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Circles of Learning: Creating a Teen Discussion Group

Circles of Learning: Creating a Teen Discussion Group
By Anne E. Hodge

How a handful of independent learners came to work, talk and learn together.

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Appear he did when I received a telephone call from one John MacNeal, a former teacher at our local Waldorf high school. John had been approached by some parents to create a small independent learning group, a.k.a. “school”, for their kids who, for whatever reason, were not thriving in their current learning environment. John’s objective was to create a framework which was fluid enough to meet the continually changing needs of the small student body, and to instill curiosity, enthusiasm, and a love of learning. He wondered if the local homeschooling teens would be interested.

I am always enthusiastic to hear of anyone who rejects the standard classroom approach to learning in favor of viewing the world as full of exciting discoveries. I had to be honest with him, though. The teens I know who learn on their own like it that way for many reasons. They like to learn at their own pace. They like to choose what they study, which may change hourly or never. They like to sleep late. They like flexibility in their schedules. In this case, all have had negative group learning experiences in the past either in school or in classes taught in a traditional manner. These valid reasons seemed incompatible with the proposed “school.” yet the concept, as outlined by John, still appealed to me. I wondered how I might dovetail my vision of not-a-school into his vision of an alternative school and have it work for both of us. After sounding out parents of other learn-at-home teens, it became obvious that there was interest in the possibilities this might present.

We met with John, and his teaching partner Steve Balmer, to hear more of what they envisioned, and to tell them the kinds of things our teens liked (ideas that challenge the status quo, literature that ignites the imagination), disliked (writing, critiquing, tests/quizzes or other forms of assessment), and wanted to know more about (an unbiased history of our country’s political system, ditto our judicial system, ditto world history in context). It was suggested that John host a couple of a la carte, one-night-only discussions on some of these topics.

My 15-year-old daughter was one who had horrible memories of classes that could have been exciting but were in fact disappointing or even damaging in the way they were taught. Also a veteran of many “oh, you’ll love this” ideas that I’ve foisted on her in the past, she was understandably reticent about getting involved in any new scheme. I assured her that there would be no report writing and no testing, and that if she didn’t like the first meeting she could wash her hands of it all. She agreed to give it a try.

Just as the teacher came when he was needed, so did the topic of the first discussion: Truth and Power. This was not a David and Goliath kind of power that John presented, but a power born of conviction, of courage. If you ever want to turn around a bunch of teenagers, especially out-of-school teenagers, tell them they have power. The kids were stunned. It had never occurred to them, or they had heard it only from their parents, that taking charge of their own learning and education was a powerful act.

The kids did little talking at this first meeting though they absorbed what was said like so many sponges. There were no facts to parrot back, only ideas and philosophies to share. So, while none of the kids I asked afterwards could tell me exactly what it was they had talked about, they all spoke of feeling enlightened and expanded. Follow-up discussions on the Politics of Food, Censorship, Can Computers Develop Consciousness and Pain yielded similar reactions. So many ideas were brought out to swirl around the room, yet grabbing them all was not important. To participate in the swirl itself was enough.

Sitting in on two of these discussions I was struck by some interesting things. In my schooling, I remember my teachers making it quite clear who was the expert. I remember that results were expected, either passing a test or agreeing with the teacher’s line of reasoning. I remember silence only if an unprepared student had to cast around for an answer. I have been surprised at how easily this group of kids, who, for the most part, do not use purchased curricula or standard textbooks, has taken to working as a group. Because they are used to being their own teachers, I did not expect them to follow well when new and often difficult ideas were presented. Not only are they able to follow, they have begun to anticipate and formulate questions during discussion, a sign that they are connecting the abstract with the concrete. As the kids feel more comfortable with each other (not all the kids knew each other previously) and more comfortable with the process, they are sharing more of themselves. Yet, it’s more than the sharing that I find exciting; it’s the development of original ideas and opinions based on a more mature world view. Knowing that these thoughts and opinions will be listened to respectfully and taken seriously encourages them to share with the group.

Part of the value of working in a group is learning to give yourself to a partnership. Not being responsible for every aspect of learning a topic brings freedom, while being a partner brings a certain responsibility. I see this group as an effective bridge to a more adult approach to learning and living. It allows for both active and passive interaction, recognizing the value of each. For the duration of each meeting (usually two hours) it requires the relinquishing of the freedom of self in return for the freedom from solo responsibility. Most of the group has chosen to participate in more in-depth explorations. A few of the kids have taken part in every offering, others participate as their interests dictate. John is currently finishing up a six-week series on the History of Architecture as it relates to our growth as a species and our understanding of the world around us. A far cry from memorizing the three types of Greek columns for a quiz on the Parthenon. The kids have requested sessions on Economics and Consumerism, Ethics, Human Psychology, and the Effect of American Foreign Policy on Human Rights. After a one-night discussion of a Russell Banks short story, kids working with Steve are in the middle of a study of Parzival, a Grail tale from the Middle Ages, rich in language and metaphor. My daughter is thinking she’d like to continue on to Dante’s Divine Comedy before dabbling in Thoreau and Emerson.

The success of any group hinges on the relationship between the leader and the group at large. Without an interest in original input and genuine respect for each other, a group cannot fully develop. The group leader must believe in these principles to encourage them in others. It is not necessary for the leaders to be teachers. Both Steve and John have most recently been employed as teachers but their careers have been varied, including law and teaching public school English, and terms spent as a network manager for IBM and Market Data Analyst on Wall Street, respectively.

Imagine as a 15- or 16-year-old discussing real world issues with adults instead of trying to stay awake in front of a textbook. Imagine even as an adult discovering and developing a world view based on a more historical, global perspective. Imagine a gathering where there are no prerequisites other than a willingness to listen, learn and be part of something bigger than yourself. Anyone with the interest to establish and nurture such a group will see the reward not only in creating a lively forum for intellect to bloom, but in establishing a basis for people of all ages, to interact and explore the exciting discoveries of the world around us.

Anne Hodge lives in New York State with her husband and three children. She has been a support group organizer, workshop facilitator, speaker and writer on local and state levels but is really just a mom having fun learning about the world with her kids.

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