The Princeton Learning Cooperative is based on the same learning model as our center at Open Doors here in Eastown, Grand Rapids. Sit back with a cuppa and watch all the happy learning going on!
Open Doors recently brought in a new Outreach Director, Amy Carpenter Leugs, to help us get the word out about the great things going on at the center. Amy is a longtime unschooling mom with three boys of her own, ages 19, 16, and 10. Below are Amy’s first impressions of the center.
Walking into Open Doors, I see first a couch, a coffee table, chairs, and a computer. Yes. In my experience, this is a great environment for real life learning — lounging, thinking, conversing, joking, a quick hit of Google, and thinking some more. I’m glad to see space for it right away.
I meet Rebecca, and she shows me an informal classroom with a big round table and an interesting timeline for the civil rights movement taped to the wall — a study initiated by Open Doors teens. We see a couple of art rooms, a library corner, a movement and music room, and a small kitchen.
Strewn about are bits of love: little wire doodles, a wide selection of teas, cheery handmade signs, art, supplies, quotes and words of wisdom.
Located in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the space is soft, fun, and nurturing.
Rebecca and I sit on the couch with our tea and talk, like humans do. She tells me about some of the students at the center and about her internship at North Star in Massachusetts, the model for Open Doors. (Follow the link for her story about happy teens.)
Rebecca is in her late fifties, petite with shoulder-length neat gray hair and a kind face. Her quiet warmth slowly fills the room and the conversation — she really listens when I speak. A former teacher, she is clearly and solidly passionate about empowering young people with life learning. But, she says, marketing is not her strong suit, and word of Open Doors is not yet reaching many of the teens who need it. We talk about the teens we know are suffering — those with different learning styles; those at high-pressure schools; those are losing their sense of themselves in a sea of peer pressure and expectations.
The Open Doors staff works with each teen to develop their own flexible learning plan — a plan that can often calm the parent who is new to life learning. Here are two of the staff, Rebecca and Adena, getting excited about the possibilities.
The center then gives the teen a place to take classes of their own design and choosing, explore interests, do projects, and meet with other teens.
The family pays the center according to the number of days the teen hangs out there instead of at home. As I look up later, Instead of $8000-$12,000 for a private school that may still be too structured for the miserable teen, the family pays only $1000 – $4000 for a safe and fun place for the teen to hang out, take some classes of interest, and connect with an confident staff who can support their shine. All interested families are welcome; families who cannot pay the full fee are invited to make proposals for alternative contributions
After hearing about Open Doors, I tell Rebecca about our unschooling lives and our homeschooling group (WMEHS, or West Michigan Eclectic Homeschoolers). I tell her how my kids have found their own confidence and a deep sense of themselves through unschooling, and how I enjoy coaching families as they find these new ways of relating and seeing the world.
Sipping my tea on Open Door’s couch, I can feel the possibilities. Rebecca and I talk more, and I do not realize that she is doing some financial calculations behind that quiet smile. Somehow, through that conversation, I am offered the job I was made for. To coach families toward an education that better fits their child. To hold their hand and reassure them in the way that only an experienced unschooler can. To share my own early fears and our eventual confidence and success. To pay forward all the support I’ve received over the years. This is an outreach job that doesn’t feel like a job to me — it feels like a lifeline, for me, for teens, for their families. This is what I do.
This has always been a calling for me — working with families new to life learning. I know for a fact that certain teens’ lives are made better — certain teens’ lives are saved — by any move they can make toward claiming their own education and their own lives.
In his TEDx talk, former teacher and North Star founder Ken Danford says this: “At North Star, we have, at the very least, done no harm to our teens. I could not say that when I was a public school teacher.” There are so many families who just are not able, for whatever reason, to commit on their own to unschooling. Centers like Open Doors and North Star open each teen to those moments in which she can feel completely like herself, and her parents can see it.
So I made arrangements to meet more Open Doors staff, and eventually teens. I nailed down the specifics of the offer and a start date. In short, I did all those jobbish things I needed to do.
And then Rebecca, Adena, and I celebrated my new position with a gluten-free granola bar and a candle.
Yep, I think I’m going to like it here.
Recently, while I was cooking dinner, my husband read an article to me from one of his many sailing magazines about a family who chose to spend 5 years sailing the open seas. What most caught my attention were the first few sentences:
When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. “If you think Mary should open the spooky door, turn to page 16. If you think Mary should turn away from the haunted house, turn to page 23.” I always read my way through all of the possible outcomes, cheering for characters who escaped the monsters with treasures in hand, and shaking my head at those who stuck to safe choices, too afraid to take a chance at the spooky door. Now that I live my own Cruse Your Own Adventure, I have mastered the agony of choice in the real world as well; although, in the end there is really only one fundamental decision in cruising: If you want to stay home, turn to page 48; if you want to move onto a boat, turn to page 11. I still remember how immense that choice felt when my husband and I were first kicking the idea around. As soon as we turned to page 11, though, we realized that we’d just jumped off a skyscraper only to land on a ledge three feet down. We were safe. We had signed on for a frustrating, exhausting and rewarding life, only to find that every page we turned to was a good one. The hard part wouldn’t be escaping the monsters – it would be having to let so many good choices go.
Immediately I thought of how closely this parallels choosing to “Opt Out and Jump In” to choosing and creating your own learning adventure. Because School is such an ingrained part of our culture, to most folks choosing a different option feels VERY risky. Though in many ways very rational and logical, it still feels like “jumping off a cliff”. It is, in fact, an immense, life changing decision. Yet, rather than jumping off a cliff, it is much more like plunging into a pool….. of enlivened learning, free to swim toward those wonders which draw you… encouraging you to Be you and explore the best direction for Your life.
You truly can Choose your Own Learning Adventure. Just turn the page.
In 1965, soon after John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail, was published, a teacher wrote to him, saying, in effect,
I have just read your book, and like it. But there is something you don’t know, that you should know. For over thirty years I have been teaching in the public schools of New York City. For over thirty years, along with my fellow teachers, I have been going to educational conferences, and training sessions, and workshops, to hear countless leaders in education talk, as you do, about the dignity of the child, and the importance of individual differences, and of fostering positive self-concepts, and building on the interests of the child, and letting the child learn from curiosity rather than fear. And for thirty years I and my fellow teachers, as we went back to our classrooms, have said to ourselves, “Well, back to reality,” and have gone on doing just what we had done all along which was to try to bribe, scare, and shame children into learning what someone else had decided they ought to know.
I, too, could have written these words to Mr. Holt when I was teaching in the public system. I would have added that my enthusiasm in learning new techniques which promised to deliver what I so believed in would have fortified me to “Instill change!” .. going back to my classroom with excitement and determination. Until they, too, failed. The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot respectfully force someone to learn or meet the individual needs of 20 – 30 people at the same time.
THE GOOD NEWS IS we don’t have to do that. Instead we CAN honor the dignity of humanity, appreciate individual differences, foster positive self-concept, and allow the teen to explore his/her interests and learn from his/her curiosity rather than from fear. There is a great option. We have the FREEDOM to educate outside of the traditional school system. It’s called “Home Schooling” and Open Doors is here to help you make that happen.