This interview was originally published in the Winter 2021/22 issue of the Open Connections Magazine.
Please describe your family constellation and what programs they are involved in at OC:
Ryan, Tina, Jack (7.5yrs), Owen (5yrs). Jack attends Group I on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Owen attends the Open Program on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
How did you get involved with Open Connections?
Honestly, Google. When Jack was very young, I was googling “alternative schools” in the area, or something like that. We wound up doing the Pre-Open Program for a brief spell, though it turned out not to be a good fit for us. However, I remember seeing the Open Programmers out on the grass, doing what they do, and thinking, “Now THAT is what we want for our boys.” Each boy started in the Open Program as soon as they were old enough, and we haven’t looked back since.
What’s your family’s approach to learning?
We’re still figuring it out! Learning is a part of life. It’s not something we sit down and just get done, and then move on to the rest of our day. So while we do some more formal schoolwork in the mornings (reading, writing, math, that sort of thing), the rest of the day varies. Real work, too, is just part of the rhythm of our days. It can be tempting —especially when they’re very young—to exclude youth from participating in the real work of everyday life. Because, honestly, it’s just quicker to sweep the floor, for example, without a toddler’s “help!” These days, they’re (usually) quick to help out wherever it’s needed—putting out the compost, setting the table, stowing laundry, etc.
We encourage the boys to follow their interests and we facilitate this as much as we can. There are days when one of the boys will come to us with an idea of something they want to do but there’s just too much going on that day, or the idea just seems too Big, and the gut reaction can be to say “No.” But if that happens too frequently, will they stop coming to us with ideas? Lately, I’ve found myself channeling my inner Jane (OC parent and facilitator) and thinking before responding, “How can I say Yes to this request?” It’s amazing how helpful that has been! In making an effort to stay open minded, I’ve found that there can be so many different ways to meet the need that’s being communicated when one of the boys has an idea he wants to pursue.
It’s amazing to see what they come up with when we simply stay out of the way! For example—this started with Jack, but now Owen is also fully on board—they like to set up “shops” at the end of the driveway and hawk their wares to passersby. Jack will often sell things he’s made, like finger-knit necklaces or paracord bracelets, while Owen’s inventory typically consists of rocks he’s painted or stuffed animals he no longer wants. They get tables from the backyard, use five gallon buckets for stools, and flag down anyone within earshot. Sometimes they make signs. They set their own prices and make change (Jack helps Owen with that part), and boy do they drive a hard bargain! But seriously, is it play? Is it work? Does it matter? They’re definitely both learning a ton—reading/writing/spelling , math, marketing, inventory management, and so on. It’s amazing.
What led you in this direction?
Ryan and I both went to elite private schools, and didn’t realize until much later how, in many ways, our school experiences
(prior to college) really damaged our innate love of learning. Still, even when we became parents, homeschooling wasn’t really on our radar. The boys both started in fairly traditional pre-school programs, ones that were play-based with lots of outside time, but they were still very much the first step of the conventional schooling “path”. As Jack approached kindergarten age, we both realized that we wanted something else for him. I was already aware of OC, and I think that was what opened us to the idea of homeschooling. I’m not sure we would have been brave enough to take the leap without having the support of such a wonderful community!
What are some of the key benefits to this educational approach with your family?
For us, one of the biggest pluses is flexibility. Being able to take long weekends to visit family or go travel to a regatta (we’re big sailors!) is huge. Or, last year, with all the snow we had—we were able to shuffle our days around and spend tons of time outside. Another huge plus is being able to meet each of our sons where they’re at. For example, when one struggles with a concept we can take extra time, play lots of related games, and then move on when he’s ready. Or alternatively, if he’s clearly mastered something and getting bored, he can skip ahead a bit. Finally, maybe the biggest plus of all is time together. Jack and Owen will only be young once, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to continue to homeschool indefinitely. So these days, truly, are precious.
What concerns or challenges have you experienced along the way? How have you addressed them? Do you have any concerns as you look ahead?
For me, the biggest challenge as a home educator has been to just relax a bit, trust the process and the boys, and trust the idea that they don’t need to know everything about everything. I’m still somewhat stuck in the “traditional schooling” mentality—it’s amazing how deeply rooted it is, even though we know it’s not what’s best for Jack and Owen. So my challenge continues to be to relax into it, to let go of the rigid ideas of what they “should” or “need” to know, and be more open to veering off the curriculum, following their lead, and trusting that it will lead to something fruitful. Because it always does.
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?
I have such a love-hate relationship with social media, but honestly Facebook is such a great resource for homeschoolers. Joining FB groups of like-minded homeschooling families has been enormously helpful, as has joining FB groups for local homeschoolers—we’ve made so many great connections and discovered many wonderful local resources and events. OC too, of course, is an amazing resource. Just being able to connect with parents who’ve been doing this whole homeschooling thing for years longer than we have is priceless.
Other resources we use include formal curricula for reading and math. And books. Lots of books. So. Many. Books. Our house is mostly just books strewn everywhere. Many of them are mine! There are many authors whose work I’ve found incredibly valuable as we embark on this homeschooling (and parenting) journey. Some favorites include Julie Bogart, Peter Gray, Alfie Kohn, and Dan Siegel. And, while we’re a pretty screen-minimal family we have come to embrace the utility of apps like YouTube for facilitating diving into rabbit holes. This was particularly helpful during the pandemic lockdown months, when we also splurged on lots of subscription kits (Science! Cooking! Snacks from around the world!).
How do your young people spend their time when they’re not at OC?
After an early morning snuggle on the sofa, our mornings are generally dedicated to our curricula topics, mainly reading and math— we aim to get through a few lessons a week of each as we feel strongly that they have an excellent foundation in the basics. We do a lot of reading aloud —this year we’re loosely focusing on world geography, so we’re reading about different cultures, reading stories and folktales from around the world, things like that. We like to keep our afternoons pretty open, allowing for adventures and field trips of all kinds! Nature walks, museum trips, library visits, playdates with friends, baking, and so on. Another bonus of having afternoons generally open is that it allows for plenty of unstructured time, giving Jack and Owen opportunities to dig into areas of interest. Right now Jack is super into rocks, reading about rocks, figuring out where to find cool rocks, and rock tumbling. Owen spends most of his free time building with legos, looking at books, and riding his bike in the driveway (Jack taught him to ride a two-wheeler this fall!).
From your young people’s perspectives, what are the main pluses of this type of education?
JACK: That I don’t have to go to school all day, and that homeschooling is so flexible. I like being able to choose how I spend my time (well, mostly). It’s also nice to be able to do things during the week, like go for a hike in the woods or have a playdate with friends, instead of having to wait for the weekend to do it all.
OWEN: I wouldn’t want to not go to OC, knowing it and knowing how great it is! If I went to regular school we couldn’t go to OC. I like being able to be outside a LOT.
What would you tell other families about how to get the most out of their OC experience?
Say “yes” to as much as you can! Go to the community events, stay after programs to let your young people play while you chat with other parents. Ask questions. The OC community represents decades of homeschooling experience, and people are always happy to answer questions. No matter what you’re struggling with or wondering about, someone has been through it and will be happy to lend some insight.
How would you describe OC to friends and family?
OC is pretty magical. It’s a place where our young people can be themselves, pursuing their interests and directing their own education, and not just be told what to do and when to do it. The campus is beyond beautiful, and the youth get to spend heaps of time outdoors. Best of all, they get to do it with a group of amazing peers and facilitators! OC makes homeschooling possible for our family, and we are so grateful to have it in our lives.