Throughout this three-month, ten-thousand-mile journey, aside from enjoying the adventure, we’ve also managed to insert time for my research work (an adventure in itself!) and visited fourteen schools and centers which offer or promote an alternative form of education. I’d usually observe or talk to the teachers, students and parents, but number fifteen on the list-of-places-to-visit is quite unique because a forum happened to be scheduled on May 31st, coincidentally three days before our departure. How in the earth was I going to miss that? The Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) in New Jersey held a panel discussion with teenagers and young adults sharing their non-traditional high school education and how it’s possible to go to college and have a career despite the unusual path.
While waiting for the forum to start, I sat chatting with the person beside me who happened to be a teacher at PLC. Katy quit teaching in a public school after fifteen years because she refused to be a proctor during state tests. She is not against all standardized test but she protests the way data is used and how the process is data-driven rather than people-oriented. For her, education is not a business and tests can’t evaluate what’s most important. Test results are not a true reflection of students’ capabilities. She is much happier now at PLC seeing students directing their own education rather than being dictated from above.
When the forum started, Alison introduced the four young people who unfurled their stories: Jacob, Kennedy, Nathaniel and Cameron.
When Jacob’s mom told him about PLC, a school that gave no grades and had Wednesdays off, Jacob was eager to sign up. He discovered that those perks were not the true advantage of being at PLC. It was being able to spend time the way he wanted which was immersing himself in music, writing songs, being in two bands and even taking classes at the community college.
Kennedy is also into music and her dad is in the field of education. Sometimes, it’s odd to be in a radical place like PLC when your own dad is involved in traditional school but the bottomline is that it’s a great fit for Kennedy being at PLC. She plans to get a degree in music and expand her clientele base in music teaching.
When Nathaniel entered PLC, he thought he wanted to be an architect so PLC looked for a volunteer local architect to teach him. Nathaniel gradually realized, it was not the field for him and discovered something else. He eventually got a personal training, CPR, first aid and wilderness certificates and plans to study Health and Exercise Science at the Colorado State University.
Cameron had health issues that made her dread going out. She missed so many classes in school so her parents found PLC but even then, she was reluctant to go. Only after a while did she start warming up to the PLC community thanks to a persevering mentor. She took classes in photography, philosophy, emotional intelligence and art and is now training to be a yoga teacher.
Somebody in the forum asked about how they position themselves in college applications. It is no longer a handicap to be homeschooled nowadays. Since PLC does not give out grades, the student has to come up with a narrative transcript and write a self-evaluation. They categorize the classes that they’ve taken in and out of PLC and put them into an acceptable format with the guidance of their mentor. Students at PLC have taken placement tests and SATs to get into college.
Each PLC member meets weekly with mentors to discuss individual goals, issues, track progress and troubleshoot problems. It can be more or less an hour depending on the need.
The participation of parents is important in PLC where family meetings are held three times a year for each member. Among many other things so unlike regular school, the students appreciate that there’s no detention. Whenever a problem comes up, they have to discuss and resolve it together. In real life, there is no detention. The members of PLC respect that every teen wants to be in PLC so abuse of freedom is not common as long as they keep in their hearts the key words painted on the colorful table at the center of their space: encourage, include, contribute, respect and empathize. It’s simply an inspiring, nurturing and beautiful place to be that allows you to be you. That sounds pie-in-the-sky, too-good-to-be-true. Is there a downside?
Having free, unstructured time could be a challenge in the beginning and each one grapples with time management and owning choices. One panelist said that it’s a challenge having to transition from a fully supportive community to having none in the outside world but since they are equipped with tools to handle situations as they come, it’s not a major problem. There is a feeling of isolation also as they see their other friends in regular schools prepare for graduation so they have to tell themselves that their path is different and unique.
How is graduation done at PLC? Everyone says something about the graduate, speaking about how they made a difference in their life and you can imagine how that could end up in tears.
Nathaniel used the caterpillar in a cocoon metaphor. If one cuts the cocoon too early, the butterfly doesn’t develop. The caterpillar must be allowed to stay in the cocoon and the butterfly will emerge naturally through it’s own bidding. For me, the cartoon that hits a home run for self-directed education is a Calvin and Hobbes strip stuck to a post in the central common space at PLC.
Calvin: When a kid grows up, he has to be something. He can’t just stay the way he is. But a tiger grows up and stays a tiger. Why is that?
Hobbes: No room for improvement.
They both pause and contemplate.
Calvin: Of all the luck, my parents had to be humans.
Hobbes: Don’t take it too hard. Humans provide some very important protein.
Some people have a difficult time grasping this aberrant-looking form of so-called education like the PLC. We are all expected by society to perform and get good grades in school and “be someone” when we grow up. There’s not much economic gain to merely “being.” However, places like PLC show that if you nurture somebody to grow naturally towards the direction that he or she seeks, things fall into place in its own time.
Know more about self-directed education and PLC:
I was very fortunate that on my visit to PLC that my husband came and shot the video of the forum. I’ve tried uploading it onto Youtube but the file is too big so I have yet to figure how to cut it up. But do check out this video on how PLC works.