Journey to Self Directed Education

posted in: Nature Immersion

Being with young people was one of the earliest out of the home responsibilities I had as a teen. In my early teen years I participated in the Red Cross Babysitting Course and soon after began working for families in my neighborhood. This evolved into many years of full time work as a nanny in my late teens and early twenties. By age 19 I was grocery shopping, preparing meals, and providing childcare for a family with 5 children. I remember clearly coming to the conclusion that I was not ready to become a parent after a 2 week vacation where I was the primary caregiver for these young people.

These early experiences continue to shape my relationships with young people today. I later mentored ESL students, worked in traditional day care settings, and volunteered at an orphanage in South America where I was often caring for 3-5 infants at once! During my time living abroad I also spent a few years teaching English in Taiwan. After returning, and then moving to Maine I anticipated my work with youth would transition to something else and did not feel called to continue on that path. Many of the environments I found myself teaching in felt limiting as a teacher and to the students. Although I appreciated the challenge of transforming curriculum into fun and engaging activities, I had begun to question why the students were being required to learn pre-determined curriculum to begin with, often at the expense of participating in activities they desired such as creative arts, sports, unstructured play, and time in nature. At the time, I didn’t have much awareness about organized alternative educational models.

Years later I encountered Greenwood Community School, a democratic school using the Sudbury model that operated for one year in Belmont. The process of becoming involved with this program, and eventually becoming a mentor brought up many challenging emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Engaging with a learning environment so radically different than my own childhood experiences helped me recognize how much grief, shame, and detrimental strategies I had acquired through educational settings earlier in life. As a child, I was constantly reprimanded for not having proper classroom behavior, and for my unwillingness to pay attention and sit still. School was unbelievably boring for me, I rarely completed my assignments, even through college, while managing to test well, continue passing classes, and eventually graduate, advancing through the system.

Even as a current graduate student at the University of Maine these early childhood educational experiences shape my relationship to academia in adverse ways. When Greenwood Community School closed I, along with the students, felt devastated. It took years of mentorship in facilitating self directed education, deeply investigating the research of this pedagogical approach, visiting schools with similar structures around the north east, piloting numerous programs, and meeting much resistance to self directed learning in almost every organization I have worked with since, to arrive at this moment when it felt time to found an organization committed to holding space for self directed learning.

Each mentor at White Ash Learning Cooperative shares a commitment to empowering youth to direct their learning, and their lives. We believe this is essential for supporting young people to become adults that are resourced enough to thrive in an unknown future.

Much of the current effort in education is spent attempting to motivate students to learn. We don’t spend time attempting to motivate students; we believe that they are inherently motivated. We believe this because all the evidence of childhood development supports it. Anyone who has observed a baby attempting to take their first steps or learn to talk can clearly see this. They struggle and fail and continue to struggle and fail until they finally on their own get it right and start walking and talking. If not suppressed, this inherent motivation to grow and develop does not die when a child reaches school age.

— Hudson Valley Sudbury School

An abundance of resources are available to deepen understanding of this educational approach:


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