An Amazing Partnership

By Rebecca Kirk

2015 – 2016.  What an incredible year of learning and growing.  By April of 2015 we had realized that our space at 1324 Lake Drive was not adequately serving our mission to provide support for self-directed, engaged learning to teens regardless of their ability to pay.  Though we were able to offer some tuition subsidies, a large part of our finances were required to pay rent. We looked high and low for a more affordable space in which the teens could feel free to express themselves creatively without always needing to be mindful of our professional office building neighbors’ desire for quiet, but to no avail.

By summer, some of the teens were meeting with us weekly in area parks to explore the outdoors together and to develop their leadership skills as a Teen Advisory Council for the development of Open Doors, allowing it to become even more youth-directed.

Meanwhile, Maddie, Jacob and I spent many hours exploring foundations for grant possibilities and also ways of collaborating with other teen-centered organizations.  Without having located space nor funding by September, this small, dedicated group of teens and families agreed to meet temporarily in the basement classroom of my home.

One morning in late September, on a whim, I drove to The Geek Group to explore the possibility of affordable meeting space in their large building on west Leonard.  With no appointment, I was miraculously able to immediately obtain an audience with Chris Boden, founding member and President of the organization.  After listening to my story of Open Doors’ mission and principles, along with our current situation, Chris instantly recognized Open doors as the educational arm that had been an unfulfilled piece of The Geek Group’s mission since their beginning, 20+ years ago.  On the spot, he offered Open Doors the option of becoming The Geek Group’s education department and me, this education department’s director.  I must say I was rather bowled over.

We began transitioning into the space at The Geek Group almost immediately and officially became a part of the organization on January 1, 2016.  The longer we are here the more I realize how right Chris was regarding the alignment of our missions.  The Geek Group was established to support and encourage people to learn and express what they are passionate about, regardless of their financial situation.  They do that primarily for adults.  Now we are here to offer that to teens.  Open Doors is indeed extremely fortunate to be an integral part of this unique organization. Please explore The Geek Group’s website and like them on Facebook. And then stop by on a Saturday at noon for a free tour of the building and see what mad science you yourself can be up to!

I’m also very grateful that our teens were willing to make this huge transition with us. It was a valuable, real-life learning experience for all, requiring adaptability, creativity, and the development of social/emotional skills as we interfaced with this new culture.

Beginning in January, the stability of our new location allowed superb opportunities for learning.  Within this stable environment, with the input of the Teen Advisory Council, new learning adventures began to emerge.  These included Cooking Club, Big History, Kinder Being, Career Exploration, and Art Studio.  Independent projects developed, such as Animation Exploration, Giant Skateboard Creation, and Dirt Bike Maintenance, while tutoring was employed in learning Algebra and Biology.  The teen-directed year-end trip to Chicago was a crowning jewel to our year of learning and exploring new horizons.

Our adoption into The Geek Group has provided accommodations, overhead, incredible physical and human resources, and tremendous encouragement to pursue our mission.  This has freed us to more fully develop our program offerings, structure, and advisory role. As a result we have seen remarkable learning happening with our teens including:

  • Teens learning and fully engaged together in what they wanted to learn
  • A visible increase in social/emotional intelligence, and
  • Critical thinking skills
  • A huge increase in self-confidence and ability to openly express their thoughts and ideas.

In addition, instead of paying rent, we were able to use Open Doors funds to hire Jacob Sabourin full time as assistant director and to send him to Massachusetts for the annual Liberated Learners Conference resulting in empowering professional development.

Thank you so much to Chris Boden and The Geek Group for providing all your support which made this possible.

What is keeping my teen from learning?

What is keeping my teen from learning?

“We teachers – perhaps all human beings – are in the grip of an astonishing delusion.”

Our astonishing delusion about education.

“We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.”

Trying to implant our knowledge in the brain of another.

“Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinarily experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated.”

It’s easier to share knowledge when you’re in close relationship with a lot of non-verbal sharing.

“Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it.”

– John Holt, (1923-1985) American Educator,  in How Children Learn

The more impersonal and disconnected the relationship, the harder it is to share knowledge.
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Open Doors teens at the beach — because sharing real life experiences leads to sharing real life knowledge. (And it’s fun!)

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.  If your teen isn’t learning in the classroom, come find out more at our Open House on Monday, October 13 at 12 noon.

WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin

Check out our fun interview with Shelley Irwin of the WGVU Morning Show.  You’ll hear about Rebecca’s journey and the founding of Open Doors.  It was such a pleasure to talk to Shelley — she’s always a joy.

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Left to right: Amy Carpenter Leugs (Outreach Director), Shelley Irwin (WGVU Morning Host), Rebecca Kirk (Director and Founder of Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens)

“I Used to Worry All the Time”

by Amy Carpenter Leugs

Recently, as I was working on my computer on the couch in the Gathering Room at Open Doors, one of our members came in and sat with me as she ate her lunch.  Cecilia had just come back from studying with a naturopath, Angie, with Continuum Healing in our building.   As we sat and chatted, she shared with me what she’s been doing since she left high school a few months ago.  Here are some snippets from our conversation.

Amy:  Last time we talked, you were looking for a long-term research project.  How is that going?

Cecilia:  I found one!  Fifteen years ago, my Grandma had a rare type of cancer in her throat, and due to the surgery to remove it, half of her tongue is paralyzed now.  We’ve contacted her surgeon and we’ll have a chance to refer to her records and see exactly what has been damaged and what the treatment was.  With so many medical advances over the last 15 years, plus the knowledge available from a naturopath like Angie, I want to see if anything can be done to help her.  There are other projects I want to do,  too, but this one is a good place to start.  Maybe there’s nothing we can do, but on the other hand, I might actually help someone.

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Amy:  That’s great.  And you’ve found some other interesting projects, haven’t you?

Cecilia:  Yep.  This summer I’m going to do a six-week surgical internship with the horse veterinarian that I shadow, so I’ll learn a lot there.  I’ll also be going to the Grand Tetons with David Buth from Summer Journeys — it’s called a leadership adventure and we’ll be horsepacking in.

Amy:  What have you learned about your own learning style since you’ve been here at Open Doors?  I remember when you first started, you thought you wanted to do a dissection every week.  But then you realized you needed some time to diagram and write things out, to process it, right?  What else?

Cecilia:  I also need to keep searching out mentors in the fields I’m interested in — I really like to learn with people, and especially with people doing their jobs.  I want to do more internships.  So that will be a challenge for next year, to find people in the fields I’m interested in.  Over the last few months I’ve learned what works for me, and I can use that next year.

Amy:  Now that you’ve been out of high school for a few months, are you glad that you left?

Cecilia:  I am pretty glad.  The only thing I miss — I loved being with a large group of kids my age.  So next year I’m going to take yoga and choir at my high school, and have lunch period there as well.

Amy:  That’s true.  We do have more teens here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you have different interests and so you’ve been here on Monday and Fridays, when we just have a couple members here at a time.

Cecilia:  And even now I still get to see my friends after school and on weekends.  In fact, I get to enjoy my time with them even more, because I’m not stressed out about my own homework.

That’s the weird thing — sometimes I help my friends with their homework, and I realize that it’s mostly just busy work.  I can figure it out without having been in the class. But my friends are so worried about grades and GPA and getting into college.

I used to worry all the time, too.  Even though I didn’t believe in the system — I didn’t believe that good grades meant you were really learning — I still wanted to get good grades and go to college.  And now I’m just out here, learning things and doing things.  I’m doing dissections, I’m seeing how a naturopath works, I’m helping a vet.  The other day a group of teens and I did biology in the Grand River with David Buth — we identified specimens we found in the water, and checked for mutations due to pollution.

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Amy:  That sounds fun.  And I agree — grades don’t reflect much about learning, though they might show how good a student is at memorizing.

Cecilia:  Yes!  I used to just cram everything in my head for a test, and then forget it all afterward, so I could cram the new stuff in.  Now I don’t forget as much — I keep building one thing on another.

Amy:  Right — I notice that you keep asking questions, and those questions keep leading you to new places.

***

Soon our conversation drifted onto other things.  Our talk about college placement tests led Cecilia to ask questions about my own college experience.  I explained that though I loved college and learning, I also found it quite intellectual, when I often wanted to seek out the more emotional and relational side of life.  When Cecilia asked if I ever considered going back for a higher degree than my Bachelor’s, I reflected that I had always found ways to meet those learning needs outside of college — whether through unschooling my own three boys, writing children’s books or other pieces, or working with a Jungian community in Three Rivers.  Life has always presented me with an integrated way to “live the questions,” to use Wendell Berry’s phrase.

It is always such a pleasure to converse and reflect with our teens — they are each so different and each finding their way, and I know I speak for all our staff and volunteers when I say that witnessing it all is a huge honor.

Amy Carpenter Leugs is the Outreach Director at Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens.  A former teacher, Amy unschools her three boys, reads and writes widely, plays with people of all ages, and speaks about life learning every chance she gets.

High School Dropouts: Including Teens In the Conversation

As the May graduation frenzy winds down, maybe it’s time to think about those teens who never make a traditional high school graduation.

If a teen is empowered, often with help from the adults in her life, leaving high school can mean taking back her education and becoming a self-directed learner.

But for too many teens — nearly a million every year, nationwide — leaving high school means all the hopelessness of dropping out — no job, no college, no creativity, no travel, and an increased risk of poverty, crime, and victimization.

How can we turn this around?  The first step is to ask the teens themselves.  That’s what this video is about.

We’ll say it again:  ask the teens themselves.   They’ll tell you how school isn’t working for them in its current form, if you’ll listen.  When interviewed, up to 40% of teens said they feel unmotivated at school, and up to 75% of teens named school as a source of considerable strain in their lives.  Which is interesting, given that 75% of all school students have a learning style (such as being a hands-on learner or a social learner) that isn’t addressed by the traditional classroom model of lecture, memorization, reading, and writing.

At Open Doors, our teens have said that their solution is to pursue real-world, self-directed learning.   Our teens are not “dropouts,” though they are not in traditional school — they are working, interning, volunteering, creating, writing, researching, and always, always learning.

We look forward to hearing what other teens, like those in this video, have to say.  We hope that more solutions for self-directed learning — the kind of learning that provides real meaning and growth — spring forth from the conversation.  Come to an event to find out more.

Member Feature: Evolving My Dream

By Adena Koslek   

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Tara Burns: Self-Portrait in Shadows

In this interview, Tara Burns sat with me and shared her experience since she opted out of her old high school and jumped into the self-directed approach of the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Learning. Tara is a teen who went on a quest in the summer of 2013 to find out who she could become without the distractions of traditional school, something her experience told her “didn’t quite fit with what she was feeling within.” It was so pleasing to hear of her empowering experience at Open Doors. Tara went from having low attendance and low grades in her traditional school setting to feeling pangs of guilt if she ever has to miss a single class at Open Doors.

The insight gained by her self-directed studies has helped Tara discover what had long been her inner dream: to become an Art Therapist. Tara’s confidence has increased now that she has a specific direction in life: not only does it feel great, but she is pleased that the outcome is going to benefit others.  Within six months of being at Open Doors, Tara is able to take significant steps to begin actualizing her desired future. With assistance from Rebecca Kirk, the Director of Open Doors, she’s been developing a Personal Learning Plan which includes setting up interviews and internship possibilities to help her learn and grow in the direction of her dream.

Here’s the interview:

Adena: Who do you feel you were when you began at Open Doors?

Tara: I didn’t know. But, I was excited. It felt like new things and opportunities in life were happening. High School was feeling really “out of reach” for me after freshman year. It felt impossible. I tried Online Schooling but that wasn’t fun.

Adena: What was the biggest need that was not being met in your traditional school setting?

Tara: It felt like subjects were being pushed. Like, we would start something I was interested in and then we would change the topic in a couple days and begin talking about things I wasn’t really interested in. I really wanted to keep studying the subject I was interested in more deeply.

Adena: What are some of the classes you are taking now and your opinions of them?

Tara: I am learning a lot in all my classes. I know we don’t do grades here, but (giggle) I would give me an A in every one of them. (We both laughed.) I like the U.S. History Class because I am really drawn to learning about Civil Rights and we are really staying focused on that because that’s what the class members want. Personal Finance is interesting because when I took the little test on “what I knew” before the class started it was interesting to see what the answers to things like ‘saving’, ‘taking care of yourself’ and ‘paying bills’ really were. And I love my Film Studies class. I am also learning some really neat things in a class called Stalking The Wild Asparagus which teaches about wild edibles. I also take a Non-Violent Communication class with many of the adult members, and a Feeling and Critical Thinking class; both of which are very helpful when considering the direction I want to continue to take with Art Therapy.

Adena: Is Open Doors satisfying you as your needs grow and evolve?

Tara: Yes. I feel more freedom creatively and I like knowing where I take my education is my responsibility.

Adena: In order to opt out of traditional school and take the challenge to become Self-Directed here at Open Doors, a member must become homeschooled under the law. When your family first learned of this, how did they feel?

Tara: Excited for something new. My mom was very skeptical. It wasn’t until after our first meeting with Rebecca that she really began to feel more settled. It’s not what people might think.

Adena: What did you want to do with your life when you came to Open Doors and has that changed?

Tara: I couldn’t really say when I came here, but I knew I felt “Art Therapy.” I could sorta feeeel it inside me as an idea. Not really a concrete reality. It wasn’t until Open Doors members helped me learn how to research those things that I learned it was a real job! Art in my old high school was mostly me sitting with a group of kids who really didn’t care about art. It was a lot of talk about drugs and whatever their homework was for another class, but never art the way I wanted to learn about it. I don’t even think the art teacher knew my name. I’m pretty sure she called me by a completely different name during conferences.


After the interview, Tara got back to her projects and I to mine. At Open Doors we are pleased about the versatility that the timeless clock offers us and the great pleasure it brings to work with teens who simply need some respect and the opportunity to learn in their own unique way.

Adena Koslek is an Instructor and Teen Coach, as well as a founding member of the Leadership Team of Open Doors.

 

 

Community Collaboration with Goodwill Industries

Real learning in the real world is such an important principle at Open Doors.  That’s why we’re happy to share a story of our collaboration with Goodwill Industries, a non-profit with significant positive influence in our community.

As described in Learning with Slender Man, our Critical Thinking and Feeling class is working on a short scary film.  They went to Goodwill to pick out costumes and props for the movie.  When we called ahead about our trip, the staff was happy to accommodate us and make room for our photographer, Lori, to take pictures.

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Thank you to Goodwill Industries and Moments by Lori Ann.

The class was careful to respect other customers and their privacy.  They were delighted to find low-prices on costumes and other fun items.  The world is our classroom, a place where budgeting, creating, and cooperative problem-solving all happen naturally — thank you to Goodwill Industries for being a part of that.

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Working together!

(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.)

A Self-Directed Teen Speaks

A member of the Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning in Ontario, Willow shares her story.  “I looked from the outside like I was thriving in school,” she says.  In actuality, “I had succumbed to the anxiety of school work, social pressures, and the constant feeling that I was only worth the grades I received.”

Even though she was unhappy, it was difficult for Willow to leave the established norm of traditional school.  We know it can be difficult for our teens and families, too.  Willow’s words of advice to those teens who are thinking about leaving school:

“You may feel lost and alone, but this life you are considering will be so much more meaningful to you, because it will be your own life, and in the end, that’s all that counts.”

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.

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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.

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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.