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.

The Future of Open Doors

Written by Jacob Sabourin & Madison Werley

Open Doors is facing some changes in the near future. Big, exciting, and perhaps overwhelming changes.

At the end of Spring Session this year, our lease at the Carlton Building was up, and it was time to make a decision whether or not to renew it. After much discussion we decided to start the search for a fresh space for Open Doors to call home. In the midst of our search, we received disappointing news: a grant we had been hoping to receive had been declined. Our financial situation was looking bleak.

The same day, Rebecca received an email from the Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor. Their video below left us with goosebumps, and we realized Open Doors had the opportunity to serve teens in ways we had yet to fully realize.

So we visited the Neutral Zone, and witnessed their Youth-Driven Spaces model in action. We saw the incredible and impressive things the teens there are up to, and their pre-established model inspired us to develop a similar culture that would work for our own teen members. We spent the next few weeks working alongside our current teens to devise a plan for the future of Open Doors. Our conditions?

  • Be inclusive of teens of all backgrounds, whether they attend school or not.
  • Keep our mission of improving the lives of self-directed teens in Grand Rapids.
  • Give our members the power to create innovative programs of their own choosing.
  • Allow teens and adult staff to work together to make decisions on behalf of Open Doors.

We believe these changes will benefit the Grand Rapids community in ways heretofore unimaginable. By extending our services into after-school hours and flinging wide the doors to teens of all backgrounds, we will give them a safe, empowering place to call their own. We will be providing a youth community center, created and led by teens, for all teens.

This summer, Open Doors staff will attend a training session at the Neutral Zone on how to effectively create a Teen Advisory Council. We hope to establish our own Council to meet weekly throughout the summer to develop Open Doors into the kind of space teens in our area both want and need. Our current members decided they would like to spend these casual meetings around campfires, trekking through the forest, and otherwise adventurously traipsing.

Are you or a teen you know interested in joining us on our adventures to create an awesome space for Grand Rapids teens? We could use your input! Contact our Program Director, Jacob Sabourin, for more information or to get involved.

If you’re passionate about our mission and what we’re doing, you can also assist Open Doors through monetary donations, volunteering your time, or offering in-kind gifts for our space. Every bit helps!

Thank you for your continued support, and make sure to check back often to stay up-to-date on our progress.

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When Things Don’t Go as Planned

by Madison Werley

The foundation on which Open Doors was founded is that learning is enjoyable when done by choice, and that teens should have the option to pursue whichever passions they desire.

Our staff believes that those who take control of their education will get much more out of it, which is the guiding principle behind everything we do. We are here simply to assist the teens in their pursuit of education. Sometimes this means through teaching, yes, but more so our staff serves to guide, ignite, support, motivate, and inspire our members. We like to challenge the teens, to push them to be their best and help them make important connections as they explore their desires.

In theory, this all sounds great, right? I wholeheartedly support these ideas, and get inspired myself just thinking about them. But sometimes, it’s a real challenge to put this theory into practice.

Dr. Seuss had it right! At Open Doors, we believe teens should have the power to decide which way to go.
Dr. Seuss had it right! At Open Doors, we believe teens should have the power to decide which way to go.

As someone with an educational background unlike the kind that happens here, I often need a reminder that our members are, ultimately, self-directed. This means I must accept that some of the things exciting and inspiring to me can have the opposite effect on our teens. This means I must accept that sometimes the members will want my help, and sometimes they will simply want nothing to do with me. This means I must accept that the control is not mine, and that the teens have to power to say yes, or to say no. And all of that is not only okay, but encouraged here at Open Doors.

The past few weeks, Rebecca, Jacob and I were planning a mid-winter change of events. We wanted to create a week to switch things up, have some fun, and spend quality time as a group. After a lot of brainstorming on Rebecca and Jacob’s part, we decided on the idea of “Masquerade Island Coup d’etat,” a playful way to remind the teens of the power they hold here, and to hopefully get them to work together to create the atmosphere they want for Open Doors.

After a lot of planning between the three of us, including creating a new game from scratch (not an easy thing to do!), I went into the week with some excited jitters. I was so hopeful that everything we worked on would go over well with the teens, and that they would have fun and bond together like we hoped.

In our created game, Jacob and Rebecca got to try on some good looks.
In our created game, Jacob and Rebecca got to try on some pretty good looks.

Well, to make a long story short, nothing went quite as we planned. Our game did not go over well, our plans for Wednesday fell through altogether, and the whole week looked different than we intended. And yet somehow, at the end of the day Thursday, Rebecca, Jacob and I looked at each other, exhausted but relieved, as we realized the teens may not have followed our plans, but instead they took their own path to team-building and working together.

See, the teens really know what they’re doing here. They’re a group of motivated and talented kids, and they know what they’re good at and what they enjoy. These are things that we, as a staff, know and accept, but sometimes we just seem to forget. While we had the best intentions with our plans for the week, we were leaving out an integral part–what the teens really wanted.

But it all worked out. Why? Not because we had it right, but because the teens had it right. Our teens understood the purpose of the week, and though they strayed from our original plans, they found their own way to that point with little need for our guidance, staying true to their self-directed nature.

“Masquerade Island Coup d’etat” was exactly the reminder I needed. There are always exciting and powerful things happening here at Open Doors, even though they often look different than what I am used to or what I expect. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

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.

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.

‘Snow’vember Happenings

This month, we had a first for Open Doors–a snow day! And in November, no less! Amidst the unpredictable Michigan weather, however, our teens have still found time for some fun, hands on learning. Check it out below:

Our teen members enjoy the homey feel to our space.
Our teen members enjoying the homey feel to our space.
The duct tape class is creating a homemade hammock--made entirely out of duct tape!
The duct tape class is creating a homemade hammock–made entirely out of duct tape!
The artist and his work: a fun, one-of-a-kind centerpiece!
The artist and his work: a fun, one-of-a-kind centerpiece made by one of our members!
Another view of the centerpiece. Isn't it great?
Another view of the centerpiece. Isn’t it great?
One of the classes offered at Open Doors is Zentangle, a relaxing and meditative form of art.
One of the classes offered at Open Doors is Zentangle, a relaxing and meditative form of art.
Our members are the greatest!
Our members are the greatest!
The finishing touches on the duct tape hammock!
Time for the finishing touches on the duct tape hammock!
Madison and the interns hard at work! Who needs a desk, anyway?
Madison and the interns hard at work. Who needs a desk, anyway?
Fun with light and shadows.
Fun with light and shadows.

As always, if you would like to see more, please join us at one of our open houses, held the second Monday of every month. Or contact a staff member. Or simply stop by. We would love to share what we’re doing with you and your teen!

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.

As in Princeton, So in Eastown

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!

To see how it works in person, come to an event, or give us a call.  If you love what you see and want to help, you can donate here.

Choose Your Own Learning Adventure

cave of timeRecently, 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.

Rebecca

desolation 304 phil's place