Kate Boelkins is studying to be a secondary education teacher at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. As part of her training, she has assisted in several classrooms in the area. We are delighted to have her as an intern at Open Doors.
Developmental psychologists agree that the voyage towards self-discovery is vital for mental growth, for emotional development, and for self-esteem improvement.
Yet self-discovery is often ignored or suppressed in the traditional classroom setting.
In their natural state, teens are constantly struggling with an identity crisis brought on by changing relationships, mounting responsibilities, and simple developmental psychology. Between the ages of 12 and 18 years — a mere 6 years — we expect teens to develop a sense of self, to home in on their interests, and to use those interests to outline a plan for the rest of their lives.
In theory, this period of self-discovery and identity formation is fostered by the encouragement of adults who reinforce exploration and motivate teens to develop a sense of control and independence in their lives. This encouragement should inspire self-confidence in teens and help them find their core direction in life.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for a majority of teenagers graduating high school and headed out into the “real world.”
Recent studies show that up to half of college students enter college “undecided”, having no idea what to pursue despite the fact they are paying tuition for their education. On top of that nearly 80% of college students change their major at least once.
These teens simply haven’t formed enough of an identity to define their interests. Why not?
The traditional classroom takes students and strictly defines the information in which they will be immersed each year.
This knowledge is comprised only of an “academic” load, meaning the traditional subjects of English, Mathematics, Science, and History.
The exploration within each subject is shallow and broad, and allows no flexibility for students to delve deep into an area of interest.
Areas outside the traditional academic area are ignored, and even rejected from the classroom.
Learning is transmitted through books and lectures, not real world experiences.
After graduating high school, students have been exposed to only certain areas of academic information. If subjects in school fail to grasp their interests, teens are at a loss when asked to choose a direction — nothing seems worth pursuing. When they reach college, they’ve had little time to define their own identity and find it impossible to make an informed decision.
Additionally, this lack of freedom affects the psychological state of the teen as a whole. The classroom experience is restrictive– it’s commonly noted that one week we expect students to ask permission to use the restroom, and the next we expect them to have a detailed plan for the rest of their lives.
Schools often fail to encourage and support student exploration. Teens need new experiences; it is normal to run through many different trials and errors before they have the self-knowledge to make decisions.
Instead of fostering opportunities and embracing failure, schools often try to confine students to specific ways of thinking and doing. They look for hard commitments too early in the students’ development, without offering the tools to build self-knowledge.
Teens are then left with two poor choices.
Fall into a pre-described identity defined by the school climate they’ve known, which can result in choosing a post-grad path like college that is a poor fit for the student.
Avoid self-exploration completely.
The lack of self-discovery and identity formation in the teenage years can have life-long impact.
So how can this change? How can we as a society foster confident, strong-hearted, and self-directed teens?
It begins with adults. We have the responsibility to our teens to change our perspectives on what is important for them. Instead of ensuring they fit in the mold, we need to encourage the quest of new experiences, applaud them when they pursue what they love, guide them when they have questions, and let them know it’s okay when they change their mind.
At Open Doors, this mentor relationship is priority – teens have the freedom to explore what interests them, whether it involve traditional academic areas, video games, or wild edibles. By their side are experienced adults whose mission is to simultaneously participate in their exploration and guide them towards self-discovery and the future.
This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.
We’ve also been gearing up for our Fall semester — it’s Not Back to School time!
We’ll have new incoming members this fall, so we’re lining up member-requested classes like Mechanical Autopsy and Duct Tape Art.
Our popular Critical Thinking and Feeling class is set to continue, with its emphasis on fun and non-violent communication, led by Adena Koslek.
We’ll also continue our Film Studies class, led by local director and film enthusiast Bruce W.
We’re also offering new classes like Japanese, Political Science, and Hands-On Algebra.
Of course, Open Doors teens choose which classes they’ll take (and whether they’ll take any at all), so the list will change as the semester gets closer.
As you know, classes are only a small part of what we do here at Open Doors. We look forward to checking in with each and every teen member. We’ll listen to their goals and questions — we’ll dream with them as they consider how they want to learn at this moment — we’ll laugh as we brainstorm options and imagine possibilities together. We can’t wait!
Will you help us spread the word? Share this article, come by for one of our new yard signs, tell your friends with teens about Open Doors, or join our team of volunteers — we’d love to have you involved!
I am in awe of the tremendous growth I have seen in my son Tristan after his first year at Open Doors. He started the year very reserved and hesitant to get involved, which is true to his public persona. (Or at least it was!)
He tended to avoid situations that could potentially be embarrassing. He spent the first semester asking to be picked up immediately after his Biology class and wanted absolutely nothing to do with any activity in which he might feel the need to “share” anything – verbally or otherwise. He politely refused to have his picture taken and added to the website.
The staff and members of Open Doors respected these things completely. (I am confident a school would have seen this as a “problem” to address.) Rebecca and Adena did a great job of offering him ways to participate and contribute individually – painting a much needed sign, helping to move things, inviting him to meetings about fracking, etc – which gave him the space he needed to “warm up” while still feeling that he was vital to the center.
Ever so slowly, he started asking to be picked up later and later. He stayed to hang out and explore other classes. He chattered about film studies and foraging. He told me about sharing his theory of fluctuations in the stock market being related to fears of the “blood moon” with his finance class. He loved to tell me about conversations he had with the other members about their hobbies.
By the end of the year, my reserved kiddo was cracking jokes and showing off his juggling and hula-hooping skills at the end of year celebration in front of all of the members and their families. My heart sang that night.
As a parent, you want your child to shine to the world as much as they do when no one is watching; to be their true selves, no matter the situation. I am positive that if it were not for the respect and room to grow given by everyone at Open Doors, the world would never know the funny, bright and confident Tristan that I do. And that would be a shame.
A special thank you, Open Doors, for the letter you sent at the end of the year. Your insights about Tristan were spot-on and it made me feel awesome to see that you really know him and are acutely aware of his needs. It was so much better than a report card.
Last year, we received this affirmation from two of our member parents:
“We have been really happy with our family’s experience at Open Doors this year. Our son has thrived in the inclusive and accepting atmosphere at the Center. Open Doors’ teen-centered approach is very effective; teens and adults treat each other with mutual affection and respect. It has been exciting to see our son taking control of his education, developing talents and exploring new interests.” -Hilary and Mike Arthur
It can be hard for parents to visualize, but Open Doors is an alternative to school where teens learn as they were meant to learn, and they thrive.
If you want to help more families find a natural way for their teen to learn and thrive, please donate. We are a non-profit organization and our membership fees do not cover all our costs.
If you want to learn more about helping your teen take control of his or her education, contact us. We would love to talk.
A natural education. It’s an “alternative” that existed before schools did, and it’s still a valid educational option, yet we so rarely remember that humans are made to learn and grow and explore, with or without school. Contact us and find out more.
If you’re looking for educational options that respect teens — if you want to support those teens as they explore self-expression — if you’re looking for a community who can help you grow in these directions — contact us.
The Open Doors Summer Art Program, Prizing Your Power, began today. This week, we’ll be getting familiar with different media for creating art — painting, fabric, words, and more. Here are some pictures of today’s goings-on —
As we all grow more playful and comfortable with our creativity, the plan is to explore how art is power, and how we can communicate our passion through our art to the community. Stay tuned!
Prizing Your Power is supported in part by the Wege Foundation as part of the Open Doors “Your Life — Your Learning!” project.
“Fortunately for my brother, our mother was an incredibly nourishing person, and raised us in such a way to never think of any individual as useless because they may not be on a par with the status quo. That because a person might be struggling with whatever mental or physical condition they have been afflicted with, it does not mean they have absolutely nothing within them to offer society, or to contribute, be it artistically or another way. She instilled that in me, and though it was very difficult to grow up sharing a room with someone turning lights on and off, running the water in the bathroom for hours and hours, unable to throw things away; or to walk to school with him as he stepped on and off the curb while the other kids pointed and laughed- due to the way my mother raised me I was about as sensitive as a younger brother could possibly be.
“If I had been like a jock, or macho type of kid, I don’t think he would have fared as well. I’ll admit I lost it several times, but l never treated him as a hopeless lump of flesh. I encouraged him as much as possible, taught him how to play the guitar, and encouraged him to get into bands.
“When he found himself unable to deal with his problem and felt suicidal, he voluntarily admitted himself to St Vincent’s Psychiatric Ward for evaluation. That was when I told him ‘don’t worry, there’s a little genius in every madman.’
“We were not your average family. Our parents got divorced when we were very young. Our mother was an artist who encouraged us to recognize and express our individuality. I knew we were different from the other kids. My brother was not normal, and we lived in the same room, so neither was I. It was impossible for me to be. I shared his problems right along side him, and knew I had to, like it or not. We were both freaks. Fortunately he was able to tap into his inner strengths and realize them, unleash the incredible talent he had within him, and was in an environment that allowed him to thrive. And as fate would have it, thanks to rock & roll, it worked out pretty damn well for him.”
Supporting and accepting a teen for being exactly who he or she is — that’s where it all starts at Open Doors, whether it’s through our regular program or our Summer Art Program. There are many, many ways to be in the world — many ways to make a living, and many ways to contribute. Help us explore these many ways with our teens: donate or contact us to find out more.