educational priorities ~ a mamafesto ~ 2020 remix

Quinn recently attended a six-day online Dinosaur Discoveries camp and at the end earned the “Most Likely to Become Everyone’s Favorite College Professor” award. It launched a great conversation between Quinn and I about how online learning does not necessarily have to mean pushing a bunch of “submit” buttons to enable the instructors to assess his learning accomplishments. The instructors provided materials for him to immerse himself in, trusted that he was absorbing them, and then detected his absorption of said materials through conversations, group discussions, and other contributions (voluntarily written and presented). No grading or testing occurred. And yet, both Quinn and I felt the instructors had somehow managed to glean a lot about who he is as a learner and an individual simply through six days of connecting with him over meaningful curriculum, meaningful because it was chosen intentionally by Quinn.  As for the assessment of Quinn’s likelihood of becoming everyone’s favorite college professor, Quinn said, “I think it’s extremely accurate.”

In 2012, I sat down and wrote out my priorities for Quinn’s education, a valuable and worthwhile exercise that received a lot of positive feedback at that time, and that I have returned to at times when I’ve felt a need to check the calibration of my compass concerning Quinn’s education. Each time I’ve returned, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well that list concerning my going-into-kindergarten five-year-old still fit, say, when he was transitioning from second grade at our living school to third grade in the public school, or when he was moving from there up into the middle school. These transition points pushed me to revisit my priorities for Quinn’s education more than the years in between, but when I did so, I found that what I valued for him at the beginning of his school years are the things I still value, and each time, it has helped me orient my efforts in advocating for his learning needs in each context in ways that aligned with those values.

2020 is a different year in every way, and it is exceptionally different in terms of how education is being and will be carried out. Quinn finished seventh grade pushing buttons on a computer screen, disconnected from his teachers and peers, isolating himself at his dad’s house in the woods. However, for the month it took for the school to transition into distance learning mode, he had a fresh chance to direct his own learning, and it was an oasis between the overscheduled school year to that point, and the button-pushing specter of school on a laptop that limped across the finish line. As we envision what his eighth grade year will be like, his last year before high school, it has been on my mind to revisit the priority list yet again. (Click here to read the original post.) With years of additional insights into how Quinn learns, I decided it would be a good time to do a fresh rewrite, although once again my revisit reconfirmed that everything on the list still resonates for me. The first priority, however, is the one that stopped me in my tracks this time: “Safety- A learning environment where physical safety is a no-brainer.” This cannot possibly be assured this coming school year with any physical presence in the school building. Though the language of that priority once centered around booster seats and sunscreen, the language of school safety has grotesquely mutated into how we can carry out active-shooter drills during a pandemic. Safety will always remain priority number one, and hence, this year will look very different from other recent years while Quinn has attended public school.

Still, I wanted to write this 2020 version from a place of naming what we want to move towards, vs. what we want to move away from. This is how I approached it in 2012 when I was feeling a visceral aversion to Quinn attending public school while he still needed quite a lot of social emotional support a good portion of the time. At that time, I tried to hone in on articulating the goals I have for his learning environment rather than just describing the outcomes I wanted to avoid; instead of focusing on how likely a differently-wired kindergartener is to be misunderstood in public school, I focused on working towards an organic learning environment where choice is central, the whole child is nourished. In 2020 I want to focus less on COVID-19 risk and more on crafting the best learning options for him given the circumstances. Still striving for an organic learning environment where choice is central, the whole person is nourished. The long-term goal is still and always a thriving lifelong learner.

Many things have changed in eight years, but so much has stayed the same. Most of what changed in this list is an organization of the original 12 separate items into 3 categories they seemed to gather into naturally: safety, connection, and self-direction. A disclaimer I would attach to this and all posts of mine: this is a description of my own values and is intended only as a means of articulating them for myself; if they resonate for you, that is a pleasant outcome we can enjoy, and if they do not, feel free not to let them slow you down as you scroll on by.

~Educational Priorities~

As Quinn’s mama my priorities for his educational experience are to surround him with nurturing environments and people and to protect and feed his love of learning. While I do not distinguish between learning and the rest of life, as I believe the two are inextricably linked, I will do my best to list my priorities for how I believe Quinn can best be supported so that he may thrive as a lifelong learner. I believe this will be achieved by prioritizing:

1. Safety

A learning environment where physical safety is a no-brainer. As drastically different as the content of this paragraph may be in 2020 than it was in 2012, the first sentence is the same first sentence. Physical needs must be met before learning needs can be fully realized. At Our Living School, we repeated a mantra concerning safety, “Our bodies are safe, our thoughts are safe, our feelings are safe, our work is safe,” and this is still a useful list.

Physical safety: Quinn’s physical safety is secured in his learning environment to enable him to focus on learning. The physical safety of educators must also be paramount. The presence of my learner in a school is possible only when teacher health and safety, and the health and safety of the families of those teachers, and the health and safety of other students and their families, can be ensured.

Mental safety: Quinn is in an environment where he can express his thoughts freely and knows his learning needs will be respected and supported.

Emotional safety: Quinn is able to feel, express, and care for his feelings.

Work safety: Whether it is what he was building out of blocks at five, or a research project he is getting ready to present at thirteen, the integrity of Quinn’s work will be honored.


I believe that a positive learning environment for Quinn will flourish when it grows from strong roots of connection and belonging. Several of the 2012 priorities focused on specific connections; between student and teacher, parent and teacher, student and peers, student and others of all ages. In 2020 I can see that these one-to-one connections are impossible to extricate from the web of community surrounding a learner, and while these individual bonds may stand out from the web when highlighting learning priorities, they all perform their roles in the best ways when the whole web is strong and stable. Strong connections will help Quinn develop empathy and compassion, and a realistic understanding of others’ realities. They will also help him self-reflect through relationship with others, and to continue to build healthy relationship skills.

Student-teacher connection: A bond between student and teacher ensures priority #1 through open communication and positive regard of one another. From connection flows the sense of nurturing, unconditional positive regard, and feeling of equal dignity that all humans deserve and require in order to do their best learning. I believe safety and equity for all other students is necessary for Quinn to experience the benefits of a connection to any teacher. If he can see that his peers of all identities and abilities are all being treated with that positive regard, then he will be able to trust that lighthouse when its beam is directed towards him.

Student-teacher-parent connection: Open channels of communication among those involved in Quinn’s learning endeavors allow for his strengths and areas needing extra support to be known so that all involved are attuned to his unique learning style. Parental involvement in learning is ongoing and meaningful.

Student-peer connection: The stronger the connections between Quinn and his learning community, the greater sense of belonging he will experience. Quinn feels ownership of his school as a place that is Home to him, with a positive sense of caring for his fellow students, who in turn care for him as part of their community. Values are instilled by the teachers towards this end, and extend outward to include his greater community, in which his school is an active participant. These values of community care are best realized by distance learning in 2020, protecting all learners and teachers, and finding creative ways to still foster belonging. Peer connections may take the form of online paleontology discussions and online D&D gaming sessions this year.

Connection to others of all ages: Quinn is connected with older teens and young adults who have skills he has yet to acquire to look up to, admire, and imitate, and kids who are younger, to keep things infused with imagination and wonder. He has involvement with people of all ages from the surrounding community, because the real world is a place where people of all ages interact, to everyone’s great good fortune. In 2020 we’ll have less in person interaction to be sure, but this will be good to keep in mind as a guiding principle, that while peer interactions are very important to developing teens, interactions with others of all ages matter as well, even if they have to be emails and video calls for a time. Grammy and Grampy, Mario and Luigi, I’m looking at you!

3. Self-Direction (trust)

The rest of the 2012 priorities group themselves comfortably under this heading. In 2012 I wrote about a whole-child approach, an emergent curriculum, a Yes environment with emphasis on play, developing an internal moral compass, and nurturing an intrinsic motivation to learn. In conversation with my teen about what works and does not work about schooling for him, we keep circling back to the need for choice. I want to strive towards a learning situation that prioritizes self-direction for the learner. (The heading contains parenthetical trust, because this path requires a large amount of it on the part of a parent supporting the self-directed learning journey of their youth.)

Whole-child or whole-teen approach: In my worldview, children come into the world as fully intact beings, destined to grow into their innate competence, as well as prosocial beings whose default desire is to cooperate, belong, and get along. Other worldviews exist in which children are born deficient or damaged, needing to be filled with knowledge and morals through a hierarchical top-down approach. My worldview encourages deep trust in the child’s inevitable trajectory towards competence, while the opposing one often requires proof through standardized testing or other means that they have reached competence.

I like a phrase coined by Marji Zintz that says, “attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.” Giving kids the benefit of the doubt in their intentions and abilities empowers them to grow into their competence.

Whole-child or whole-teen approaches to learning must acknowledge the following: Academics, while held at high priority, do not eclipse other important lessons. Some of the lessons/skills I value most, in no particular order, are:

  • social/emotional skills
  • healthy bodies
  • mindfulness practices
  • self-confidence
  • compassion
  • writing
  • relationship skills
  • empathy
  • communication
  • movement
  • sustainability
  • fine art
  • creative writing
  • world culture
  • cooking
  • sports
  • drama
  • reading
  • conflict resolution
  • scientific reasoning
  • practical life skills (everything from gardening to making things to voting)
  • being a citizen in a democracy
  • critical thinking
  • math
  • social justice
  • music
  • community-mindedness

Many of Quinn’s skills will be honed at home, e.g. woodworking with dada or sewing with mama, and at private (dance/music/art/sports/karate) lessons or through outside-of-school classes, so I apply this concept to Life in General as well as educational goals.)

binary hand-counting in the wilderness

Self-directed learning: I referred to this as emergent curriculum in 2012, while in 2020 the term self-direction feels more resonant for the same set of ideals around choice, maybe because it emphasizes his agency in bringing about what emerges. Quinn is able to learn what he is drawn to, and the purpose of teacher guidance is to help him create meaning for himself about what he learns. He is able to approach each component of academics as he is ready for it, in a way that he can absorb it efficiently because it’s meaningful to him. He has the freedom to opt in or out of lessons he feels compelled or uncompelled by, and there is plenty of enriching material for him to engage with and be challenged. Further, the lessons offered are set at a level that is most likely to compel him, given that they are based on his/the student body’s emerging interests/intrigues/questions/thoughts/votes. He sets his own balance of autonomous learning time to cooperative group learning. Quinn’s preparations for his life/career goals (college, trades, conservatory, world travel or whatever they may be) are in his own hands and he is confident in his ability to craft his own educational curriculum, one that will land him squarely where he desires to be, wearing a set of wings to take him far beyond.

Consent: As mama of a young man, I see it as one of my most important roles in his learning to make sure he is aware and competent around the concept of consent. By honoring Quinn’s integrity, boundaries, and self-direction in his learning, I am modeling consent. If Quinn’s stance on a given subject or learning objective is no, it means no. Often choice is seen as something a teacher “allows” a learner, but that still creates a top-down dynamic which, instead of preserving choices, in fact limits them; if one of the available options is not “no”, the choice is not freely chosen. There is an illusion of choice that is created when someone says, “I will let you choose” but then the power rests with the person “letting,” not with the person doing the choosing. Forcing someone to learn, to press the “submit” button, is one way that consent is overridden in young people routinely, and I strongly suspect it contributes to a culture where consent is undervalued. Where students experience teaching as something to be done to them, they learn not to honor their own signals, but instead become resigned to others’ demands on them. Instead, by being clear on his boundaries, Quinn is learning where he ends and other people begin, and not just knowing about it in theory, but practicing and embodying consent.

Yes Environment: Yes means yes! A Yes Environment means that opportunities, space and materials are available to him whenever he takes initiative to express and explore. When he reveals an interest, the tools and materials he needs to follow that line of inquiry appear in a timely manner so he can continue and take it as far as he wants, until he is satiated. If he is engrossed in dinosaurs today (/this week/this decade), books and activities (games, videos, camps, virtual museum tours, ecology simulations…) show up in following days based on that theme and are strewn in his path for him to gobble up. His teacher’s role is to observe what is sparking his interest and tend the flame, requiring an individualized approach and attentive observation. This is best achieved in small class sizes where curriculum can flex and adapt. Instead of “no” stance on deviations, a “how can we…?” approach is the default. A Yes environment also provides structured and unstructured time and space to play. Play is of extreme importance to learning, and not separate from learning. Play is learning. Beyond K-12, Quinn is encouraged and supported in his life goals and help is always available to guide him in the right direction to meet them.

Internal Moral Compass: Quinn gets to grapple with right and wrong based on his own inner knowing, as he practices and calibrates his internal compass. He receives lots of guidance, information, and suggestions to help him navigate territory that is new for him, but never force, coercion or bribery, rewards or punishments. In areas including but not limited to consent, it is increasingly important for him to make morally right choices when nobody is around to police him or direct him in the right decision. He will do that if he has been exercising this muscle all along and his moral compass is well-calibrated and strong.

Intrinsic Motivation to Learn: His desire to learn comes from within, and that is honored in a way that maintains its integrity within rather than pulling it outside of him and replacing it with an external stimulus. Rewards and punishments are avoided in order to protect this intrinsic motivation to learn. Self-reflection around daily experiences, triumphs and disappointments will hold more meaning than grades, test scores, diagnoses, labels.

It is my belief that by prioritizing these values in Quinn’s education, Quinn will be set up to lead a fulfilling life. He will know himself well, always having been aligned with his own internal motivators, conscience, and self-knowledge. He will have confidence that he can achieve whatever he sets out to do, and will have obtained skills and knowledge that are required for that journey. He will know what it is like to be surrounded by supportive, encouraging people, and will recognize them in society. He will be attracted to workplaces with inclusive atmospheres and friendships featuring positive regard and nurturing. He will be unwilling to tolerate injustice because of his intimate experience of participating in a compassionate, justice-promoting community. He will know how to be respectful as well as to live in a way that inspires respect. He will know how to be flexible, how to think critically and creatively, and how to navigate real world situations because the real world is the place he will always have dwelled. He will be fully competent in making choices, as self-direction has been a key component of his entire educational experience- he will know that life is made up of choices, and he will be empowered to make them. These approaches to Quinn’s education will produce a strong, capable, caring, well-rounded, enthusiastic, empowered, joyful human being.

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