Learning with Slender Man

(Note:  If you are concerned about the May 30 stabbing in Wisconsin and its relevance to Slender Man, please see our statement here.  Our thoughts are with all the families and communities involved, and we hope for a complete and speedy recovery for the victim.)

Last week in Open Doors’ Critical Thinking and Feeling class, instructor Adena Koslek decided to play the student.  She asked the class to design an activity that would bring her out of her shell, as her “student self” was feeling a bit anxious about participating, though underneath it all she really wanted to.

After some brainstorming, the class introduced “Shy Adena” to Slender Man, an Internet horror legend.

Can you see him in the back?

The class then encouraged Adena to play one of the Slender Man video games, which involve the player exploring a dark house or a landscape with only a flashlight, looking for signs to lead her to safety, only to have the Slender Man appear.  When he does, the player character’s vision warps as she meets her doom.

“Helpful” signs to follow — from Slender Man, Eight Pages.
Slender Man appears from the darkness — your vision blurs as you meet your doom.

The class then brought the game to life for their shy student.  Two members put up signs for Adena to follow around Eastown, ostensibly to bring her to safety, while one member, dressed in black, played the Slender Man, appearing just as she thought she was going to make it.

Slender Man in Eastown
Is he there?

The fun and thrill of being scared out of their wits inspired the class further, and they hope to develop a short horror film (in cooperation with their Film Studies class) for their end-of-the-year project.

Who knew that this is where the class would lead?  The journey of real-world learning is often so surprising, so laugh-out-loud fun.  It can start with the Internet as a window to the world — it can move into local community and creative endeavors.  It can be as thrilling and surprising as spotting Slender Man — one just never knows.

Slender:  The Short Film

The Making of Slender

A Peek Inside

The swirl of learning around Open Doors continues.  Here are some happenings of last week.

Our class on Stalking the Wild Asparagus, or Wild Edibles, harvested some dandelion root, leaves, and crowns, which are all most tender in the very early spring.  Prepared with butter, salt, and pepper, they were small but delicious.



Our film studies class has grown in size over the last month to include some more fans of the horror genre.  So when they watched 28 Days Later (with parent permission), the classic 2001 movie that was both social commentary on the post 9-11 world and the rebirth of the zombie genre, conversation was animated, to say the least.


In our Personal Finance class, one member who has been researching investment noticed that last week’s Blood Moon correlated with a significant drop in the Dow Jones.  It led to a great conversation about whether there is a primal side to investing.




Our teen members joined us for a community event last week, a walking tour of our Eastown neighborhood.  We were thrilled to find out that Mulligan’s Pub and its neighbor businesses are housed in what used to be a streetcar station, complete with turntable, and that in the 1920s there was a trolley line along Lake Drive, from downtown to Reed’s Lake.


All that, and more … plans to start a t-shirt business … a film about natural horsemanship (a new member’s passion) … a member posting his art to deviantart.com  … the same member learning to create his own level for the wildly popular game, Skyrim  …

Skyrim menacing statues


… and a close-up look at a pig’s heart to see some details that were missed the last time around.

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Quite simply, this place and these teens are amazing.  Come see for yourself.

Take Back Your Education on Sunday Evenings

A More Beautiful Question …

Education is not a race, with winners and losers.  It’s not a commodity to be bought and sold.  It can’t be measured, not in test scores or in degrees.  Although it has many uses, it has no real purpose beyond the joy it produces.  It doesn’t belong to anyone.  It’s never over.  If education is a game, it’s a game that anyone can play, that doesn’t end, and that gets better each time a new player joins.  It’s an “infinite game” to use a phrase by James Carse — a game the purpose of which is to keep playing.

School achievement is not education.  Obedience is not education.  Scoring high on a test is not education.  There’s nothing wrong with school achievement, obedience, or high test scores, except when they get in the way of real learning.

True education occurs whenever a free human being responds to the magnificent world with wonder, with fascination, and with the full and mysterious power of the human heart and mind to understand.  This can happen in solitude or in company.  It can last for a minute or for a lifetime.  It can be spontaneous or inspired, but it can never be coerced.  It is every child’s right.

We close with a few lines from the poet e.e. cummings:

… never to rest and never to have: only to grow
Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.

From “Afterword:  A More Beautiful Question”
Guerrilla Learning:  How to Give Your Kids a Real Education
With or Without School
by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver

locked door & key
Real learning: the key to that locked door.

At Open Doors, we do respond to the magnificent world with wonder, with fascination, and with the full and mysterious power of the human heart and mind to understand.  Come join us Sundays at 5:30 p.m., beginning April 27.  Our Take Back Your Education group held here at Open Doors is open to in-school and out-of-school teens, using the Guerrilla Learning book as a guide.  Together we can explore how to ask the more beautiful question.

Call 616.965.6968 for more information.


Nurture What They Love


From The Mother List:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and doctors said he would never speak. She tried special education programs and therapies aimed at addressing his limitations. When teachers told her there was no hope, she rebelled and took her own path.

“A lot of people thought that I had lost my mind,” she recalls.

Instead of focusing on Jacob’s limitations, Kristine nurtured his interests. Now her 15-year-old son is on track to win a Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics.

Relying on the insights she developed at her in-home daycare, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark” — his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could? This philosophy, along with her belief in the power of childhood play, helped her son grow in incredible ways.

This is our approach at Open Doors.  We focus on what your teen loves — that passion will lead to a world of learning!  We can’t guarantee a Nobel Prize in Physics, but we can help your teen become happier, more confident, and more fulfilled in his or her learning.

Come see us to find out more, or support our scholarship fund.


A few weeks ago, we had a new member join Open Doors.  Cecilia is fourteen years old and passionate about science, particularly biology and the healing arts.  But she noticed that nobody else at her school seemed to be as passionate as she was — they didn’t even want to be there.

Cecilia is also a hands-on learner:  the rote memorization required before she could dissect a simple worm felt lifeless and meaningless to her.  In her science class last year, the class got to do only one dissection, and her teacher had to leave the room because she was squeamish.

Cecilia was looking for people who could match her passion and meet her need for hands-on learning.  In her first week at Open Doors, she was dissecting pig’s lungs, facilitated by Rebecca Kirk — our director, a science teacher, and a hands-on learner herself.  Rebecca picked lungs first because the tissue feels and looks differently than any other tissue, and it’s not what you would expect.

lungs deflated and inflated
Pig’s lungs — first deflated, then inflated. Breathe out, breathe in.

Since that first dissection, Cecilia has her learning hands everywhere — feeling the chambers of a pig’s heart (in another dissection), drawing dissection diagrams, and even helping a veterinarian as he makes his rounds.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

She’s also full of explorations and questions.

“I feel like I know almost nothing about chemistry — where should I start?”  (We suggested Hunting the Elements, an excellent NOVA special.)

“It feels like humans are easier to help heal than animals — at least humans can tell you what’s wrong.”  (We passed on the DVD of Temple Grandin, to show how Dr. Grandin’s autism helped her understand cows through careful observation.  The reference to autism led elsewhere …)

“That’s another area — how the brain works.  I want to see it work.  And what causes it to work differently in some people?”  (It turns out that Cecilia was already pursuing a visit to a neurosurgeon at work.  After further conversation, we passed on a Psychology Today article called “Confessions of a Sociopath,” about functional sociopaths, which includes a bit about the role of genetics and environment on the brain.)

Then it was on to the Internet as we discussed cancer and how cells might replicate and what was known and unknown in that field.

Learning.  Often it’s as natural as breathing.



Free! April Community Events

April is here, and in West Michigan we can finally smell spring in the air!



What a great time to leave school and learn in the real world!  You can come see what that means at two Open Doors events that are open to the public.  We’d love to share our story with you.

Monday, April 14 at 12 noon to 1 p.m.

Open House:

Come take a tour, meet the staff, and ask your questions!  Light snacks will be served.  This is open to all curious community members, whether or not you know a teen who might be interested.


Thursday, April 17 at 7 p.m.

Eastown Walking Tour:

Open Doors is located in Eastown because it’s a great community with a rich history.  Come find out more — we’ll enjoy the spring weather, look at some historical sites, and end the evening at Spoonlickers for ice cream.  If the weather turns unpleasant, we’ll hang out at Open Doors and chat anyway.



Can’t wait to see you there!

Media isn’t Passive

Some time ago, we heard an adult complain about a young person, the kind of complaint that seems to be pretty common about teens in general:  “He watches South Park, listens to music on his iPod, plays video games on his Xbox but has NO INTEREST in learning even the basics.  Kids today just seem to want passive stimulation.”

“Passive stimulation”?  That’s becoming a very foreign concept to us here at Open Doors.

For instance, some folks associated with Open Doors have a background in Film and Film Production. We notice that they’re always pointing out *how* TV shows and movies are made—how the perspective was framed, how the editing decisions worked with the overarching philosophy, as well as “how did they get that shot?” questions. That’s part of the conversation around here when we’re watching something together, or talking about what we’ve watched.


Those of us who have studied the dramatic arts watch a different set of skills at work:  the actors’ choices in every scene.  Contrary to the belief that actors are just glorified line-readers, actors develop a way of walking, of talking, of moving in relation to each character and their emotions.  For those who excel at their art, they can show us a character’s vulnerability in one gesture, one hesitation.  That’s some powerful stuff — enough to make you rewind and watch again, just to appreciate it.

The writers among us are always looking at the story behind the story as well. How is the plot structured?  What are the creators accomplishing by giving this action to that character?  We talk about those factors whether we’re discussing video games, TV shows, or movies. Our understanding is complex and is focused on the whole story system.  We explore each story as a fresh view of ideas that have been around for a long long time, some since the birth of human civilization.

As we’ve researched the video game industry, we’ve thought about the process behind the production—how the graphics are rendered, how some dialogue is written to be flexible enough to sound relevant at various stages of the game, how the process of creating the story is changed by adding interactivity.  We like to imagine the project management aspect of each game, especially the big ones.  There are passionate game designers in the industry, looking to push this media into new directions and tell new stories in different ways.  That’s exciting.

Many of us at Open Doors are music lovers. We love to scour out-of-the-way places for new music to share, and there are times our members are just taken with the music. They think about how the music is put together, and why it speaks to them.

When we’ve experienced live music in the community that surrounds Open Doors,  we could see all the connections being made—how the instruments were played, how the sounds and the rhythms came together, how it feels to move to the music and let it all come together inside of us. Our knowledge and awareness of music is growing deep and wide—it’s not about “the basics,” but about a gestalt — a holistic, systemic approach.

When someone complains about the lack of learning in media (or a word we prefer not to use, “screentime”), you might wonder if they’re looking in the wrong places? Are they looking only to see what a teen is doing or producing?  Are they expecting learning to look a certain way?  Are they missing the fact that when we watch, listen, observe, and respond, we are building an inner understanding that is deep and wide and whole?

At Open Doors, the adults blend our own experience and knowledge with what our teens seem to like doing. We remember to ask questions and start where they are—we get into their interest and appreciate it and enjoy it.  We don’t dismiss their love of media — it counts, and it’s a great starting place for more. Going to concerts, finding out how different bands have influenced each other, figuring out how people have made the movies they’ve posted on YouTube, researching FAQs, talking with different kinds of gamers, looking up the history of weapons that are used in video games, talking through the logic of different game strategies, looking up actors on IMDB—all of this keeps leading to more and more learning about how the world works, and about how the creative process works.

“Passive stimulation”?  No.  There is an aspect of of letting the experience fill us and wash through us as we consider how to how to store it and bring it into our worldview.  As Helen Luke says, “The person who quietly responds with intense interest and love to people, to ideas, and to things, is as deeply and truly creative as one who always seeks to lead, to act, to achieve.  The qualities of receptivity, of nurturing in silence and secrecy are as essential to creation as their [more active] opposites.”

Come see us to find out more.

Have you Heard of a Gap Year?

Here’s one experience of self-directed learning, from a friend of Open Doors in Warwick, NY:


Warwick residents Ava Burgos, 19, and Calvin Linn, 21, are settling back into Warwick this month, following a four-month-long gap year experience on a tropical fruit farm on Maui. For these two young people, it was like life in paradise — in close community with other young people (all living in permanent tents on platforms!), cooking together each day, excellent food supplied by the farm’s owners, and every day recreational opportunities like a nearby Hawaiian beach or mountain volcano!

Displaying Hawaii 12-13.jpg

Displaying giant turtle on the beach.jpg

 “When I started looking at farms on www.Helpx.net for my gap year, I thought I’d go to California,” said Ava. “Then I thought, well, why not Hawaii? And when I found Huelo Lookout Fruit Stand on Maui, I knew it was really a dream come true.”

more fruit stand hawaii

The pair worked each day for six hours at the fruit and souvenir stand by the side of the only highway one the northeast side of Maui, near a lookout point where many tourists stopped. Each day, they set up the portable stand, put out all the fruit, and made smoothies for their guests, using a machete to cut up pineapples and coconuts fresh from the farm.

Displaying opening macadamia nuts!.jpg
Opening macadamia nuts.

At the farm on the Hana Highway, Ava and Calvin experienced group living with other young people from all over the world, including China, New Zealand, Portugal and France.

“The best thing about it has been meeting a whole new group of people, plus the warm weather, and being so close to the beach!” said Calvin.

Over Christmas, Ava’s mother visited, and Ava and Calvin baked dozens and dozens of hand-cut gingerbread cookies to share with the community.

Displaying hand cut Christmas gingerbread.jpg

Ava and Calvin planned and worked to save for their gap-year adventure for more than a year, working several jobs so they could fulfill their dream of travel that broadened their horizons and their futures.

As the American Gap Association has defined it, a gap year is: “A structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers.  A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years, and typically combines travel, volunteering, interning or working.”

Ava chose the concept of a gap year to make her self-directed learning experiences more accessible to friends and family who could stretch their minds that far. The gap year concept also seems to work for her because it allowed her to think in terms of travel, which is one of her passions. She stayed in touch with home and friends via Facebook and Twitter each day, and that is helping her make an easier transition back to her Warwick life now.

Students who have taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs and careers, according to an independent study of 280 gap year students by the American Gap Association.  In another study, 88 percent reported that the experience had significantly added to their appeal for employers.

Though the gap year concept is just being discovered in the U.S., it is much more popular in Australia, where 11% of high school graduates take one, and in the UK, where 9% do (including both Princes William and Harry).


At Open Doors, this is the kind of adventure and fun we advocate for young adults so they can build self-knowledge and gain experience of with the real world outside of the structure of school.  Come see your yourself at one of our events!

The Many Benefits of Video Games

Have you read Peter Gray’s column on video games on Psychology Today Online?

“If kids are really free to play and explore in lots of different ways, and they end up playing or exploring in what seems to be just one way [such as video games], then they are doing that because they are getting something really meaningful out of it.”

“I’ve also known kids who spent huge amounts of time reading–just sitting and reading, “doing nothing!” for maybe 10 hours a day. There were always some kids like that, even when I was a kid. I could never understand why they would want to just sit and read when they could go fishing with me instead. What a waste of time. However, I’ve never known a parent to limit their kids’ reading time. Why is it any better to limit TV or computer time than to limit book-reading time?”

We’ve certainly made similar observations at Open Doors.  For some of our members, longtime video game play is not only enjoyable and challenging unto itself.  The world of video games opens into a world of economics study, game theory, psychology, history, narrative, culture, mathematics, statistics, social skills, systems thinking, and critical thinking.  And fun!  We’re learning to never underestimate the power of fun, not just for learning, but for living.


Want to hear more?  Come to an event and we’ll be happy to share our observations — or just give us a call.