If You Build It Will They Come

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If you build it, will they come?  Will they really, really come if you provide them with the opportunities for real, not just-a-blurb-in-the-brochure, truest-sense-of-the-word self-directed education?  Why would I pay for self-directed education if by nature of the word self-directed means you can do it by oneself?   You don’t have to.  You are free to choose.   You can homeschool.  You can unschool.  You can stay in school.  What we provide is an option for those who think this route reverberates with their spirit and the spirit of their child.

Abot Tala Center for Self Directed Learning seeks to provide the following:

MENTORSHIP

  1. Our goal is to support you as an individual so you are THRIVING.  Given the right conditions, humans are amazing!
  2. Each member will be given a mentor whom you will meet with you at least once a week, offering some guidance, a lot of listening, and a helpful perspective. We will work with your parents on how they can support you as a self-directed learner.
  3. It’s always good to set goals and have a plan. In weekly meetings with your mentor, small group meetings and on your own, you can set long and short-term goals. Since the only guarantee in life is change, the planning part is often quite interesting.
  4. You will be encouraged to keep notes and narratives of your work. It’s helpful to step back once you’ve worked for a while to see your process & your progress. Ask yourself how you are doing? You know best.
  5. You will have access to an electronic portfolio system designed specifically for SDL learners. You can experiment with multimedia options as you build your portfolio to best represent who you are. Consider sharing your insights, knowledge, and skills.
  6. Your portfolio (evidence of your insights, knowledge, & skills) will be your ticket to higher education, employment, and or all sorts of entrepreneurial adventures.
  7. Community members will provide additional mentorships, such as sharing a hobby or skill like rock climbing, improvisational theater and chess.
  8. Our focus is on individuals and their particular strengths, needs, and goals. We meet teens where they are and support them in becoming whomever they want to be. Rather than focusing on weaknesses, we ask: “What are you good at? What do you love to do?” and build from there.
  9. By having more personal autonomy – while working within the community – teens can practice leadership, communication and collaboration skills in real ways that reflect what they will need later in life.
  10. Mentoring relationships are at the heart of Abot Tala. Each teen is matched with one of the staff, who sets aside time to meet individually each week. It’s hard to overestimate the importance for young people to be heard and known and not just feel like a number. Having a caring, supportive and knowledgeable adult as an ally helps teens to make the most of their time at Abot Tala.
  11. Mentors help connect young people to the learning opportunities in the center, online and in the wider community. We help them keep track of what they learn and the experiences that they have for whatever next steps they are planning to take after Abot Tala.

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CLASSES, WORKSHOPS AND TUTORIALS

  1. Classes represent the interests and passions, interests and expertise of our core staff and extended staff of volunteers. There are a wide range of topics. Most classes have fewer than 10 students.
  2. Rather than attempt to fulfill any particular curriculum, we ask our staff (mentor-facilitators) to share the topics that excite them.
  3. We have a core staff of caring professionals and a large, extended staff composed of interns, and community volunteers.
  4. All classes and workshops are optional and open to every member. Classes vary in length, format, and content.
  5. The format of each class can vary significantly as well, again depending on the vision of the leader as well as the input of the students. We encourage all members to learn about and try as many classes as they can. Once a student decides to be a regular participant of a class, we expect commitment.
  6. There are no grades or punishments, but we expect class members to communicate with the teacher regarding attendance and other issues and to fulfill any requirements such as readings, research, or other assignments.
  7. Some classes will ask for and expect a considerable amount of work to happen outside of class time while others will be more limited. This is made clear in the class description and by the teacher and should be taken into consideration by the student deciding to join the group.
  8. Individual one-on-one meetings are available in a variety of subjects. These are not listed on the calendar. Each teen talks with his or her advisor about what meetings might be helpful and schedules them around other commitments.
  9. Some classes will ask for and expect a work/practice to happen outside of class time, while others will be less directed. This will be made clear in the class description.
  10. Teens can also request to lead a class of their own creation. The teen will present an outline and expectations of the class with a staff member and pitch the class to other members
  11. Teens sometimes lead classes without adults. In addition, members frequently ask for the creation of certain classes and participate in the planning.

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 WHAT’S AFTER ABOT TALA?

  1. Parents usually have questions related to university and career. What steps do we need to take to apply to college? How does a young person get working papers so they can get a job? We can help families do whatever you have questions about. We schedule three routine family meetings throughout the year, but you can get all the help and support you need with just a phone call or email to your child’s mentor.
  2. Many people are astounded by the huge number of opportunities there are for young people to learn independently of the traditional school system. We act as both the provider and connector to this world of possibility.
  3. Many parents worry that leaving traditional schools to use self-directed education will somehow limit the opportunities or choices their children have after they leave Abot Tala. Nothing could be further from the truth!
  4. A large majority of our members plan to attend college after their time with Abot Tala. Many people are surprised that teens who don’t attend school can go to college. There are a growing number of Filipino families who homeschool their children. Our mentors help young people document the learning that they do and create a narrative transcript that translates that into a form colleges understand.
  5. The second most common next step for our members is either to enter the working or entrepreneurial world. Young people can use the flexibility and control offered by self-directed education to start learning the skills needed to be successful in a given career. Instead of squeezing your interests into “after-school” time, you can work on your interests as the main focus of your education.

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OTHER IMPORTANT POINTS

  1. We intentionally keep the community small, no more than 30 or so at capacity. We want everyone’s voice to matter and not feel like they are just a cog in a machine.
  2. While not perfect, we work really hard to keep Abot Tala community a welcoming and inclusive community where people are respected for who they are. For young people who are coming from a hard social situation in school, the friends and acceptance that they find in the Abot Tala community can be the most valuable experience they have.
  3. Days are set aside for trips and special workshops. Often proposed and planned by members, trips can be anything from a walking in the park, to going out for meals.
  4. Since Abot Tala is a small community, there are many leadership opportunities. Our members organize trips, lead our weekly all-group meeting, take on roles in the community like first-aid and safety manager and even lead classes and offer one-on-one music or other lessons to other members.
  1. If there are students who want to join Abot Tala but cannot afford the fees, it is our policy to find a way to subsidize the member’s fee. North Star, our parent center and the centers that they help start all believe in inclusivity and they turn no one away.
  2. The big message is that anything teens can do by attending school, they can still do through self-directed education. We are here to help provide and connect young people to those opportunities.

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Rosa and the Stars

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“It looks like a cult group. Kinda scary for a parent to entrust their kids to.  Sounds too deep.  It can alienate those who are not so academic.”  My well-meaning friend, Rosa who wants to help told me.  I replied that this was only a very quick lay-out borne of ecstatic excitement that we finally came up with a name.  It may not be the final name but at least we have something to work with and fill in the blank formerly occupied by Northstar PH.

Rosa continued to interrogate me which I appreciate since we would be faced with loads of questions every time we discuss this harebrained scheme.

Rosa: If it’s not a school, what is it?  A club?  A support group?

Me:  (copy pasting from our introduction)

What We are Not:

  • This is not a school. We do not give certificates, grades or report cards.
  • We are not a homeschool provider although we can refer you to providers or we can help you with homeschooling and Dep Ed requirements through Gopala, our homeschool support partner.
  • We are not a homeschool co-op. We do not organize families to become a homeschool co-op which homeschooling families can do on their own.

Rosa: Center housing people to be homeschoolers legally.

Me:  Nope.  Homeschooling is just a tool in this case.  If they want to just homeschool, they can go to a homeschool provider, choose a curriculum they want, study at home, get tutors etc.  But this is a center which is like a school if you would let the teenagers themselves envision it but we can’t call it a school because we don’t want to be boxed in by curriculum, standards and tests so it’s more of a club and that’s how Northstar also describes itself.

Rosa: If it’s undirected, how do you encourage towards progressive direction?

Me: Regarding progressive education — it’s quite different from self-directed.  In progressive, there’s still a curriculum, but in self-directed, the curriculum comes from the student.  I elaborated on the difference here in this article I wrote about our road trip researching alternative education.  There’s a spectrum there between traditional to progressive to self-directed.  And here’s the explanation of psychologist Peter Gray about the difference.

Rosa: What if they just want to hang out?  Is that allowed?

Me: When I went to visit the self-directed schools and centers, I also asked the question, what if they just want to hang out or play computer games the whole day?  And they allow it.  There’s a school where one student just explored the forest for a couple of years and one day decided to take up dance.  They eventually learn about self-regulation naturally and organically rather than forced from the top.  But I struggle with my own kids and feel I’m the WORST person actually for this.  I don’t know why I’m the one doing this.  Should be somebody with more conviction, credibility, experience.  But then, that’s why we’re forming a team where people have different strengths.

Rosa:  “Abot Tala” is obviously saying the goal is set high.  But your explanation is more like a free space for anyone tired of structured learning or tired of learning (altogether).  In other words, the ideas are not complementary.  So it might be the wrong name for your purpose.

Me:  It does seem contradictory but only at first glance.  The free space for unstructured learning is founded on respect and the belief that each person has a natural “genius.”  Some probably go unrecognized because school is standardized and there are kids who fall through the cracks.  If we are to believe in the uniqueness and “amazingness” of each child, of each person and that each one can dream whatever he or she wants for himself or herself, then anyone can reach their star no matter what that star is.  And they define that star.

Our society tends to define the star for us sometimes but it’s only us who can define our own star.  And this recognizing the genius in each person can be difficult sometimes because society has defined “genius” for us, too.  I struggle with that as a parent daily.

Rosa:  So there’s a premise that everyone will get to their proper place in the skies?  That’s a nice thing.

Thanks for introducing me to this.  If my kids knew I’m into this, they’d give up school in a wink.

 

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For the logo design, I was aspiring for something that looked like one of these (centers that Northstar help start) but probably need to work on it some more.  The name and logo should be the least of my worries now.  There’s the SEC documentation requirements, the Kafkaesque red tape of government agencies plus the challenge of finding space, mentor-staff, refining the business plan and getting this off the ground.

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Peter Gray posted this article today:

Why don’t students like school?

Just wanted to draw your attention to the comments below the post:

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If You Share This Vision

If you share this vision of providing:

  • A safe, dynamic, welcoming community of learners who believe that self-directed education is the most authentic and innovative way to support young people so that they thrive and become productive adults
  • A bridge and a way to help teenagers live and learn outside the traditional school system through mentorship and by utilizing the wealth of opportunities in the community

If you would like to reach out to families who believe that school is doing more harm than good, to families who want to do homeschooling or unschooling but do not know where to start, to families who are already homeschooling but wish to be part of a community that meets regularly. . . .

If you would like to join a conversation with Ken Danford . . . .

If you would like to study the programs and centers that have been realized through the help of Liberated Learners . . . .

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. . . . . send me a message at entirelyofpossibility@yahoo.com.ph

Perhaps we can set up something like one of these here in Manila:

North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens – Sunderland, MA

Bay State Learning Center – Dedham, MA

Beacon: Self-Directed Learning – New Haven, CT

BigFish Learning Community – Dover, NH

Compass: Centre for Self-Directed Learning – Ottawa, ON

Deep Root: Center for Self-Directed Learning – Canton, NY

Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning – Leesburg, VA

The Hive: Self-Directed Learning for Teens – Eugene, Oregon

Ingenuity Hub: Personalized Learning Collaborative – Leominster, MA

The Learning Cooperatives

LightHouse Personalized Education for Teens – Holyoke, MA

Open Doors: Center for Self-Directed Teens – Grand Rapids, MI

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The Pitch

I taught in a University in China for two years, saw how stifling the effects of an education system could be and got scared for my kids who are 8 and 5 years old now.  The purpose of education is to liberate and certainly not the opposite which is to imprison.  I am happy to have found a progressive school in Manila where my kids can attend school which I think is okay in the younger years.

However, when they reach high school, I believe, they need more freedom to steer their lives.  That’s why I am attracted to setting up something like the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens — for my own sons and for other kids.  Of course, if my sons choose to go to school, I’d support them, but in case they don’t, there’s an option.

I have some nephews and nieces whom I feel would benefit from a place like North Star but I would not even dare open this topic to their parents even if they are my relatives because this idea is quite ridiculous, unfathomable and unacceptable for them.  However, I want to help those families who are more receptive to this venture.

I’ve visited North Star and others like it in America.  I didn’t think something like this would be possible here in the Philippines because people are too traditional and not as open minded.  But there are students out there begging and looking for this type of space and community.  We can offer them alternatives where they could thrive.

This is not for everyone and many families will not agree with this but there is a segment of the youth population who can benefit from the availability of this option.

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Vids Make a Diff

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Even if I had visited the place itself, talked to the founder and members, watched the TED Talks of Ken and Joel, read the website and relevant articles, something clicked into place that hadn’t switched on before I watched these YouTube videos of North Star, so much so that I had an epiphany connecting another video that impressed me and that was done by my niece and her groupmates.

Following are the videos about North Star that made it easier for me to picture it in reality since it’s been a year since I had visited:

North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens Part 1

North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens Part 2

The on-and-off, lingering-non-lingering doubts in my head about how crazy impossible this idea is applied to the Philippines somehow dissipated.  Then Maxine posted a video their group made for an assignment in school.  It made sense to connect how the video is an ideal medium to access the possible stakeholders of a self-directed learning center for the youth.

LGBT Rights – a school project

I put two and two together and thought of inviting Maxine’s group to do a video for my research work on alternative education.  This is the invitation brief:

The Idea Behind the Video

I am studying how a center like the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens can possibly be set up in Manila.  I would like to research what are the prevailing notions and beliefs among the youth regarding alternative forms of education.

Following are the suggested steps in preparing and making the video:

  1. List down young people you know who might be interested in this concept of alternatives to school. They should be around high school age or near high school age.
  2. Send them a message on Facebook about this video project. Send them links to the YouTube videos about North Star and the North Star website.  If they like TED Talks, you can send the video of Ken Danford.
  3. Ask them if they are willing to be interviewed and set a date and time for the interview.
  4. Tell them that the video will appear on my blog and I will upload the video on YouTube. If they don’t want their face to appear, you can make it like the Anonymous interview where it’s only their voice that could be heard.
  5. I will give you a set of questions that will be your guide but feel free to ask your own follow-up questions depending on how your conversation flows with each interviewee.
  6. Collect around 10 to 15 interviews.
  7. Edit the video. I like the editing to be as simple and straightforward as the one you made for the LGBT project.  The video can start with a brief introduction of North Star, followed by the interviews.

Following are the guide questions for the interviews:

  1. What do you think of the North Star video and website?
  2. They’ve built other similar centers like North Star in different states across America and in Canada. Do you think that something like this would be possible in the Philippines? Why or why not?
  3. Do you know somebody, a classmate, friend, relative or even you — who would want to join something like North Star if it opened in Manila?
  4. If you could design a place that is not a school but a place that you would want to go to 3 or 4 times a week instead of school, what would that place be like? What would it have that will make you want to go there?
  5. Do you think parents would allow their children to go to a place like North Star if their child did not want to go to school? Why or why not?

I don’t know if you would want to discuss with your parents about making this video since it would take time away from your usual schedule.  I also don’t know if they would find the topic a bit controversial but it’s just gathering opinions from people.

Two Prong Approach

For Ken, this is the approach we can take to maximize our consultation with Liberated Learners:

  1. Application – readily and possibly on Gopala Learning Haven in Cavite and how to make it more economically sustainable; which elements of which models can be applied
  2. Research – groundwork for future application of the North Star model (or a combination of other models) in a self-directed learning center in Manila; seeking out networks through continuous and open dialogue

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Journal for Ken #01

2002

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Why even have this conversation?

I taught in a University in China for two years, saw how stifling the effects of an education system could be and got scared for my kids who are 8 and 5 years old now.  The purpose of education is to liberate and certainly not the opposite which is to imprison.  I am happy to have found a progressive school in Manila where my kids can attend school which I think is okay in the younger years.  However, when they reach high school, I believe, they need more freedom to steer their lives.  That’s why I am attracted to setting up something like North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens — for my own sons and for other kids.  Of course if my sons choose to go to school, I’d support them, but in case they don’t, there’s an option.

I have some nephews and nieces whom I feel would benefit from a place like North Star but I would not even dare open this topic to their parents even if they are my relatives because this idea is quite ridiculous, unfathomable and unacceptable for them.  However, I want to help those families who are more receptive to this venture.

The economics of the Philippines is very different from America.  If you charge a fee for a non-school and the fee falls somewhere in between a public and a private school, people wouldn’t know what they’ll be getting.  There’s no certificate and it’s not even a school.  Gathering people to commit to and run this type of center may be a challenge.

I think Manila is the more appropriate place to start because of the concentration of resources and the bigger population.  In the provinces, the marketing would even be more difficult and you’re up against the traditional mentality where education is the only way to uplift the people.  People work hard to put their kids to school and that is where they pin their hopes.  You are offering something that is somewhat of an insult to the backbreaking labor that millions of people go through just so their children graduate, selling their carabao in exchange for the opportunity to move up a ladder through education.   Sending your children to school despite poverty is enveloped in nobility and purpose.

In both city and countryside, there will be a lot to be up against and there’s a part of me does not want to denigrate the dreams of other people.   Manila, however, is more prosperous than the provinces therefore the climate may be friendlier and more open to alternatives.

It sounds bad like it all boils down to economics but that’s why I think alternatives like the North Star work in places like North America or Europe because there is a level of prosperity that allows these options to thrive.  The Philippines, a third world country, is a different story, but I would love to be proven wrong and see something like North Star work here.  The question is how and who.  That’s why I approached Ken Danford.

Two or Three Prong Approach

I don’t know if we will stay long in Manila because we are thinking that by June of this year, we would move to Subic which is three hours from Manila.  If we were staying in Manila, I would be more optimistic and ready to set up a self-directed center in this city but if we do move to Subic, I need more time to study the new environment and right now, am not as certain if something like North Star would be possible there in the immediate future.

However, there is another path to take and that may be through the Gopala Learning Haven in Cavite, also a few hours away from Manila.  The challenges I mentioned above apply to Cavite which is not as highly urbanized as Manila, but there is a big difference.  There is Laksmi, founder of Gopala Learning Haven who has been homeschooled her whole life, who is currently homeschooling her three daughters, who is a homeschool provider herself and an officer of an umbrella organization of homeschooling groups in the Philippines.  Laksmi is already helping families start their homeschooling journey.  For now, maybe this session with Ken can be focused on trying to help Laksmi find a way by which aspects of the North Star model can be applied and other aspects adapted to the specific and unique local conditions of Cavite and the Gopala Learning Haven.

I was initially attracted to the Gopala Learning Haven because it perfectly fit the picture in my mind of a Sudbury school.   It’s a farm with lots of trees and greenery, a stream and space.  When my family and I drove across America and visited alternative learning centers, I was most attracted to the North Star model because I wanted to be involved with helping older, teenage kids.  I thought the timing would be right that by the time I set up something like North Star, my kids would be approaching their high school years as well.

Gopala, I guess is more like Macomber Center for homeschoolers but it’s not structured financially like the way Macomber is.  Macomber has a number of kids who go there regularly and the families pay based on how many days a week the kids are at Macomber.  If Gopala can be assisted so that it can be more financially viable, then that would be one good result of having this conversation.

I still wish I can find people in Manila who would be interested in starting a Filipino version of North Star even if I am no longer in Manila.  If I find people in Subic who would be interested, I wouldn’t mind being involved there but again, it all depends on the network that I find.  Maybe as we continue this conversation, we will find people along the way.

Filling up the Form

Ken asked me to fill up a form which is the startup plan including the vision, marketing, outreach, budget and timeline.  I couldn’t fill up the form because I think we need one more conversation with Ken and with Laksmi in the picture as well.   If Laksmi agrees that we can focus first on Gopala Learning Haven then maybe Laksmi can be the one to fill up the form.  Because of her broad network, Laksmi may know other people who might be interested in the North Star model for teenagers and bring them into the conversation.

The other person who is joining our next conversation with Ken is Rachael, my friend who homeschools her three boys, two of whom are around the age of my boys.  They love playing Nerf, Minecraft and biking together.  Even if Rachael is not originally from the Philippines, she has a heart for this country having lived here for over twenty years.  Like me, she is not even sure of what her role would be and recognizes her time constraints, but is still willing to participate in the discussion.

 

 

 

Crazy Project

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Joshua, Jimmy and I had a blast seeing The Greatest Showman yesterday, singing along in the movie house and upon returning home, we searched YouTube videos to continue belting the tunes and find which parts of the fictionalized depiction was real and not.  There are a lot of negative reviews and low ratings but it made me think how the critics may be like the bespectacled pundit in the movie itself who could not derive joy from something many people drew delight.  All in the spirit of fun, plus the message hit me in the heart.

One of the film’s anthem probably resonates with most dreamers (unless it’s too cheesy for them):

They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind
I don’t care, I don’t care, so call me crazy
We can live in a world that we design

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

You see there’s a crazy project I’m involved with that embodies a vision of the world that may not sit well with many out there.  The project’s unofficial kick-off fell exactly on Valentine’s day, a gift to myself via an online hour-long conversation with Ken Danford, founder of North Star self-directed center for teens and Liberated Learners which “supports the creation of centers based on the North Star model that promote living and learning without school.”

There are young people in my own family whom I know would benefit from this kind of radical alternative but even opening the topic to their parents who are my close relatives is something that I wouldn’t dare do so why am I even contemplating such a thing for total strangers?  Because I know there are families who are more open-minded than some and who would welcome this type of “inclusive club” for their children.

Although I have listened to Ken Danford’s TEDx Talk, School is Optional, it was Joel Hammon’s TEDx Talk, Teacher Liberation that prompted me to email the two of them about the possibility of setting up a place like North Star here in the Philippines.  I was scared and excited at the same time — scared knowing how ludicrous and impossible it would sound to some, and excited because this is staking your life on something you believe in.

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Following are centers across North America that Liberated Learners have helped set up.  What will the one in the Philippines look like? 

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Read more about North Star and the Princeton Learning Cooperative:

Helping Teens Thrive Without School

Tigers, Humans and SDE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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