What do you hope for?

What are my hopes and dreams for the year? What are our hopes and wishes for the studio? What do we promise to each other in order to make these dreams a reality?

These are the questions we start with in Discovery Studio this session. Over the past few weeks, learners have been doing the very important work of identifying the answers to these questions.

First, learners brainstormed some of their personal goals for the year. Some hopes learners shared were:

“I hope I master arithmetic.”

“I hope I get better at reading.”

“I hope I learn more about astronomy.”

“I hope I make new friends.”

A Discovery Learner shares the final draft of their Hopes and Dreams for the school year.

Then, learners were challenged to envision the ideal learning environment- one that would support them in accomplishing their biggest hopes for the year. Some of their ideas included:

“A place where everyone only speaks to each other with kindness, encouragement and truth.”

“A place where everyone is responsible for their actions and their learning.”

“A place that is clean, quiet, cozy, and well organized.”

“A place where everyone always respects and listens to each other.”

“A place where mistakes are accepted.”

These ideas became the beginning of their studio contract. Each week, they get to pitch new ideas, try them out, and then vote on whether they are ready to add them to their studio contract. At the end of the session, they will sign the contract and use it as a reminder of their promises to each other throughout the year.

Ideas in the “Laboratory” are tried out for a week before learners can propose to move a promise to the final contract. So far, two promises have made it to the final contract!

But, as they say, a dream without a plan is no plan at all. The next question Discovery learners explored was- What systems and/or routines are needed to make our hopes and dreams for the year come to fruition?

From here learners were introduced to the three most important systems and routines in Discovery Studio: Daily Goal Setting, Studio Maintenance, and Community Meeting.

These systems provide the structure for learners to be successful and for their big hopes and dreams, both for themselves and for their community, to become a reality!

So- What is it actually like to be a learner in Discovery Studio?

Well, you’ll just have to wait until the end-of-session exhibition to find out. Learners are excited to share all about the special place we call Discovery Studio!

New Year- Same Mission

When our youngest son was four, he loved the act of throwing rocks into the water, by carefully selecting a stone and watching the impact as it hit the water’s surface. He loved seeing the ripples, watching them circle the rock’s point of entry and move outwards, creating small waves in the surrounding water. He could do this for hours.

Now, at age 10, he could still do this for hours- though the task has changed from simply throwing rocks to skipping rocks.

It’s evident to me why he has always loved this so much- the act of throwing a rock into the water. In the sacred space, he is in charge. He chooses the rock, how much force to use, and what direction to throw it. He chooses the pace, how many rocks he throws in a certain period of time, and when to take a break. In the comings and goings of life, the prescriptive nature of childhood, and a largely adult-imposed agenda, my son is captivated by this space that allows him freedom and choice. He has agency over his experience.

When I think of this sweet memory, it always reminds me that is truly what we all want, children and adults alike. We all want the opportunity to impact the world in some way- to see the ripples, the effects of our actions, no matter how big or small the splash. We all want the chance to stand back proudly and think, “I did that.”

This is the magic of self-directed learning- of a learning environment where young people learn by doing and effectively have the chance to see the ripples of their choices and actions.

As we settle into new routines and rhythms this school year, we do so with our mission at the forefront- a mission to give young people agency in their learning so that they can discover what they can uniquely contribute to the world around them.

Every step of the way, they’ll be discovering how powerful they are, as individuals, and as a community. They’ll be making messes, celebrating successes, and constructing deep and meaningful learning.

Again and again, they’ll be making their own ripples in the water and standing back to think, “I did that.”

Session 1 “Sneak Peek”

Session 1 is all about building the” team” at The Village School. Learning to live together is an essential skill and creating an environment where every learner feels like they belong and have something to contribute provides the foundation for meaningful learning. Each studio will focus on building the team through games, discussions, and projects designed to foster their individual and collective identities and will explore the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”

Spark Studio

Welcome to Spark Studio! Spark learners will spend this session learning the routines of the studio and building a community. Each week, learners will explore different areas of the studio, sing songs, and learn about each other.  We will introduce materials at a slow pace so learners can turn routines into habits that will make learning fun all year. Our returning learners will lead our community every step of the way.

Discovery Studio

Discovery will kick off the school year with lots of teamwork and collaboration! For our Build the Team Quest, we will work together to develop our promises to one another and learn how we can best take care of our physical space and each other. We will be getting creative and growing as a team through art projects, maker activities, and more! During Writer’s Workshop, learners will take on the role of journalists, getting to know each other through interviews and writing biographies to share the stories of the learners who make up Discovery Studio with the community. 

Adventure Studio

Welcome to the Building a Team Challenge! This session is all about building a team and mapping a path for individual and collective Adventures. Each week the group will spend time working through a series of Building Challenges, requiring each learner to discover their own unique strengths and imagine how they might add value to their team. Adventure learners will welcome adults who are teammates in their professional lives into the studio to learn about how they have successfully – or not successfully – built a team.  

Learners will also work towards building their own individual beliefs. They will explore what has built the beliefs of others including world-class athletes, famous authors, and their fellow Adventurers. After brainstorming and reflecting, learners will explore one true belief that is important to their character. 

The time spent this session building the team will serve the Adventure Studio well as they take on more responsibility and leadership roles throughout the school community. As the leaders of the school, their collaboration will serve as inspiration for what is possible in a community like ours at The Village School.

Big Feelings

It is the end of the session. A time where we celebrate big achievements like work ethic and dedication throughout a session.

It is also the time when session-long projects are due. Learners can work at their own pace for much of their learning but every session, we do a big project together (Quest) and explore a writing genre together (Writer’s Workshop/Communications). These projects are due each session to help learners stay on track and be ready to tackle something new with their full focus and attention next session!

That means that learners can feel anxious or overwhelmed if they fall behind. It is important to them to catch up and earn this badge because they care about their education. They take responsibility for it.

So the next time that they (and inevitably you) are sitting with big end of session feelings, I hope you remember these two things:

  1.  Your learner’s feelings translate to “I care deeply about my learning.” “I want to do well.”

2.  This experience is a catalyst for learners. Time and time again, we see that it motivates them to try something new in the next session. They are proud of themselves when they stay on track and become masters of their procrastination.

And always, the stakes are low. It won’t feel like that to your learner but they can always try again. It is far better for them to experience the effects of procrastination now than in college or working a real job. They learn from these experiences, try again, and find success. Then they are that much more prepared for the future!

What’s Changed?

Every year at this time, I marvel at the transformations of the young people in front of me. Yes, they are all a little bit taller, more physically adept and coordinated. But what I’m referring to is the transformation in how they see themselves- as learners, as readers, as mathematicians, as explorers, as friends- as leaders of their own learning.

I wonder- do they see themselves the way I do? Do they have a clear understanding of how much they’ve grown? Certainly, I could tell them but do they know?

So, over the course of the past several days, I asked them, “What’s changed for you this year?”

Using the sentence frame, “I used to ___________, and now I __________,” this is what they said: 

“I used to think I was bad at math but now I think I’m good at it.”

“I used to not be as interested in discussions but now I really like them- especially Civilization discussions.” 

“I used to think I was bad at reading but now I know I’m good at it.”

“I used to not like school. It was boring but now I love school.” 

“I used to rely on a teacher to learn but now I rely on myself.” 

“I used to not have as much freedom in what I could read but now I do and because of that reading is not a chore and is fun.”

“I used to not have a lot of say in what I wanted to learn about and now I do and because of that I have learned a lot more- like history, life skills, and communicating well through writing.”

“I used to be afraid of asking questions but now I am not and I love asking questions and finding the answers myself.” 

“I used to ask only questions to grown-ups but now I ask my peers questions to help me learn.” 

“I used to be really shy around older people but now I have a lot more confidence to talk to people of all ages.” 

“I used to think that quest was hard and in my panic zone and now I think it’s in my challenge zone.” 

“I used to not be as encouraged to speak in front of people but now I am more comfortable.”

“I used to try and dress a certain way and now I wear what I want.”

“I used to think making forts was hard but now I know I can do it.” 

“I used to be scared to share what I believed or how I felt but now I am comfortable sharing what I believe is right or wrong and how I feel about things.”

“I used to not care about a lot of things but now I care about so many things.”

They know it’s not a test and there are no right or wrong answers. And so they share these things with me thoughtfully as they are skilled at reflecting on their learning by this point in the year.

They smile as they share, many of them reaffirming their words after speaking them. “Yes, that’s what’s changed for me,” and I smile back in gratitude for this gift.

Setting Boundaries

Earlier this school year, our eleven year old would come home every day and tell us he had so much school work to do. He’d eat a snack, do his chores and settle in with his lab top, notebook and pen. He’d work for hours, unless his self-assigned homework was cut short by sports practice or other family events. As I prepped dinner, I had come to expect the cheery “ping” in the background as he practiced and mastered math problems on Khan Academy, followed by an enthusiastic, “YES!” when he got a problem right. Often, I’d see him collaborating with peers via Google Chat or Video, reviewing each other’s work or working on challenges together. From my vantage point, he was definitely taking responsibility for his education.

At first I was impressed- my middle schooler is choosing to learn and do school work with zero prompting from me? Isn’t this every parent’s dream? Until one day, I realized we had a problem. His school work was cutting into our family time. Walks with the dog, family dinners, and leisure and play time with friends and neighbors were met with resistance or outbursts of overwhelm. Day to day, our family schedule was not reflecting our values of rest, fun, and connection and our son’s life seemed significantly out of balance. It was time to redraw the boundaries so we were making time for the things that were really important to us as a family.

So I set a limit on “home” work. He could do no more than one hour of work and all devices were powered down by 8:00pm. When I heard “but I won’t be able to get everything done!”, I was prepared.

“Hmm, tell me about that. Tell me about your school day and how you’re using your time,” I said.

We sat down and looked at Journey Tracker together. He walked me through his day. We clicked on the challenges, looking at the requirements and expectations together. We explored how much time different things were taking and after we did this, his panic subsided, and he said, “I guess I do have enough time to complete my work at school. I just need to use it better.”

After that, things changed. Knowing that he had a limit on the amount of time he could work at home, he started using his time more efficiently at school. Some things got done and some things did not. This is still the case. But he knows what the boundaries are and can make his choices inside those parameters.

In many ways, our son is stumbling his way towards prioritizing the things most important to him- not unlike the way many of us do as adults. There’s always more to do. There are a million different ways to fill a day. But how to fill it in a way that reflects your values? It’s a process and we’re learning together.

From my perspective, I see him learning all of the things I want him to- learning to learn, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.

What if…?

Taking the leap to self-directed learning is far less “direct” than many of us think. For most of us, at some point in our journeys, especially if we are new to this model, we’ll find ourselves asking a series of “What if” questions.

What if my child fails?

What if my child doesn’t learn this way?

What if they fall behind?

What if my child needs a teacher?

These questions can plague us with uncertainty. They can make us doubt ourselves and our decision to choose something different for our children. They can make us wonder if we’re really cut out for blazing new trails.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in a loop of “What-ifs”? While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I can share what works for me in this situation.

  1. Take inventory. What’s at the root of my anxiety? What else is happening in my life that’s making me reach for greater control in other areas? In what ways is this more about me than my child?
  2. Check my beliefs. What do I really believe is true about how children learn? How much of the way I’m feeling has to do with the ways in which I’ve been conditioned?
  3. Entertain the answers. It’s not surprising that one of the best ways to eliminate or lessen our anxiety across all areas of life is to actually travel down the road of answering your “what if” questions. More often than not, the actual answer is far less scary than the one we’ve imagined in our head.

Let’s give this last one a try.

What if my child fails or falls behind?

Possible answer: He will. He will get distracted and not do the work to earn the badge. He will fall “behind” on his badge plan. He will need to work harder to complete it “on time” or he will need to take additional time to reach his goal. I’m feeling anxious about this because somewhere along the line I adopted the belief that being behind or taking more time to do something is “bad”. I could only earn the approval of others by staying on track, taking little time, and being efficient. But, I believe that children learn best through trial and error and with time to reflect on their experiences. He is learning, every step of the way, even if I can’t see it yet. After many “at-bats”, he will learn. I’m forgetting that learning objectives and associated timelines are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. More important than earning any particular badge, he will have a deep understanding of how his actions, habits, and mindset are tied to outcomes.

What if my child doesn’t learn this way?

Possible answer: What do I mean by “this” way? It’s true, my child is unique and learns differently than others. I’m feeling anxious about this because it seems like others “get it” and my child doesn’t. Also, my child’s sibling is very motivated and self-directed. I’m struggling because I was conditioned to believe there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way of doing things in school. I was identified as a good student only if I did things the “right” way (the same way as everyone else). But, I believe that each child has a jagged learning profile. My child gets to use trial and error in a self-directed learning environment to figure out how he/she learns best.

What if my child needs a teacher?

Possible answer: She will. He does. We all benefit from teachers when we’re motivated to learn. I’m feeling anxious because my child doesn’t seem to be making progress in _____ (reading, math, etc) and I think it’s because he/she doesn’t have a teacher explaining it to him/her. I’m struggling because I was conditioned to believe that learning happens within the context of schooling (a classroom, a teacher, lessons). But, I believe that my child is a natural learner and optimal learning occurs when my child can choose the person they want to learn from. My child can find a “teacher” in their peers, a book, a virtual instructor, and can access a trusted adult (a guide) to point them in the right direction or problem-solve when they get stuck. Like all things (with or without a traditional teacher) some things will be harder to learn than others. More important than acquiring any particular content knowledge, my child will have the life-long skill of learning whatever he/she wants, whenever he/she wants.

Generally, if I start asking these types of questions and then take inventory of what’s going on in my life, I find that some area feels really hard at the moment and I just want the learning/school stuff to be easy- as if the universe owes it to me to provide this divine balance. But, when I take a moment to check in with my beliefs, about what I know about children and how they learn, I can let those “what if” questions fade into the background, brushing them off as simple ghosts from the past, visiting not because something’s wrong, but because old habits and ways of thinking linger way past their expiration date.

It brings another question to mind. What if our children can learn better habits and ways of thinking?

New trails, here I come.

Challenging the Common Narrative

The world is full of narratives, especially those of middle schoolers. If you pay attention, you can see a master narrative running throughout, made evident by the systems, structures, and social norms in place. In looking at these pieces and parts, simply asking why can lead you to the master narrative at play.

Take the grading system for example. Why give grades? Because young people can’t be trusted to measure and reflect on their own progress. Why do parent-teacher conferences without the student present? Because young people are not capable of sharing and reflecting on their own learning. Why change the rules, provide the extension, make multiple allowances? Because young people are fragile and can’t handle missing deadlines or making mistakes.

So much of what we do at The Village School is construct a counter-narrative- a narrative entrenched in our beliefs about children and adolescents. In our community, young people are trustworthy, capable, strong and resilient. They want to learn, they want to improve, and they want to do excellent and purposeful work. In turn, our systems, processes, and language at TVS reflect these beliefs.

This year, I’ve seen the power of this counter-narrative in Adventure Studio. Within the walls of our school building, our middle schoolers are trusted with more freedom and responsibility than most young people their age. It goes without saying, they respond to this trust and respect by actually being trustworthy and responsible. Why? Because they are capable and they want to be trusted. In an environment such as ours, they can shed the narrow constraints of the outside world and step into a far more productive narrative about who they are and what they have to offer.

But like all things that challenge the status quo, this is not always easy- particularly when engaging with the real world.

On a recent trip to the bookstore, one of our middle schoolers was looking for a “definitive biography” of at least 400 pages to fulfill her Civilization requirement this session. After finding a book that she felt was in her challenge zone, the employee at the checkout counter engaged her in a long line of questions laced with skepticism:

“How old are you? Did you look at the young adult section? Why do you have to read 400 pages? Are you sure you can handle this?” and my personal favorite, “Is your teacher just trying to inflict some cruel and unusual punishment on you?”

I watched as she navigated this line of questioning that was so different from the types of questions she encounters in the studio. And, on the way back to campus, she shared some of her own questions that had formed as a result of the interaction.

“Why did my age matter? I read adult-level books. I know what is appropriate for me. I know my mom would agree. Why did they think I didn’t want to read a long book? I love long books. Why did they assume I wouldn’t choose to read a book like this unless someone was making me?”

She was baffled, understandably so. The bookstore employee’s behavior fit with the master narrative but not our narrative at TVS.

Similarly, our Middle Schoolers faced this challenge when attempting to secure apprenticeships. It was not easy. Many potential employers who showed interest in hosting an apprenticeship at first, became less decisive and certain about having a young person spend time learning and helping their organization. It seemed the master narrative loomed large, threatening their success in landing their first apprenticeships.

But, after several weeks of hard work, persuasive and impressive emails and pitches, dead ends and promising new opportunities, our founding middle schoolers secured their apprenticeships, showing the real world just how capable they really are.

One Adventure Learner apprentices in Spark Studio

Again and again, our learners at TVS will be given opportunities to challenge the status quo. They’ll no doubt face struggle and skepticism. But, along the way, they’ll be part of a movement that actually changes the common narrative, one that offers a more complete and accurate reflection of what young people are capable of.

The Circle of Control

As a learner-driven community, we talk a lot about what we can control and what we can’t.

By the time a learner reaches Adventure Studio, they understand that they are in the driver’s seat of their education, meaning they have a lot more control over their learning than the average young person their age. Understanding badge requirements, doing excellent work, meeting deadlines, having the right attitude, being a good friend, resolving conflicts- they understand that succeeding in these areas is within their control.

Guides do help by asking, “What tools do these young people need to be successful?” The answers determine the launches, stories, experiences and challenges for the year- planned out by session, weeks, and sometime days- leaving room for the spontaneous needs of a learning, growing, changing, group of learners. The learning design is within the guide’s circle of control- as is their personal attitude, effort, actions, and words, all of which is intentionally modeled each day. The guide’s job is to inspire, equip and connect young people to the tools available to them so that they are empowered to take control over their learning.

Within this learning design, there are two very important tools that help a learner really understand what they have control over: Experience and reflection. This is the super-power duo of all tools available to our learners at The Village School. This is where the deepest learning happens and how the most growth occurs.

This session provided many experiences for our Adventure learners to reflect on what is within their circle of control.

From failing to earn a badge to a hosting a semi-chaotic Field Day, their reflections helped them connect their actions to the outcomes, providing vital experiences and life lessons that will be applied the next time they submit badge work or plan a Field Day.

Of course, of equal importance is learning what is outside their circle of control. Experience teaches them this too. They learn that people’s actions, other people’s words, the weather, external circumstances, world events (such as a global pandemic), and so on- are out of their control.

From not getting replies to emails about potential apprenticeships to the internet going out on the day you need to submit your work, they learned that things happen- life doesn’t always go as planned no matter how much we prepare or put all of our “ducks in a row”. In these situations, all you can control is how you respond.

Distinguishing between the two is critical, for it shows our learners where to focus their energy.

As we near the end of the school year, our guides also spend focused time reflecting on the experiences of the year, of the outcomes we see from the environment and opportunities we’ve provided. Without a doubt, one of the greatest outcomes for our Middle School learners is their ability to focus their energy on the things that matter. As far as life skills go, they are 1,000 steps ahead of many adults!

Indeed, Adventure learners are savvy travelers now on this journey of self-directed learning- and their adventures have only just begun!

The Apprenticeship Hunt

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our founding Middle School learners are trying to do just that this session by finding and securing their first 40-hour apprenticeships.

First step: Who am I? What are my strengths? What are my interests/passions? What am I doing when I find myself in flow?

Through discussion, peer feedback, and self-reflection, Adventure learners identified their individual top character traits of insight, leadership, and creativity and narrowed down their many interests to history, event planning, radiology, alternative medicine, and education- among many other things.

Next step: Identify three possible apprenticeships: one “safe”, one “reach”, and one “dream” apprenticeship. Do your research.


Subsequent steps: Draft a compelling email to secure a five minute phone call for each potential apprenticeship. Write, get feedback, revise and practice your phone pitches. Complete the same process for your in-person pitches. Make the pitch. Work out the details. Land the apprenticeship(s).

Sounds easy, right?

Well, sure- except doing something, anything, the first time is never easy. Things will certainly not go exactly as planned.

But this is real world learning at its best- learning that involves a worthy challenge, a strong why, and an outcome that feels fairly high-stakes. Inevitably, mistakes will be made, their skills and confidence will be tested, and our young learners will face disappointment.

Truthfully, we are COUNTING on these experiences. It wouldn’t be REAL world learning without them.

Of course, it always helps to hear the stories of others, complete with their own struggles and successes to better equip, inspire and connect our learners to the challenges they face. We were thrilled to welcome Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer, to campus this week and hear his own personal story to entrepreneurship and founding of Acton Academy.

Learners enjoyed a special visit and Hero Talk from Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer

Where will they land next session? What new experiences will they be having in their first apprenticeships?

This is still unknown. What we do know, is that they will have grown through the very act of doing, falling, and getting back up again.

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our Adventure learners are doing just that.