Learning to Learn

Third in a series on education
Recently I spent a day with a Bloomington, IN homeschooling cooperative. Two families work together on homesteading projects on each others’ land. This allows their four children, ages 8 to 12, to learn by doing—while increasing their confidence and skills.

Projects range from seed saving to bike maintenance to creation of a family almanac. They’ve gone mushroom hunting, practiced knot skills, and (on rainy days) learned knitting and mending. They’re working on a fire pit and hoping to build a treehouse.

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

The day I was there, the students were studying how to move a heavy sandstone block down a sloping driveway from the front yard to the back. They were to place it into a rectangular hole in the dirt, forming part of an herb garden’s perimeter. The emphasis was on problem solving, collaborative effort, and applying their study of friction and levers.

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

This was no small task and involved an array of tools, including something I’d never heard of called a cant hook. The mom/teachers, Stacey and Dani, encouraged them to try out every idea and see what worked best. The kids worked by experimentation, reasoning, puzzling, trying, and talking—displaying remarkable tenacity through the whole process.

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

There was not one temper tantrum. I could see that the communication skills these kids develop through group projects will go a long way toward smoothing their way in the world—while also contributing to the healing of that same world.

Stacey says she’s motivated by a belief that children can be the instigators of deep change. “I try to not spend a lot of time in a fear/worry place (even though it is hard sometimes), and in doing this mentor joy, hope, the power we have, and that change is possible.  When children/adults have trust in themselves, self-empowerment and understanding of the world, beautiful things happen!”

“I think they are continually seeing how they make a difference and create change.”

Picking violets for our lunch salad

Picking violets for our lunch salad

By the end of my visit, the children had moved one monstrously heavy block into place in the back yard, where it will begin the delineation of an herb spiral. There was great cheering when the block was finally nestled into place.

As results-oriented as we are these days, this may not seem like much for several hours’ work. But in the process, they learned to learn, to cooperate, and to not fear failure.

Watching them, I wondered how my life would be different if I had had these sorts of experiences in my own childhood. I might consider myself in a different light now. I might be handy, of all things. At the very least I would be braver, less fearful of being wrong.

This concludes the education series, at least for now. (I could share much more about both the KI school and these homeschoolers, but that’s where the book comes in.)

KI EcoCenter: Transforming Education

Second in a series on education
KI EcoCenter, or Kheprw Institute, has been making change for nearly a decade in my hometown. In recent years, educator Khalil MwaAfrika came on board the community empowerment center to start an independent school. He was tired of discussing school reform while watching the educational system destroy African-American children, particularly boys.

Khepri, by Jeff Dahl via Wikimedia Commons

Khepri, by Jeff Dahl (GFDL or Creative Commons) via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of reform, he is invested in nothing less than education’s complete transformation. As  mentioned in a previous post, “Kheprw” was an Egyptian god with a scarab beetle head. This beetle was a symbol of rebirth in Egypt—so the center is fittingly named.

KI’s school offers a rigorous program for African-American students. Classes are very small, allowing a high degree of mentorship. Community members interact with the students every day in this intergenerational model.

MwaAfrika emphasizes that igniting a passion for learning is key. Instead of promoting a particular ideology, faculty create space for discourse and dialogue. In that environment the children learn critical thinking skills. They are encouraged to puzzle things out themselves.

In contrast with the traditional school system, here there is no need for the youngsters to feel they must give up their own rich culture in order to succeed.

This issue came up repeatedly at the center’s recent Real Talk Summit on urban education. Because our dominant culture is white/upper middle class, racism is the water we all swim in—leading to schools that don’t believe in children from other races and classes.

A faculty member and student at KI EcoCenter Community School

A faculty member and student at KI EcoCenter Community School

But KI is different. “We’ve set up an environment where (black students) can be themselves, where they can learn exponentially, where they never have to compromise who they are,” MwaAfrika says.

KI founder Imhotep Adisa notes, “The primary purpose of education is indoctrination. It’s not liberation.”

Part of that indoctrination is the consumerism that is jeopardizing the earth. “We’re at a very ugly place in the history of the planet,” he says. “Regardless of gender, race, and class, the old paradigm has accelerated this…We have to develop new tools for a new paradigm. We have to have the courage to say, ‘That’s not the world we want for ourselves and our children.’”

KI’s adults model that courage every day. Teaching youth to interface with the culture of power while retaining their identity is a critical aspect of their work.

Social enterprises are part of this, as the students work with KI’s bootstrappers (young adults) to develop the skills needed to thrive in a resource-strapped world.

Barrel at left is via KI's Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise, with my chosen artwork

Barrel at left is via KI’s Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise, with my chosen artwork

Above (at left) is the rainbarrel made by bootstrappers and students for my urban homestead, via the Express Yourself Rainbarrels enterprise. My partner added it to our rain catchment setup, just in time for big rains.

(Indy-area readers, check it out: Save on your water bill, display your artwork, and support a great organization all at the same time.)

Read more about KI’s work in my Indiana Living Green story.

Next: Bloomington’s homeschooling cooperative, exploring the homestead as learning environment.

For the Sake of the Future

First in a series on education.
It’s been a long time since I was in school, but recent encounters started me thinking about those days again. A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon with a homeschooling cooperative, and last week I joined KI EcoCenter’s discussion on urban education. Both groups inspire me by demonstrating alternative ways of educating youth. I plan to devote an upcoming blog post to each.

Though I know many fine teachers, it does seem to me that something is fundamentally broken in the traditional school model.

By Aburk018 at en.wikibooks [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Aburk018 at en.wikibooks [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Back in the day, I was a mess socially, but quite good at getting the grade. I clearly remember telling my church youth leader at the glib age of 17, “I usually just study for the test and then forget everything right away. It’s easy to get an A.”

His face turned mournful, and he said, “So the system’s got you beat.”

I zoned out on whatever he said next. I was excelling in school, easily maintaining my position at the top of my class—ever since I figured out that daydreaming was best done outside the classroom. No one had ever criticized my methods before.

Straight A’s aside, I didn’t integrate much of what I learned, despite some stellar teachers. School was about checking boxes. Only in an occasional literature class would I feel truly engaged and energized. Most of the time (so it seems now) I was half asleep.

Recently I read a man quoted as saying that school taught him to work very hard at things that don’t matter. He said it was great preparation for life in the workforce—but not really for life.

This was my path: doing what the adults said, getting things done on time, but rarely connecting to the material in any real way.


And I had years of box-checking ahead of me—because much of my working life turned out to be School 2.0. I was free in my off hours to pursue my dreams, but my workaday world belonged to someone else.

I’ve been done with that world for years now, ever since health issues mercifully sidelined me from my corporate job. (Incidentally: doing much better these days.)

I gave away so much of myself in those decades I spent plodding through life in service of someone else’s objectives. Now I look at corporations from the outside and grieve the creative energy locked up in their gears. I look at the classrooms of today, so focused on test scores, and mourn each lost spark.

How much creative thinking is crushed under the boot of the educational system? How much innovation is chewed up in corporations?

Nowadays we need the brilliance of every single mind we’ve got. What’s facing us is nothing less than global collapse. We can’t afford to have anyone zone out.

So why can’t we do this differently? Could we give our youth real-world problems to address, and expect them to show us their best work, not for a test score, but for the sake of our shared future?

The times demand it.

Next: KI EcoCenter, developing tools for the new paradigm.