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.

Open Doors Introduces The Geek Group

By Jacob Sabourin

Things are changing fast at Open Doors. It’s a good thing.

 

In our last blog post this summer, “The Future of Open Doors,” Maddie and I detailed our two-year progression from an upstart homeschool resource center to a Youth-Driven Space. We are now proud to announce the next phase of Open Doors’ existence: our absorption into The Geek Group.

 

The Geek Group is a non-profit educational organization based in Grand Rapids with more than 26,000 members worldwide. It is the largest non-profit makerspace in the world. Moving forward, we will function as a department of The Geek Group out of their makerspace located at 902 Leonard St. NW. For more information about The Geek Group, visit their website at thegeekgroup.org.

 

So what’s great about this move?

  • Open Doors will function exactly as it always has. We will continue to provide teens the opportunity to self-direct their own learning, work on their own projects, build a community amongst themselves, and make impactful decisions within that community.

 

  • Teens at Open Doors have a new space to make their home-away-from-home. And it is cool. Instead of an office building, teens will now have room to make messes, explore a labyrinth of rooms teeming with robots, 3-D printers, pool and air hockey tables, art and music studios, and Tesla coils. Open Doors itself will be based out of an old chemistry lab in the building.

 

  • Our teens will have access to a whole slew of human resources at The Geek Group. This includes the entire 26,000-plus member base, of all ages and demographics, who are all working on their own projects and have their own areas of expertise. Some Geek Group staff members have already begun classes with our teens in animation and creative writing. The possibilities for further connections within The Geek Group community have only just peeked over the horizon.

 

  • Open Doors teens are currently working on a project called Kinder Being, an effort to bring diversity and anti-bullying education to elementary and middle schoolers in Grand Rapids. The Geek Group is already providing an outlet for their ideas.

 

In short, the move to the Geek Group will provide teens a heretofore unseen opportunity to get messy, make mistakes, use their imaginations, and grow as learners and people. We are excited to begin this new chapter in our quest to provide a new kind of space for teen learning and community in Grand Rapids.

 

If you have any questions regarding The Geek Group or any other changes happening at Open Doors, feel free to email Jacob at Jacob@opendoorsforteens.org or Rebecca at Rebecca@opendoorsforteens.org.

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.

A Note from Parents

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

a happy teen member
Laughing in Film Studies Class

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 Day inside Open Doors

One blustery morning last week, some teen members gathered at Open Doors, as they do regularly, to chat and learn together. Here’s a peek into the goings-on.

In a continuing class about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, we saw footage of the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, complete with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs. It was sobering stuff.

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The personal finance class covered balancing one’s checkbook.  The teens had done some research at local banks to see how they could open checking accounts, so this was useful information to have as they take steps forward.

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In the Wild Edibles class we reviewed a few winter edibles.  We found out we can brew White Pine needles into a tea if we need a source of Vitamin C, though the taste might not measure up to a cuppa at your favorite coffee house.

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We also learned how to harvest the cambium of a fallen tree for a source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C.  The cambium is the sap-moving layer inside the bark, which can be gathered and dried to make a flour for simple cakes.

We wrapped up the day with Film Studies and a viewing of Brick, an early Rian Johnson film.  (You may know the name Rian Johnson from films like The Brothers Bloom and Loopers.)  Bruce, seated in the middle, is a local director and our passionate leader in the area of all things film.

Bruce and kids on Brick

Brick is film noir set in a modern L.A. high school.  Released in 2005, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his first serious roles after his 3rd Rock from The Sun fame.  As our members said afterwards, “Wow, a movie about high school that isn’t crap.  That’s amazing!” and “Emotions!  I’m having so many emotions after watching that!”  It was a compelling film, and the discussion of it this week promised to be just as world-expanding.

Swirling around the informal classes were conversations about video games, bullying, vacations, jobs, writing, and more.  It is such a joy to see our members engaged in their learning and their lives.  Come see for yourself.

Open houses are at noon on the second Monday of every month.

Evening fun events are at 7:00 p.m. on the third Thursday.

You can also call 616.965.6968, or come visit us when it’s convenient in Eastown at 1324 Lake Drive.

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New Outreach Director

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.

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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.

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Strewn about are bits of love:  little wire doodles, a wide selection of teas, cheery handmade signs, art, supplies, quotes and words of wisdom.

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Located in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the space is soft, fun, and nurturing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Yep, I think I’m going to like it here.

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