Engaged in Learning


The longer we listen to one another — with real attention — the more commonality we will find in our lives. That is, if we are careful to exchange with one another life stories and not simple opinion. Barbara Deming

I had breakfast this morning at Compton’s Pancake House on 7th Street in Stroudsburg. Hungry for the “double – triple play” I hurried in from the cold, rainy morning chill. I lifted my head and was greeted by a woman who I taught when we were both younger ( for the purpose of this story I will call her Jane). We were glad to see each other. She has a school aged child now! Time flies. I saw the same light in her eyes that I remembered when she was a fiery, thirteen year old girl. She is looking for a job these days – she is so capable! My teacher/mentor jumped out an offered to help her in her job search – help find what she is looking for. I still see strength in her eyes. I bet she is a great mother. She struggled in school – not academically so much, but I could always tell she carried a heavy load. She used her quick wit and tongue to protect herself. Sometimes it got her into trouble. I wonder if I could have done more to engage that thirteen year old? If somehow I could have been more of a role model, a better listener, a more challenging coach? But I was a young mother too – time split between the children at school and my own children. I loved teaching – I loved getting to know the children at school. Running into Jane at the diner this morning – seeing her light up, and getting a text from her that she would like help, made me smile. Is that engagement?

Engagement is more than just what a student learns in a content area – it is what they think and feel. Do we stop often enough to hear what students are thinking about, what they want to achieve, what they think is possible? Or do we tell them – stay on task, do it because I said, stop day-dreaming? Engaging students can take many forms; playing, looking, listening, speaking, painting, experimenting, creating. Everyone is better when we are engaged, when relationships are built, when we help each other to find answers to questions that challenges us. The environment is important too! When we are free to try things that may not lead to immediate success, and in-fact sometimes lead to great failure, we often learn our best lessons. In a safe environment we are all willing to try things that interest us, things that make our hearts sing, challenge our ways of thinking, and ultimately we reap the fruit that we sow.

Did we teach Jane to challenge herself? Did we give her one to many assignments that were not relevant? Did she know we were her champions? Did she visit the library or go to a concert? Did she ever experience life beyond the Pocono’s? Did she job shadow? Who was her mentor? I think about these questions as I reflect on Edward O. Wilson’s talk on NPR this week about passion and success. Not so surprisingly, he didn’t think success and IQ were related. He believed that success is about having passion. “Mere brightness can be valuable, but that’s not what makes a successful [scientist]. A successful scientist is a person that develops a passion for a subject. That leads to persistence. Persistence is extremely important (E. O. Wilson, 2013).” That is the premise we are using as we try to start a school in a democratic model. Shifting the paradigm about schools so learning is driven by passion and the intrinsic motivation of a child. Would a school like these Sudbury Valley Model Schools that have helped Jane keep a job she enjoyed? Find new job that is more challenging? Make full use of all of her talents? Does Jane have this passion for something? Has she had the opportunity to find what it is that makes her heart sing? Did she ever have the opportunity to listen, deeply listen, to herself and find her passion? Can that happen in school? 

Join us when we meet again on May 1, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the Hermitage – at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center.




If not now, when?


“If not me, who? If not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel

I have been lucky to travel this spring and it has provided me an amazing experience to see different parts of our beautiful country. Last week I was in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and then in Sarasota and Tarpon Springs, Florida visiting with family and friends. Everyone has an interest in schools and I enjoyed sharing with folks about schools that believe children have a natural impulse to learn! I have always been interested in finding ways for each child to succeed. In 2008 I explored, through case study research, how social relationships with peers, faculty, and administration affect students’ decisions to stay in school until completion. Part of the exploration included what school-related factors were associated with why students decide to stay in high school until graduation. High expectations by caring adults topped the reason that students persevered and completed school, despite difficulty.

It is important work, advocating for relationships that help young people to stretch and grow into their best selves,  for years many have tried as a parents, teachers and administrators. When I met Beth and Jim from the Circle School in Harrisburg last May, I heard what young people in my 2008 research expressed as important – respect for the child and high expectations. Curiosity peaked – I wanted to learn more about a school that trusted children to be responsible for their learning. This concept was not part of what I knew as a public school parent, teacher or administrator. I read everything I could.

Hooked by the concept of a democratic school, using integral education theory, I shared research and information about this alternative school with anyone who thought it sounded like an interesting way for students to learn. Each article and book gave me more inspiration than the one before. People started to share information with me! On a cold, snowy November night, after months of sharing information with my friends, we gathered in my living room and discussed what a school could be! We all agreed that we didn’t know a lot about starting a school from scratch – but as Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Today, as we continue to pursue this alternative school we realize we are not starting a school at Kirkridge because of what we know – we are starting a school that reflects what we imagine a school can be!

Today I am home again, invigorated from my travel and the time I had to read, talk with new people and reflect on this journey of starting a school. I am grateful to be involved with friends who are dedicated to starting a School at Kirkridge. We have work to do and money to raise. We are building a web page, creating a 501(c)3, and opening a bank account. We have enthusiasm abounding from families who share our vision that an age-integrated community provides powerful examples of effective life skills; that freedom is best mastered when balanced with responsibility; and good citizenship skills are best cultivated in a democratic environment. These families also understand the importance of students and staff working together to make laws and manage the school’s day-to-day affairs; and the value of students being fully empowered citizens, and active creators of their community and their lives. We have met with the Kirkridge Board of Directors and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. We have created common understanding of integral and democratic education, shared reading materials and visited schools in the Sudbury/Circle School model. We have worked with Kirkridge to secure site and occupancy permits, we have met with the zoning officer, and we are collaborating with The Circle School Philly Free.

 Democratic education cultivates originality, leadership, and empowers a sense of creative control in one’s life. We believe that all students can learn. We believe that children have a natural impulse to learn. We imagine school as a place where students are better able to find their true voice, explore their passion and become responsible citizens. The School at Kirkridge, a private school, where students practice LIFE!

Join us on May 1st at 6:30 pm at the Hermitage at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center as we continue the good work of starting The School at Kirkridge! Follow us on Facebook.


Why a democratic school? Why integral education?


Schools should be for so many things – learning about community, learning to learn, creating responsible citizens and independent adults, respecting differences, and a safe environment. When I think about my participation in schools I felt so many times that maybe we were spending to much time on content and not enough time on teaching students to learn and participate in their community.

 I have always loved to learn. My parents provided so many tools for me to explore – a library card, paper, water colors, jump ropes, old clothes and jewelry, balls and baby chicks! We cooked and cleaned, we took walks, we read books, we ice skated on frozen ponds and visited museums and parks. I was lucky. I went to zoo’s and petting zoos, orchards to pick fruit. I had a grandfather who made his own sausage, and another who showed me how he used his dentist tools. One grandmother let us explore her ‘cubby hole’ – a treasure chest of old stuff and family pictures, the other grandmother showed us how to make incredible food. We all share this love of cooking – still today! I learned from our neighbor who made food from her homeland of Lebanon and her daughter who listened to “Sister Mary Elephant”. When she babysat we drew on her white jeans and explored uses of food that didn’t involve eating (food fights)! She taught us belly dancing in their basement with all the neighborhood kids. We played basketball at the end of the block – no adults making the rules. We made the rules ourselves and kids from 7 to 17 joined in learning from each other.
I loved school – but I loved all these people whotaught me things from their life and their interest. Looking back it is amazing to see our kids and their kids doing the same. Playing with each other, cooking with their grandparents, sharing life. When I went to college to become a teacher I wanted to share this joy of learning. I had amazing people in my life who guided m
e – by what they knew and who they were.  Teaching physical education and health gave me the opportunity to teach people of varying abilities to work together and get along. What better content to talk about with kids tha
n working together and staying healthy!

Public schools have been part of what I have done for the past thirty years. I believe in education for all. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) brought attention to the kids in public schools who had to many obstacles to be successful. The mandate made the schools and school systems pay attention, to teach and think differently about teaching everyone. But mandates have other sides too – and the biggest downfall of NCLB was testing. As the years have gone by testing has created other issues and problems. I was part of that system – part of the problem. So today I want to get back to my roots – I want learning to be fun. I believe, like I did when I was in my twenties, that PLAY is important! Research today tells us just how important PLAY is to learning, independence, and creativity.

When I visited the Circle School in Harrisburg last week – it was my third visit and one of many times that I have talked to the founders as I learn about integral education. As I sat in the audience of an open house I saw joy in the eyes of students and parents. Conversations about hard work and fun, curiosity and cooperation! Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Ten hours a week to lead the judicial committee,” he said, “a small token for the freedom I have in this school.” The freedom to learn philosophy and science, Egypt and American History, games and Youtube, tag and cooking!

Today I choose to try to emulate this incredible environment that takes me back to my earliest learning with my parents – my dad quarterbacking the neighborhood football game on our street, my mom feeding the ducklings – watching them grow until it was time to take them to the pond at the farm. Knowing that this adventure is another learning experience. No test will tell me if the school is a success – success will come if children learn to be themselves in a place that challenges them to learn who they are and how they can contribute to their community – where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be an every day occurrence.

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