannot demand respect with threats and intimidation.
At DRC, we trust that all young people are capable of self-regulation and that they will make good choices when offered the opportunity.
We do this because our main goal will always be to encourage our students to embrace and rediscover their natural curiosity and creativity; and, in the process, rekindle their love of learning and their belief in themselves.
The concept is actually quite simple. Without coercion, along with the cycle of reward and punishment, kids are free to make choices that speak to their interests and aspirations, not to what society or an authority figure commands. With that freedom, they learn responsibility for their actions through natural cause and effect. Not to mention that, all-important, the notion of self-motivation, which is always the first excuse I hear for not allowing a child to explore self-directed education.
Everyone at DRC understands that our one rule is based on the fact that respect is freely offered to everyone who enters. We have discovered that when you foster an environment where everyone is viewed as an equal, where kindness and compassion abound, and where freedom of expression is sanctioned - respect naturally follows.
Yes, sometimes we need reminders, and when that is the case, a straightforward, “that’s not OK,” is usually enough to prompt reflection and take personal responsibility.
At the end of the day, we appreciate that all DRC members are individuals, moving forward in unique directions at a pace that is right for them. And, we are responsible for providing this comfortable place where they feel utterly trusted, respected, and safe to take on their next adventure.
No DRC is not Utopia, and we don’t pretend to be. Furnishing this non-coercive, nurturing space is hard and emotional work, but we would not be anywhere else because we want all of “our” kids to understand that they can have a positive future, as long as they remain true to themselves, meet others with respect, and follow their hearts. And, that future can entail anything they imagine - college, entrepreneurship, a trade ... the possibilities are absolutely endless.
This coming Wednesday, October 2nd, will be the first drop-in day for family support of self-directed education. This weekly program has been developed as a stop-gap measure for the families who would like to join DRC but are currently on our waiting list. We are also making it available to any family who has received consultation services from DRC and is home-schooling on their own but would like some additional support. You can visit this page on our website to learn more.
DRC is gearing up to inform and educate folks about our mission and vision for the future. We are looking for people in our community, as well as the wider world who are passionate about investing their time and money to make sure any child in the NoCo has the opportunity to pursue self-directed education if they choose to. You can learn more here.
Everything you spend time on counts - every activity, project, plan, strategy, puzzle, game, and creative pursuit is valid. Indeed, absolutely, every single thing you do (or, think about), including all the mistakes you make, is credible (in fact, those errors may actually be worth more in the grand scheme of things). Nevertheless, our kids, as well as society in general, have been brainwashed to determine the value of an activity based on a set of arbitrary standards generated and ordained by people who have zero imagination and no interest in creativity, and whose sole interest is the bottom line.
I will argue, forever, that if we continue on this trajectory, we are completely doomed, not only as a society, but as a species. This may sound unnecessarily harsh, fatalistic, or even a bit fantastical and dystopian. However, I am a direct witness to the results of a system that teaches young people that they will fall behind and be deemed stupid, if they don’t spend enormous amounts of time on rote, canned, predetermined, grade assigned tasks. They tell me that they are deathly afraid of making mistakes, and, they believe that “play” is a four-letter word. They have often lost sight of the joy and fun of learning. These kids judge themselves, as well as others harshly if they feel they do not “measure up” or “assimilate” in a variety of ways - academically, physically, and emotionally. Consequently, their awesome, brilliant, and authentic personalities are subdued and not allowed to shine through.
To be clear, the state-run, compulsory educational system is primarily responsible for producing compliant, judgmental, ferociously competitive, uninspired automatons for an industrial economy that no longer exists. Our kids are, quite literally, being set up to fail in this new world that no longer needs those human robots, but requires imaginative, creative, non-conformists who are not afraid to follow their interests – those who are excited to brainstorm, experiment, and explore all the possibilities.
Therefore, Go! Hike through the woods, splash around in a river, play the guitar, write a song, build a beat and write a rap, draw, paint a mural, design a hands-on project, cook (real) macaroni and cheese with your friends, bake pumpkin bread and chocolate cookies, sort and organize a room, dig a hole, build a cabinet, install a sink, work with others to develop guidelines for your community, sew a pillow, read a book, develop new characters for D&D, write a story, study the history of your community, share personal experiences and socialize with a group of friends, train a dog, ride a horse, tear apart a motor, organize a haunted Halloween dance, refinish a piece of furniture, play a computer game, race around the backyard in a game of freeze tag (or murder mystery), rewire a lamp, play and design board games, or sit still in your comfy place and stare off into space. All these things, along with the multitude of other activities and pursuits that do not look particularly “academic,” are valid, important, and essential (and, absolutely count) toward the development and education of free-thinking, authentic, and innovative individuals who are destined to save us all.
This is your chance to own some DRC swag. Contact us to order your t-shirts and hoodies before Friday, September 27th.
I am proud to be known as a problem solver – an individual who automatically looks at a problem and sorts through the issues to find the solution. Here is a silly example from this past week: I stopped at the gas station to fill up my car on my way into town. I decided to get my coffee while there to free up my early morning time at the Center. When I walked in, there was a guy trying to get coffee out of one of the carafes. He stated that it wasn’t working, while he repeatedly tried to pump it. After filling my cup from another dispenser, I said (what seemed obvious to me), “maybe the tube is disconnected.” He opened it up and sure enough, it wasn’t even inside. The funny thing is – he then told me that he had seen a tube laying on the other counter before he even started trying to fill his cup.
It honestly confounds me that some folks have lost all sense of innate curiosity, they don’t know how to look beyond what has been presented to them, and they are often afraid or don’t know how to ask questions. But, I guess I shouldn’t be astonished given that we have intentionally developed a system that specifically teaches conformity, obedience, and fear of anything that appears different. Consequently, our society is filled with people who are narrow-minded, uninspired, unimaginative, disengaged, disenfranchised, bored, and, yet, fearful of change.
With that being said, I constantly wonder (worry) how our world can move forward if we continue to train people to do the same thing, in the same way, over and over again, but, yet, expect different results? I ask this question in all seriousness; because that is how some people define insanity. (A quote often attributed to Einstein but not clearly substantiated.)
I will always argue that, instead, we need curious, imaginative, open-minded, unbiased people who are excited to meet challenges head-on - who are inspired to look beyond the obvious and develop exciting new solutions.
I am grateful to be one of those people who is always looking at the big picture (despite my early training within said system) – one who has a constant stream of ideas (chatter) running through their heads, which can be in response to an immediate problem, something somebody mentioned in passing, or even a potential future complication. I literally cannot turn it off – even during my summer-time adventures, when I was totally relaxed and living completely in the moment, I was still subconsciously churning out plans and ideas.
This compulsion, along with my willingness to jump on an idea, comes in handy when we are faced with exciting opportunities/challenges at Deep Root Center. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have reached capacity at 48 Riverside Drive (DRC Canton). This has created an intense emotional struggle for me, because I have had to say, “sorry, we are full,” to three families (10 kids) already this year (literally, within two weeks of opening). It really does break my heart to say, “no,” to people who reach out to us for help.
Which leads me to my most recent brainstorm --- As you probably know, we are closed every Wednesday. It is the day we expect our student members to use for independent pursuits and the one day of the week that I can schedule meetings and get some of the admin. stuff accomplished. My current idea is to have the kids who are on our waiting list come to the Center on that day to access my direct support, to use our facilities, and to have the opportunity to socialize. This provides a multi-prong solution to several of our ongoing challenges. I don’t have to feel horrible about giving families a “hard no.” Parents will have a consistent face to face support to create their own self-directed learning environment at home. And, in the process, we can provide some additional cash flow to help ease some of our financial issues by charging a daily fee for our services. In addition, when we can offer those students full membership, they will have had some time to settle in and understand how DRC works. It seems like a win-win for everyone, at least for now. We do know, as our waiting list continues to grow, that we will ultimately need a second facility, most likely within the year.
Stay-tuned as we continue to generate exciting, new, and creative, “outside the box” ideas and collaborations to meet the needs of all of the NoCo families who are breaking barriers, smashing educational norms, and hopping onto the Self-Directed Educational train, with their children.
* I wanted to share one of Seth Godin’s recent blog posts; he speaks to all of the above in his uniquely, brilliant fashion.
A useful definition of art
Art is a human activity. It is the creation of something new, something that might not work, something that causes a viewer to be influenced.
Art uses context and culture to send a message. Instead of only a contribution of beauty or craft, art adds intent. The artist works to create something generous, something that will change us.
Art isn’t painting or canvas or prettiness. Art is work that matters.
It’s entirely possible that you’re an artist.
Everyone can be, if we choose.
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.
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