T HE O C F AMI L Y IN T E R V I EW
Introducing the McNichol/Johnson Family [published in the Spring 2018 OC Magazine]
Please describe your family constellation: Parents, names and ages of young people.
Amy Johnson, Chris McNichol, Hannah McNichol (16), Norah McNichol (12).
How long has your family been on this path of self/family-directed Open Education?
Both Hannah and Norah have been life learning/unschooling since birth. We have been a part of the OC community for 13 years.
What led you in this direction?
Homeschooling has always seemed like the right path for us. To allow the girls to learn life skills naturally just as they learned to walk, talk, swim, and ride a bike seemed the natural thing to do. I have found with certain things that there is no real answer for “Why?” other than,“It just feels good.”Homeschooling feels good for all of us.
How did you get involved with Open Connections?
We found out about Open Connections from our group of homeschooling friends in Media. Hannah first attended when she was 4 and then took a year off when Norah was born. She came back the following year and has attended 2-3 days a week ever since. Norah has attended 2-3 days a week since she was 3 1/2 years old. OC has been such a positive place for not only the girls but also for Chris. Working at OC has proved to be the job of his dreams. (Chris is OC’s Property Manager as well as a Facilitator.)
What programs are your young people attending at Open Connections in 2017-18?
Hannah attends Shaping Your Life on Tuesday and Thursday.
Norah attends Group Tutorial III on Tuesday and Thursday and Choice III on Wednesday.
How do your young people spend their time when they’re not at Open Connections?
Hannah continues to love the great outdoors. She completed her first backpacking trip this past summer on the Appalachian Trail and is planning her next adventure. She loves all things music. She writes songs, sings and plays the ukulele and guitar —all completely self-taught. She is a talented photographer and has enjoyed capturing moments at the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives in Washington DC. On occasion she works as an assistant for a local photographer. Hannah takes dance class two nights per week and has been taking weekly sewing classes for almost 10 years, where she has sewn an entire wardrobe, a quilt and is currently making a jacket. Hannah holds a regular job at our local bagel shop. She is quite the saver, always paying her own way. She is learning to drive and is saving up for a car.
Norah is always up for a challenge, eager to learn something new and fully immersing herself in her interests, which are forever changing. Her new-found passion is makeup and cosmetics. Norah is very organized and loves to plan parties. She has a binder full of sketches and lists for future events. She is experimenting with her own YouTube channel and is interested in learning more about running her own business. Since she is a bit of a spender and we do not give an allowance, she is always thinking up new ways to make money. She is quite the entrepreneur and is learning how to manage an income all on her own. Babysitting, dog walking, shoveling, make-up artistry and homemade pretzels are just a few of the businesses she has dabbled in. Like Hannah, she takes dance class two nights per week and sewing class on Saturday mornings.
Mondays are typically home days for chores and catching up on individual interests. Fridays are usually field trip days where we attend shows at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts and the Arden Theatre or venture into the city to a museum.
What are some of the key pluses to this educational approach for your family?
Since the girls are at OC two to three days a week and participate in several different extra-curricular activities, it always feels good to have time at home. Both Hannah and Norah appreciate down time to explore their interests, connect with friends or to just be. As they grow into young adults sleep is very important. Not having to get up too early on OC days and having a few days of rest in between has proven to be very beneficial for their mental and physical health. This lifestyle allows them to find balance between down-time and new experiences. Although Hannah and Norah become more and more independent as they begin to find their own paths, being together as a family is fundamental to our lives.
What concerns or challenges have you experienced along the way? How have you addressed them? Do you have any concerns as you look ahead?
We are definitely life learners, and it feels totally natural and right when we are together. But I admit that I have found myself feeling concerned at times when talking with other parents. I might start thinking things like, “My girls are not as advanced as so and so in reading, writing and math” or “Maybe I should be creating a more structured schedule with the girls like so and so does.” I have gotten better at trusting our path as they have grown older and I have full confidence that they will succeed beautifully in life. As they become more independent and self-directed I have realized that my most important job is to love them. I think of myself as a consultant, trusting that they will find their way but always here if they need me. My only wish for them is to be happy. My one piece of advice to anyone new to homeschooling is to trust their young people and never compare them to anyone else. They are who they are, and that is perfect.
I try not to look ahead too much and to focus on the present. For a while, I used to worry about the year-end portfolios but it has proved to be more of a gift than a nuisance for our family. Creating a scrapbook of everything that was accomplished in a year helps me to realize how much we really do as a homeschooling family.
What is your approach regarding academics? Real Work? Play? Self-direction/self-motivation?
Our style is laid back. We do not follow any type of curriculum. Reading, writing and math are incorporated into everyday life skills and individual interests, such as cooking and baking; managing their own bank accounts; filling out a tax return form; crafting a thank-you letter; sewing; writing poetry and songs; learning a musical instrument; using math to calculate a number of settings for a camera, including shutter speed, aperture and focal length; journaling, etc.
We work as a team at home. Both girls have many responsibilities, such as packing their lunches, doing their own laundry, walking the dog, helping with grocery shopping and cooking. Both girls have bank accounts and are expected to make and use their own money for spending. We live in a walkable town and close to public transportation. The girls can walk to the grocery store, library, bank, coffee house, and dance class and Hannah even walks to work. When wanting to venture outside of our town, we encourage them to take the train and trolley as much as possible so they have figured out schedules, fare and stops all on their own. Our motto is “Make it Happen.” When the girls want to achieve something I always say “Make it happen!” Hannah wanted to take the driver’s permit exam as soon as she turned 16. She downloaded the app and studied all on her own. She researched and gathered the required paperwork that needed to be filled out to bring to the DMV. A few days after her 16th birthday she passed the test. She made it happen!
What resources—people, books, curricula, places or organizations (museums, art centers, scouting, 4-H, businesses, etc.)—have you found helpful? How have they contributed to your youth’s development?
We are true experiential and hands-on learners. We encourage the girls to connect with family, friends and community members for new opportunities and to learn new skills. This year an OC parent reached out looking for a young person who might be interested in doing her and her mother’s makeup for a wedding they were attending. Norah responded that she was interested in the job and set up a time for a consultation. It was a true work opportunity and experience in self-directed learning.
Last year Hannah was commissioned by a neighbor (who had heard she was taking sewing classes) to make a changing table pad for her new grandchild, which involved Hannah having to create a pattern completely from scratch. It was a bit of a challenging project and out of her comfort zone but she succeeded and made over $100!
We really enjoy the Dance Celebration Series at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts and shows at the Arden Theatre. We love to explore new places to hike and camp. We enjoy venturing into Philadelphia, a wonderful resource for history and culture. This past year some highlights were visiting Washington DC, the Barnes Museum, Magic Gardens, Acadia National Park, Maine, Longwood Gardens, Brandywine River Museum, Wissahickon Park and Forks Farm.
From your young people’s perspectives, what are the main pluses of this type of education?
Hannah: “It allows for a lot of flexibility in everyday life and learning. It allows for taking control of your education at a young age. It provides a lot of real life opportunities.”
Norah: “I like the flexibility and the fact that I don’t have to worry about grades. I am proud to say I am homeschooled because I like to be original and different.”
From your young people’s perspectives, what could OC do to further enhance their OC experience?
Hannah: “ I appreciate the college preparatory activities in Shaping Your Life but I think it is important for young people to know that there are other alternatives to college. I would like the chance to explore possible work opportunities, internships, apprenticeships etc. I would love OC Sports teams!”
Norah- “I would like more dances for teens and youth instead of just one. I would also like after-program clubs like a fashion club.”
Looking back to when your family was new to OC, what events (Open Campus Days, Parents’ Meetings, Open Mic Night, etc.) helped your family become more connected to the OC community?
As a parent I appreciate all OC events including conferences, Parents’ Meetings and Community Days. I feel more and more connected to the place and community as each year passes. I remember attending our first OC Dance Night and wanting to make friends with everyone. It was so wonderful how everyone seemed like one big happy family. I wondered when and if I would be part of the family one day. Luckily, it didn’t take long. Attending as many events and Parents’ Meetings as we could allowed us to get to know the community at a much faster pace than if I had just dropped off the girls and picked them up. Hanging around on campus after program days allows me to continue to get to know other parents. Offering my time as a guest facilitator in various programs has allowed me to get to know the facilitators and young people a little better, too. In sum, I would urge all parents to do what they can to get the most out of their family’s OC experience, for themselves as much as for their young people.
What could OC do to further your (the parent’s) experience, help you reach your un-met goals, or pursue them in a more effective or enjoyable manner?
Just having a place where my girls can feel safe, secure, loved, trusted and happy is all I ask. So far OC has succeeded above and beyond. I would love to see a large vegetable garden with a hoop house. As a former farmer and farm educator I can’t help but envision this every time I pull onto the campus. The garden and greenhouse could weave into almost every program and all ages at OC could benefit. A hoop house would allow for year-round growing. A warm place to retreat to in the winter where things are growing is such a enriching experience. The food grown could be incorporated into cooking programs or maybe a farmers’ market where the young people could sell what they grow on program days when parents are picking up. What young person doesn’t love to set up shop to sell things—especially something they have grown themselves! The summer months in the garden could be incorporated into possible summer internships or maybe a summer camp.