Reggio Emilia and Self-Directed Education

This past weekend I was invited to speak along with Maggie Van Camp, Peter Gray, Kerry McDonald, Christine Heer and Lisa Henderson at the Children as Citizens in Alternative to Public School Settings conference. The conference was part of the Wonder of Learning exhibit at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, a multimedia traveling exhibition from Reggio Emilia designed to present through images, text and handmade artifacts the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. The idea of the Children as Citizens conference, as conceived by Maggie Van Camp was to highlight some of the similarities between the Reggio Emilia approach and that of self-directed education.

The Reggio Emilia model of education, as Maggie pointed out in her talk, resonates in some important ways with self-directed education. There are two ways in particular which really jumped out at me as I was listening to the presentations. The first is that both models view children as natural born learners. As Peter Gray put it, children come into the world biologically prepared to learn; they do not need to be educated. The second is that both models view children as worthy of the same respect and dignity often reserved for adults. I would like to talk about both of these and how I see them as being related.

Children do not need to be educated. Another way to say this is that education is a false need; it is a need that we have invented. Yet we seem to have forgotten that it is a human invention. We behave as though it is a true need, even a vital need, as fundamental as the need for food, clothing and shelter. The reason this belief is so harmful is that it leads to the idea that we have a moral obligation to subject children to educational treatment of one type or another without their consent. Children, just like all human beings, have a genuine psychological need for freedom, autonomy, dignity and happiness. So the (forced) satisfaction of this false need ends up undermining the satisfaction of their true needs.  

Putting it this way highlights how strong a sway the idea of education has over us and how hard it is to resist, even when we believe we have rejected it. Even when we think we are giving children freedom to learn, on some level we are likely still unconsciously superimposing on them the need for education, i.e. to be directed or guided in some way, to be encouraged to play with this instead of that, here instead of there. Deep down we believe that children don’t really know what is good for them, and that we need to protect them from their own inclinations, or to improve their process in some way. There must be a job for us somewhere in their learning!

A.S. Neill was an astute observer of this phenomenon. He saw that adults often just can’t help themselves. Even if we want to let children play, we think that play should produce learning in some clear way. And so we pressurize the situation in some subtle or not so subtle way to bring about some desired result. As Neill wrote in Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing:

Fifty years ago the watchword was “Learn through doing.” Today the watchword is “Learn through playing.” Play is thus used only as a means to an end, but to what good end I do not really know. If a teacher sees children playing with mud, and he thereupon improves the shining moment by holding forth about riverbank erosion, what end has he in view? What child cares about river erosion? Many so-called educators believe that it does not matter what a child learns as long as he is taught something.

This is the real difference between self-directed education, which has its roots in the unschooling and freeschool movements of the late 60s and early 70s, and progressive models of education like Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Progressive education sees children as powerful learners and seeks to support, guide and shape that learning in productive ways. The freeschool and unschooling movements have a very different orientation. A.S. Neill, interestingly, did not really talk much about learning. He talked instead about the rich, complicated lives of children within a supportive environment of loving and approving adults. And John Holt, in his book, Instead of Education, tried to get away from our collective preoccupation with learning all together by steering the conversation towards “doing,” not in order to learn, but for its own sake. These movements were not about making children more effective, efficient learners. They took it as a given that children, free from adult coercion, would learn what they needed to know in the course of their normal, day-to-day life. They were, rather, about allowing children to live their lives with a measure of dignity rarely afforded to children today.

This is a truly “radical approach to child rearing” and it may never gain the wider acceptance in our culture that we hope for. But I believe it is important, as someone who has benefited from this beautiful way of life for children, to maintain a clear distinction between the unschooling/freeschool tradition and the progressive approach. It would be wonderful to see self-directed education reach the heights of the Montessori model in the United States. But we should also be careful what we wish for. The success of the Montessori model has depended on its being subsumed by the dominant culture of high-pressure education and goal-directed parenting.  

Though I know very little about the Reggio Emilia model, I have no doubt that the teachers in that little town in Italy respect children’s needs for autonomy and self-direction, that they do not let the impulse to educate compromise or undermine the freedom and dignity of the children. But we only have to look at the Montessori model to see how strong the impulse of teachers is to lead, instruct, and correct children. It is hard to imagine that the same thing will not happen with the Reggio Emilia model. I was talking to a woman the other day who spent time in Reggio Emilia. She said that the teachers she talked to there told her that when the Reggio Emilia model is transplanted, what is left is the aesthetic, not the true spirit of the approach.

This did not surprise me at all. Because parents, teachers and schools are under so much pressure now to produce perfect human beings - well-rounded, educated, socially adjusted, passionate,  self-directed, empathetic, successful, happy children. It is nearly impossible for any alternative educational approach not to be subsumed by the dominant forces of academic competition and economic preparation. But progressive models are not the only ones subject to this dynamic. Self-directed education is itself well-placed to be co-opted by these same forces. The silicon valley-inspired micro-school movement is hyping self-directed learning as the best way to prepare children for a competitive global economy. When self-directed education is put in the service of promoting the four C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, now said to be the most important skills required to succeed in the 21st century innovation-based economy) it is unrealistic to expect that children will be free from the pressure of anxious, future oriented adults.

Deschooling - A Work In Progress


By Ben Draper

The term “deschooling” was coined by Ivan Illich in his seminal 1971 book “Deschooling Society” in which he argued for the disestablishment of mass schooling. Since this never came to pass and it seems as unlikely today as ever, the term deschooling has taken on a slightly different meaning. It’s more of a personal process of deconditioning our schooled mindset, which sees all learning through the lens of traditional education, and coming to see learning more clearly for what it is; an inherent and inevitable aspect of living one’s life. 

In preparing for the Deschooling Workshop that I am co-leading with Andre Uhl, I have been thinking a lot about the whole concept of deschooling. Is it really possible for someone to “deschool“ themselves, i.e. to counteract years of conditioning? And what would such a process actually entail? What would be the purpose of such an endeavor? Are there other ways to think about the process of deschooling?

Several years ago while I was attending an alternative education conference I remember a woman confidently declaring that the rule of thumb for deschooling is that children require a month of deschooling for every year that was spent in school. She then pointed out that parents will likely require a much lengthier deschooling period since they may have spent 12 or more years in school themselves. I don’t know where this bogus “rule of thumb” came from but as somebody who never spent a single day in a coercive classroom environment and who has always been free to follow my own interests without pressure or guilt, I can say quite confidently that no one living in our modern industrialized society can ever completely free themselves from the school-mindset, and all those negative limiting beliefs about learning and education that a schooled society instills in people. The idea that it could be accomplished in a matter of months is absurd.

The South African blogger and unschooling mother, Zakiyya Ismail, reflects on her own process of deschooling in a terrific article entitled “An Immigrant Deschooler In A Native Unschooler’s World.” Following Mark Prensky’s analogy of “digital immigrants” and “digital natives” to distinguish the difference between people who have had to acquire digital literacy from people born into a digital world, Zakiyya Ismail makes a clear distinction between immigrant deschoolers such as herself and unschooling natives such as her kids:  

“Despite all my readings on unschooling over the years and my very conscious and deliberate effort to deschool myself I continue to carry the accent of my schooled past with me in the way I approach learning in particular and life in general. Sometimes my accent is stronger, other times I blend into the unschooling world a lot better. Overall, my lens of viewing the world of unschooling – while it is constantly being tweaked, will always be that of an immigrant. A deschooling immigrant. I am very aware of the need for constant introspection to safeguard myself from reverting to patterns of thought and actions dictated by my constantly lurking schooled mindset – from becoming a ‘settler’... One of the fundamental differences between my immigrant mind and my children’s native minds is our focus of attention. I tend to focus on and talk a lot about learning. They simply focus on living. They engage in activities they enjoy or are curious about, which often times leads them into new directions. They don’t measure what they’re doing in terms of what they are learning but I tend to notice and marvel at all the learning that is happening. I can’t help but marvel. I know that learning is a byproduct of living, yet I continue to look for the evidence... When I started on this journey, I truly believed that with a conscious and concerted effort to deschooling my mind, it would be possible for me to transform myself into an unschooler. But what I have found for myself (my eldest is 18) is that I will always be in a state of deschooling in an unschooling world. Very much like an immigrant exists in a native’s world!”

I admire how Ismail acknowledges that it is impossible to completely transcend her own conditioning as a product of mass schooling and how she talks about this as a never ending process of self examination. I find myself questioning, however, her notion of a “native unschooler.” Can we really call someone a “native unschooler” when we are all living in a schooled society where conventional notions about learning and education are so ubiquitous, so deeply ingrained in the culture?

 I was what Ismail would call a “native unschooler.” I spent my first nineteen years riding my skateboard, playing music, and hanging out with my friends. I never did anything because someone else thought I “should.” I didn’t even read a book until I was 17 years old. I started dabbling in higher education when I was about 21 years old and ended up spending about 8 or 9 years at various institutions of higher education around the Boston area. I went to college(s) not for a degree but as a way to follow my own interests as they unfolded. My self-directed education began the moment I was born and it has never stopped for a moment. But when I had children of my own, a funny thing happened. As my son began to talk, count, and then identify letters and recite the alphabet, I began to feel that tug of an anxious parent eagerly on the lookout for signs of academic aptitude. I was self-aware enough to see this process for what it was; a psychological and emotional need for confirmation. But even with increased self-awareness, this background anxiety continued to be there. When he began creating his own taxonomy of Pokémon, classifying them by earth type, water type, fire type and so forth, I thought it was nice that he was doing something he enjoyed. When he started doing the same thing with the elements, classifying them by their atomic number, I got excited! I offered to take him to the library and get him books on the history of how the elements were discovered.  Rationally, I know that what is important is that my son is demonstrating his ability to identify and pursue his own interests. It may be Pokémon one week, the elements another, and playing super smash bros the next. What difference does it make? What matters is that it is meaningful to him, not to me or anyone else. But because of the constant, unavoidable messages of our culture about what learning is supposed to look like, we get pulled along, often unconsciously and habitually, by these cultural patterns of prejudice and anxiety about how our children are engaging with the world around them.

I think that if we are serious about deschooling we have to acknowledge that we are all deschooling immigrants, even those of us who have never set foot in a traditional classroom. We are all trying to carve out a way of living and learning with our children that runs deeply counter to our culture. Therefore, it requires continual self-reflection, clarification, redefinition. John Holt was a product of the industrial schooling system and yet he was also a shining beacon of Deschooled consciousness. On the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty of grown unschoolers and freeschoolers who, never having spent even a single day in school, nonetheless bring  “school-ish” attitudes to bear in the raising of their children. The point is, the dominant ideology of traditional education holds such powerful sway over all of us, playing right into our anxieties about the most important thing in our life, our children, that without diligent self-reflection it is nearly impossible to gain critical distance from it. We would all do well to follow Ismail’s example when she says, “I am very aware of the need for constant introspection to safeguard myself from reverting to patterns of thought and actions dictated by my constantly lurking schooled mindset – from becoming a ‘settler’.”

I think this is what deschooling is really about, developing a critical self-awareness with respect to our unconscious assumptions, biases, and prejudices around learning and education. Deschooling is not about bringing ourselves or anyone else around to a particular view of, or approach to, education. It’s about examining the beliefs and values that we’ve picked up from the culture around us, whether in school or out of school, and seeing whether they really serve us or not.

Crazy, but that's how it goes.

Crazy, but that's how it goes. 

Recently, Ben Rubel, who is about to finish his last year at the Macomber Center, was lamenting the fact that we wouldn't be able to do one last performance of Crazy Train for the potluck. After all, it's hard to imagine performing crazy train without Cat Pennington, whose genuine hard rock style made for such a memorable performance at the WinterShow a couple of years ago.  But after Baxter blew us all away with his hidden singing talent this year's SpringShow, he seemed like an obvious choice to replace Cat. It turns out that Baxter, who is an avid runner, knows Crazy Train from its being played on an endless loop during one of his day-long running competitions. This time, Ben Rubel will replace Mark on drums, and Vera, 16, who just joined the Center last month, has been learning the bass part from Dan. Though she has never played the bass before, she is tackling it with total determination. We did a quick run through this week and hopefully we will get it together for the potluck which will happen on Saturday, June 3rd from 2:00 to 5:00. 


Unexpected Visitors.

Joei and her husband Jason with their two kids, Jimmy and Josh.

Joei and her husband Jason with their two kids, Jimmy and Josh.

On Wednesday morning, as I was standing out under the maple tree with Dan, trying to resolve a conflict between several of the kids, a white pickup truck appeared in the parking lot and two young boys, who I had never seen before, went running straight down to the field and immediately joined in on the morning football game. Then a woman stepped out of the truck and begin taking pictures as her husband untied bicycles from the truck. Though it took me a few minutes to figure it out, this was the Villarama family. Joei Villarama had contacted me several months ago asking if they could spend a few days visiting the Center, but as they were coming from San Francisco by car, it was uncertain exactly when they would arrive. The Villaramas are from the Philippines. They started their journey from Manila and flew to San Francisco where they bought a secondhand pick up truck and began making their way across the country to see all the free schools and self-directed learning centers that they could. Next they go to NYC to see the Agile Learning Center. Jimmy and Josh have fit right and the family has been a welcome addition to the community. We wish them much luck in their goal of eventually creating a self-directed learning center in China or the Philippines.


Slam Poetry

A few weeks ago I overheard Morgan, 16, who many of you may know from her poetry reading at our recent SpringShow, telling Dan about her interest in slam poetry. I asked her if she would like me to bring in my friend Amy Mevorach, who is an established slam poet in the local area. She said she would be very interested. We found some other kids to include, and this week Amy came and ran a poetry slam workshop. Morgan is considering putting together a poetry slam at the end of the year if she can find enough members to participate. 


Logo Contest.

The town of Framingham is inviting students to design a logo for their new "bring your own bag" bylaw which will go into effect starting in 2018. This new logo will be on all the promotional posters, flyers and bags used to encourage people to bring their own bags shopping. Our friend Claudia, whose son is a former Macomber Center member, is working on this initiative with the town. She came by this week offer our members a place in the competition. Several of our members are interested in design and went straight to work on designing a new logo.


A self-directed learning group.

This week a small group of us met for our second "self-directed learning group." Ever since Blake Boles gave a talk here a couple of years ago entitled "the art of self directed learning" I have wanted to put a small group like this together.  The idea is simply that every week a group of kids and adults meet to discuss the things they're interested in learning, how they think they may go about learning those things, and in some cases setting personal goals for themselves. We share ideas and resources, and support each other in anyway we can. 



Without getting too arcane, this week saw some important changes in the way foursquare is played here at the Center. And then... the rules were changed back again.

On Thursday morning we debated for over an hour the recent changes that were made to the foursquare rules. These changes would have made it so that people who slam the ball, causing it in many cases to roll down the hill, would be responsible for retrieving it. This would also make slamming people less fun because it would not send them on a long hike down the hill after the ball.  

When major rules come up for debate at the Center is when we see the biggest turn-out at the meeting. And nothing is more important to the kids here than the rules that govern the way foursquare is played. When the meeting voted to change the rules last week, overturning a long foursquare tradition, not many kids were aware that the rules had come up for discussion and so the proposed changes went through largely unchallenged. This week, however, when the debate was reopened, everyone came to the meeting.

The changes, though short lived, seemed to create a friendlier atmosphere on the foursquare court, but as some of the older, long-time players of foursquare argued, the old rules are structural to the game, they are part of what makes the game what it is. Like it or not, when someone gets you out, you have to go get the ball. If they slam you, you may have to go a long way to get it. In short, the original foursquare rules have been restored and all is right again in the universe. 

For a detailed discussion of the fine points of the arguments on each side of the debate ask your member-child to explain it.  

It Takes All Kinds

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

Henry David Thoreau

Kids come in many different varieties. It’s remarkable how different even two siblings can be from one another. This is certainly the case with my own two kids. They vary widely in everything from their personalities and temperaments, to their likes and dislikes, to their individual talents and strengths. On the whole, we celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of children. It is the wonder and joy of having kids that we get to watch them grow and develop in surprising and unexpected ways. But once kids reach school age, parents and teachers often go to great lengths to help them adjust and adapt to life in the classroom, where every child is expected to do exactly the same work in exactly the same way for years on end.

The other day I was talking to one of the parents here at the Macomber Center.  He told me that he and his wife came to a point with their kids when they could see that traditional school was not working. They decided they needed to make a change. This is what finally brought them to the Macomber Center. Referring to his son, he said, “We wanted to set him free to become his own person.”  This really struck me. Not only does it go to the heart of what the Macomber Center is about, it is also the reason I love having my own son here. I never know on any given day who he will gravitate to, what he will be interested in, what he will take away from the experience, and where it will lead him next. This is what education should be about, giving kids the freedom and support they need to discover the world for themselves and begin to shape themselves as they move through it.

Traditional education is based on the opposite approach: it takes kids of every different stripe, with widely varying temperaments, interests, and approaches to learning, and subjects them all to exactly the same set of procedures, measuring them every step of the way, with the end goal of producing a uniform, standardized product. As people in the world of self-directed education like to point out, our schools were originally created for the purpose of supplying the industrial economy with workers who were already used to falling in line, taking orders from above, staying at one station for long periods of time, and focusing on the same tedious work, day after day. But these schools have long outlived their purpose, so it is no surprise that many parents in the 21st-century are feeling that traditional school is out of step with what they want for their kids.  Schools were never designed to help foster those unique qualities that make one child stand out from another. In fact, school suppresses children’s unique talents and gifts in favor of strict adherence to a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and it promotes only those strengths and abilities that can be measured by standardized tests.

Allowing kids to be themselves not only makes for happier kids, it also happens to be the best way to prepare them for the future.  I recently read a terrific new book called “The Gardener and the Carpenter” which reinforced this idea from an angle that I had never considered. The book is by Allison Gopnick, a leading evolutionary psychologist. In the book, she argues that the high degree of variability among individual children is a product of our evolutionary history and serves a very important purpose. Throughout our evolution, she claims, humans have had to face unexpected changes in climate, physical environment, and social structure, and so we have evolved to vary widely in our abilities and temperaments in order to be flexible and adaptable in the face of unpredictability and change.  

"By varying what individual children are like, how they think and develop, and what they learn from others, all those children stand a better chance of survival when things change.  As a result, we can expect a great deal of apparently random variability in the temperament and development of children and in the behavior of adults... From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating. Even if we humans could precisely shape our children's behavior to suit our own goals and ideals, it would be counterproductive to do it. We can't know before hand what unprecedented challenges the children of the future will face. Shaping them in our own image or in the image of our current ideals might actually keep them from adapting to changes in the future."

If the diversity and uniqueness of children is an asset, particularly in today’s fast changing and unpredictable world, if it is something to be fostered rather than suppressed, shouldn’t it be a primary focus of education? It should stand to reason that the best sort of educational environment is one where kids are exposed to as many different adult models, as many different varieties of information, and as many different experiences as possible, in order to support the variety and variability of each child's developmental course.

In an age-mixed, interest-mixed community like the Macomber Center, kids are exposed to a much wider variety of possibilities then they would ever be exposed to in a traditional classroom where everybody is focused on the same material. Between the six staff, who all have vastly different interests, backgrounds, and personalities, and the kids, who range in age from five to seventeen years old, all pursuing their own various interests, the Macomber Center contains a tremendous variety of activity.

Just take this past week, for example. Mark helped some kids film a new episode of Space Thieves, taught some other kids how to play one of their favorite songs together on different instruments, and lead a large group of kids in his wildly popular acting and improv class. James lead a reading group, tutored in Latin, and played hours of gaga ball and back-and-forth tag. Amy gave Ben Rubel and me some voice coaching to help us in our barbershop quartet and she also hosted a Skype meeting for the whole community with an engineer from SpaceX. Dan helped one kid learn how to use a soldering iron for some projects he's planning, helped someone else build a robot, and tutored some older kids for the SAT.

The Macomber Center is based on an idea that predates the industrial model of education, an idea that is as relevant today as it ever was in the past: The great potential within each of us lies not in our capacity to conform to an external standard but to discover our own unique set of talents and strengths and develop those as much as we can and learn to engage the world on the basis of those talents and strengths.

Facing Difficulty

As a staff member here at the Macomber Center and a parent of two young children, I often find myself getting into conversations about education with other parents outside the Center. I'm always puzzled by people who say that they didn't pay attention in school, that they never learned anything useful there, and that the most important things they have learned in life were learned outside of school. What seems strange to me is not that these parents report having been bored and unengaged in school but that they always seem to follow it up by saying that school, despite all its failings, is a necessary evil and ultimately good for kids.  

But perhaps this is not as much of a contradiction as I used to think. For many kids, school is often boring, difficult, stressful and even anxiety producing. And this seems to be precisely why parents feel it is so important. After all, what parent wants their kid to be sheltered from the tough realities of life? Life is difficult, it presents constant challenges, and we all want our kids to be able to thrive amidst the trials and tribulations out in the real world. This may also be why homeschooling has negative connotations for some people; they imagine that it means sheltering kids from the sometimes harsh social realities that lie beyond the security of the home.  

In any case, all of this seems to be an acknowledgement that what kids really learn in school is not the specific subject matter that is being taught, but rather how to function within a rigid and unforgiving institutional structure. And this is why school is supposed to be good for them. But while this environment may be very difficult and challenging for many kids, it does not necessarily follow that it is therefore good for them. Not everything that hurts makes you stronger.

If our real concern is that our kids learn to face difficulty on their own without a protecting parent standing by to mediate their experience and manage every difficult challenge, we need only think for a minute about what actual lessons kids learn in school to see that it is a false kind of preparation for real life. What the institutional structure of school encourages, above all, is obedience, compliance, and conformity. Kids learn to accept arbitrary authority and to passively and uncritically consume a pre-packaged curriculum without ever questioning the material or the way in which it's delivered. They learn to depend on others to tell them what is important in life and to tell them what they need to learn and how to learn it.  

There is a stark contradiction, then, between what we say is good for kids and what we say we value in adults. Increasingly, we hear about the importance of critical thinking, imaginative and creative problem solving, communication and collaboration, and self-motivation and initiative. School, as we know it today, is not designed to enable kids to exercise and strengthen these capacities. Quite the opposite. So, I think we need to be more specific when we say that we want our kids to be challenged and to learn to face difficulties. I would argue that what's important for kids, and certainly what I want for my own kids, is to learn how to function effectively within an unpredictable and fluid social environment, because this is the kind of environment where kids develop the skills they will need in an increasingly unpredictable and fast-changing world.

Along with the difficulties and challenges associated with learning how to negotiate and navigate within an unstructured social environment, kids in a self-directed learning community such as the Macomber Center have to learn how to confront the inevitable experiences of boredom, frustration, and anxiety. These difficult, fundamental human experiences can either be productive opportunities for positive development or they can be deadening, depending on whether one has the freedom and agency to respond creatively to them or whether one is limited and restricted by external forces, as in traditional school.

The experience, for example, of boredom and frustration can be one of life’s primary catalysts for growth. The expression, “If you are bored then you are boring” implies that boredom is an inevitable and fundamental experience that we all need to learn how to push through for ourselves. Furthermore, this pushing through will often tell us something essential about ourselves--who we are and where we might find fulfillment in life.  But the kind of boredom that many children experience in school is not like this; it is the kind of difficult, unpleasant experience that is imposed from the outside, and which they are powerless to change. It is difficult without being challenging. A challenge is something that you can rise to and overcome if you are determined and resourceful. The only thing you can learn from the kind of boredom and frustration that school presents is how to endure unpleasant conditions imposed on you against your will. This may be a useful skill for kids to learn if we want to prepare them for a life in which they will spend long periods of time in environments which are stifling and soul-crushing.  

Developing endurance can certainly be a good thing. When we set goals for ourselves, we often have to endure a lot of ups and downs, and sometimes long periods of difficult struggle, to see our goals through to the end. But learning to endure the status quo because we have no choice is different. A friend of mine, years ago, told me that if she had kids, she would definitely send them to traditional school even though she hated school as a kid. The reason she gave was that she wanted her kid to be able to tolerate the monotony of meaningless, tedious, busy work that school requires from kids. This way, the monotony of adult work would not come as a shock or a disappointment. Aside from being overly cynical, this kind of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

At the Macomber Center, kids encounter difficult and challenging experiences every single day. They have to learn how to make choices for themselves, how to battle boredom and frustration, how to deal with situations they find difficult, and how to resolve conflicts. Most importantly, they learn to challenge themselves and overcome their own internal obstacles. The adults at the Center help to create and maintain a stable, healthy environment for kids. When kids feel safe and secure, they are able and even eager to challenge themselves. They're more likely to take risks emotionally, socially, and intellectually. They're more comfortable outside their comfort zone, so to speak.

Anxiety, too, is an inevitable and necessary part of life. In a safe and supportive community like the Macomber Center, it's a natural part of development; it's part of expanding beyond one’s familiar and comfortable habits of operating in the world and taking on challenges. As we know all too well, though, excess anxiety is a real problem for many kids in traditional school. Instead of helping to propel them to new heights, this anxiety very often becomes debilitating. It hinders performance rather than enhancing it.

At the Macomber Center, children are constantly playing games in groups of different ages and different skill levels. The role of adults is not to manage these complex, precarious dynamics, but to contribute to the game. They have no more power or influence in the games than any other players. Kids have to learn how to deal with all the other players, from the adults to the little kids.  They have to learn how to play with kids who may older and more intellectually, emotionally, and physically powerful than they are. Sometimes these situations involve difficult, conflicting personalities. But there's tremendous motivation to overcome the difficulties that get in the way because of the investment that each kid has in the game.

Without genuine collaboration and the requisite skills of communication, problem-solving, fairness, and emotional resilience, these games would not be possible. Since the adults do not manage these interactions, when a child is playing unfairly or is bullying one of the younger kids, or is unwilling to put up with all the compromising and negotiating required, the game is over. The motivation and drive for these kids to play these games is so strong that they end up developing an remarkable level of patience and diplomacy--even self-sacrifice--in order to ensure that the game can go on.

If we really want our kids to be able to face difficulty, learn to challenge themselves, and overcome obstacles, we need to let them take the lead in their own lives. When we talk about self-directed learning, we usually talk about kids being able to choose what they want to learn about and pursuing learning in their own style.  Of course, this is an important part of self-directed learning.  But the real heart of self-directed learning, more important than the particular interests the child is pursuing at any given time, is the growth, development, and thriving that begin to occur as a direct result of the freedom to direct one's own life. 

Spring Thing

It’s happening again. 

I should expect this by now, after twenty years of working with kids.

Yet it still takes me by surprise. It all just sneaks-up, right about now.  During the final twelve or seven or three days of every year. 

This weird thing happens. 

First, a kid who seemed really happy to ignore me all year, suddenly joins me outside - while I’m trying to get a kite airborne - and engages me in a rather lengthy and amazingly human conversation. 

Then another, someone I’ve known for a while, begins jamming with me on this whole different level.  Confident, relaxed.  We’re trading chops and truly making music for the first time. Communicating in this whole new dimension.  

And today, and during this past week, a trail of kids have been stopping by to tell me about things they’d like to accomplish next year.  Things they want to do.  Bigger, better, more challenging things they would like to get done at the Center. 

Hearing all these ideas and dreams and experiencing these last minute Spring breakthroughs, I guess it makes me reflect a bit too.  Imagining how I might become a more effective staff for everyone here, when our Fall semester rolls around.

The last minute progress and future ambitions streaming in from our members during these final days of this incredible 2015/16 Macomber year will stay with me. 

 I take these words and actions seriously and I will revisit them all in the fall.  I’ll do what I can to keep the ball rolling with my Spring breakthroughs and do what I can to help the other's ideas for the future actually happen.

From what I’ve seen, working with all kinds of students over these years, about half of the kids will still want to act on their Spring resolutions next Fall.

The ones who don’t immediately follow-up in the Fall are still on the right track.  Verbalizing their hopes and pondering their futures is a vital step. If at first you don’t succeed...

Hey, I’d be a slimmer, healthier and much more muscular staff member if I'd followed through on every resolution I ever made.

The Heart of Macomber

I would like to address the idea that I hear expressed from time to time that there is no point in sending your kids to a place like the Macomber Center if all they're going to do is play video games all day, which is something that they can just do at home.  For me, this misses the heart of what Macomber offers.  

Whether it be music, art, cooking, science classes, walks in the woods, games of tag or four square or video games/screen time, the Center offers a chance to come together with others and experience different perspectives and share new ideas. An artist friend of mine (who works in a completely different field for a living) rented some studio space a few years ago. She did this, rather than set up space in her own home, so that she could be near other artists and gain insight, encouragement and companionship from them.  At lunchtime at a homeschool program at a farm, everyone comes together and you either share a dish or wash dishes. By sharing a meal with a diverse group of adults and children, you are exposed to new foods, or foods prepared in ways you have not previously experienced.  The same thing happens cooking or eating lunch at Macomber – it is simply lunch, but it is an amazing learning experience. 

Board games, outdoor games and video games all have rules. But when playing with people outside of your family, outside of your immediate circle of close friends, you may learn new interpretations of those rules. Or you may be inspired to combine different interpretations and make a whole new game. Collaboration and inspiration are at the heart of most music and art – seeing and hearing new patterns, new ways of doing the same thing or perhaps something completely different. In short, playing around with ideas. And play, as most of us at Macomber agree, is key to all learning.

I really feel that the magic of Macomber lies in the fact that it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Any single person attending the Center could probably do what they are doing there at home. But the experience becomes so much more when it is shared in a supportive, open environment where there is no wrong answer and play and experimentation are encouraged. 

This semester at the
 local university where I work there was a teach-in about a topic that has been in the news all year. Professors reported that up to one third of their students were unaware of the issue. These students tended to be from small schools, came to the university with a group of friends, shared the same interests and likes as their friends and because of the way news and ideas are spread on the internet, have never had to look at anything outside of their interests and perspective. This topic was simply not on their radar, so they were completely oblivious about it. In this age of Internet and screen time, there is more need than ever to get together in person and share experiences and knowledge. Macomber provides this and I feel fortunate to have it in our life.

Iverey's Grave

Cate and I stood in reverent silence in front of the newly-made grave for a long while. Shortly after my arrival at the Center this past Monday morning, she had summoned me, explaining that she and some of her friends had just buried a dead catbird that they found. Did I want to see the grave?

I followed her down the grass-covered hill to the edge of the thorny thicket where she and her young playmates spend hours at their Princess role-playing game. Then, there it was before us.

The grave had been fashioned with loving care at the border between the bushes and the playing field, only a few feet away from where they had found the bird. A rectangle of short stout branches framed a bare patch of dirt; six white stones had been carefully placed in the center. Just behind the rustic wooden frame, a small cross--two twigs fastened together with blue tape--was inserted into the ground at a slight angle. Just inside the border was a small yellow paper taped to a stick with the following, carefully printed in block letters:                                               



                                               WE LOVE YOU

Cate explained that they had chosen the name Iverey because they did not know if the bird was a girl or a boy, so they picked a name that could be for either. I asked her how they dug the hole. Cate replied, “We just used our hands.”

I detected a hint of pride that they did not need adults to help them to help them with either the grave construction, or processing the inexplicable reality of death. The girls had done what should be done, on their own, drawing from their understanding of traditions appropriate to observing the death of a fellow creature, without the need of any guidance from staff. Cate did not seem sad, but, rather, composed and clear that she and her friends had done the proper thing for Iverey.

Cate informed me that each visitor to the grave was to take the small white rock from a pile they had prepared just a few feet away and place it in the center of the grave as a token of their visit. I selected just the right rock and placed it along side the others. Then we stood in silence for that long, precious time.

Something about our standing there together touched me to the core, bringing me to the verge of tears. Perhaps it was the girls’ act of love and recognition of their connection with their departed fellow being. Perhaps it was a sense of privilege of being invited into their world of experiencing and responding to one of life’s biggest challenges. What was clear was my feeling of deep gratitude for being able to share that moment with Cate. And that we both have the great fortune to be part of this profound community that allows us all--kids and staff--to experience and respond to real life, in real time.

Late that afternoon, after Maggie and Andrea and I had drawn and colored paper dragons to add to those adorning the walls of the art room, Maggie decided to paint a larger, perhaps more fitting, grave marker for Iverey in black paint, with a black border. Andrea was inspired to make one too, in purple marker.

Arriving back at the gravesite, the two girls carefully fastened their new markers to the twig frame with blue tape. Andrea pointed out the bouquet of now-wilting yellow buttercups she had placed that afternoon on Iverey’s grave, and we noticed that several more visitors had reverently added their white rocks to the others.

Then, after shooing away a gang of sword-fighting boys from the precious grave site, the girls proceeded to have an acrobatics competition nearby in the brilliant May sun, and went on with their joyful play. 

Made at Macomber


For this week’s blog post, I thought it would be nice to just show pictures (all photos courtesy of Denise Geddes) of all the things that were made at the Center this week.  So here you are.  Enjoy!

CPR/First Aid Class

Sometimes I think of the Macomber Center as a version of a one-room schoolhouse, only updated for the 21st century.   The shared open space has advantages and disadvantages.  It can feel a bit crowded in the winter or on a rainy day with no quiet spot to escape to and no strict divisions between ages and temperaments, but it also draws everyone together, allows a real community to be built, and creates unique situations.

        A CPR/First Aid class this week illustrated the positive aspects of our limited space.   Fifteen members had officially enrolled in the class so we pulled back the chairs and tables in the main room to clear a large enough area for the class to take place.  It was a beautiful day and at first the kids not taking part in the class were running around happily outside; however, as soon as we began moving the furniture around, it became clear to them that something far more interesting was happening inside.  As the class began, I was amused to see that the “official” class was surrounded by an “unofficial” class, an audience of mostly younger kids genuinely fascinated by the spectacle taking place before them.  In hindsight, it was not hard to see the source of their fascination.  The instructor brought her own cool toys (CPR dummies, toy epinephrine pens, and an automated, talking defibrillator) and had set up a large monitor on which she played demonstration videos.  In addition to listening to the information, the younger kids got to watch the older kids bopping along, 100 beats per minute, as they practiced their chest compressions and wheezing into the mouths of the bright plastic dummies.  Fortunately, our instructor took it in stride, easily adapting to the setting, and happily answering questions and accepting answers to her own questions from anyone - “official” or “unofficial” - whoever wanted to take part was welcomed into the process.

        I was nervous at first that the kids wouldn’t accept the boundaries of the class but I soon realized how absurd my worries were: of course the kids didn’t accept the boundaries of the class!  But there was also no need for the class to be constituted by boundaries.  They respected the attention of the other kids and they were genuinely interested in the material-- that was enough.   It is difficult to describe how learning works in such an informal setting but it is also recognizable to anyone who has attended a successful seminar or meeting in a university or workplace.  At such moments a lack of formality does not undermine the process but fundamentally strengthens it. Everyone is at ease.  No one fears being called upon or asking questions.   Laughter is not the product of the inattention but demonstrates understanding and comfort with the material and the setting.   It is just a remarkable, healthy environment to be in.  In our case distinctions between teacher and student, adult and child, “official” and “unofficial” student easily broke down.  A group of people from the ages of 6- 62 all sat down on a beautiful day and learned the lessons of life and death together.   It was actually fun.

Deep Play

“Unrestricted and unsupervised play in one of the most valuable educational opportunities that we can offer our children.”
- Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot

Decades of research have proven what we already know from our own experiences: children thrive when they are given ample opportunity for independent, unrestricted play. But in contemporary American culture, we are nevertheless driven to try and manage or direct children’s play in order to produce particular outcomes within particular time frames. Unfortunately, when play is directed by adults (either subtly or overtly), it becomes something else entirely: a means to an end (i.e. getting kids to explore physics or geometry through block-building). Adult-directed play can sometimes be enjoyable for children, but it is not the kind of play that is essential to their development. Children need what is known as deep play. And deep play requires an abundance of both time and freedom.

I recently finished reading Angela J. Hanscom’s (founder of TimberNook) new book, Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. She describes deep play as “…a type of play that involves purpose and is not merely exploratory in nature. By the time children have engaged in deep play, they have chosen who they are going to play with, have chosen what they are going to play, have taken on their roles, and have developed their play arrangements.” Hanscom notes that this is often a long, slow process and that “…children need time, patience and the opportunity to step back from adults in order for [deep play] to occur.”
Deep play takes place all the time at Macomber Center, a rare gift in today’s world. Packs of children roam around inventing games and imaginary worlds, building structures, and setting rules. Most often, I only catch glimpses of this kind of play. I see kids making masks, stringing bows for shooting arrows, racing to capture each other, or rounding up baby dolls. But every once in a while, I have the great privilege of seeing it up close.

Back in the fall, under cover of orange and gold leaves, a group of girls set out toward the tire swings with James Style, who had been named chief of their tribe. My oldest daughter was visiting the Center that day, and the two of us were invited to join the group. I sensed this was no ordinary hike to the tire swings; it was a serious, purposeful expedition in which everyone had a role to play and a job to do. When we arrived at their camp, I stood in wonder at what these girls had created. They had constructed shelters and weapons, jewelry, and food. There were leaders who made decisions and gave orders; there were guards who kept watch and protected the group. Everyone had an invented name and each girl’s role was an essential part of the whole. There was an elaborate story line (that I had some trouble following), complete with battles, open-fire cooking, near-deaths and rescues. To these girls, this was all commonplace, just another day playing in the woods. But to me, it was a powerful reminder of children’s masterful use of play to make sense of the world around them. It was nothing short of magical.

More recently, I’ve seen kids playing house and assigning roles of Mother and Baby to each other, creating games that involve running (and hiding) around the building, and having sword fights or escaping imaginary villains. 
This deep play is a significant part of what kids do here at Macomber, and it is extraordinary to witness. There are few places left, it seems, where children are free to roam the woods with friends and decide for themselves how to spend their time, even after school hours or during the summer. Free play is but a fantasy for many (if not most) children these days. We have somehow been convinced that free play is a luxury that we simply cannot afford if we want our kids to “stay ahead.” But, as Hanscom writes, “Giving your children time to engage in free play is like giving them a very special gift - a gift that keeps on giving, preparing children for adulthood by cultivating and nurturing essential life skills.” During free play, children explore the world on their own terms, navigate a wide range of personal and physical challenges, learn where their strengths and interests lie, and build relationships with both the people and the culture around them. Free play is not a luxury; it is essential. So send them out, and let them discover their own magic.

"There's A Little Black Spot On The Sun Today..."

Well, not today. Hi, this is Ben Rubel, Macomber's resident astronomer, and a member at the Macomber Center. I'm writing this to inform you of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Er, I mean 14 times in a lifetime (give or take). This rare event, on Monday, May 9th, happens when the solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury, transits (passes directly between Earth and) the sun!

First, here are a few facts about Mercury: 

Mercury in false color. False color is when different wavelengths outside of the human range or different mineralogical makeups are represented by colors we can see. Credit: NASA. 

Mercury in false color. False color is when different wavelengths outside of the human range or different mineralogical makeups are represented by colors we can see. Credit: NASA. 

·       Mercury is around a third larger in diameter than our moon, but about five times more massive. 

·       Although Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, with an average distance of approximately 36 million miles, it is not the hottest planet. That honor goes to Venus, which is about twice as far from the sun as Mercury is. 

·       Mercury is relatively "cool." Its temperatures fluctuate wildly because its very thin atmosphere can't retain any heat: daytime temperatures top out at around 801° Fahrenheit, while nights bottom out at around -280°F.

·       Mercury's year (the time it takes to orbit the sun) is only 88 Earth days. A planet’s distance from the sun correlates directly with its orbital period, so, the closest planet, Mercury, has the shortest year in our solar system. 

A composite of many exposures of Mercury's 2006 transit. Credit: NASA/ESA.

A composite of many exposures of Mercury's 2006 transit. Credit: NASA/ESA.

So, now, down to business: Since only Mercury and Venus are closer to the sun than Earth is, only these planets can transit the sun. Mercury transits the sun 13-14 times per century—about once every 7 years. Venus transited the sun most recently in 2008 and 2012, but, sadly, the next Venusian transit won’t be until 2117. Of course, observers from any other planet in our solar system would be able to see Earth transit the sun. For example, astronauts on Mars will be able to witness a transit of Earth in 2084.

Now, the question on everyone's mind: How can I witness the May 9th transit of Mercury? Well, you will need a telescope with a solar filter. Never look at the sun without a solar filter! "But," you may be saying, "I don't have a telescope with a solar filter!" Well, on May 9th, from around 9:30am until the transit ends at 2:42pm, I will have my telescope, with its solar filter, set up at the Center, and anyone who wants to can come and have a look. Of course, if it’s overcast we won’t be able to see it, but light to moderate cloud cover should be fine. I hope to see you there! 

Ben Rubel, the author, also has a weekly astronomy video series called Rubel's Rambles. It can be found on the Macomber Center's Facebook page. 

Save The Inchworms

10:30 am: The campus is still a bit mushy from last night’s rain. But this morning the sun is shining bright and most of our members are already down on the field playing “a very weird variation of Kick-the-Can” with James, Ben and Matt. As I enter the Center, Dan is trying to convince the flute player that she can compose her own Irish tune. Two little girls are in the back, playing photo-booth on the iMac. Denise is out at an appointment. I tape a poster on the front door advertising the just-released Springshow DVD. The show, held two weeks ago, was very successful. Raising over $600 for our performing arts fund. Enough to finish paying off our digital drum set, get a nice electric/acoustic guitar, plus some extra lighting gear for our next concert.

11:00 am:  Two teenagers walk in.

Him: Do you want to borrow my Quantum Mechanics book?

Her:  Ummm….no thanks, I’m good.

He walks over to me. “Hey Mark, I think it’s time to make a new movie.”  This initiates a discussion. Three other teens join our table and we throw around some story and character ideas. After about fifteen minutes we start to come up with the rough framework for a script.

A minute later the two little photo-booth girls march over and hand me a tiny flyer. “Save the inch worms,” they plead. According to the inchworm supporters, there is an opposing group on campus who are anti-inch worm because they "eat the trees". The supporters insist that "In order to save the planet we must protect the worms”. 

The two conservationists color in some more worm flyers and parade out the door. 

11:30 am: Two of my best grilled-cheese makers are here today. Both work independently and fast. One whips up a dozen root-beer floats while the other grills up several stacks of sandwiches. I head back to the music room to find the flute player who is also our regular cashier. She and Dan are in the midst of writing that Irish tune together - I hate to interrupt a tune-in-the-making but I have hot sandwiches to sell. The lunch stand opens as Denise arrives back at the Center. 

Another presidential primary was held last night and several 11 year-old boys are sitting at the round table, munching their grilled cheese and discussing election results. 

12:30 pm: We hold our weekly meeting half an hour early today. The sandwich-griller chairs the proceedings for us. The agenda is shorter than usual. We have two planned field trips; One to Sky-Zone and one to Southwick Zoo. Brief discussion.  Meeting adjourned.

1:00 pm: Today I am filming Episode XXXI of Space Thieves. The series follows the extraordinary adventures of two kids from Earth who borrow an unattended NASA rocket ship and blast off into outer space. On the way to Mars the explorers are joined by a third Earthling and later a Saturnian and two Venusians. After battling the Queen of Mars they rocket out to Neptune and eventually land on Pluto, where they are currently stranded. Today’s cliffhanger features the regular explorers along with Princess Snowflake of Pluto, the mysterious alien Maximus and Squirrelly Boy. The sandwich griller helps out as script-girl for today's shoot.

2:00 pm:  Over on the playing field a big game of Capture is raging.  Meanwhile, back inside the Center, Dan is trying to trouble shoot a glitch on Denise’s laptop computer. The flute player watches intently.  A cluster of kids is down on the floor surrounding a large paper banner that will be part of our annual Pot Luck afternoon. It's coming up on Saturday, June 4. Everyone adds a bit of art, or a doodle or a signature to the colorful banner.

2:30 pm: A trio of boys is seated in front of the iMac. They Google puppy memes. As each dog photo comes up they take turns reading the captions out loud to each other, adding some nice dramatic and comedic flourishes to the lines.  

 3:00 pm: Ben is tidying up for the Open House that is soon to begin. As I pack up my camera and bread loaf-ends to leave, I hear the flute player and Dan, back in the music room, figuring out another Beatles song.

Great Good Fortune

Great good fortune* - these words define the essence of my feelings about my work at Macomber Center and specifically about my luck in sharing this space with Ben and Mark, James and Dan, and most recently, Amy – the amazing colleagues I interact with on a daily basis; the people to whom Macomber Center owes its current vibrant, life-affirming state of existence. Each of these people brings a unique perspective and set of talents to our community, all of which contribute to the rich soup into which the kids plunge from the moment they walk (or burst) through the front door in the morning.

Ben and James are always here when the day begins – ready to engage the first-comers in conversation about what has happened in their lives since they were last here, regardless of when that might have been. This usually comes on the heels of our three-way early morning conversations about the state of the Center, what our individual goals/dreams/expectations might be, how they might become reality, or become part of our discarded that-wouldn’t-work pile of ideas. These conversations, taking place before our official day begins, are the first example of my great good fortune in being where I am and doing what I do – we are all passionate about our work, all bring different life experiences and beliefs to the table, and each holds the shared vision of our Center community in our own centers. Articulating this vision, even when talking of perhaps mundane, daily happenings rather than the more theoretical future we imagine ahead, is a valuable, affirming way to start the day

James and Ben check in on how things are with the first-comers, and often with a parent or two. What fresh ideas or already-made plans are ahead for the new day? Suggestions are made, ideas traded back and forth, and the day begins. Watching how these two people engage with the kids is the next extraordinary hit for me – the attitude of my colleagues is one of respect, interest, genuine desire to hear what a child has to communicate – a jumping-off point for the day ahead. Perhaps plans to start an event, or finish a project or organize a game will be set in motion; perhaps a trip outside, regardless of the weather, to fill the bird feeder will start the day for a kid, engendering inquiries about why the feeder is emptied so quickly and what kinds of birds are around today.  James is a wealth of information about all local birds, their songs, their eating habits, their arrivals and departures from our part of the world. Back inside, James will either engage in Latin teaching or a biochemistry class or a discussion of astronomy or a game on the floor with Legos or building blocks or a round of anagram playing, then back outside for a game of four square depending on the make-up of the early morning gang, equally enthusiastically engaged in any one of these activities.

Ben, more often than not with coffee in hand, displays such a constant openness to any idea or suggestion that comes his way from the kids (or the adults!) – a non-judgmental, genuinely interested, let’s-explore-this attitude which never cuts a person off from any potential path that might be explored. We have been working together at the Center since the day the doors first opened on September 10th, four years ago. Ben brings his skills in and love of music and art, his sense of play, and sense of humor to the Center, and shares each of these with the kids and his co-workers. Watching Ben deeply engaged in creating a painting in turn leads kids to experiment with paintings of their own, after many questions of the what-are-you-doing variety, always answered seriously and as fully as the asker might desire. Ben devotes time to actively thinking about Macomber Center, and where we might be heading in the future, both philosophically and practically. This thought process is made visible in writings of various kinds, and in conversations with other people engaged in similar pursuits in the larger self-directed learning community, and most importantly, in ongoing conversations with us, his colleagues, about these issues and ideas.

Dan and Mark arrive on our scene an hour later, a busier scene than the first hour - greetings are exchanged, kids and adults checking in with each other to see what has gone on since last contact, to see what might be on tap for the day ahead. Both these men are accomplished, amazing musicians, each possessing quite different musical skill sets, but able to mesh with enormous professionalism and talent. Our Center kids are so fortunate to have this talent open and available to them on a daily basis, and so many of them take advantage of it; music is in the air for long stretches of every day, to my delight – another great good fortune for me!

To my eyes, Dan engages with kids and adults in a totally present and open way that is unique to him. His ability to involve himself with a child in a deeply listening way results in conversations happening which would not have taken place otherwise; talents and interests revealed which might have remained hidden for a while longer emerge and are encouraged to blossom.

Mark and Dan often play music together – all sorts and conditions of music, often bringing in many other players and singers, kids and adults alike, drawn to the magic of awesome sounds coming from the music room. All musical genres are explored – any variation of a song or instrumental piece is grist for the musical mill – anyone playing anything is free to join the harmony of the experience – a joyful noise indeed!

Mark, along with his vast musical skills, has a talent for movie-creating and has engaged in this activity with all ages at the Center, developing suggestions from the actors for scripts, themes and dialogues, and then shooting the results and editing them into wonderful films, which are watched over and over again by the Center kids. The repeat viewings are a phenomenon that I love to witness – the faces of the watchers reveal so much – pride in their acting ability, excitement over being in a movie, intrigue in viewing the plot as a whole, instead of as individual shot-out-of-sequence scenes.

Amy joined our staff this September, after volunteering at the Center in the spring of last year, along with sharing her delightful very young daughters with our community on more than one occasion – lovely happenings that highlighted the huge pleasure so many kids take in babies and very young children. Some of my favorite Center photos involve interactions between our kids and visiting babies and toddlers – there is such uncomplicated purity in the connection between them – such a joy to witness, and always, always visible. Amy’s deep artistic talent results in kids trying projects none of us had thought about before this, or even imagined! It is lovely to watch the seriousness of creativity happening in a new medium – block prints, ink, sun prints, paint of all types, combinations of colors and textures not tried before, geometric forms and free-forms, all being played with, bringing imagination into concrete visibility. It is my great good fortune to have the female energy of Amy in our midst – a truly important and enormously beneficial addition to my work world.

Great good fortune – my hope is that you too are able to experience your workdays filled with such grace and fullness as these words imply.

* Words used by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ( Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932) in his Memorial Day speech of 1884 -  It is “our great good fortune…to learn…that life is a profound and passionate thing”

Reviving Eleanor Rigby

This year’s Macomber Spring Show (7pm on Saturday, April 9) reflects the diverse musical interests of our members and staff, featuring the Beatles, Taylor Swift, AC/DC, Walk the Moon, Hank Williams, and John Williams, as well as an Irish hornpipe, a jazz standard, a devotional song, several classical compositions, a camp song, two original compositions, and two ballet pieces. Most of the numbers originated directly from member interests, often with nurturing, encouragement, and inspiration from staff members. Each had its own genesis. Here is the story of the organic manner in which I, a musician staff member, worked with the talents and interests of Macomber members to help develop two of these Spring Show numbers: a “Norwegian Wood” medley, and “Eleanor Rigby.”

A few months ago, Margaret, 16, wanted to branch out from the traditional Irish music that she had been playing on the flute, often with my accompaniment on guitar. We started going through a book of Beatles songs in the music room. I played her a few songs from my favorite albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, including “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “I’m Looking Through You,” and “Norwegian Wood.”  These songs all have memorable melodies, and have been a treasured part of my musical life ever since I first heard them when I was about Margaret’s age. Margaret enthusiastically learned the songs on the flute and we have enjoyed playing them together.

As the Spring Show approached, we started thinking about whether we might like to perform one of these songs in the show. We had played a medley of traditional Irish tunes in the Winter Show, and wondered if we might be able to put together another medley including some of these Beatles songs. “Norwegian Wood” was in the same key as one of our favorite Irish tunes: “Staten Island Hornpipe.” So, we ended up combining both tunes in a medley for the show, and adding a third tune: our own variation on the “Staten Island Hornpipe” in a minor key that Margaret named “Ghost Island Hornpipe.”

Another Beatles song that Margaret and I enjoy playing is “Eleanor Rigby.” The minor key reminds me of some the Irish tunes I play on the cittern--a big sibling to the mandolin. Its tuning emphasizes drone notes, lending it an evocative archaic feeling that complements Paul McCartney’s melody. So I brought in my cittern and began accompanying Margaret’s flute on this song.

After playing “Eleanor Rigby” for a couple weeks, Margaret and I thought this might also be a candidate for the Spring Show. George Martin’s brilliant arrangement for the Beatles features only a string quartet accompanying Paul McCartney’s singing. Could we possibly add these string parts to a Spring Show performance? It wouldn’t be the first time we pulled off a Beatles instrumental arrangement: for the last Winter Show, Beatles aficionado member Ben, then 15, wrote a great arrangement of “All You Need is Love” for a variety of instruments for which we had players.

To help us figure out what we could do with “Eleanor Rigby,” Ben now brought in an amazing book containing the complete scores to every Beatles song, including the “Eleanor Rigby” string quartet parts. He also played us a recording of the string parts alone. The string parts looked doable: the violin parts are mostly repeated quarter notes, and the song has only two chords (rare for any song, especially the Beatles)--C and E minor--that vary by only a single note. Therefore, I realized that two players could play “E” and “G” throughout the entire song!

We are lucky to have a few talented string players among the Macomber members. Laura, 6, has been playing violin about a year. Maggie, 9, has been playing a little longer. Both are serious students and enjoy performing. (They are playing a duet in the show.) I asked Laura and Maggie if they would like to try playing these repeated-note violin parts. They both agreed.

We are also fortunate to have Zlatomir, an internationally acclaimed cellist, as a member. I knew that he would be perfect for the critical cello part that anchors the string accompaniment. He also eagerly agreed, saying that he loved the song and would be happy to play with us. I photocopied the “Eleanor Rigby” score from Ben’s book, cut out the cello lines and pasted up a one-page cello part for Zlatomir to play.

Mark, the staff member who does the hard work of organizing and producing our shows, was encouraging about adding “Eleanor Rigby” to the show with the three string players I had recruited. He suggested that we try to include more members as performers, and so recruited a guitar, a keyboard player, and vocalists.

Two weeks before the show, we had our first run-through with the players who were present that day, including the vocalists, Laura on violin, and the guitar and keyboard players. I filled in the cello part and some of the missing string parts on the cittern. I helped Laura as she concentrated on playing her part. Mark played another violin part on the guitar. Margaret played the vocal melody on the flute. The rehearsal went amazingly well with the parts that were there, and it sounded good.

Though I have played only a bit of traditional fiddle, a few days later, I brought in my grandfather’s violin to see if I could manage the third violin part. Even after a lesson from Laura (an exacting teacher!) it was clear that I was not quite ready to play violin in public, and that playing the cittern would allow me to better fill in some of the missing string parts.

We had another rehearsal with some of the players a few days later, adding Zlatomir on cello. With the moving cello part, masterfully played, the piece suddenly came alive, with smiles all around! In subsequent rehearsals, various players participated as available, with Mark now playing the third violin part on the violin! It was really coming together.

We are all looking forward to the Spring Show on Saturday. Mark decided that “Eleanor Rigby” would be the show closer. As of today, the day before the show, members’ schedules have not allowed us to rehearse this number with the entire string ensemble, but the all parts are there. We will not hear it with all performers until the show. We hope you, too, get to hear it at the Spring Show. (If you’re reading this after attending the show, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed playing!)

Who is Coercing Whom?

The other day on my way to the kitchen to heat up my lunch, I overheard Dan (staff) explaining to two girls (ages 6 and 7) that it was time for him to take a break for lunch.  They told him, gently but firmly, that he would be able to eat his lunch as soon as his ballet lesson was over.  At this point, Dan, now looking a bit worried, asked the girls to make clearer their expectations of him for this class.  They said that their ballet class required four hours a day, five days a week, of hard work.  I did not stick around to see how this would play itself out.  Later that day, however, I was startled when I looked up and saw James (another staff) awkwardly lurching across the room, flapping his arms in vain, like a thanksgiving turkey trying to achieve lift-off.  Apparently, these girls had now essentially forced James under their tutelage, as well.  

Dan has written quite movingly, elsewhere on this blog, about how much he appreciates the opportunity that the Macomber Center provides for him to stretch outside his comfort zone and to take the role of a beginner.  It provides an atmosphere where it’s okay to be vulnerable, where people feel safe facing their limitations and exposing their insecurities.  But as I watched James being put through his paces by his new ballet instructors, I could see that he did not necessarily share Dan’s enthusiasm for being forced up against his own limits, or this case tripping over them.  No, this spectacle was a testament not to James’ capacity to submit himself to difficulty but to these girl’s sheer force of will, their stubborn determination to impose their own interests on others.  This is when it suddenly struck me; we are by no means a community free of coercion, at least not any more.

The question of coercion is always a hot button issue in any self-directed learning community. The debate most often revolves around the slippery question, what constitutes coercion?  If kids aren’t being explicitly required to participate in certain activities, are they nonetheless receiving subtle messages from the adults about how they should be spending their time?  I find this ballet class quite funny because these little girls have decided that James and Dan should learn ballet, and there is nothing subtle about their tactics.

There is a line of thinking which will be at least familiar to, if not totally embraced by, any self-directed learning community.  It goes like this; for adults to provide any type of offerings, from formal classes or lectures to informal activities like projects or book clubs, is, in effect, to deem certain activities more worthwhile than others.  In other words, so the argument goes, the role of the adults in a self-directed learning community is not to act as arbiters of what is “educational” and what is not, but rather to support the interests of the kids, whatever they may be.  The idea is that, though often well-intentioned, this kind of guiding, mentoring, facilitating, or whatever we choose to call it, can have the effect of preempting the real work, the very difficult work, of kids taking responsibility for their own lives, learning what they find personally engaging and meaningful and then figuring out how to pursue it in a satisfying way.

Whale I am sympathetic to this line of thinking as a reaction against the more pernicious, subtle forms of coercion, I have also seen it lead to excessive anxiety on the part of adults who fear that even the most innocent suggestion - have you ever read this book? You might enjoy it - might be taken as an implicit demand and an absolute value judgment as to the value of reading books over playing video games, for example.  Ultimately, this anxiety about coercion leads to inhibition and prevents meaningful relationships from developing between children and adults; relationships based on genuinely shared interests.  

But what does this little anecdote about the ballet class actually tell us about the question of coercion?  After all, it was obviously a game for the girls and the adults didn’t really feel pressured.  It’s true that the girls were having lots of fun, and it’s true that the adults were enjoying it too, and were more than happy to play along.  But this is precisely the point.  Kids and adults engage in activities together all the time here at the Center.  Sometimes the idea comes from a kid, sometimes it comes from an adult.  It’s never based on what one person thinks another person should be doing, but what one or more people want to do.  Adults here have no problem speaking up if they don’t want to do something, and kids here don’t have any problem speaking up either.  I think the episode of the ballet class speaks volumes about the level of genuine respect that the kids and the adults have for each other as equals.

Hello, Music Room!

At long last, our new music room is complete! When we received word from the building inspector that we could officially make use of our new room, there was an immediate rush of excitement. The kids poured into the room to check it out, sprawling themselves out on the floor, looking out the new windows, curling up with friends (and iPads) in the empty corners. A handful of staff and teenagers immediately starting moving all the musical instruments and gear into the new space, eager to get everything set up in its proper place. By afternoon, the empty room had been transformed into a beautiful, welcoming space for making music. It is an amazing space, far more exciting and impressive than I could have imagined. It brings a new sense of importance to our musical endeavors, a kind of seriousness that affirms the value of making music. You feel like you’re in a real music room, which makes you feel more like a real musician. Best of all, the room is set up for playing music together. It invites you in, and someone who is just learning guitar can benefit from someone keeping time on the drums, or someone who likes to sing can experience the thrill of singing along with live accompaniment. Great things are happening there already.

When we moved all the music gear into the new space, the old room was left mostly empty, and the main room needed to be rearranged to accommodate the new pattern of foot traffic. With all these changes, it has been really exciting and interesting to see how our kids have settled in and created new little cozy spaces for playing and socializing. The old room near the main doors has become a great space for quiet activities or classes, art-making, and conversation. We put a couple of tables in there, reorganized the art supplies, and suddenly kids were in and out of there grabbing scissors and paper, making masks and swords and chattering away together. They did those things before, of course, but it’s easier and more fun when there’s a wide open space for you and a friend to spread out all your supplies and make something. It’s also really nice that people can practice music while other people are having a quiet group activity, and both groups have the kind of space they need. As I write this, a group of kids and staff are practicing songs for the upcoming Spring Show (April 9th, mark your calendar), and another group of kids and staff are having a biochemistry class in the other room. Meanwhile, the usual hum of activity carries on in the main room, with some kids eating and others huddled around computers and still more having important conversations about light sabers and Minecraft servers. We still have very much the same range of activities happening with the completion of the new room, but the exciting thing is that we can have more of our different activities happening at the same time. With so much going on at once, all the time, there is a new kind of energy and hum to the place. If you haven’t been by to see the new room, come check it out!

Maple Syrup Season!

Winter is (nearly!) over and that means it’s an especially sweet and sappy time of year for life at the Center.  Not only are birds singing and the sun shining but - as you may have heard - it’s sugaring time at Macomber.

       We have come a long way since we started making syrup three years ago.   We knew nothing about syrup production then, but set out, staff and kids together, to learn how.  We talked to knowledgeable people, visited local farms, read a few books, and watched lots of videos online.  We had many meetings to discuss our findings, and I for one drew lots of clumsy sketches on the whiteboard.  But late that February, after we settled on our plans and collected our equipment, we ventured through wet, knee-deep snow to set our first spiles in the beautiful old maples that dot the Salem End Road side of the property.   Much to our surprise we collected way more sap than we knew what to do with and were very grateful when Emily van Nort graciously stepped in and offered to boil down our many buckets of sap into something we could handle.  We learned a ton that year and proved it was possible.  Most importantly, we made some delicious syrup.

       The following year we decided to keep the entire operation on site.   We cut and chopped our own wood from fallen trees in the forest and built our own evaporator from cinder blocks and stainless steel buffet pans.   We had another banner year of sap collection and stored bucket after bucket in a refrigerator dug into a mound of equally plentiful snow.   We spent over two weeks boiling down close to a hundred gallons of sap.  It was a lot of effort but we had a superabundance of syrup in multiple batches of varying quality (though all quite tasty).

       This year we really pared down our operation, partly out of circumstance (it’s been a tricky winter) and partly out of growing experience.  We cut half the amount of wood as last year and spent only four days collecting sap.  We reduced our boiling time to two days, one to boil the bulk of the material down and one to refine the concentrated sap - what we call “proto-syrup”.   We put all our efforts into one batch.  With a more efficient process, our final product is more consistent this year.  We still ended up with a gallon and a half or so of maple syrup.

       Making syrup is a pleasant process overall but like anything rewarding it also takes hard work and tedium.  It’s old New England alchemy, turning water into gold.  We think this is our best batch ever.  Come taste it for yourself!


Over these past months and years our directors, staff and friends have made a whole bunch of activities happen at the Center. Sporting excursions, cooking, hut building, martial arts, talent shows, maple sugaring, creating a camera obscura... the list keeps growing.

We also like to step back and hopefully inspire our members to practice acting independently and responsibly in this little community.  It might begin with small, ordinary things like choosing which hanger to put our jacket on. What part of the campus to spend time in.  Who to sit with - or away from. When to eat a snack or take a bathroom break.

Self-motivated decisions, making choices, even simple ones can be a rarity in so many educational settings. In a world where campus activity is triggered by bells and commands and scheduling is rigidly adhered to by all, the opportunity for kids to figure out how to initiate anything on their own can be almost nil.

It takes practice to learn when and how to successfully initiate something big. Like getting a game going out on the field. A random kid might suddenly begin racing around the tables yelling “Newcomb” into everybody’s ear - but it doesn’t always result in action. The successful game initiator learns how to see the big picture. The weather. The human resources available that day. The ever-changing mood of the Center. Understanding the precise moment to successfully propose where, when and which game to play.  It involves some experience and wisdom.

Some of you have encountered interns at your workplace, trying to earn a college credit. My wife Julia regularly has local film students intern at the production company where she is employed. I spent a decade in food service in big hotels and one of my duties was to manage a parade of aspiring young chefs sent by the famous culinary institutes. Maybe you have observed what Julia and I have seen. 

They arrive at our workplaces rigorously educated. Super-experienced at doing assignments, passing exams and following direction. Yet almost clueless in regards to taking any kind of initiative. Unable to busy themselves without being prompted.  Showing little common sense, barely opening their eyes and ears, eager to let the boss point out what, so often, obviously needs to be done. Are they just timid? Dumbfounded? I don’t know, but they forever want to be told what to do next. And next and next. Week after week. Managing these “well-educated” folks is no picnic. The precious few individuals who take initiative, predict what needs doing next, help keep things moving and perhaps even improve on a situation - these are the few who not only earn their full college credit, but also get invited to return - with a job offer. Initiative. They’ve got it - or they don’t.

Back here at the Center we allow our members the space to gain a sense of their natural talents and strengths and how these unique powers might fit into activities going on around them.  Eventually most will tidy up of their own lunch messes and paper-cutting projects without being told. This is a huge step. Many will decipher the tricky social skills required to initiate and enjoy a multi-player game. Others will figure out how to make their uniqueness indispensable to their community. A few more will gain enough confidence and trust to lead others and make exciting things happen. Over the past few months our student members have had the time and space to independently initiate a broad range of projects. They have staged a public debate (timed and judged), written and directed film scripts, invented dances, operated a temporary-tattoo parlor, constructed a theremin (see Brian Wilson), formed various shared-interest-groups and run a multi-bracketed chess tournament. 

The other day I watched a boy, maybe only 11 years old, take the initiative to leave his regular group of dudes and find a seat at a table where three older girls were laughing together. The bloke didn’t just barge in to annoy the ladies either. I watched as he spoke with one of them and make her smile. Then another. A minute later they were all laughing together. The young man had been accepted, at least for a moment, into the teenage group. 

We can’t make big stuff like that happen. He had to take the initiative.

The Macomber Mix

One of the most unique, interesting, and essential elements of our community at Macomber Center is the way in which people of all ages interact with each other. In work and in games, organized and spontaneous, you will see little kids, big kids, and adults being together in a way that is quite unusual in this too-frequently age-segregated society. This is a valuable aspect of our community. The Center is a place where all of us can learn how to coexist with younger and older people in constructive, rewarding ways.  Every day there is the opportunity to learn patience, self-awareness, often kindness and thoughtfulness, self-confidence, self-esteem, listening skills, and the ability to communicate clearly, through being part of a community where people are at many different stages of development.

I see it as valuable for older kids to be in a position of being the expert, when seen through the eyes of a younger child. Younger kids look up to and emulate older kids in a more direct and focused way than they do with adults; these older kids are what they aspire to become – the next imaginable step in their life development. This is such an instinctive response from younger to older kids – anyone who has watched a young child respond to older siblings in a family no doubt is aware of how powerful the urge is to be like and do what the older child is being or doing.

When children spend the majority of their time with kids their own age, as they do in a public school classroom, or an organized sports setting, this ability to learn from and teach to older and younger kids is much reduced. Certainly there is value in working with and being with same-age people, but I think much is missing from a scene where that is the sole focus. Watching sports being played at the Center provides one of the most immediately visible areas where you can see age mixing in action. Whether it is a game of four square or ultimate frisbee, capture-the-flag or back-and-forth tag, soccer or basketball, the seven- year-olds are right in there with the sixteen-year-olds, copying actions, practicing, practicing, practicing to repeat a move made by an older kid, being encouraged along the way by the more experienced players. When teams are needed for a game, sides are chosen to reflect fairly equal match-ups of talent, combining young and old, experienced and novice players.  Because that is what in the long run makes the activity fun for everyone.

Indoor age mixing happens all the time – we are a small community, and opportunities abound for such interactions. At the Center you will see older kids and younger kids engaged together in many different activities, ranging from working the Wednesday Grilled Cheese sale (a teen doing the money taking, a younger kid putting the straws in each root-beer float cup), learning new dance moves for an upcoming show from the experienced dancer who has been performing since she was the age of her youngest students, sitting next to a big kid on the couch while a story is read aloud, or having a conversation about the latest maneuvers and worlds and characters in minecraft, popular with many ages. 

One lovely element of age mixing happens at the Center whenever a baby or toddler arrives on the scene – delighted attention throughout the room focuses on the young one, and I sometimes imagine how different people’s lives might be if we were all greeted in this way when showing up – with such unfiltered delight, total acceptance and immediate, full attention to the being we are at that moment in time. I witnessed a delightful scene recently, when teens Ben and Calvin were working on a calculus problem together, at a low table in front of our couches. Molly, Amy Anderson’s young daughter who dropped in mid afternoon (with her mom and sister) decided they were in need of help – the photos below describe the scene better than words can!