Thriving vs. Surviving

Back to School:  Thriving vs. Surviving

20190826_080437Most of us know what it’s like to have to go back to school at the end of summer.  For many it is a day filled with nervous excitement to reunite with your old friends again, countered equally with  dread and fear over what the demands of the school year will be like. Returning students heads are filled with uneasy what ifs.  Will kids make fun of me? What if my teacher doesn’t like me? Will we have assigned seats? Will I have homework on my first day? What if I get called on in class and get the answer wrong? What if I am not as smart as my friends?  Most compulsory school settings have a heavy emphasis on state mandated academics. They give students little to no control over their own learning track. This lack of control robs them of room in their heads and their hearts for creative self expression and the space for  personal interests and talents to be explored. For the newest and youngest school entrants they may not know what to expect yet. They enter excited and eager to please.. This time can be a harsh adjustment for some from the soft arms of parental support and the relative ease of uninterrupted free play to a new setting filled with pressures and constraints.  School is traditionally a place where you are expected to control your emotions and your body all day long. It may be an outwardly beautiful environment decorated with bright and colorful posters, but this bright beautiful space can also be a space of starkly rigid rules and routine. It is often a setting where mental demands are forced upon you without choice. I have plenty of memories of that first day of school nervousness from my own childhood and now as an adult I  have seen it experienced through the lens of my own children’s anxieties at the start of every school year. Some children adjust to this easily, but for others this traditional school scenario can be overwhelming and crushing for delicate self esteems. I can tell you that in my own journey as a parent I have experienced both realities between my two children. One child thrived in a traditional school setting, loving the structure it provided, and one did not. The common thread between them was that they both feared the start of the school year more than they looked forward to it.

 The first day of school can be just as nerve wracking for the parents or caregivers in the child’s life. There are the inevitable worries, how will my child fit in, adjust, behave, or  perform compared to their peers? I have been that anxious parent trying to read my child’s face and body language at pickup time for hints as to how their first day went. I have been there questioning and listening supportively through tears at the end of the first day to rants of never wanting to go back. I have witnessed a roller coaster of emotions and self doubting internal queries of  “How will I get through a whole school year?…. How will I survive?”.

That looming question of “How will I survive?” is heart wrenching to hear as a parent, and unimaginably heavy on the shoulders of a child at any age/grade level. In researching to write this post I found  that the internet is full of blog posts, and advice columns about how to survive the first day of school and beyond. This question of “How will I survive?” is in the hearts and minds of more than just the students.  The parents and teachers are struggling too. In my mind there is very obviously something wrong with this picture if everyone is struggling to survive in this institution we call school. I find it sad that as a society we are ok with this mentality that suffering through school is just a rite of passage, that our kids will make it through and come out on the other end as better, stronger, smarter human beings ready for the world. Much of the time they absolutely do make it through but at what cost?  The traditional school system saddles many children with heavy labels like -”below average”, “struggling reader”,  or “bad at math” that can negatively influence the rest of their lives. Ask yourself this…Is compulsory schooling really working for your child?


 It doesn’t have to be a matter of survival…school can look and feel much different.  School can be a place where children thrive socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Wilmington Cooperative School  for self directed learners is just such a place. We have made it our mission to align ourselves with the Agile Learning Centers model in which we view children and the role that school plays in their lives in a radically different way. Educators from all over the world are coming to the realization that:   

“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education.  When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges.  In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling.  All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural way of learning.” – Peter Gray

Having worked in many different school settings as an independent teaching artist over the years I can say that I have been on both sides of the thriving vs. surviving school divide. Before the school year even started, I knew that I wanted to share my thoughts on  this sometimes stark dichotomy.   

 I ended up spending the first couple of weeks at the start of the school year observing,  immersed in the daily life of our little cooperative community school. I expected a few children to be filled with the typical anxiety and nerves and tears.  What I saw was far removed from that. Each day children arrived eager to dive into the space we provide and at the end of the day they didn’t want to leave. The kids even wanted to come on the weekends. This was their “happy place”…school was their happy place.  I found myself struggling to put into words what I was seeing happening.  What was it that made it feel so different and less stressful from typical school environments?  I asked a parent whose child had attended a more traditional school previously why she thought our first days of school, why all of our school days felt so different.   She responded with one word “FREEDOM”. With this one word she hit the nail on the head.  

I knew this. It really is pretty simple what we do here at Wilmington Cooperative School that sets us apart. I was complicating it in my head with fancy words about pedagogy and an educational paradigm shift. For us the big shift is that we respect children.  Children are people too. They deserve the same respect as adults. At WCS we take a step back from a place of fear and trust that children are going to learn what they need to learn on their own timeline without pressure. We are there as facilitators to provide support when and if they need and want it.    In truth we have simply taken a leap of faith in choosing to root ourselves in this “TRUST”.  

At WCS we use a metaphor of a tree to illustrate our  ALC educational model more clearly.  Part of the reason why our  students grow and blossom into successful individuals is because we are rooted in this rich soil of trust.   Our tree has four main root assumptions:

  • Learning: Learning is natural. It’s happening all the time
  • Self-Direction:. People learn best by making their own decisions. Children are people.
  • Experience: People learn more from their culture and environment than from the content they are taught. The medium is the message.
  • Success: Accomplishment is achieved through cycles of intention, creation, reflection and sharing.

The branches of this tree are the tools we use to make learning visible.  These can differ within each agile learning community that uses them and are adaptable at any time.  

It is a big step the families of WCS have taken…taking this leap of faith with us in trusting that their child will thrive outside of the box of the stereotypical educational system.  There is a fundamental shift our families must make to quiet those fears that are focused around big questions like how will my child learn anything if they aren’t doing worksheets, if they aren’t doing what we think of as “school”.  These fears quickly subside and vanish once they see their child interacting in our school.  With community support we learn that there are many reasons to trust our children to be in the driver’s seat of their own education.  


  • You can’t learn to make good decisions if you’re never allowed to make your own decisions.
  • Children learn better when they’re doing things they’re actually interested in.
  • Forcing kids to do things compromises their trust in you (as well as in themselves) and establishes an adversarial relationship.
  • The best way to learn to trust yourself, if by being granted the gift of trust …
  • Committing to trust your children creates powerful mutual respect and mutual trust.
  • By practicing self-direction, children learn greater responsibility. Complete responsibility.
  • You don’t learn to drive by being told or reading books about it, you have to actually get in the driver’s seat.
  • Following their authentic interests makes them better attuned to their passions and hones their ability to listen for their deeper purpose.


                                                                  From Agile Learning Centers.Org 

This mutual trust takes a lot of support.   We see ourselves as culture shapers and we work with the parents and the children as a community to provide a positive environment to grow and learn.  We choose to give  the children a meaningful voice in shaping the agreements of our space instead of enforcing restrictive top down rules. Empowering our children in this way builds confidence, communication skills, and establishes authentic relationships where children feel they are heard, they belong, and that they make a difference. Children deserve to have the freedom to decide for themselves what it is they want to do with their time.  They deserve the freedom to grow and develop at their own pace…not at some predetermined rate and schedule set forth by someone who has never even met them in a planning office far away who doesn’t even engage with children on a daily basis. They deserve freedom from judgement, evaluation, and comparison. 

WCS embraces and nurtures each individuals needs and  learning styles. We do not see a need to focus primarily on “book-learning.”  In today’s world children need a flexible education that supports multiple intelligences. We give them the autonomy to make decisions about their own bodies and minds from what they wear to when to eat or what to play.  Whatever a child is interested in learning at any given moment is a perfectly valid choice as long as it is safe and respectful. At WCS children are allowed the time, and the space to play infinitely. We also strive to provide maximum support with minimal interference for children to focus on a singular passion project for as long as they want without fear of running out of time and moving on to the next subject to be squeezed into the day.  No wonder they love coming to school! 

If your child is losing their love of learning and their spirit is being crushed by traditional compulsory schooling know that there are a growing number of alternative schooling options.  Wilmington Cooperative School is committed to removing outdated practices and obstacles and to supporting children in a positive collaborative self directed learning community. 

ALF Summer

A few weeks ago, myself and my co-worker/co-Facilitator at WCS had the honor of attending the Agile Learning Facilitator summer training for two weeks at ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a deeply meaningful experience and, for me, very transformative. 

I have been at WCS for several years now, and one of things that I have found very compelling about being a part of the school is how much of a community it is. Yes, we have experienced all the usual growing pains of being a business and community in it’s early years, but have remained a loving and supportive community of kids and families nevertheless. 

This is something that struck me right through the heart as I sat in all the talks, workshops, and lunch discussions at Mosaic—everything was essentially focused around this central theme: How do we use the ALC schools and tools to create a strong community that is focused on supporting everyone’s autonomy and doing social justice work? 

It turns out, there are a million ways. We went to discussion groups that addressed this question from every conceivable angle: 

  • Dialogue vs. Debate
  • Media in Shared Spaces (How do we create space for autonomy and trust regarding kid using tech at school?)
  • Consent-Based Governance
  • Transitioning Out of Toxic Relationships While Unschooling 
  • Chronicling Play 
  • Alternative Economies 
  • Teens in Self-Directed Education
  • Race Equity in Self-Directed Education Spaces 
  • All Ages ALC (How do we create full communities that range all the way from babies to adults in co-working spaces?)
  • Facilitator Burnout 
  • Sociocracy 
  • Body Image in Self-Directed Spaces 
  • Adultism 
  • Supporting Families if Color in Self-Directed Spaces/Representation Without Tokenism 
  • Tuition Free ALC

We left each day emotionally and mentally exhausted in the best way. Discussing all these topics that have been points of activism for me, learning new ideas to be passionate about, and hearing how they integrate into the type of work that I’m currently doing, made me feel really empowered, excited, and maybe even a little overwhelmed. Bringing what I learned to WCS and to the community at large in Wilmington is my passion project for the foreseeable future. 

I left with this new ideology hanging over me like a gigantic rainbow: If it is our hope that the future of our world will see it filled with citizens who are motivated towards environmental sustainability, gift-based economies, racial equity, LGTBQ equity, good intrapersonal communication, and self-actualization, we start by building it in local communities, by giving autonomy to children, and modeling these ideals ourselves. 

I’m ready to get my hands dirty.