Setting the Feet on the Pathway

Amy Carpenter Leugs is a former teacher and a children’s book author who serves on the Board of Directors at Open Doors.  She and her husband have three sons who live and learn at home, not at school.  The family started their self-directed learning journey in 2003.  The post below is re-written from a 2004 essay by the same name, which can be read in its original form here:  https://www.catapultmagazine.com/pass-fail/article/setting-the-feet-on

by Amy Carpenter Leugs

The Winnebago, one of the Algonquian tribes of the Great Lakes, tell a certain set of stories to their children, often in a specific order, at certain times of the year. Each story serves to build a sense of self in the child, as well as providing him or her a solid grounding in tradition. The Winnebago call this “setting the feet on the pathway.”

These stories are considered their childhood teachings, but they are not taught by experts in a classroom, separate from the rest of life. Instead, these stories are woven in and around the interactions of daily lives, the work of survival, and the rituals that bind the tribe together.

On the other hand, Aleut boys would play with small dolls in kayaks, while the girls learned many tasks of everyday life by playing with their dolls, clothed in squirrel furs that the girls had trapped themselves.

And in still a different example, Inupiat fathers created story knives for their little girls, usually carved out of bone or ivory. The girl would learn to tell stories from the women of her family, and she would use her knife to illustrate the tales, drawing symbols and pictures in the snow or sand or mud. One text compares the story knife to art therapy, a valuable tool for processing troubling fears and for exploring curious dreams, all while playing.

I share these different perspectives to make a point:  there is no one right way to raise a child, no one right way to grow up.   Over millennia, hundreds of cultures have found many right ways to interact with children and teens.  But our culture has often behaved as though there were only one right way, as though we needed to control all aspects of our children’s behavior, so they, in turn, will follow the one right way.

Amy and her three sons have chosen self-directed learning.
Amy and her three sons chose the path of self-directed learning.

If we accept that there isn’t one right way to educate a child – if we accept that a classroom and textbooks and a teacher up front isn’t the only way to learn – how do we know what to do?

This is where self-directed learning comes in.  In a safe environment, with time, the child herself will know what to do – organically and naturally, by following what she loves, by pursuing her interests, by doing the things that make her shine.  She may, like all children, feel bored or unsure at times, but she will find it empowering to find her own way through, with support from adults and other teens.

This is the decision my family made eleven years ago, and we have never looked back.

We talk a lot about testing in schools these days.  But it can be argued that fashioning a self is the most important test that any of us will ever endure. It is an on-going test, and the signs of negotiating it successfully are recognizable: being a whole man or woman means being capable, aware of one’s own gifts, and involved in a community, acting as both student and teacher, giver and receiver. Creating a whole self is not a matter of pouring rules and facts onto a person, like paint on a canvas. Self-discovery is more like sculpture, continually carving and defining the most compelling features, waiting for the shape to reveal itself. Discovering a self requires free time, privacy, and a lot of room to make one’s own mistakes.   It requires interactions with adults who are not trying to control, but who are willing to listen and share their own experiences.

Because Amy's sons learn at home, they have more time to pursue their passions.
Amy’s sons learn out of the classroom and in the real world while pursuing their passions.

Outside of sleep, school and extracurricular activities, the average schoolchild has only 9 hours a week left in which to fashion a self.   It’s not enough.  This is why self-directed learning is such a powerful option – an option that naturally allows for diversity, an option that encourages teens to grow into curious and whole adults with a true sense of themselves.  I see it in my three sons every day, and I see it in the teens at Open Doors.

As Helen Hegener writes, “For better or worse, we learn every day, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, whoever we’re with. We learn good things, useful things, handy things — and we learn bad things, destructive things, things we might someday wish we hadn’t learned. Life’s like that. On the whole, though, learning serves us quite well, and we’re constantly arranging and rearranging our learning so it’s more useful to us.” 

And as Carl Rogers writes, “If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning.”

Many parents and teens have no idea how to start on this journey themselves.  That’s where Open Doors can help, with mentoring, classes, and community for support.

This post is part of our “Our Stories” series, which aims to explore the personal experiences and journeys of Open Doors’ members and staff, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.

Powerful Possibilities

Open Doors Intern Jacob Sabourin is a Political Science major at Aquinas College with a keen interest in the politics of power. At Open Doors he leads a class called “Powerful Possibilities,” which has quickly become popular among our teen members. In this post, Jacob explains his experiences leading this class.

by Jacob Sabourin

Only one girl showed up for the first Powerful Possibilities class. I told her we could explore anything related to power. I told her to ask me anything she wanted, question everything I said, assume I was always wrong, and then prove it.

But first I asked her a question. What is power to you?

She immediately thought of her two cats. One’s just a baby, but a “chunker,” she said. The other is old, wily, and good at hunting. The old one gathers food for the chunker, and the chunker lazes around the house.

But who has the power? I asked.

First, she thought the old one. She has the ability to hunt, after all. The chunker would never be so chunky if it weren’t for the old cat’s hunting prowess.

But then this young woman second-guessed herself. The chunker manipulates the old hunting cat, and ends up gorging herself into obesity.

So who has the power?

That day a student took her first step into understanding that relationships between all life forms are defined in terms of power. Our conversation that day extended the concept of power to family, the workplace, and ecosystems. That day, I got an idea of what she thought about poaching, minimum wage laws, and household rules. I told her over and over again how she was wrong, and forced her to prove herself right. At first she was frustrated with my questioning her logic. But she began to develop better arguments for her ideas.

Since then, most of the teenagers at Open Doors have attended Powerful Possibilities. About half now attend regularly.

So what have we covered since then?

Every day in class I walk in and ask these teenagers what’s on their minds. They’ve told me about terrorist attacks they heard about in the news, and we’ve talked about how Dr. Who demonstrates Western ideas about the foreignness of people from other countries. We talked about drone strikes, looked at a map of what countries the U.S. has used them on, and talked about philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, and their ideas on how to manage people best, especially when it comes to the criminally insane.

They’ve argued with each other about school uniforms, slut shaming, teachers who molested students, child marriage, and age-of-consent laws.

They’ve told me how unfair it is that old people get to boss them around, and wonder who put their bosses and leaders in charge. I grabbed a cardboard scythe in the corner and told them I was the boss because I have the power to harm them. They started to draw cartoons lampooning me, including a depiction of me in a top hat and jock strap. We used this point to illustrate how important political satire is, and it led to a discussion of coup d’états, of which we’ve repeatedly discussed the history. The scythe has repeatedly been stolen. They’ve gotten the idea about coups. They now speak softly and carry big sticks, as they know Teddy Roosevelt once said was good foreign policy.

They’ve explained to each other why gun control laws are necessary, and also why they inhibit our freedoms.

They asked me why the countries of the world don’t get along, why war continues, and we discussed the advanced international relations theories of the End of History (i.e. liberal capitalist democracy is the final form of government we will ever have, and all countries are starting to come to this conclusion), and alternatively, the Clash of Civilizations (i.e. the world is divided by religion and culture, regionally, and eventually one culture must come to dominate the world).

They asked me why North Korea’s dictator was such a jerk, and we talked over the history of concentration camps around the world, in the U.S., in Germany, and we discussed the history of imperialism that led to North Korea’s Communist dictatorship.

They told me about how they felt about police and racism, and we talked about Eric Garner, the Ferguson protests, the history of riots, and police militarization.

One day they walked in and had nothing to say, so we talked about how the first step in the rise to power is to indicate your desires, because other people want to lead you to achieve them. So they told me they wanted to talk about job applications, and we talked about how we thought it was best to prepare for an interview.

We talked about how cortisol release is triggered when people are stressed, and people occupying the lower rungs of social hierarchies have cortisol release triggered more often, at levels our biological development never intended when we were hunter-gatherers on the savannah, picking berries and stabbing wildebeests with spears. We discussed meditation as a technique for controlling our own cortisol releases, so we can move up the social ladder to achieve our destinies.

Teenagers around the world are thinking about powerful, important topics. They have inklings of what is going on around them, but often don’t have the language to fully discuss them. I have seen a radical transformation in every teenager I’ve worked with over the course of my five-month tenure at Open Doors. They articulate themselves better every day. They know what is on their minds and are beginning to communicate it. They are becoming more powerful. A world of possibilities is opening to them.

This post is part of our “Our Stories” series, which aims to explore the personal experiences and journeys of Open Doors’ members and staff, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.