Friday, 6 October 2017

Perhaps we are trees?

I have been reading a book about trees off and on for a while now.  I like it because I can pick it up anytime and leave it for months before finding it again. Today I found it while my youngest was snuggling in for a nap.  

So, the underlying “science” is that trees spend their time growing and producing nutrients and sharing what they create with their fellow trees, particularly their “family” members and other species that are “friendly”.  In the late summer, sometimes even end of July, trees begin to cut back their production for themselves and their “family” and “friend” trees.  They have worked hard to provide for themselves and others and their tree bodies are full and heavy so they start to conserve their energy. They prepare for a survival through an environment that will be cold and dark for a while, followed by a new season of growth.

Did you know that a deciduous tree’s version of “dullness” is actually autumn?  The removal of chlorophyll from their leaves makes them “dull” by tree standards and the remaining colours, which were always present, are now the ones we see.  Their green life is gone.  These colours of early autumn are still bright to our eyes and the eyes of insects who are looking for bark to burrow in for the winter.  The more intense tree dullness (brighter Autumn colours) indicate health and strength and signal to bugs to find a less healthy tree to winter in so that they will not be subjected to the tree’s defenses. 

A deciduous tree is relatively new (and innovative) in comparison to coniferous trees.  They go dormant and suspend their growth and require cold to germinate and their lifespan decreases if they are not able to move through their natural dormant periods.  They need to have a period of time when the water is drained from their branches and trunks (water in branches and trunks in freezing weather would kill the tree).  Dormancy allows for a plant’s survival in its environment.

The strongest contrast between dormancy and life are trees in the cherry family.  Trees in the cherry family begin to “dull” in July, germinate in the cold, and they are among the first tree to blossom in the spring.  My favourite is the Service Berry with it's orange-red autumn leaves - so beautiful.  The spring blossoming is also breathtakingly beautiful. In Japanese culture, the cherry tree and blossom, (sakura), has been a symbol that life is both spectacularly beautiful and awesomely short. The cherry tree kind of represents the great contrast between death and renewal, fragility and beauty, hope and pain.

To my friends who are feeling tired and quiet, dull and heavy, drained... perhaps we are just trees responding to our environment, preparing ourselves for the future?  Maybe instead of pushing against these feelings, it would be helpful to simply sit with some “friendly” trees who are starting to feel dormant themselves?  Perhaps we will feel comforted by our connection and shared experience?😉

My blog posts usually emerge in a burst and I don't always remember what I was reading that inspired me. I just know that I'm always reading something, even if it is short or frivolous. Today's blog I actually kept track of some of my reading inspiration.  Not all of it but some.  Here they are.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Children's Market and My Learning

This week my kids are participating in a children’s market and they are so excited.  This children’s market idea was initiated by Meaghan Jackson through the Burlington-Hamilton Unschoolers and has grown to include the entire local homeschooling community.  Children have created market booths selling services, products, crafts, and items with the intent of selling them to other children and attendees.  In unschooling style, parents are encouraged to step back so that their kids can take the initiative to plan, create, calculate, and negotiate so this experience can feel real and rewarding.
My daughter loves make-up, hair, colour, and design so when I asked her what kind of shop she wanted to have at the children’s market she didn’t hesistate – a beauty salon.  She decided she would paint nails, do make-up, and she says that she is also going to do hairstyles but she hasn’t really thought that one through yet so I am not sure if that aspect will materialize. 
This week she asked me to take her to the store so that she could buy a new nail polish for her salon “A glitter one because girls love glitter!” and today she wants me to take her to the store to buy white roses for her salon. I guess she has a vision of what she wants her salon experience to be like?  She said “Girls love beautiful flowers!”

As she plans aloud, I can’t help but notice that several girl stereotypes are being played out in my daughter’s salon.  So I had to ask “Are you only serving girls at your salon?”  She said yes.  I felt really uncomfortable.  I wanted her to be open to gender fluid kids or boys who wanted their nails done… So I asked what about boys that want to get their nails done?  “They are not allowed.” Oh no…I felt uncomfortable with that. So I asked how those boys would feel if she told them they are not allowed to get their nails done at her salon.  She thought about it and said “Lonely.” 

I let her response sit with me and soon I realized her answer revealed a bit of her.  She has a best friend who is a boy and most of her play experiences have been heavy on the boy influence.  As unschoolers, we have had to work really hard to find her some friends who are girls. What if her choice of market booth is not just an expression of her talents, but also an expression of her needs?  Perhaps a need for friendship and shared values? What if she is creating a market booth that attracts the kind of people she wishes to interact with more often?

I was humbled by that thought.  I realized I was so tempted to pressure her into agreeing to serve all customers equally but if I had done that, I would I have changed the experience for her. I would have made her booth about my needs for equality and acceptance, robbing her of the chance to try to meet her needs. And more importantly, I would have robbed her of the opportunity for her to learn from her market beauty salon experience.

This children’s market was supposed to be a chance for kids to learn but here I am learning the value of stepping back and letting a child lead the process.  I’m not sure how my daughter will respond to a gender fluid kid tomorrow or a boy visiting her salon but I now realize the experience she is creating is for her own learning.  I’m just lucky enough to be along for the ride.  Once again, I am feeling schooled by unschooling.  J

Friday, 15 September 2017

Triggered Empathetic Responses

Last night was a beautiful summer evening, so my family and I stayed out enjoying it well after dark.  I had the baby and she wanted to look at the blinking lights in the shop windows.  Those bright blinking lights are so appealing to babies.  I took her lead and let her little pointed finger determine where we would go next and what we would talk about.  At one point, she looked up at the night sky and as she looked up, I supported her soft little head so that she could look ALLLL the way up for as long as she wanted.  At one point she realized I was supporting her head and I said “I’ve got you!” and gave her a gentle kiss.  The whole feeling must have felt quite lovely because after the first gentle kiss, she touched my hand and leaned in for another gentle kiss.  We did as many gentle kisses as she wanted and when she was done being kissed she just laid there, with my hand supporting her head, looking at the night sky.  In that moment, instead of following her gaze again, I looked up and realized that the tough, scruffy looking guy having a smoke and a beer had been watching us the whole time.  He smiled at me and when our eyes connected I saw that by witnessing this interaction between my daughter and I, he had softened.  Watching the gentleness between her and I, he seemed to be more gentle also. We didn't say anything just connect with our eyes and enjoy the shared peaceful moment. Later, I thought about how he was when we first saw him, fronting, swaggering, yelling.  I thought perhaps that by witnessing our tenderness, we had triggered his empathetic response and he was now experiencing this soft, lovely evening, just as we were.  He was no longer fronting or swaggering, he was there with us, peaceful and gentle.

The empathetic response is really so amazing.  It is triggered regularly but we’re often unconscious to it.

I unschool my kids right now but this was the first full back to school week for local kids and I was noticing the range of responses.  For some kids, the return to school this week was still exciting.  For others it was already becoming a familiar routine.  And for some, they had strong reactions, especially on Sunday night and Monday morning.  Having supply taught and worked in Ontario public schools as a teacher, I know that school and classroom environments vary widely.  Some are lovely and inclusive and non-judging while others have power dynamics and subtle undertones. Think for a moment how your child’s learning environment triggers their empathetic response.  (If your child is sensitive, you’ll probably be more aware of their empathetic response.)  Loving and kind gestures within your child’s earshot and eyesight will likely trigger them to also feel loved and cared for.  They’ll be willing to take risks and approach life with a sense of curiosity.  If your child is in an environment where they witness harshness and power-over dynamics, even if it is not done *to them*, they may respond as though it was. A power-over environment can encourage a child to experiment with their own power-over behavior (aka bully culture).  Or they may react with tears Sunday night or Monday morning or “clingy” behavior when you are together.  They may appear agitated and aggressive as their fight response runs its course through their body.  They may not even be able to articulate it because as adults, we are often unconscious of it ourselves.  In fact, as children, we were often taught to dismiss our own unidentified, uneasy feelings by our well-meaning care-givers, though the most sensitive of us find that an impossible task.  But as parents caring for our children in conscious ways, we can choose something different.

If your child is loving school, I am celebrating their joy with you.  There is nothing better than seeing your child feeling confident and content. If your child is signaling distress, I encourage you to be their support and advocate.  Alternatives exist and more are in the pipeline like The Barn School!  Your responses have a big influence on how they value themselves and interpret the world.  Their empathetic response is triggered all the time and helping them to develop an awareness of it will honor their experience and give them a stronger voice and advocate.

I hope your day is peaceful and gentle and if you are in an environment yourself, that is harsh, I hope you can find some peaceful moments to hang on to and dwell in for a while.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

What is it that kids like about Learning in the Woods?

For the past two weeks, I have been spending more time at Learning in the Woods and I have had a unique opportunity to observe more than engage with the children.  I found myself thinking, what is it that kids like about Learning in the Woods.  Here is what I discovered.

“No Have-To’s” or “Should’s”:  The kids are happy to be with us because they know they are not going to be pushed or cajoled into doing anything.  Our daily schedule is a welcome circle, FREE CHOICE, and a good bye circle.  Truly, the most valuable thing we have to offer kids is the freedom and space to pursue their interests, explore their feelings, engage with others, and just be.  This is an environment that cultivates mindfulness.  That is not to say that our time together is full of beautiful, calm moments…just the opposite actually.  It is the messiness and swirling chaos that produces moments of awareness.  That is learning.  Those moments of awareness help to fuel the next discovery and interaction.  

Supportive Caregivers: We have amazing facilitators.  We hire authentic people who value kids and understand about choice and freedom and self-awareness and respect.  The learning that happens in a schedule-free environment is not always easy to navigate, so believe me when I say, our facilitators are so very busy supporting kids the whole time. Having no schedule means that there are more occasions for children to directly or indirectly request support and our facilitators are there through every painful and joyful emotion.  Tanya once said about Learning in the Woods participant A, “I love her.  And I mean that.  I love her because I have sat with her through every emotion, the highest highs and the lowest lows and when you sit with someone through every emotion possible like that, you cannot help but love them at the end of it.”  Drop the mic.

A Safe Place for Full Expression of Who They Are: Kids like this camp because they can show up and express the fullest version of themselves.  There is no need to edit their likes or dislikes or interests.  We love nature AND Moana, Paw Patrol, Popular MMO’s and dancing to Bruno Mars.  We do our best to #nurturethewholechild and not just the parts that make for pleasing others and nice Instagram photos. 

A Safe Place for Full Expression of What They Feel:  Kids can be sad, angry, scared, or frustrated and no one will rush them through those feelings.  Have you ever been rushed through a feeling by a well-intentioned loved one?  It sucks.  It adds a layer of discomfort to a situation that already feels not so good, which is why you are expressing your discomfort out loud to begin with!  At Learning in the Woods, tears can roll, as there is no shame in crying.  Angry voices can shout or growl.  They can be noisy and rambunctious in their joy.  We are human and this is a place where we welcome a full expression of humanity.

Ultimately, we see kids as full humans.  Their requests and interests and worries and questions are treated with respect that the children CAN FEEL.  They know they are being listened to with respect and that sense of respect is what cultivates a bond and connection that allows the kids to feel safe. Kids feel confident to take risks and grow and learn in ways that ARE IMPORTANT TO THEM.  As an adult, don't you wish for these things too?

Hint Hint, the next blog is about Self-Connection in the Woods, our adult version of Learning in the Woods.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Camp beginnings

The first day of camp can be intense for parents, kids, and facilitators. On the first day of camp, more than any other day, facilitators have to be prepared to just go with the flow and slow the pace so they can effectively create a safe space for kids. Ultimately, we trust the kids will show us what they need to feel comfortable in this new environment, we just need to create a space where can express and we can listen.

Today I arrived at Learning in the Woods before welcome circle.  Kids were playing, things were quiet, and the mood was a bit uncertain as kids tried to figure out how things work in this new space.  Facilitators were extra busy, trying to meet all the needs.  FYI, all the needs on the first morning of camp seem to be expressed intensely and simultaneously from these young people who were trying to figure it all out. Luckily our facilitators are ready for this!

When there was a lull, the facilitators invited everyone to join the welcome circle. Suddenly there was a cry.  C, 4 years old, had tripped and she burst into loud tears. Grace spoke to her quietly and brought her back to base camp.  C got her special toy from her backpack and a friend who had attended Learning in the Woods camp earlier in the summer, offered to sit beside her.  She was crying quietly and little one-lookers listened as Tanya said,  “C got hurt.  She is crying.  She is hugging her turtle toy because it helps her feel better.”  Everyone looked at C.  “Would you like to tell us about how you got hurt C?”  C stood up and walked over to the spot where she had tripped.  The entire group jumped up to follow her. This was an empathetic response as much as it was done out of curiosity.  

They listened quietly, respectfully, as C recounted what happened. Some asked questions or made comments.  Others just listened. I suspect C felt heard by the group as she stopped crying and walked back to our welcome circle looking calm and peaceful.  I suspect the group felt reassured too, as they were calm also. 

And so, the morning continued. We finished circle. We explored the space. Whistles were blown a little too often when there was no emergency. “The Machine” was built with some disagreement and some cooperation.  Snacks were eaten with gusto when kids were hungry.  No one was rushed.  There was time for everything.  All feelings were welcome.    

C’s fall was the first group bonding experience for these campers and it was rooted in gentleness and care. It set the tone for the rest of the morning and probably the rest of the week too.  By caring for one member of the group, everyone else was reassured that they will be cared for also.  There is no rush.  We can all just care for each other and figure things out as we go.  That message is so reassuring, isn't it?  What a beautiful beginning.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The gift of discomfort

Yesterday I felt so insecure.  One of the great gifts of trying to do something outside of the "norm" is that there are so many opportunities for me to be humbled.  Yesterday I had a big humble.  I got to see how I fail and how I struggle. It's a huge gift to see that but it's also uncomfortable and difficult to live with. 

I experienced this humbling message right before I hosted a play date. There were new friends, old friends, and their kids all coming to my house for some fun on the beach.  Yet, minutes before their arrival, all I wanted to do was be still and quiet with my humbling pain. I didn’t tell my friends I was feeling raw and insecure. I wasn't fake with those around me because that might be denying my pain but I wasn't trying to connect deeply either because connecting deeply wasn't possible when I felt that kind of insecurity. So, I just sat with those feelings inside me and allowed gentle friendships to carry me for a bit. It was riding a wave and allowing other people to keep me floating for a while.  Keeping quiet but floating helped me to get me to a space that felt a bit calmer and safer.   

The safety didn’t actually mean processing the insecure feelings! Safety was connecting to a friend who “gets” it like I do.  It was nice to just by listen to her, something I enjoy doing, and feel as though I have something to offer. Safety came while fulfilling a commitment and realizing “I am feeling so sad, I’m just not able to fulfill this commitment the way I had hoped.” Being honest with myself while still honoring my commitment met my need for authenticity. Listening to another beautiful friend express her strength and self-awareness of her challenges made me feel thankful to get to watch her as she blooms. Feeling insecure kept me quiet and what I received in that quiet seemed more beautiful as a result.

Somehow, with those moments of safety, the insecure feelings just lived in me. I didn't try to understand them. I just went about my day and the humbling feeling gave me clarity to see the gifts that discomfort can bring. In that way, the discomfort and insecurity was honored.

I think this is sometimes the way life goes.  Sometimes we feel insecure and we get to choose what we do with that feeling.  Disconnecting from it, though it is painful, dulls me to the beauty of life. Processing it in the moment wasn't actually going to serve me either, it would have felt like I was rushing through the feeling or spinning it in my head.  Sitting with it, even though it was uncomfortable, gave me a new perspective which is maybe the point of that feeling anyway.

As a parent, partner, friend, and contributer to the world, perhaps you’ll be given the same gift I was yesterday; a gift that brings you rawness and clarity to see the beauty in this world with fresh eyes. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Barn School Meeting April 9th

On Sunday, April 9th, we had a Barn School meeting at Bliss Kitchen.  (Thank you for having us Bliss!) There were lots of great side conversations but I thought it would be helpful to try to capture some of the large group conversation for others to read at their convenience.


It is our hope that we can stay as close to the Self-Directed Education approach to curriculum as possible, which is a self-designed curriculum. Students decide what they learn and we know from schools that have used this approach for decades, that the k-8 curriculum in Math and language tends to be covered by the end of "grade 8" by most learners. The arts and sciences tend to vary depending on interests. Luckily, there are schools that already have this approach in the public system in Ontario. Ultimately it depends on the person who gives approvals for private schools and we may need to show some flexibility in our approach to meet the Ontario guidelines for a private school.  For example, we would be open to offering regular lessons following the Ontario curriculum in language and math but attendance of those classes could still be a choice.  High School students who wish to obtain an Ontario diploma will be encouraged to take online classes and use us as a home school resource. 


The Education Quality and Accountability Office runs a province wide test at various grades to provide feedback to teaching professionals in regards to how well students are communicating what they learn from the Ontario Curriculum.  Because we do not intend to use the Ontario Curriculum and our teaching approach is very different from traditional classrooms, we do not see the value in taking part in this test. It is our understanding that we do not have to take part in this test (I'm about 80% sure of this) but if we were required to take part, parents could opt out of it, just like they can in public schools.  In addition, we could decide as a school that we are not interested in receiving the results.  Again, it is a test designed around curriculum we are not following for the purpose of obtaining feedback for teachers who have a very different approach from us.  


It is our intention to have learner centered portfolios as our main form of assessment for full-time students.  (Homeschooling families who use us as homeschooling support on a part time basis will not need to do this.)  We intend to use an online portfolio program that offers a multimedia approach to collection and sharing of portfolio information.  Learners and facilitators can post information to a portfolio at any time, but we will also dedicate Friday afternoons for reflection and portfolio building.  In addition to portfolios, we intend to have reflection meetings once a term that are lead by the student for the purpose of long term goal setting and skill development.  We also intend to start each day with a project management style flow chart for kids to track their ideas and plan for resources they need throughout the week.  Finished projects are reflected upon and shared daily at our end of day reflections, or as they are completed. Some of this reflection could be considered self-assessment.  Much like the curriculum, we would like to stick with the Self-Directed Education approach and we will respond with flexibility if required by the Ministry of Education.

Accessing Community Mentorship

As kids identify areas of interest for them, we will do our best to find mentors and community knowledge experts in our parent community to inspire them further.  We think parents who have passions and interests and understand our philosophy are the best "teachers".  We may also ask you, our parent community, to reach into your personal networks on behalf of a learner to find mentorship opportunities as well.  Once a term, we will have a community open house where we will invite interested members in our community to join us in celebrating all we have learned that term and honor our mentors and community.  Mentorship will be especially important for teen learners.

Parent Volunteering

We are very open to parent volunteers.  In fact, we even encourage it, especially if a child is requesting it. Parent volunteers may need to provide regular police checks and participate in some training (such as nonviolent communicaiton) but our overall approach is that we are happy to have the support of volunteers.  In fact, volunteering may be an important step in transitioning a child into a new environment and may bring a sense of security and continuity to some children.  We have a clear policy that children need to be in agreement to attend The Barn School and a caregiver may be asked to attend on a regular basis if children would benefit from that support.  We are against "drop and go" approaches to transitioning.  We want a caregiver present until the child feels a sense of security and readiness.


We intend to have a 3-pronged approach at The Barn School; a childcare option for children who are under the age of 6, a childcare option for homeschoolers which will look like homeschool resource, and a full-time school option for children who are over the age of 6 and are not homeschooled.  Children under the age of 6 and homeschoolers can attend as often as they wish.  The Ministry of Education may have attendance requirements for children who attend as full time students.  We intend to operate year-round though and have extended hours, so for families who travel, they may still easily meet the requirements.  The approval processes for childcare and private school are different, so we may receive one approval before another.


Our rough pricing is in line with other local private schools.  We would like to have a third party assessment option for families that request to pay a different amount than our requested tuition rates.  We would like to find a way to have all interested families join us, regardless of their financial position.  We have started to look into how other private schools approach tuition and we feel confident that we can help families find ways to make it work.  Soon we will be looking into the legalities and financial pros and cons of becoming a not-for-profit.  If it makes sense to do so, we'll move ahead with that as it opens up some new options in terms of fundraising and grants.  Right now it is an option that we are exploring.