A Synthesis: Alternative Schools Visited on Our Road Trip

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Having lived in China for more than eight years, I was introduced to the problems and deficiencies of the educational system from horror stories told by students in the university where I taught for two years.  After seeing the worrying effects on students’ lives and attitudes, I feared my own children languishing in the system and didn’t want the light in their eyes to go out.  My anxiety about the rigidity of schooling transformed into an eager and passionate curiosity to research non-traditional forms of education such as Waldorf, democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling and Finland’s much-admired model.  As a mother of two, I wanted to understand best practices for my children hoping to expose them to broader and liberating opportunities.

My husband and I decided to embark on our dream to drive around the world which, in its earliest planning stage was a continuous loop that soon evolved into segmented portions.  Last year, we drove from the north to south of China as well as visited the Green School in Bali, Indonesia.  To launch my research, my Chinese friend, Donna and I attended the first Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) held in Taiwan.

This year, for a little over three months and over 10,000 miles, my husband, two sons and I drove from San Francisco to New York, using and eventually selling the pick-up truck we purchased at the starting line.  Aside from staying with friends, fellow worldschoolers and camping at National Parks, we visited various alternative schools along the way.

To get a handle on the range of schools visited, some of which are not technically schools, the diagram below locates each one within the spectrum from traditional to progressive to self-directed.  This spectrum is also echoed in homeschooling which runs the gamut from following a strict and formal curriculum to having none at all, the curriculum being the child himself or herself.

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My interest in the examples between traditional and progressive and between progressive and self-directed lie in the possibilities of bridging traditional and self-directed paths.  For parents who may not be comfortable in going all the way to the extreme end of unschooling or fully self-directed education, the progressive alternatives do offer a degree of self-direction, albeit limited and provide innovations that could be applied in traditional and public schools.  For instance, laboratory schools like the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute in Toronto, deliver a platform to test, implement and disseminate education tools and methods that could lessen the negative impacts of traditional schools.  The Metropolitan School may look like a regular public school on the outside but it has more features shared with the Northstar model for SDE than with regular high schools.  The students can take community college courses and work more days a week than they actually “attend” school.

As a parent, I personally fall into this group needing a bridge between two polar opposites.  A product of Catholic education from gradeschool to high school to university, I carry old habits and attitudes that may take some time to change even though I admire those who practice SDE.

Choosing the schools to visit came from hours of googling, watching TED Talks and networking at the APDEC.  I was so excited to visit the Tinkering School after watching Gever Tully’s TED Talk.  Even if I didn’t get to visit the original in San Francisco, I was grateful that the Brooklyn Apple Academy had one that Tully himself was involved with.

Self-Directed Schools and Centers

For this article, I shall focus on the self-directed schools and centers which we visited in the United States and which I shall group in these five main categories:

  1. Free School – Albany Free School
  2. Center for Homeschoolers – Macomber Center, Brooklyn Apple Academy
  3. Agile Learning Center – ALC New York
  4. Self-Directed Center for High Schoolers – North Star for Self Directed Learning for Teens, Princeton Learning Cooperative
  5. Sudbury School

What unites these schools is that the teachers, founders and staff experienced disillusionment with the status quo and have made the transition from a traditional school to their present work where they feel more joy and fulfillment as educator-mentor-facilitator.  Ken Danford’s bold and courageous move from public school to establishing an SDE model for teens that has existed for more than two decades is to a certain extent, mirrored by the teachers at the Albany Free School who are happier in an environment where students don’t feel coerced.

The teachers or staff could have also made the switch from one alternative (e.g. Sudbury or Free School) to another (e.g. center for homeschoolers or ALC) where they followed their hearts which sought something more attuned to their personal philosophies.

ALC is gaining traction deserving its own category as it opens up more branches within and outside America.  It may be a kind of “Sudbury” growing its own brand, inspired by the high tech IT industry.

Although I wasn’t able to visit a Sudbury school, I was still able to get to the office of the original one in Framingham.  Some people who worked at a Sudbury school shared some points they did not agree with such as discouraging parental involvement and how “democratic” meetings can be abused.

ALC in tune with being agile, keeps meetings to a minimum and they don’t vote on issues but instead go with the spirit of the discussion.  Although, some students still think of it as a way of voting, in terms of length and content, there’s still a big difference between the meetings that take place in a Sudbury and an ALC school.

Just as the teachers found an oasis for their practice of SDE, the students are also grateful for the alternative with some feeling “rescued” from the prison of four-walled classrooms.  There are also students who have never been exposed to anything but SDE, with their parents believing firmly in this form of learning from the get-go.  The parents who talked to me were excited about the empowering quality of SDE.  One father wanted to start his own homeschooling center for their area.

There are two big categories of SDE’s that I found on this trip:

  1. A school that is a kind of “unschool” – Democratic, Free, Sudbury, ALC
  2. A center or resource center for homeschoolers and unschoolers – Macomber, North Star, Princeton Learning Cooperative

In the “school” type, the kids go to school five times a week and there are still the requisite documentation for the education board.  For instance, ALC still has to fit the things that they do within state regulations.  The second type emphasizes that they are not a school but they provide resources and opportunities for socialization and self-development, but for the kids, these are simply places where they can be themselves without pressure and expectation.

What do they do the whole day?

Most people including me could not imagine what goes on in this type of school or center.  “How can you possibly let loose young children?” somebody asked me adding “Maybe high school age kids but not six-year olds.”  The best way to understand would be to visit one yourself.  If you are contemplating to send your child to one, they usually have a one week trial period to let the child decide if it is a good fit.

What do they do the whole day?  They could be playing minecraft, practicing on an instrument, building with Lego, attending a class being offered that day or offered weekly, hanging out, lounging around, reading a book, talking with other kids, teaching others how to code, playing football, baking cookies or bread, planting in the garden, going on a field trip, going to the park, asking questions, meeting with a mentor, organizing a class they want, and before you know it, the day is done and it’s time to go home and they don’t know where the time went.  What they are NOT doing is getting stuck in a classroom staring at the clock on the wall waiting for the school bell to ring dismissal time.

How do they learn to read and write?  At their own pace using their own way, by themselves or with the help of others.  What about math?  They pick it up naturally or they can opt to attend basic math classes offered like in the Albany Free School.

The Brooklyn Apple Academy and the Macomber Center both serve homeschooled kids but one is in tight quarters at the second floor of a building in the midst of Brooklyn while the other is on a sprawling piece of rolling land where kids have so much green space to run around and play ball.

The centers for high school age students like North Star and Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) both have a one-on-one, very personalized quality to the education.  Each student has a counselor with whom he or she meets once a week.  You know how some schools claim they tailor fit education to the student but actually, they still use the cookie-cutter, factory method with a euphemistic label?  In North Star and PLC, you can really see how it is personalized.  One-on-one tutorials are arranged as requested or agreed upon.  I was fortunate to attend a forum at the PLC where a panel of four teenagers shared their stories of creating their own paths without formal schooling.

 The Affordability of Alternatives

Sometimes, the alternatives are not within the reach of people with ordinary incomes.  Think of Elon Musk’s Ad Astra, the AltSchools in Silicon Valley and international schools like the United World College and Green School.  It is truly admirable how progressive schools like the High Tech High and Metropolitan schools are able to provide radical options within the public school system.

Expanding on this, is it possible to stretch public financing to democratic schools and homeschooling centers?  The democratic schools in Israel have achieved this, but democratic schools in America tend to think that freedom would be compromised if they accept government funding.  A worldschooler in Canada informed me that they could deduct homeschooling expenses from their taxes.

Private democratic schools are usually smaller and tuition fees vary.  They are usually less expensive than the typical private school.  ALC has a scaled tuition fee according to income.  Depending on their personal preference and economic means, homeschooling families can choose how many times a week they send their children to centers like Macomber or Brooklyn Apple Academy.  North Star prides itself as never having turned down anyone who has knocked on their doors.  To enable them to continue this type of service to the community, they do a lot of creative fundraising.  North Star and ALC also help others set up their own SDE center while Sudbury Valley School sells a start-up kit.

Visiting all these alternative schools and centers in the U.S.A. has made me more curioius about alternatives in third world countries especially those that are within easy reach of common people.  Except for Raya School, the progressive schools in Manila tend to be more expensive than regular private schools and there are no democratic or SDE schools at all.  However, there is the Gopala Learning Haven which is a center for homeschoolers located in a farm setting.

In China and the Philippines, there are people who believe in progressive education with Waldorf and Montessori as viable options but SDE still falls under the radar or seems too revolutionary.  People can’t believe there are schools where students don’t have to go to class unless they want to.  The structure and curriculum offered by progressive schools still serve as the security blanket that an SDE would not have and the bigger, unknown variables may scare people off.  No grades?  No tests?  What is your measure of a good education?

When asked about testing and assessment at the APDEC 2016 round table discussion, Peter Gray said that he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society?  None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.

In the future, I’d like to research about the affordability and accessibility of SDE centers in other countries.  I’d like to fill up a world-wide map with pins of more schools and centers visited.  The road trip through America showed me the abundant variety of options available that sadly are not as accessible in countries like China or the Philippines.  Through the growing networks of self-directed learning advocates, that reality will hopefully change soon.

Web Links:

Albany Free School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/the-free-school-in-albany/
Macomber Center https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/dream-of-macomber/
North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/helping-teens-thrive-without-school/
Brooklyn Apple Academy https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/tinkering-at-last/
Agile Learning Center https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/infinite-agility/
Princeton Learning Cooperative https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/tigers-humans-and-sde/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/thanks-carl/

Green School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/12/12/we-made-it-to-the-green-school/
United World College South East Asia https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/rave-rave-about-the-light/
High Tech High School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/baby-stepping-forward/
Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/whats-possible-in-education/
Metropolitan School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/power-unicorns-and-keegan-creatures/
Classical Conversation Homeschoolers https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/three-bonuses-plus/
Alternative Education Resource Organization https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/aeros-hero/
Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/more-apdec-photos/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/magic-groove/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/please-mom-can-i-go-to-summerhill-please-please-pretty-please-with-sugar-sprinkles-on-top/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/opening-up/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/at-the-roundtable/

Democratic Schools around the world https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/democratic-education-around-the-world/
Gopala Learning Haven https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/tag/gopala-learning-haven/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/go-gopala-go-go-gopala/

Following is the list of schools and centers that I have toured including those in my home country, the Philippines.

Between Traditional and Progressive
Chinese Immersion Program, Madison Elementary School St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA
Classical Conversation Homeschooler St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA
Incubator School Los Angeles, USA
Urban Homeschoolers Los Angeles, USA
Manila Waldorf School San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines
Acacia Waldorf School Sta. Rosa, Cavite, Philippines
Green School Bali, Indonesia
United World College South East Asia Singapore
Temple Hill International School (Montessori) Quezon City, Philippines
Progressive
High Tech High School San Diego, USA
Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School Toronto, Canada
Between Progressive and Self-Directed
Metropolitan School Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Self-Directed
Albany Free School Albany, New York, USA
Macomber Center Framingham, Massachusetts, USA
North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA
Brooklyn Apple Academy Brooklyn, New York, USA
Agile Learning Center New York, New York, USA
Princeton Learning Cooperative Princeton, New Jersey
Holistic Education School Miaoli, Taiwan
Gopala Learning Haven (Interest-Led Learning) Silang, Cavite, Philippines
Other Resources
826 Valencia (a resource center for young writers) San Francisco, USA
Alternative Education Resource Organization Rocklin, New York, USA
Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (2016) Miaoli, Taiwan
Got Only till the Front Door
Sudbury Valley School (Self-Directed) Framingham, Massachusetts, USA
Tinkering School at Brightworks School San Francisco, USA
Keys School (Progressive) Mandaluyong, Philippines
Raya School (Progressive) Quezon City, Philippines
Beacon School (Progressive) Taguig, Philippines

 

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Thanks, Carl!

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Woohoo!  After weeks of trying, the video Jason took of the forum at the Princeton Learning Cooperative has successfully been uploaded into YouTube by my brother, Carlo. For those who want to know more about how self-directed education works among teenagers, here are the stories of four young people who took that unconventional route:

Princeton Learning Cooperative Teen Forum Part 1

Princeton Learning Cooperative Teen Forum Part 2

Rave, Rave about the Light

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If money was not a factor, what kind of education would parents choose for their children?  A private, progressive or international school with world-class facilities, a low teacher to student ratio and teachers with sterling qualification, progressive-minded leadership that recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and strikes a balance between disciplined and student-directed learning?  While undertaking this research, I came across a few students from International Schools in Singapore, New York and Manila who make me wonder about the students who do thrive, excel and are happy in school with a tuition fee that’s prohibitive to most people.  I wonder about the school’s methods which combine a structured approach with a degree of interest-led learning through the wider-than-normal-range of choices and opportunities they offer.

My friend, Mew Yee’s daughter, Ning goes to the United Nations International School in Manhattan and at age sixteen, she spearheaded a project to teach children how to make props and sets for theater productions. Ning wrote, “. . . . I am a total theater geek.  But, I have never stepped on a stage to perform in my life.  Ever since I was 11, I loved to create, sculpt, paint, polish and design props and sets for shows.  When I thought about doing WIT for a business, I immediately thought about investing in my personal passion for theater.  My business, Set the Scene, aims to do just that – set the scene for 4th and 7th grade elementary school kids to learn backstage theater skills.”

These are the notes Ning makes for her class:

Crazy, huh?   Crazy, fun, free-to-be-me creative.  Every parent wishes that sort of self-discovery and enjoyment when their kids go to school – not dragging their feet through the mud but finding and stretching their wings to fly on their own, deriving pleasure in the exercise.

Ning’s sister, fifteen-year old Hue is very talented as well.  She did this and is into music and sports.

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When I met up with my friend, Sofie in Singapore, she introduced me to a family whose three sons attended the United World College.  I had seen the UWC website before and thought maybe, it’s just their online presence that’s impressive.  After hearing two boys rave about their education (the third one was in football practice) and after visiting the UWC premises itself, I was convinced that it was more than a blurb and that they lived it — “We inspire our students to create a more peaceful and sustainable future through education.”  The students visit third world countries and work on actual projects there to help improve people’s lives.  There are no grades in the early years and there is much individual attention and value placed on the uniqueness of each student.  Of course, the complete sports facilities and well-equipped workshops are quite enviable, too.  The boys showed me lamps they made using laser.

I also personally know two young girls who attend the British School of Manila (BSM) who have never praised their school before they started going to BSM.  They previously attended an ultra-strict Chinese school that burdened them with too much homework.  BSM for them, freed them to have a more balanced academic and non-academic life plus learning has become fun rather than a chore and a bore. They were raving about the activities, projects, field trips, teachers and how learning was exciting.

My visits to schools and talks with parents and students are too brief, perhaps too superficial to even make conclusions but they do lead to even more questions like what is the function of economic prosperity in providing good options in education?   To what extent does incorporating a degree of self-directed learning into traditional modes make it a more responsive and effective system?  Are the students happier in these schools that combine the “best of both worlds” — traditional (with a curriculum) and progressive (more freedom and interest-led)?   What can we gather from schools that incorporate varying degrees of self-directed learning that could possibly bridge gaps?   (my notes for future study)

I initiated this independent research on education as a way of grappling with my own fears and apprehensions of being a mother of two boys.  My husband and I tried homeschooling but I am not as convinced as him that this is the way to go because I personally see our sons as thriving more within a consistent and supportive community larger than the immediate family.  I am also more inclined towards a structured way of learning during the earlier years to establish a firm foundation.  This goes against the tenets of SDE (self-directed education) purists so I raised a question during the PLC (Princeton Learning Cooperative) forum of teens who have been shaping their own education path.  What’s their opinion about having a more structured approach during the elementary years?  The young panelists said that it depends on the individual. Some kids might work well within a structure and some might not.  For them, it was important to be a part of a community and it helps to be motivated around friends.

 

 

 

AERO’s Hero

Jerry Mintz is one of the icons of the non-traditional education world having founded the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) in 1989 and having held AERO Conferences for the past twelve years, thus nurturing an international network of passionate change agents.   After visiting fourteen schools and learning centers of varying degrees of progressiveness and radicalism, I felt the pilgrimage to Jerry’s home was a fitting culmination, a mini-graduation of sorts even if I still had one last learning co-op in Princeton to check out.

More than being a fountain of wisdom and experience from being a school principal for seventeen years and running his own catalytic organization, Jerry is simply a guy who loves people.  His home is abuzz with folks, young and old, and he is more than willing to share his love for table tennis with anyone who cares to try like my son, Joshua.   Two people from mainland China coincidentally came that day we visited and they ended up chatting with Jason and showing off their ping pong prowess.  Jerry has a knack for teaching ping pong and if I could place my kids in his homeschool twice a week together, I would knowing what an encouraging and generous guy he is.

Jerry brings out a foldable ping pong table and turns on the robot and Joshua practices with complete glee.   Jerry unfurls a roll of cardboard to cleverly contain the orange balls so they’d be easier to pick up.  Weaving in and out of the rooms, Jimmy plays with a fellow Paw Patrol devotee and monkey bar strongman like him.

Jerry’s place is a treasure trove for alt-ed pilgrims like me itching to find books.   I thought I’d be able to get some books from the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham but they told me to just purchase online.  Seeing Jerry’s bookshelves was a dream come true for me.  I wish Donna, my partner in “ed crime,” was there to choose books and listen to Jerry share stories about his involvement in various efforts around America and the world.

The serendipity as we connect dots in this trip amazes me.  Donna and I met Adler Yang and watched his film, “If There is a Reason to Study” about the condition of Taiwanese education during the APDEC (Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference) last year. Jerry tells me that Adler is expected to arrive in New York end of the month and we could probably meet up again in AERO.

A woman from Ukraine calls Jerry up asking about some alternative schools they plan to visit.  They are also doing a cross-country trip like us while researching about education. When I visit the Agile Learning Center (ALC) a few days after, folks at the ALC tell me the Ukrainians were there a few days before.  The visitors wanted to learn about new methodologies to apply to their school.

Jerry talks about his observations about Sudbury Schools and new models like ALC.   I tell him about the opportunity in the Philippines waiting for me to be part of the Gopala Learning Haven, a center for homeschoolers with an idyllic setting amidst nature.  It’s a difficult decision for me to make because although I want to participate in this process I’ve been researching about and dreaming of, life in China still holds its attraction because things are way, way simpler and less problematic there.   Jerry suggests, maybe we can have a trial period in the Philippines and make no long-term commitments first.

Being a part of this movement, this web is quite exciting and to think it all started over a year ago out of discontent with the education system in China.  Many people’s starting point may be that — a bubbling discontent that pushes issues to the surface to be addressed.  The challenge is what do we do about it in concrete terms that deliver, as Ghandi said, “the change we want to see.”

 

 

Tinkering at Last

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After watching Gever Tully’s TED Talk about the Tinkering School, I wanted Joshua to try it out but we weren’t able to get into the one in San Francisco because enrollment is for a series of sessions and no drop-ins.  So I have been looking forward to the one in New York offered by the Brooklyn Apple Academy because it’s open to homeschoolers and it’s okay to take one class at a time.

Noah Mayer, founder of the Brooklyn Apple did a podcast about wanting to start a microschool and Gever Tully himself got in touch with him and helped him do just that. Now, the Brooklyn Apple is on its fifth year of operation and third year as a homeschool resource center. It started as a one-room schoolhouse with six students.  Noah found that he was not as adept at administrative and bookkeeping matters so he partnered with Cottage Class which is a network for microschools that help them with that side of the equation.

All over the world, teachers are reinventing education by starting independent schools, camps, classes and study groups to meet the needs of the children in their communities.  CottageClass is a community marketplace that connects families with these teacher-founders who are transforming our world.

The goal of CottageClass is to help all children reach their greatest potential through individualized instruction.

An average of eight children drop in the Brooklyn Apple every day.  Aside from four days of Tinkering, they have field trips on Wednesday, Minecraft meet-ups on Fridays and other activities from arts and crafts and stop motion animation and a whole lot of play determined and directed by the kids themselves with teachers there for support and guidance.

The workshop room is a dream come true for tinkerers who can pick up odds and ends and initiate a project, use the drill and other equipment but as Lyman Rhodes reminds, safety is always paramount.  Joshua doesn’t gravitate towards the workroom but ends up making buttons in the crafts room and chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen.  That’s the beauty of self-directed learning.  As his parent, I thought he’d tinker with the machines but instead, he excitedly shows me step by step how he made pins by cut-stamping out a comic book page and producing a button.   Lyman tells me that these cool buttons are sometimes sold by the kids in the bustling, commercial 5th Avenue right outside their building where pedestrians end up supporting the kids’ enterprise.

On the walls of the bathroom, one poster said “Livelyhood without slavery to the money economy.”  The deliberate misspelling points to the sad state of some forms of livelihood that suck the life out of a person, making it all about work for the sake of money rather than for the joy and love of doing the work.  In this age, it puzzles many people when some opt out of the system or refuse to join the rat race but the ones who do that see the world from a different perspective.  The teachers who start and run the microschools also view from an uncommon vantage point so they’d like to offer an alternative to the current education system.  They want to be able to listen better to each child, one child at a time.  They don’t want education to be about grades, test scores and outperforming each other.   They want to give back to childhood what childhood is losing.

Other posts about the Brooklyn Apple:

The Q’s School Tool: Part 4: The Brooklyn Apple Academy

Noah Apple@picbear

A Look at the Brooklyn Apple Academy

And if you just want to know more about microschools:

What’s the Next Big Idea? Microschool Networks

The Return of the One-Room Schoolhouse

The Rise of AltSchool and Other Microschools

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Power Unicorns and Keegan Creatures

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A streamer saying “One of the 13 Most Innovative Schools in the World” greeted us near the entrance to the Metropolitan High School and I hoped they’d let me in even though I didn’t have an appointment.  Priscilla, the receptionist graciously helped me out and eventually, Brian came and introduced me to Rebecca, one of the graduates and Idalys, one of the students.  They toured me around the campus mentioned by President Obama in one of his speeches: “That’s why we’ll follow the example of places like the Met Center (a Big Picture Learning school) in Rhode Island that give students that individual attention, while also preparing them through real-world, hands-on training the possibility of succeeding in a career.”

The school operates like a launch pad to the real world treating students as capable adults who can direct themselves rather than children to be spoon-fed with the state-approved boxed-set of curriculum.  They solve real life problems through projects they choose themselves.  They are involved in community work, give-backs and internships. They have one-on-one advisories instead of a classroom that feels like prison.  They may spend three days a week at the Met and two days outside gaining as much practical experience as they can.  They can shape their own education including being able to take college classes.

In each building, there is a social worker who checks in on the students’ emotional and mental health and sees that they’re educationally on track.  But the heart of the process is the student as the center of learning.

“1) The Advisor works with each individual student in the class to help them discover what interests and motivates them. 2) The Mentor, a lawyer, engineer, small business owner, etc., guides each student’s internship. 3) The Parent is actively enlisted as resource to the Big Picture Learning community.  4) The Student (and fellow students) interact to reinforce each other’s passion for real work in the real world.  The result is a self-teaching community of learners where no one feels left-out, and each helps motivate the other.”

It makes so much sense, you wonder why aren’t more schools switching to this method but there is already a growing number of schools across twenty two states of America which are part of the Big Picture Learning network.  The model has also been adopted in countries like Australia, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands.  The Met in Providence, Rhode Island is the prototype initiated by Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky.

In the schools that Big Picture Learning envisioned, students would be at the center their own education. They would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart  – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.

Both my tour guides, Rebecca and Idalys are passionate about organizing and managing events. Idalys has raised funds through a walkathon in memory of a Met staff member who pass away.  Rebecca currently works at the Black Box Theater, a venue for cultural and community events.

I wonder if there are students who don’t take too well to the unconventional way things are done and Rebecca says that if they enter the system from a traditional school, it may take adjustment but they soon catch on that they’re responsible for what they learn and get out of Met.  A student one time was caught not doing the internship that he was supposed to do so after that incident, measures were placed to avoid abuse of trust and freedom.

We entered the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where Nick introduced us to students who started and grew their own businesses.  John produces ice-cream-inspired candles while Keegan creates his own hand-screened printed art on shirts. Even though he is in high school, Keegan is already involved with the Rhode Island School of Design and aiming to be as prolific as he can be as an artist.  Talking to the students, one can see that they do find their own way in and out of the Met campus.  They grow at their own speed and pace.

Curious about our family road trip and research about education, Nick throws me a question about what impressed me most about the schools and learning centers that we visited.  I told him about being struck by the Macomber and North Star which were technically not schools but informal centers for self-directed learning.  However, visiting the Met that day made me realize how the same self-directed ideal can also take place within a more structured school setting.  What’s even more amazing is this is not a private school.  It’s a public school where students enter by way of lottery.  That means that even though they use quite radical, out-of-the-box methods, they still operate within the system, get state funding and comply with requirements.  Within this typically constricted environment, they are able to break out of the box and do the unthinkable, even the unimaginable.  Except for visionaries like Elliot and Dennis, ideas that seem “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” are most certainly not.

Read about Dennis Littky, the co-founder’s story:  Radical’ Educator Pushes Boundaries and Brings Results: Dennis Littky Story

Profile: Dennis Littky

About Elliot Washor

Check out this book by Elliot Washor: Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates

There are a number of videos, too:

Elliott Washor

Dennis Littky

Ten Minutes about the Littky Method

Personalization and student engagement

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Check out Keegan Creatures on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/keegancreatures/

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Dear Peter

Thank you for helping set me on a path one year ago when I emailed you my PhD proposal and you replied how flattered you were “to be seen as an inspiration along with Thoreau” since my thesis title was “Walden Meets Ken and Gray: Journey as a Search for Knowledge through Nature, Creativity and Play.”  The conceptual framework linked your book, Free to Learn with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Ken Robinson’s Learning to Be Creative.

In your first email to me, you mentioned that you will be in Taiwan in July as a speaker at the Asia-Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC).  Because of you sharing that information, my friend, Donna and I ended up attending that event and after hearing and meeting all these inspiring people, we dreamed of one day holding APDEC in China and the Philippines. We formed a small of group of interested people on Chinese social media but at the back of our minds, we want to someday have an alternative kind of school in our countries.   I thought this wouldn’t happen till further in the future when we’ve done more preparatory work on this field or when we’ve gathered more people passionate about self-directed learning.

However, as I told you during my visit to your house last week, I met Laksmi who started the Gopala Learning Haven that in my mind perfectly fit the picture of a Sudbury School set in nature with its forest and stream but it’s operating concept is more like the Macomber Center because it serves primarily homeschoolers.  You suggested that I visit the Macomber Center during my research in America which I did plus I dropped by the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.  Now, I have this idea that Laksmi can be the one with the younger kids and I’d be the one with the teenagers.

It’s tempting for me to go back home to the Philippines to pursue this dream project but as I told you there are too many family and personal issues that hold me back from returning.  Life in China is simpler and more affordable so it’s the easier path for me, but the opportunity of realizing this dream that has been over a year brewing is not as apparent as the one in my own country.  After talking to you last week, it seemed the only thing as usual holding me back is fear.  After talking to you, I felt courage to take the more challenging route but I don’t know if that courage will last when I step on Philippine soil and beyond.

Even if we have met briefly, you have impacted my life in more ways and for this I am very, very grateful.  You knew about this road trip across America from the start and it’s amazing that we would meet up at your house when we are near the finish line of our three-month journey.   Thank you for welcoming me into your home and for the lovely ham and peanut omelette lunch.  Thank you for listening to me blabber about the schools I visited.  I think Donna is the only other person who could listen to me talk so much about those schools and learning centers.

The PhD concept in the beginning is evolving from something academic to immediately applying research to real life which I think is a good development.  However, I still wish I can write a book about all this that will be published in English and Chinese.  It’s funny how Donna and I were so bent on holding a talk on self-directed learning in Manila but we had to cancel because we needed more time to spend on the camp for Chinese students traveling to the Philippines plus there’s the more practical matter of the learning haven.  So it’s not merely talking about self-directed learning but practicing it and seeing it in action, not just a topic of conversation.

These are my blog entries about the schools and learning centers visited throughout this trip.  There are around five more that I still need to go to in Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/category/researching-education/

I’m visiting AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) in New York and hope I can contribute some articles.  I was wondering if any of these articles would be useful to the websites you are involved with, Alternatives to School and Alliance for Self-Directed Learning, or if I could edit or re-write any of these articles so that it’s in a more useful format to those sites.  Please tell me as I’d love to be contribute in any way possible to the movement.

Thank you very much.

Always,

Joei : )

phd conceptual framework