How can I be sure my kids will learn the things they need to know? (math, writing, etc.)

If something is actually basic knowledge that you need in order to live successfully in this world, you can’t help but learn it. The “basics” will be captured in kids’ natural learning, which happens through living. We don’t need to force or trick them into learning something basic.

Basic knowledge and skills are defined by our current world. Whereas once it may have been basic to know how to saddle a horse, today it is basic to know how to open a web browser. The rich world environment in which we operate sets us up to prioritize knowledge and skills reliably and naturally based on our experiences.

Are there certain traditional subject areas that are a priority?

We don’t sort knowledge into subject areas, as doing so discourages learners from interdisciplinary thinking and exploring innovative applications they may invent. Learning isn’t about amassing data; it’s about making connections, deepening understanding, solving problems, creating, and sharing. Facilitators support students in exploring the relatedness and convergence of learning domains, both in school and in the world around us. Sorting or prioritizing traditional subjects is rarely useful from this perspective.

Are there certain levels of math that you try to achieve? Do you try to teach reading?

Children are naturally curious and capable. In a rich and stimulating environment, we don’t have to try to teach them anything: they teach themselves or ask (of each other and facilitators) to be taught. When they need math to play a video game, track sport statistics, bake muffins, budget for a trip, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. When they need to read and write to create stories with their friends, manage their own blogs, use community tools (like kanbans) independently, find out what happens in the next Harry Potter book, decipher notes from friends, research dinosaurs, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. Especially in an environment where facilitators model passionate learning and the community supports–rather than shames–students who learn at different paces, kids stay curious and eager to keep learning.

How do students prioritize their interests/goals?

In lots of ways. We don’t have priority-tracking mechanisms explicitly built into any of the tools we use. That said, students have hacked and adapted the tools, for example building “swim lanes” into their kanbans so they can prioritize their intentions. Sometimes they create new tools. Often they set personal goals that they’ve realized on their own or through conversations with facilitators. They prioritize activities that move them towards their goals, like most of us do when we want something, and they reflect often on how they are choosing to spend their time.

If you don’t make them take a variety of classes, how will they get exposed to new fields? Isn’t there a chance they’ll miss discovering a passion if they aren’t required to try new things?

Children today are swimming in a flood of information. They get exposed to a greater diversity of ideas, issues, cultures, facts, problems and opportunities in a month than most people got in their lifetimes just 50 years ago. A single Sunday New York Times contains more text than a literate person read in their lifetime 100 years ago.

Kids today carry in their hands devices with instantaneous access to almost the entire documented history of human knowledge. Then we tell them to put down their devices; we lock them in classrooms and spoon-feed them bits of information, isolated and out of context. We tell them that they need to memorize things they could look up in an instant. Then we grade them on whether they can regurgitate the current politically correct answers on a test. The assumption behind this question is upside down.

Traditional schooling cuts students off from the flow of information available to them and divides selections of that information into little boxes disconnected from their lives (English, Math, Social Studies, etc.), then presents this information as if students would never have encountered it otherwise. Knowledge is something holistic and integrated, and students are integrating it all the time — whether or not they’re in school.

The real question today should be: In this staggering flood of overexposure, how will my child learn to filter to what is important from the unimportant, to focus on their domains of passion, and to determine “good” information from “bad?” These are the important skills for a modern child…skills they won’t get from some school board doing the filtering for them.

How do they learn to operate in the “real world”?

By engaging with it…consistently. Our students recognize that the whole world is their classroom. They grocery shop for cooking project ingredients, spend time in local parks, call restaurants to ask about hours and shops to ask about inventory; they organize field trips around their interests, attend conferences and meet-ups, create entrepreneurial opportunities, and participate in community activities. They can do all these things and more on any given school day. In fact, they’re encouraged to.

How do they learn if you don’t teach them?

We do teach them, but they would learn even if we didn’t. Learning is natural and happening all the time. Babies learn to crawl, walk, and talk without being explicitly taught these things. They look at who and what exists in the world around them, copy and experiment with what they see, practice and learn the skills they need to grow in independence and connectivity to others.

In learning communities that value authenticity and collaboration, it’s inevitable that we’ll teach each other. Sometimes this happens through classes and workshops, sometimes through conversations and modeling. But it’s always happening.

What do Agile Learning Facilitator’s (ALFs) do?

Facilitators witness.

Facilitators model.

Facilitators reflect.

Facilitators facilitate.

Facilitators hold the space.

Facilitators support students in clarifying their intentions, getting connected to the resources they need, reflecting on their decisions, engaging with the community, and sharing their learning. They work to keep the space safe, legal, and respectful. They collaborate with students to develop a powerfully positive culture. Facilitators model clear communication, collaboration, and authenticity. They embody our Agile Roots, and they are grounded in trust.

You just let kids do whatever they want?

Yes and no. Our communities have very clear expectations and boundaries that the children agree to in order to participate at an ALC. These include productively engaging with the group process, respecting the space, and respecting each other. Pursuits must be safe and legal. We clean the messes we make and follow a simple conflict resolution process when those messes are relational. We collaborate to build positive cultural norms rather than lists of rules.

A maxim we reference when creating new structures is “maximum support with minimum interference.” Our students have a lot of freedom as they get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. With clear boundaries and agreements, they also have the support they need to feel safe using that freedom to question, experiment, explore, and grow.

What boundaries are there?

Our communities set boundaries to create safe, legal, and respectful environments. Students commit to uphold certain agreements to participate in an ALC; communities meet weekly to review cultural patterns and create new agreements together; parents may put limits on their students’ off-site travel permissions. To the extent that this question asks whether rules and limits on individual freedom exist, the answer is ‘yes.’

But what if we define “boundaries” more broadly than just as “rules”? Then this question becomes an interesting one about priorities and opportunities to practice 21st century skills that students will need to grow into empowered individuals. In environments where students don’t get a say in their work loads, levels of physical activity, or collaboration styles, they don’t have as many opportunities to practice recognizing, setting, or holding personal boundaries. We recognize that these are vital life skills; as such, ALFs are intentional in both modeling boundary management and supporting students doing the same.

Why is your school age-mixed?

Segregating people into age cohorts, a practice that really only happens at school, limits their exposure to accessible role models and their opportunities to teach skills they’ve acquired. In an age-mixed environment, older students learn patience and compassion while supporting the younger students. Younger students watch and emulate older students. Everyone gets practice both teaching and learning from people with varying skill levels, learning styles, and attention spans. The results tend to be awe-inspiring.

What if a child is regularly missing morning meeting?

Participation in meetings is one of the major commitments students agree to when they join an ALC. Regularly missing morning and afternoon meetings is a breach of this agreement. Why the fuss? The few meetings we have serve to support student intention-setting, collaboration, reflection, and culture creation. Missing these meetings significantly impacts a student’s ability to participate in the community. Furthermore, parents of students who miss meetings–who opt out of the structures supporting regular practice of intention-setting and reflection–often end up asking staff how to support their student in more deliberately taking advantage of opportunities at school.

Will my child be competitive and prepared to go to college?

If that’s the direction that they choose.

We don’t yet have longitudinal data on ALCs, but we do have it on self-directed learning. Most of the kids who want to get into college do. Having alternative forms of record keeping and evaluation has not been an impediment for kids who want to go to college. In fact, there’s a proven advantage for people whose college applications can’t be tidily ranked by GPA and academic track: a human has to actually look at their portfolio. ALC students document their learning on sharable platforms, such as blogs and Kanbans. As a result, they typically find it easy to construct rich portfolios, and some already have created portfolios for their personal websites.

When a self-directed learner decides they want to go to college, they know why they want to go. Many students unquestioningly spend thousands of dollars and several years of their lives going through college because that’s what they think they’re “supposed” to do. Intentionally entering a learning environment to accomplish a specific purpose is more likely to bring about positive outcomes.

If a high school aged kid at an ALC wants to go to a college that requires traditional stuff, can ALC support that? What if they need transcripts or test prep?

If a student from a conventional high school wants to go to such a college, they have to sit in classes all day, get their homework done, and then somehow find time to solicit recommendation letters, go on interviews, craft their application, and prepare for the required tests.

If an ALC student declares the intention to attend such a college, they can schedule time during the day for work that moves them towards reaching their goal. As during any other project a student decides to take on, facilitators are available to provide support, resources, and coaching. So ALC students have more time to focus on writing personal essays and studying for SAT II’s, should that be what they decide to do.

ALC Students don’t receive transcripts, class rankings, or GPAs; however, they generate plenty of documentation about their learning (Kanbans, Trello boards, Blog posts, etc.) as part of the daily and weekly cycles our communities practice. Generating portfolios and transcripts from this data isn’t difficult, and some students have already done so successfully. That said, there are exponentially few, if any, schools that don’t allow for a human review process and absolutely require grades. State colleges are generally less open to descriptive and non-traditional assessments than private colleges, but the desirability of a promising student with a captivating portfolio shouldn’t be underestimated.

Special needs students: How do you meet their needs?

On the one hand, due to the amount of self-possession ALC students are expected to demonstrate and limits on our resources as non-state-funded schools, we don’t currently meet the needs of all types of kids. On the other hand, certain learning differences don’t show up as problematic in our schools.

A student who needs constant supervision or individual attention is probably not a good fit for an ALC. Staff are always open to collaborating with parents, learning tools or communicating with therapists parents find, in the interest of supporting a student. We also know that adults with ADHD, for example, usually learn to choose jobs that are active, changing, and stimulating rather than jobs that require sitting and writing for hours on end. They know their strengths and challenges and then pick corresponding kinds of environments…and thrive. Kids in school aren’t typically given the chance to make such choices; no matter their energy and attention levels, they are expected to all do the same thing–sit, listen, and write–all day. At ALCs, students are encouraged to pay attention to their patterns and work styles, and they’re supported in making choices accordingly. As a result, they learn to adapt, to maximize chances to play up their strengths, rather than feeling shamed for and fixating on their limitations. The result is that they keep their confidence and grow their capacities, often even undoing patterns of disempowering self-talk and antagonism of writing/math/speaking that they built up in other settings.

How do kids adjust coming from traditional schooling, or going back to it?

Kids, especially older ones, coming from traditional schooling usually have a “detox” period where they test their limits to be sure that they really aren’t going to be forced to do things or graded on their “performance.” When it turns out that there isn’t much to rebel against, boredom and positive peer pressure usually motivate them to start trying new things and engaging with the community.

Learning is always occurring. As a result, students coming from traditional schooling arrive having learned communication styles, value judgements, and assumptions about power dynamics (and their own capacities) that they then un-learn at ALC. Our students who choose to return to traditional schooling have experience communicating clearly, managing their time, and finding information/resources they need to achieve goals. They take these skills with them–along with the knowledge that they’re choosing to go for a reason. As a result, they usually transition smoothly.

You talk about Tools and Practices, what do you mean?

Read more about our Agile Learning Tools.

How do you deal with bullies?

In order to join WCS, every student signs a contract agreeing to treat themselves, the space, and others with respect. We take this agreement very seriously; breaches of it activate a process in which a group of staff and students dedicated to building a safe and supportive community gather to decide how to address the problem. Sometimes, simply hearing from their peers motivates a student to change bullying behavior. Sometimes more creative or serious consequences are needed. A student who persistently chooses to break their contract will be asked to leave the community.

How will they learn self-discipline?

If you have experience with small children, you’ve probably seen them incredibly focused while persistently working towards a goal: stacking all the blocks, trying to reach the drinking fountain unassisted, mixing ingredients (including chocolate chips!) into cookie batter, brushing the cat’s fur, etc. When kids are intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal–be it a fort or independence or dessert–they typically practice self-discipline where necessary without being bribed or threatened by adults. And when the goal is their own rather than an adult-imposed one, achieving it establishes a correlation in their experience between self-discipline and satisfaction. They know and practice self-discipline; they get to learn that it has value.

What do you mean by holding space?

When we hold space for another person, we make ourselves present to witness and support their journey, without judging and without attempting to control their path or outcomes. 

How do you assess them without tests?

Our assessment is that each student is a capable and powerful human with value to add to the world.

How do we track student growth and progress? By developing authentic relationships in which we support their self-reflection and bear witness to their journeys. Students document their reflections and projects on their blogs, where both form and content illustrate the evolution of their thinking and skills.

How does WCS compare to Montessori, Reggio, Steiner/Waldorf, democratic free school, homeschooling, unschooling?

Montessori: Montessori schools and WCS both practice age-mixing and supporting students in self-directing their learning. Montessori age-mixing involves grouping students who would typically be in three different “grades” into a cohort; WCS age-mixing is much broader, usually separating only very young students, sometimes only for meetings. Montessori students self-direct through a prescribed menu of subjects and concepts that changes based on the age range of the students; WCS students self-direct based on their interests, passions, and the opportunities they see in the world around them.

Reggio: The basic assumptions informing Reggio education are highly complementary to those informing WCS education. Reggio was created based on the belief that humans are born with many forms of expression–languages–available to them. Most forms of schooling only develop literacy in three of these languages: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reggio seeks to provide acknowledgement of and opportunities to develop as many of these languages as possible through themed “explorations,” The Reggio model recognizes the environment as a powerful teacher; thus, Reggio schools are carefully designed with goals of sparking inspiration, encouraging curiosity, and facilitating interpersonal activities. WCS philosophy shares a view of the child as powerful, competent, and full of potential. We also share the recognition of the environment as a teacher and the emphasis on the importance of social relationships. We’re different in our emphasis on intentional culture creation, our documentation practices, and our structures for supporting student self-direction.

Steiner/Waldorf: The only real similarity between WCS and Steiner/Waldorf schools is that both approach education holistically. Steiner/Waldorf schools advocate a single developmental trajectory for all children, and they introduce students to concepts in an order and manner dictated by this trajectory. WCS expect students to have different learning journeys, and our staff aspire to support students in creating their own adventures.

Democratic Free School: WCS is similar to Democratic Free Schools in that our students contribute to decision making at the school, direct their own learning, and participate in meetings. We’re different in that our students focus on creating culture rather than running the school, use structures to support intention-setting and reflection on their learning journeys, and explicitly aim to keep 90%+ of each day meeting free so students can focus on their learning. In some Free Schools, decision making is consensus based and adults strive to influence students’ learning journeys as minimally as possible. WCS decision-making more closely resembles the Quaker “sense of the meeting” than consensus, and our staff comfortably make suggestions, welcoming students to practice accepting and rejecting attempts to influence them.

Unschool: Unschooling always looks different, so it’s difficult to compare a “typical” unschooling experience to the WCS experience. Both Unschooling and Agile Learning relationships with learning come from trusting that the individual—adult or child—knows best how to design their education and should be supported in doing so. The difference is that unschoolers focus on their individual paths, while WCS students engage in active culture creation. The social component is foundational to Agile Learning: students learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills.

Homeschool: Homeschooling looks different from case to case, but it typically involves traditional subject areas and limited opportunities for social interaction. Students can set the pace of their studies, but their topics are still usually informed by state or parental standards. WCS sees students as self-directed learners in a world where all learning is interdisciplinary. Our students decide the pace and the content of their days. They also learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills. Since so much learning happens in interactions with others, the emphasis on creating opportunities for high quality interactions at WCS is one of the main factors differentiating us from traditional homeschooling environments.

What does it mean to be a homeschool cooperative?

Every WCS child age 7 or older is legally registered as a homeschooler with the state of North Carolina. We pool our resources to provide a space and a teacher/facilitator to work with our children in a way that aligns with our educational and parenting philosophies. Ultimately, each family is responsible for their child’s education, and we participate at WCS because we belive that learning is enhanced by the social, emotional, mental, and physical opportunities available at WCS.

What does it mean to be a cooperative in regards to parent involvement?

WCS families are committed to giving time, experience and knowledge to enrich and run the co-op. Specifically, parents are expected to work as a parent aide in the classroom once ever 3-4 weeks. The exact frequency will depend on overall enrollment. Parents are also expected to serve on a administrative committee that is independent of regular cooperative hours. There are many parent jobs, including: fundraising, admissions, marketing, center maintenance, computer-tech support, alumni relations, landscaping, etc, as well as positions on the Board (chair, secretary, treasurer, etc.) Parents will also be expected to attend fundraisers and other functions.

Can my child attend part-time?

Attendance at WCS is not compulsory, so students with unlimited membership can attend as frequently (or infrequently) as they would like. WCS also offers a limited number of part-time membership slots. If you have specific needs that don’t fit well into this schedule, please reach out to us to discuss your options.

What happens if we are not accepted?

Your child will be put on a waiting list for the next available spot.

Who is the contact for specific questions?

Questions can be answered via email info@welearnfreely.com.

Can I go on a waiting list for my child who is currently too young?

The application process will open to children the spring before enrollment. Currently enrolled students and siblings of currently enrolled students will have enrollment precedence, and full-time members will have precedence over part time members.

Do you offer before and after care?

Not currently. If this is very important to you, please reach out to the board to discuss your needs.

Is attendance mandatory?

No. You can attend as often (or as infrequently) as you’d like, up to the membership level that you signed up for.  We do keep a record of attendance to help us manage and plan for the group, and to help our members track their homeschool activities.

Does WCS operate all year?

WCS generally follows the New Hanover County public school traditional calendar. We observe the same federal holidays and scheduled breaks in winter and spring. We also have monthly teacher work days that mostly align with teacher work days for public school teachers. WCS opens after labor day and closes before memorial day.

Who can go to WCS?

Any child who is between the ages of five and eleven.  As our cohort grows and we adjust our format to accommodate the needs of older students, we will increase maximum student age. We welcome and celebrate students and families who represent diversity as it relates to race, ethnicity, gender, family structure, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class.  At WCS, children are immersed in a community wherein they have the opportunity to learn through social play with an aged-mixed group of peers, interact with families, choose self-directed activities, and independently access appropriate materials to freely explore their environment. Children must be able to work within this environment safely, appropriately, and independently.

My child turns 5 in the fall, could they still attend WCS?

This depends on the student’s emotional maturity and readiness for the WCS environment, and on the mix of ages already enrolled at the school. If your child turns 5 in the fall of 2019, reach out to the board and teacher to discuss enrollment options.

I’m interested, but my child is older than 11, could they they still attend WCS?

Our co-op is currently structured for kids between ages 5 and 11. However, we do get lots of inquiries from families with older children and we are actively planning for the time when we can welcome older children. Please contact us about your older child so we know you are interested. Even better, ask how you can be involved in planning & implementing a program for older children.

Does WCS offer speech or occupational therapy to students?

As a private learning cooperative, WCS does not have independent access to speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other therapies or resources that would be provided to eligible students enrolled in the public school system. Some students who could benefit from these therapies in a public school environment may be well suited to the learning environment at WCS, while others might struggle. 

WCS will work with families on a case-by-case basis to assess whether WCS is a good fit for their child and whether WCS can ethically accommodate the child’s needs in the absence of formal therapies. Families are welcome to obtain private therapy or work with their local public school to obtain access to publicly provided therapies, and/or obtain copies of an individual education plan for their student. In such cases, parents can work with the teacher to schedule a time and space for therapists to work with their child during the day at WCS.

How many students are enrolled? What are the student to teacher ratios?

For the 2018-2019 school year, WCS had 25 student members. WCS employs two Agile Learning Facilitators who are assisted daily by parent volunteers, and we aim to keep our child to adult ratio than 10:1.