Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Diversity Bridge to Empathy by Chelsea Bohnert

Since my 5000 km move across the country from Ontario to British Columbia, I have experienced a significant amount of turbulence as we attempt to lay down fresh roots so far away from all that we know and love. There have been times where I have literally cried out as I questioned what my husband and I have done, as the immense fear of “messing up our kids” overcame me. How could we believe that uprooting all of the loving and secure connections we have made back home to make this great quest to the West was actually the right thing to do? Thankfully, I have been here before and was able to tenderly remind myself of exactly why we did this. I walked right into these challenges wholeheartedly. A clearer minded me, embraces the challenges that arise from different, unknown and difficult. Because something I believe to be true with all of my heart is that, compassion, acceptance and love for all people is fostered out of diverse interactions and tough situations.
You see, one of the primary struggles I have with our family being alternatively educated is the potential risk it has for lacking diversity in the experiences we encounter with other people in the community. Now, hold on. I know some of you will instantly think “Here we go again. Don’t you bother starting with the socialization debate!” However, I have to stop you mid thought because I am not talking about socialization at all. In fact, I am very well aware of the ample opportunities available for socialization for home learners/alternative students through independent schools, co-ops, extracurricular activities and more.

No, I am not talking about that at all. I am speaking more specifically about the diversity within these activities instead. When I made the decision for our family to become unschoolers, I went through so many layers of consideration on the matter. As we begin our sixth year with the decision, I am quite aware of the factors that have given me comfort and those I have struggled with. One really big struggle I have had often is with regards to diversity and I’ll tell you why. When I first began to consider home learning I think I was mostly operating from a place a fear, which I am certain others can relate to. Fear that my children would encounter any of the experiences that caused me pain or discomfort during my childhood and like most people, many of those took place at school.
But as I settled in to our decision, the fears I carried took a shift. As I began relationships with other home learning families, and visited the alternative education options in my community I noticed some things to be true. What I noticed is that the broad scope of the alternative education community appeared to be predominantly made up of families with high socioeconomic status (SES). So, while back when I was a new momma this was precisely what I was seeking, it is an area of discomfort for me now and I’ll tell you why.

As I have grown as a parent and began to heal parts of myself that were wounded from my childhood, I have developed a great deal of tenderness and self-love for not only myself but my mom as well. Even as I began my journey as a mother I was more certain than ever that my duty was to give my children everything I never had. They wouldn’t be poor, they wouldn’t go to school and if they did it had to be private, and they must never struggle. However, through the healing I’ve received from watching my children grow and being a part of their experiences of life, I have come to realize how much I actually like myself and who I’ve become. So as this became increasingly apparent to me, I started to question what things I might duplicate from my childhood rather than avoid.

The thing that stands out the most to me is the richness of diversity in my life, most of which came from the decisions and risks that my own mother made as she parented myself and my three sisters. We were poor, my sisters and I were mixed race, my mom was a single parent and we were a household of five women. We certainly did not fit the mould of a traditional family by any means.  Perhaps this was because mom has always been the kind of person who rooted for the underdog and taught us to do the same. Even when it was to her own demise at times, she gave everything she had to anyone who needed it. My mother modelled empathy and compassion in everything that she did and even though at times I didn’t understand it in my youth, I am so grateful that she was my teacher.
When I consider the reasons that my mom is the way that she is, as with myself I do not believe it is because of the lack of struggle and diverse experiences in her life. No, in fact, it is very much the opposite. Raised in an upper middle-class family in Ancaster ON, probably not one of the most SES diverse places in the world, my mom was also adopted. Being adopted has caused her a great deal of pain and discomfort however it is probably one of the single and most important pieces to consider in how my mother was gifted with the incredible ability to empathize and have compassion the way she does. The unique experience of adoption and feeling different opened her empathic ability to a much larger group outside of her tribe of origin.

I want to clarify that I am in no way suggesting that anyone who does not experience great hardship or pain will be lacking in empathy, but I think I am making some valuable connections here. I recently enjoyed an article titled “The Limits of Empathy” published by Uplift Connect on Facebook, that really hammered home some solid findings on empathy and the biological science behind it. Without getting too technical, and I do highly recommend reading it yourself, the author basically explains that ancestrally, we as a species are more capable of providing empathy to people who are similar to ourselves. You can probably relate this to your own experiences and feelings on any of the leading issues of controversy in the world today. It has been discovered that oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” also acts as a driving force behind empathic ability. While it strengthens feelings of love amongst people within your circle, it can reinforce a tribal mentality and evoke fear and mistrust towards those who come from outside of our social circles.

It is for these reasons that I am contending for diversity as a catalyst for empathy in our lives. If we actually have a biological predisposition to dislike, avoid and disagree with those who are different from ourselves yet empathy and compassion are essential to the vitality of our society, the only apparent solution is to encounter as many diverse experiences with as many different types of people, as often as we can. This way, we will have more similarities woven into our connections and our tribal instincts will adapt to them instead. Mix things up. Befriend opposites and work through the challenges that arise from it. Talk to your kids about how different can be uncomfortable and why it is important to embrace differences anyways. Model this in every way that you can.  Fear is what prevents people from connection but if we can consciously walk through the unknown in order to reap the reward of acceptance and love on the other side, the risk is SO worth it.

In the traditional school system children from all walks of life are grouped together in classrooms upwards of 30 or more children. And while at times, the differences may lead to bullying, exclusion and intolerance, diversities in class, race, gender, learning abilities, sexuality and religious beliefs are certainly encountered daily by children attending school, which does offer increased opportunities for learning empathy. As alternative families on the other hand, the goal of diversity as a bridge to empathy is one that needs to be much more intentional. What we do have working to our advantage though, is that choosing the path less travelled with alternative educations means that we are already intentional by nature. So it’s simple. All we need to do is add diversity to the top of our priority lists, and the rest will fall into place on its own. Goodbye fear, exclusion, and intolerance. Hello empathy, compassion and love!

Smiles and Love.

 Here is the link to the article on empathy I mentioned:

Chelsea Bohnert is a We Learn Naturally Blog contributor and advisor for We Learn Naturally.  She unschools her children, thinks critically, learns constantly, and creates strong communities everywhere she goes (including coastal B.C. where she currently resides.)  Thanks for the blog Chelsea!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Trust and Creativity

This week I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca and Dave Zak.  They are artists and entrepreneurs, and I got to see their studio, geek out about self-directed education.

I want to share with you this video featuring Rebecca Zak.  I especially like the creative process visual that I included at the top of this page.  As Rebecca explains, the creative process isn’t a timeline or necessarily ordered in a direction.  The starting point is arbitrary and people move to or remain engaged in any portion of the process for as long as they wish.  How a person engages in the creative process is probably related to each idea or project as it is personal preferences and strengths.  Learning at the Barn School is based upon this fluid concept of creativity.  Free play or freedom to choose your activities can be an organic gathering of information, an incubation period, part of the critique, or production.  Sometimes it might make sense to have learners plan their ideas and project management techniques can to help them do that but learners can always break from the process when they need to.  Forcing a project or idea along a timeline to completion is the fastest way to remove creativity, innovation, and learning for those engaged.  

Right now, I am also re-reading The Conscious Parent; Transforming Ourselves, Empowering our Children by Shefali Tsabary.  There are lots of great tidbits in there but reading a book a second time is always eye-opening to me.  The second time through I am always surprised at my own growth since the first read-through and there are aspects of the book that I relate to and incorporate into my thinking in novel ways.  (If you want to read more about the power of re-reading a book, check out this article written for parents by Virginia Zimmerman.)  When I first read the book, I was not at the application part of We Learn Naturally philosophy.  Upon starting Learning in the Woods and applying self-directed education on a larger scale, I quickly realized the importance of holding a trusting mindset about the world.  Reading Dr. Shefali now, the section on trusting the wisdom of life has new meaning for me.

She mentions that “because so few of us trust the wisdom of life, people tend to project their lack of trust onto their children.”  Our society has an idea, based in fear and fragile egos, that trust, especially for children, must be earned.  Conversely, a trust in life and a broad sense of trust towards our children creates an environment that allows for growth, learning, mistakes, and ultimately creativity.  If we trust our children to know themselves (or are capable of discovering themselves) we can let go of our worries and allow them to spend their time as they wish and learn in their own directions.  Their minds can pursue thoughts and activities that help them grow in ways that we could never fathom.  If we want creativity, first we must trust.

I’d like to share with you an observation about my son.  He’s 6 and he has never been in a formal learning environment, including daycare.  As his mom, I have a lot of trust about his place in the world, his understanding of what his needs are, his ability to communicate them, and find ways to have those needs met.  I trust that he will learn because that is what humans do.  He is introverted, so for the most part, I am not privy to what is going on in his brain.  But every once in a while he asks some questions or shares his thoughts and I get a quick glimpse inside. In those moments, I realize how limitless his capacity for learning and creating really is.  Here is an example of my son playing with the creative process of information gathering, incubation, and critique over the course of a day.

Yesterday, we visited a theme park that we have a season’s pass to.  It was a day of busy playing in a familiar setting.  We had lunch where many other young families were congregating and the noise was like sensory overload for me, so I didn’t try to initiate conversation at all.  After about 30 minutes of eating in this setting he said, “I’ve got a really tough question for you.  Is gravity constantly moving or does it not move.”  We talked about gravity for a bit, building on previous conversations we’ve had about forces and gravity and the earth and the moon.  We didn’t come to an answer to his question, but we talked enough so that there was more to consider.  Then he ate his pizza without saying a word and we continued on with our day.  As we were leaving the theme park, I was collapsing the stroller his sister was using and he was lying on the ground under a tree and asked “how do you know you are at the end of the earth?”  We talked about how we know the earth is round and that like all spheres, there’s really no start or stop to it, or if there is one, it’s probably arbitrary.  This is another favorite thought for him, the concept of infinity, no start or stop.  Then he said “Lying here, I can’t feel that I’m moving.  I can’t feel gravity.”  We talked about how he can feel the earth underneath his back and how that is a force pushing against the pull of gravity.  We talked about how the earth is moving and we know this because of day and night and the seasons.  Then he asked “If our sun is a star and every star we see at night is a sun with gravity, are all the stars everywhere also moving and working with forces that we can’t feel even more than we can’t feel gravity on earth?” 

He returns to these thoughts of forces and gravity and infinity and the universe often.  I think all kids are capable of these sorts of profoundly interesting thoughts.  The difference is, my son has been given trust in the form of time and freedom to engage his mind in the creative process on his own terms.  He may incubate and gather information about forces and gravity and the universe like this for years and never move onto the production side.  Or maybe his ideas *are* the product?  Who knows?  It's really up to him how his learning evolves. 

I should mention that my son is not interested in reading or writing at this point in time and occasionally that plays on my ego as I watch friends and family with similarly-aged kids “learn” those skills.  When that insecurity creeps in, I ask myself, “Am I doing this right?” but when he shares these interesting questions, suddenly I am reminded of the ideas that are bursting in his head like fireworks.  His mind is his own and if I want to facilitate his learning, creativity, and innovation, I need to trust *HIS* process and keep my ego in check.  Our relationship and his learning depend on it.  We live in a culture of mistrust, fear, ego, and comparison.  It is a difficult paradigm to shift in our heads, let alone on a societal level, but I’m up for the challenge.  Let’s see what we can do, shall we?

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Connections Triad; reflections of camp

Whether it’s a 10 week session throughout a season or a 1 week summer camp, when we reach the end of our scheduled time at Learning in the Woods, everyone experiences a bit of a “high”.  When it’s time to say good-bye, connections are at their strongest, so it’s only natural to look back at our time together and reflect.

Despite being very pregnant, I happened to be on site for the first morning of camp.  It’s such a vulnerable time and not just for the kids!  Facilitators want to help bridge the gap between home and camp but with no prior connection, they really don’t have a choice but to be patient, grounded, and present.  Parents have signed their children up for this nature camp thing but suddenly, uncertainty lingers in the air.  I think the strongest impression for me was witnessing how brave the kids were, venturing into the unknown!  It reminds me of the first days of school as a kindergarten teacher.  With no solid prior connections to draw on, everyone digs deep and pulls from within the best they can. I have so much love for these brave little souls!

Even kids who know what to expect, still have butterflies because they know the dynamics have changed.  My son, who is certainly a regular at Learning in the Woods, was feeling anxious Monday afternoon when we arrived for his session.  While sitting with him as he rode out his nerves, some of the kids who participated in the July camp arrived.  They were excited to be back to their familiar space again, flying down the hill, backpacks bouncing on their backs.  Can you picture it?  Read that line again, if you need to because it was that excited energy bouncing past, that lifted my son from his nerves and carried him down to camp.  And that’s sometimes that's just how it goes.  You spend time building a connection to yourself, so that you can build a connection to others, and somewhere along the way there is a connection to nature too.  There is an ebb and flow that works in this triad and we don’t really think much about it unless we give ourselves time to reflect.  

Tanya, the Learning in the Woods Director, and our facilitators Claudia, Soren, and Laura all did an outstanding job this week, keeping themselves grounded and present so that the kids could walk away with deeper connections.  It was a challenging week though.  To start off it was HOT.  Morning temperatures in our city were often hotter than correlating morning temperatures in Mumbai.  Plus, we ended the week with thunder and rain.  With any kind of intense weather, the facilitators feel pressure to keep kids safe and to fully consider parental concerns.  It’s always a challenge to balance those concerns with what we know of nature connection.  You see, most forest schools do not make weather cancellations and we understand why.  In those weather challenges, the possibility for connection intensifies.  

In the heat we can observe how nature adapts; the bugs burrow into the moist soil to stay cool and hydrated.  Small creatures and birds conserve their energy for cooler times of the day and spend the hottest times in the shade or in the spot in the forest that catches a breeze.  As we observe and connect to nature, we can apply that learning to ourselves.  My son arrived home yesterday after a week in the heat and didn’t feel a need to come into our air conditioned house.  His sister and I retreated after 20 minutes of playing outside but he continued to play and create in our backyard, soaked in humidity.  He had adapted, he had overcome.  He learned to take his cues from nature, listen to his body, adapt, and in the end, he found a new sense of peace in the challenging heat. What a gift!

And it’s not just the physical stamina that grows.  We talk about how when we are experiencing discomfort with our feelings, we don’t actually want to hide them, change them, or rush past them.  The feelings are there for a reason and if we can sit with them, they bring us depth of understanding.  The same is true when experiencing nature. To get a depth of understanding, it really is best to stay with nature.  That means visiting the same location in different seasons and weather conditions so that you can truly understand how it flows and your fit in the natural world.  We looked into making our last day of camp at a location that had something new to explore and some water to splash in (our little stream was completely dry with this drought) but we were so glad that we stayed put!  By staying put, the kids were able to reflect on how comfortable they felt in the forest, even exploring the familiar paths “alone”, thus raising their confidence and their sense of inner peace.  They were also rewarded with RAIN!  With water gushing up to the kids’ ankles, our little stream had the appeal of an exciting new toy!  The played and rejoiced in their new wet forest and their new friendships.  It was the kind of ending that we could not have predicted but we’re so thankful to have received.  By staying put, we are able to experience the complete triad of joyful connection to nature, self, and others.

It was tempting to alter our location or respond to the elements by retreating somehow but we are really glad that we didn’t.  We don’t want to be fearful of nature or the elements because we know that our fear can be passed onto our kids.  We want to instill a respect and appreciation for nature, not a rejection of it when the elements bring us discomfort or don’t fit our vision of the experience.  The human oneness with nature is so ingrained in our very core that sometimes it seems our connection with nature can mirror our comfort level with our own feelings.  We are a culture of of people who often resort to retreating or displacing.  But if we sit with ourselves, find peace in ourselves and in our environment, then, with enough practice, it becomes possible to find peace with others.  And that is the motivation behind this whole thing, the possibilities that come with connection.  We don't want to reject that which feels uncomfortable; those are actually the moments we want to dig deep and connect.  So, that’s how it goes at Learning in the Woods.  There is an ebb and flow to all things and as we finish up our camp season, we are left feeling really thankful for the experience and for this time to reflect.