This interview was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of the Open Connections Magazine.
Please describe your family constellation: Justin (Dad), Sarah (Mom), Evelyn (13), Jude (11), Magnolia (9).
How long has your family been on this path of self/family-directed Open Education?
Before we had our own young people, I knew that Open Connections existed and was essentially my ideal educational model. When we finally became parents, we were living in South Philadelphia and worrying about what the educational path would be for our youth. We found out about Philly Free School, a self-directed democratic school, that was a mile away from our house at the time. Evelyn enrolled there when she was four years old, followed by her siblings when they were old enough to join her. About three years ago, all of the Becker youth transitioned into another Self-Directed model (Philly Agile Learning Community School). This year, Evelyn has decided to pursue her education through programs at Open Connections, while Jude and Maggie will stay at Philly ALC. In short, the Becker youth have been
directing their own education their whole lives, and are flourishing in their own ways!
What led you in this direction?
During my own educational journey, as a young person myself, the best two years were spent as a homeschooled student. My grandparents were recently retired from their careers as elementary school teachers and spent a significant amount of time taking my brother and me to museums, parks, and trips. When I became a parent, I knew that I wanted my youth to have experiences like that, as opposed to the rigid and compulsory schooling of conventional options.
How did you get involved with Open Connections?
When I was in my early twenties, I nannied for a family who sent their youth to OC and I was immediately enchanted with this place! Open Connections was always present in my mind, and I would frequently look to Open Connections as a thought leader in the field of Self-Directed Education while I was doing work for places like Philly Free School and Philly ALC. When a job opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it immediately. Now, as I mentioned, my oldest daughter will be attending in the 2021-2022 program year (and we anticipate that the other two will join her in coming years!)
What programs do your young people attend at Open Connections?
Evelyn (13) will be attending Group IV and Choice!
How do your young people spend their time when they’re not at Open Connections?
Evelyn enjoys making engaging multimedia content on various social media platforms and fabric arts (finger knitting, crochet, cross stitch etc). Jude (11) loves video games and drawing. Magnolia (9) loves any and all things athletic: climbing, gymnastics, roller derby, circus school, playing ball in front of the house.
What are some of the key pluses to this educational approach for your family?
What I really like about self-direction is that it has really allowed every member of the family to truly explore who they are, and what they want to do in this world. More than anything, though, the community aspect of raising a family with a group of other like-minded people has been beyond amazing and far better than anything that I could have ever imagined.
What concerns or challenges have you experienced along the way? How have you addressed them? Do you have any concerns as you look ahead?
I think our biggest challenge has just been that there is always this curiosity about what it might be like to attend a more conventional school, much like some of our family friends and relatives have. We have a lot of discussions around this and, ultimately, if they wanted to try this path, they could! Thus far, all of them have continued to stick with the self-directed approach to education. Looking forward, while I don’t have any concerns, I know that Evelyn is starting to think about higher education and feels some anxiety around it. We will continue to explore that together as a family.
What is your approach regarding academics? Real Work? Play? Self-direction/self-motivation?
We are firm believers in self-direction. We support any endeavors that any Becker wants to explore. As a family, we also value real work! Since we have been parenting, I have been a huge advocate for a lot of what author Peter Gray advocates for: a lot of learning happens through play! Play is work, and so we allow for a lot of play, and feel comfortable with that approach to learning. We all learn better when we’re having some fun doing it, too!
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?
Peter Gray, Akilah Richards, and Blake Boles have been inspiring authors. And more than anything, having a supportive community around our family has helped. We definitely lean on the resources that the city has to offer as well: Free Library of Philadelphia, Penn Museum, Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia Art Museum, community centers, community events, Fairmount Park System, etc. Again, we think that learning is natural and happening all the time, there are so many learning opportunities and experiences that the Becker family gets to take advantage of.
From your young people’s perspectives, what are the main pluses of this type of education?
“You get a chance to learn more of what you actually want. I don’t know much about other forms of education, so it is hard for me to compare and contrast.”
What could OC do to further enhance their OC experiences?
We’ve been fortunate to know several OC families over the years, and love that this is a very close and tight-knit community. We look forward, as a new family, to getting to know more of this community, especially as COVID restrictions are lifted and society gets back to in-person activity. We are all very grateful to be here.