alternative education

This Is Not A School

This blog entry was written for the Alternatives to School blog, where it was posted on January 22, 2015. 

By Ben Draper

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We opened the Macomber Center in 2012 as a resource center for self-directed learners.  Most of us had come from a democratic school background so naturally some people assumed that we were taking the first steps towards creating a democratic school.  What started to interest us, however, was not the potential to move towards something familiar, but the opportunity to explore something new.  We wanted to remain open-minded and flexible about what we were doing and how we might evolve.  There are plenty of alternative schools out there; we wanted to provide a genuine alternative to school.

From the very beginning, we rejected the idea of school. We had no interest in having to enforce an attendance policy, which all schools — even democratic schools– have to do.  We wanted kids to be able to come and go freely.  We wanted the center to be used only as needed and not to hold kids back from pursuing other interests out in the larger community.  We were not interested in handing out diplomas either.  We didn’t feel that kids should need our stamp of approval to move on in the world.  Instead, we felt that they should be the ones to determine when and how they were going to make the transition into adult life.

As a resource center, we provide an environment where the natural curiosity of kids is given free reign.  They are surrounded by acres of natural space and are given the time and freedom to explore.  They have access to the essential tools of learning: computers, books, art supplies, musical instruments, and science equipment.  They also have access to knowledgeable, helpful adults.

One thing we share with the democratic school model is a strong emphasis on community life.  People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities.  This is not what we do at the Macomber Center.  The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community.  Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community.

So if kids do not come to the Macomber Center for specific activities, how do they spend their time here, and what is the role of adults, if it is not to teach classes?  The kids here spend their time engaging in all kinds of different activities.  For the most part, they pursue their interests on their own and with other kids.  There are also many activities that kids and adults do together: they play music together, they play games like bananagrams, and they also play outdoor games like tag, soccer, and frisbee.  They eat lunch together, engage in conversations and so on.

As for the traditional teacher/student relationship that exists in almost any educational setting, at the Macomber Center this relationship has to be understood within the context of self-directed learning.  In the course of pursuing their various interests, kids will sometimes ask an adult for help.  There is often a considerable amount of time and energy spent in conversation just trying to clarify what exactly the interest is, the best way to pursue that interest, and what the role of the adult should be in the process.  This is not just a preliminary step but an important part of the process.  Learning how to articulate exactly what the interest is and figuring out how to pursue it can be the most useful and satisfying part of the whole experience for the learner.  Sometimes the best way to help kids explore a subject is to organize a class, but even when classes are formed, they can vary widely depending on what makes sense for a given subject.  Often the role of the adult is not so much to “teach” but rather to help the kids plot a course and help keep things moving in a productive direction.

The great thing about the resource center model is that it is so flexible.  These centers are continuing to pop up all around the country, and they are all different.  They take on different shapes depending on the needs of their community and the background of the people who create them.  Everything, right down to the land they are on and the building they are in, influences the way the programs at these centers develop.  It has been exciting to see how the culture at the Macomber Center has evolved in ways that we, the people who started it, could never have anticipated.  It has taken on its own life and transcended our ideas and theories about what a resource center should be.

The Creeps of Animal Mansion

"Okay, so the pizza resistance appears on the prairie. Now, how does the pizza resistance make the witch disappear?" I usually have to block out a certain amount of activity and noise if I need to concentrate on something like entering the weekly schedule into the online calendar, which is what I happened to be doing when these words broke right through that barrier.  So how does the pizza resistance make the witch disappear? This was Mark's question to Aurora.  "They squeeze it" said Aurora.  "They" being the two main characters in Aurora's latest script for The Creeps of Animal Mansion.  It was Mark's job to transcribe while Aurora dictated to him. Aurora is a 7 year old who spends most of her time creating games and stories and roping as many kids and adults into her imaginary worlds as she possibly can.  She has as little  need for the distinction between child and adult as she does for the distinction between  fiction and reality.  Lately, she has been working with Mark to give her stories a cinematic form.  She has written, directed and acted in a film series entitled Space Thieves, about a small crew of outer space explorers whose spaceship is invaded by burglars.

As Aurora sat eating her cashew nuts and narrating this elaborate plot to Mark, and Mark sat intently recording every detail, I thought to myself, where else would this meeting of two kindred spirits be possible; Aurora, who likes to run around outside wielding large sticks and dividing up territory, and Mark Bell, the former front man for the legendary 80's rock band, Thunder Train and an amateur film-maker with a passion for zombie movies.  What struck me most as I sat watching them work was not how different they are but how much they respected each other.

Macomber Spring!

Spring has arrived at Macomber Center, and with it a revival of the wonderful assortment of outside activities enjoyed by our members.  Back when the snow was still on the ground but the days were warming up, we tapped a dozen of the large maple trees on the property, collecting 40 gallons of sap, which we boiled down to one gallon of amazingly good syrup. We all enjoyed more than one pancake feast featuring our own syrup.

With outdoors becoming more green and beautiful by the day, games of four square, base ball, basket ball, and pickle happen daily, and the Tae Kwon Do class happens outside, with green belts being earned and awarded to the entire group last week. Our grounds have so many beautiful places to explore, and this week there was a small stream on the way to the "secret" place that required a stick-and-mud bridge to be built for crossing.

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Inside activities included much music making, anagram and bananagram games, cooking, Scratch programing classes, marine dissection and forensic science classes, block building, and some iPad games as well. We are all looking forward to our end of the year pot-luck and movie night, when the latest film made here at the Center will be shown.

How Do They Learn?

Parents who come to see the Macomber Center for the first time are almost always impressed by the beautiful location, the friendly kids, and the Center’s overall calm and happy atmosphere.  And then, naturally, the questions arise, “But what do the kids do all day, what do they learn, how do they learn, are there classes, what role do the adults play in the learning process?” Learning happens all the time and in so many different ways that it’s hard to give a single concrete answer.  First, it is important to make clear that the adults are not here to steer kids in any particular direction but to help them access the world in ways that are meaningful to them.  Second, much of the learning that happens here takes place without any adult involvement whatsoever and very often even when adults are involved it is through informal activity and conversation.  We do not place any more value on formal learning activities than any other kind of activities.  Having said this, there are also plenty of opportunities for formal learning for those who may find it useful, enjoyable, or engaging.

Last year there was a small group of older kids who came to the regular Monday morning meeting and said that they wanted a biology class.  This was not something that we had ready to go upon request, and it was also not the first time I had heard someone expressing the desire for some kind of formal science class.  So this year we hired James Style who has previously worked as a researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. So far his two classes, Marine Dissection and Cell Biology/Forensic Science have been the most popular classes this year.  As the kids have come to know James better, they have become aware of his many other interests and competencies.  He has a formal background in philosophy as well as ancient Greek and Latin.  So pretty soon he was teaching a Latin class which has now split into two separate classes and, most recently, he has been asked to do a logic class which has become an unexpected blockbuster.

James’ initial two science classes are a fairly clear cut example of classes coming about from a formal request from the kids.  But this is not always the case.  Sometimes classes begin to take form in a much more organic and gradual way.  One of the wonderful and unique things about working at a place like the Macomber Center is that, just like the kids, the adults are also free to be themselves, to follow their curiosity and to pursue their personal interests.  In fact, this is one of the ways that kids are exposed to different ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.  One day I was reading an article called “Mystical Anarchism” by the contemporary philosopher Simon Critchley, when Amanda, a fourteen year old “Goth”, asked me what I was reading.  I showed her the article.  She took it from me, looked at it for a moment and then handed it back saying, “Can I read it when you’re done?  "Sure", I said, and kept on reading.

A few days later she asked, “Are you done with that article yet?”  “What article”, I said, having forgotten our conversation.  “You know, the one about Anarchy.”  “Oh, yah, I finished it," I said.  “Was it good?”  “Yeah, it was great.”  “So can I have it?”  “Of course," I said, “I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”  I guess I hadn’t taken her request very seriously the first time.  After all, what would a fourteen year old girl want with an article about medieval Christianity and revolutionary political movements?  Anyway, she kept on me about it until I finally brought the article in.  I handed it to her and said, “Don’t feel like you have to finish this, it’s really long and kind of dense.”  “You think I’m an idiot don’t you,” she said in her typical deadpan, half-joking sort of way.  “You think I won’t be able to understand it.”  I assured her that it wasn’t a question of her being smart enough, I just wasn’t sure whether she would be able to relate to the material.

Boy was I wrong!  When Amanda returned the article to me a day later, she told me that she read the whole article and then shared it with her father.  She said they both really enjoyed it and discussed it at length.  I asked her what she liked about it.  It turned out that many of the questions and ideas that the article brought up for her, and which she found so engaging, were precisely the kinds of things that I have been interested in for a long time.  So we decided to do some reading together.  Every week we would read one or two short articles and then discuss them.  After a month or two of this, we decided to pick a particular area of interest and then go deeper into it.  When I asked her what that might be for her, she seemed to have a definite sense that there were some common strands within everything that we had been reading, a sort of theme, that she found compelling, but that she was also having difficulty articulating.  This was really exciting for me to see because it meant that she was onto something totally new and unfamiliar, something not yet in focus, but that she felt compelled to investigate, and that's such a wonderful place to be.  After some time of trying to tease it out, it seemed to me that what we were talking about had something to do with the psychological underpinnings of religious and political movements.  “It sounds to me like we need to start with Freud," I said, and so we did.

Every week I would give Amanda a book to read and she would read it.  She always did the reading and never missed a single meeting.  I have to admit, I was pretty amazed by this.  Sometimes she would tell me that reading Freud made her brain hurt but she never seemed to have trouble doing the work.  One day, as we were getting ready for our meeting, Alex and Aidan, two of Amanda’s good friends, announced that they were joining the “Psycho Readers” class.  I had written “Psycho Readers” , a haphazard abbreviation for “reading psychoanalysis,” on the board outside the room which is used to reserve the space.  But Alex and Aidan thought that this term was hilarious and so insisted on being included in our “class”.  If there were two kids who I could not imagine engaged in a serious conversation about Freud it was Alex and Aidan and they were clearly playing on this irony when they entered the room, sat down and said, “Ok Draper, teach us something.”  Since they hadn’t read anything for that week, I suggested going over Feud’s system in general.

First, Alex and Aidan had not heard of Freud.  They knew what psychology was but had never heard the term psychoanalysis.  So I started from the beginning, making notes on the whiteboard as I went.  Some of it clearly struck them as pretty strange.  In particular, a brief explanation of the five stages of psycosexual development ilicited everything from fits of laughter to outright rejection.  But the Oedipus complex was by far the strangest thing that they had ever heard.  As I began to timidly lay out the scenario of a little boy who adores his mother and fears his father, I realized that I just couldn’t bring myself to complete this strange Freudian scene, fearing that it might make these kids too uncomfortable.  So I moved to the more remote, and therefore easier to handle, Greek myth of king Oedipus.  But evidently I had already revealed enough because Alex, by now having put the pieces together, stopped me and said, “Wait, let me guess, he kills his father and marries his mother”.  All three of them erupted in laughter.  Alex was of course joking, rushing to the most absurd conclusion he could think of.  Little did he know that he had inadvertently hit the nail on the head.

What began to be clear to me was that, for all the jokes, sarcasm and irony, these kids were really engaging with the material.  Joking around, making puns, turning sentences and ideas on their head - this is how these kids process and master the world around them, and they were deploying all of their highest capacity resources on this material.  After a couple of weeks, Amanda took me aside and told me that, although she liked the psychology class, she felt that it was restricting the scope of our reading and conversation.  She said that she wanted to return to our original format but to also keep the psychology class going with Alex and Aidan.  So now there are two separate events and they both grew out of very spur-of-the-moment, casual interactions.

I could never have guessed that this material would ignite Amanda’s interest in the way that it has, or that Alex and Aidan could have ever been turned on to Freud.  And for their part, I’m sure Alex and Aidan never would have signed up for a class on Freud.  And how would Amanda have stumbled onto these interests if she were not free to follow her curiosity in a rich and diverse environment?  But the bigger point here is that this is only one example of the kids of encounters that are happening all the time at the Macomber Center.  They are part of the fluid and dynamic activity of every day.  Yet they are not easily observable unless you are part of it.  They are also not the kinds of things that kids are likely to go to the trouble of explaining when their parents say, "So, what did you do today?”  It’s even hard for me to talk about unless I very consciously sit down and try to put into words what exactly happens.  Here I have tried to do precisely that because it’s hard otherwise to really do justice to questions like “Do you offer classes for the kids?”

Winter Days

So much has happened at Macomber Center over these past cold weeks. We have enjoyed many return trips to Wachusett Mountain, where skiing and snowboarding happen on a weekly basis. There was excellent sledding on our campus for a few weeks, before the rain melted the snow away, leaving icy, bare ground in its place.  Skating at Loring Arena is a weekly occurrence, and recently a large group of our members paid a visit to the new Sky Zone trampoline park in Westborough, and jumped for an hour! Just before our winter break, seven kids completed the first level of the tae kwon do practice they have been learning since October. 

There has been much music-making at Macomber, with saxophones, harmonicas, guitars and piano all being practiced on many days. Ongoing biology and latin interests have persisted, and different levels of math have been explored.

We had a wonderfully successful Movie Premier Night, with dinner served before the showing of the latest movie produced at Macomber Center - "It Happened On Horrible Hill",  a fictional tale loosely based on Framingham history and its connection to the Salem Witch trials of 1692. The film featured Macomber Center kids - over 80 people came to our event, and a fabulous time was had by all!  We are looking forward to our next film, already being produced!

November News!

Macomber Center members have been busy over the past few weeks - we had a wonderful Halloween party, made some delicious pumpkin pies, played a lot of music on a variety of instruments, and moved deeper into exploring the wonders of biology.  A weekly class in Tae Kwon Do took root, and is progressing with a core of members gaining greater knowledge, physical and mental, with each session.

We spent an afternoon hiking in the wooded acres behind our building, in search of the Witch Caves, small boulder caves used as shelter by people fleeing the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600's.  Another few days were devoted to making paper beads, with the goal of providing clean water for villages in Tanzania - a challenge supported by the Bezos Family Foundation, which provided funding in exchange for every twenty beads received.

Bingo became an unexpected favorite inside game! Our newest member brought a set in one day, and everyone ended up playing a card or two. And of course, many hours were spent outside, playing four-square, Newcomb, back-and-forth tag and basketball. Finally, we firmed up plans for our first trip (of many!) to ski and snowboard at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Massachusetts, reported to be opening this weekend...

Apple Pie and Leaf Piles!

Two sure signs of Fall were on display at the Macomber Center this week - piles of apples being turned into fragrant, delicious pies for lunch, and piles of leaves being constructed for jumping into! Many hands made short work of peeling enough apples for four delectable pies, which, served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream, disappeared in short order.

Our Center is encircled by woods full of falling leaves calling out to be raked and gathered into piles high enough for jumping in, and that was the activity of choice on this beautiful crisp autumn day. We are surrounded by such a wealth of natural beauty at the Macomber Center, and the kids find many ways to engage with and enjoy this lovely corner of town.

Lonesome Lake!

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Early on a rainy June morning Ben and five hikers from the Center set off for an overnight stay at the Lonesome Lake AMC Hut in the White Mountains. By the time they reached the Basin parking lot where the van would stay, the sun was out, and James Style was waiting to join the group on the trail up to the hut.  According to Ben,  "James is a scientist and naturalist, as well as an avid outdoorsman. So he experiences the outdoors through that lens, and when we take a trip with him we get a glimpse through that lens too."

The hike up to Lonesome Lake wound through Spring-green New Hampshire woods and involved crossing over more than one stream racing down the mountain. "It was really fun crossing the rivers", Calvin said.

Once at the Hut, backpacks were left in the bunk rooms, and the kids were off to jump in the lake! Martin reported that the lake was much warmer than he had expected it to be. After a wonderful hearty dinner served by the Hut staff, the group hiked around the lake before turning in for the night. James Morningstar reported that the stars were unlike anything he had ever seen.

The next morning a hot breakfast was provided, and the hikers packed up, said goodbye to the Hut staff and set out on the Fishin' Jimmy trail headed for Kinsman pond, and finally to North Kinsman peak, the highest point on the trail. Lunch was eaten, feet were rested, and then the group headed back on the Kinsman Pond trail which met up with Cascade Brook trail, at the bottom of which waited the van. A great trip was had by all, one which we hope to do again in the Fall.

Macomber Center, Last Week!

We had an extra-busy week last week, as we prepared for the Saturday Movie Premier and dinner party here at the Center.  The weather was beautiful all week long, resulting in many outside activities - games of capture-the-flag and four square happened almost daily, with one such four square game involving roving players on rip sticks and roller blades, to add to the excitement! Walks were taken in the beautiful Spring-green woods which surround our building, while some inside games happened too.  Settlers and Bananagrams are among the favorites, along with ping pong, plain and musical!

We had a delicious spaghetti feast on Wednesday, making a lovely meat sauce from scratch. Nicole Gareau came by after lunch to show interested kids how to make fabulous fabric flower clips for their hair. Then on Thursday, Mihoko, from Saori Worcester Studios brought two of her looms to the Center, and the kids learned how to weave Saori-style - unique woven pieces were produced, one of which was long enough to grace our buffet table on Saturday evening.  Many kids had a hand in making this colorful runner, and it certainly added a note of beauty to the table!

Saturday evening was our big night - two movies, made by Mark and the kids, were shown here at the Center, after a wonderful meal of quiche, plentiful salad, and ice-cold lemonade made from fresh lemons squeezed by Nell! She worked hard! As the sky darkened after everyone had eaten their fill, the tables were cleared and put away, the move screen was pulled down into place, and the room was transformed into a theater. The two movies that followed were the perfect end to a lovely evening, and were enjoyed by everyone! What a talented bunch of actors appeared on screen - huge thank you's to all of them, and to Mark, for creating such excellent entertainment!

This Week at Macomber Center!

What a packed week! Filled with Magic playing, cookie baking, airplane making, and flying too, of course! And then on to capture-the-flag games, skate board, unicycle, scooter and rip-stick riding, four-square games, and all manner of card games, British and Scottish accents included as a requirement!  And let's not forget the delicious waffle feast for Tuesday lunch; toppings on hot-off-the-griddle waffles included fresh strawberries, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, blueberries, vanilla ice cream, and two kinds of syrup - maple and blueberry. Wednesday started with a flurry of interest in building model airplanes, necessitating a trip to the crafts store to get supplies of balsa wood and glue.  A couple of high-flying, creative designs resulted, with aerodynamic adjustments being made along the way to successful flight. The beautiful weather prompted outside art work - our fabulous easel, generously donated to us at the start of this year, is easily moved outdoors for landscape painting.  Another lovely Open House happened on Wednesday afternoon, with 15 new kids visiting the Center, and having a wonderful time meeting our members and exploring our beautiful grounds - until the torrential rain arrived at the end of the day!

Thursday evening saw our first Macomber Center Social, an event including good food and music and fun for all who attended. The rain storms that raced through the day stopped for our evening, which allowed people to enjoy being outside and inside at the Center.

Friday morning we set off for a trip to Skyzone, a trampoline gym in Norwood, for a ninety minute jump session. We have been to the gym twice this year, but have not reserved such a long session before today. It included a 3-D dodge ball game, played by about twenty kids for at least 45 minutes - non-stop action! Everyone had a fabulous if exhausting time, to finish our week at Macomber, which included one new member and a visiting teen, hopefully soon to be a member!

Macomber Week In Review!

This was a packed week at Macomber Center - the final shooting for our second feature film took place, and it is in the process of being edited for the World Premier happening on Saturday, May 18th, at 7pm!

Planning continued for next week's Macomber Social, a first-time event for kids including music, food and new connections, happening on Thursday evening, from 7pm on.

Jeff Hyman joined us on Tuesday to demonstrate expert plasticine modeling! Kids tried their hands at building everything from hammerhead sharks and people to Sponge Bob Square Pants and houses. We had a wonderful music workshop occurring that same day, with Carol Hughes, Dan Dick , Ben Draper and various kids all making music on a keyboard, conga drum , guitar  and bass, plus vocals!

Mid-week we celebrated the birthday of our Member twins, Sam and Lillian, with balloons, made-at-the-Center chocolate cupcakes, and ice cream, followed by a bubble-blowing festival outside, with bubbles for everyone on a warm Spring day.

The warm weather prompted renewed outside explorations of our many acres of woods, swamps and fields, and ended with the first fresh mowed grass of the season being put to good use!

Another Macomber Center Week!

Another excellent week at Macomber Center - trips and cooking and movie shoots and many outside games, inside ones too, all happened in five days that flew by! A number of excellent musical ping pong rounds were played, many games of capture-the-flag took place, and one vigorous kick-the-can encounter (involving neither a can nor kicking that I could see) left the players hot and thirsty! On the one rainy, cool day of the week, we made a fabulous vegetable soup, with many people chopping and cutting up fresh veggies, stirring everything into our large soup pot, then asking every fifteen minutes or so for the next two hours, "Is the soup ready yet??" By noon the answer was "yes!", and we all enjoyed it with fresh bread and butter, for lunch.

We had two visiting members for the week, and they quickly became an active, lively part of our community, playing Settlers and Magic inside, four-square and capture-the-flag outside, acting in the Center movie shoot, and joining a trip to Skyzone for jumping and 3-D dodgeball. A number of our Center members helped with Spring clean-up on campus, loading cut brush and logs into a dump truck to be hauled away to a brush dump.

The week ended with a hiking trip to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, on a beautiful Spring day. The hikers reached the summit, climbing the White Dot trail through pine and spruce woods fading to exposed ledge slabs. John Morningstar took this photo at the top! A wonderful time was had by all!

The week at Macomber Center.

Finally the first few days of Spring warmth arrived at Macomber this week - there was lots of outside activity as a result!  The basketball games picked up, four square and frisbee were played, scooters and rip-sticks ridden once more.

Nicole Gareau brought her extensive knowledge of jewelry-making to the kids, and a number of really beautiful necklaces were made from an extensive collection of beads donated to the Center earlier this year. Nicole also provided a laptop loaded with a teach-yourself-to-type program, and five kids are now on their way to typing proficiency, practicing daily (or almost)!

Final editing work occurred on one of the movies under production here, and plans for wrapping up shooting of the second film were put in place. We are anticipating an exciting movie premier night in the near future!

Everyone enjoyed a make-your-own sub sandwich for lunch one day this week, and afterwards joined in the Free Cone Day festivities at Ben and Jerry's in Framingham.  The Center also made another trip to the Rock Climbing gym in Worcester, where greater heights are scaled with each visit!

We held a very successful Open House one afternoon, hosting at least ten new families, who had the opportunity to take advantage of our beautiful site, in lovely weather. Many new contacts were made between kids, and parents were able to see us in action. A good time was had by all!

Macomber Music

At the Center, kids are able to play music any time they want.  We have a beautiful upright piano, two acoustic guitars, one violin, one electric guitar and two amplifiers. Several of the members are accomplished musicians, and many times each day you will hear the piano being practiced by different people.  Occasionally guitar, harmonica, piano and vocal collaborations can be heard coming from the music room - most enjoyable!

Making Apple Pie!

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On a lovely fall morning at the Center, with a kitchen full of ingredients, we made four delicious apple pies. At one table, flour and shortening, water and salt, and an egg were stirred into pie crust.  The dough was rolled out into four shells and four tops, ready for filling. Another table was surrounded by children peeling, coring and cutting up apples, then adding the spices and sugar needed to make a fabulous filling. The pies were piled high with fruit, covered, given a light dusting of sugar, and put in the oven to bake. A long, fragrant hour later, everyone sat down to incredibly delicious hot apple pie, with ice cream!