An open letter to parents

Subject: An open letter to parents
From: Abby & André
Date: 7 Apr 2015

Dear Parents,

We have just concluded our first family meetings of the year with you and your teens. It is energizing for us to meet with you to get an indication from all parties of Compass’s role in the life of your family. We are left with the feeling that we are all part of a team, supporting one young person. Although we may not always know it, we sense that the family meetings are a powerful experience for the teens; their voices matter. We call them “family meetings” versus “parent meetings” very purposefully. We learn useful ways of interacting with your teen as we observe you negotiating and discussing various things with your child. We see how deeply you care.

As we negotiate how teens use their time at Compass, we recognize that we are in a very different position than you as parents. The amount of time a teen spends on the computer, socializing (which are often one and the same thing), and in classes and tutorials are all up for discussion in the family meetings. We are sometimes left in a tricky position as we see how you as parents, very understandably, want your teens to make optimal use of class and tutorial opportunities, while teens, also very understandably, are exercising the “self-directed” part of our name and voice their desire to spend more time doing things that parents sometimes value less.

Having a teen at Compass needs to work for everyone. If a parent is left feeling uncertain about their teen’s education, we need to know. We emphasize that we are not here to “provide” an education or to “fill” teens’ days. We are here to, as we say in our literature, “make possible rather than make sure.” We see the process of making a choice as valuable in and of itself. In other words, that process is a vital part of a Compass “education”. But how much choice? How far are parents and staff willing to go in witnessing teens making choices that we think will not benefit them in the long-run? How do we strike a balance between guidance and control?

At Compass, we are concerned with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of learning, rather than the ‘what’ and ‘when’. Why would we, as staff, have an opinion on whether or not a particular teen learns creative writing or any other topic? The domain of ‘what’ and ‘when’ falls into your hands as parents and teens. By taking on that responsibility, you free us up, as mentors and advisors, to concern ourselves with the equally important questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’. We notice when your teens don’t go to a class they have committed to going to the majority of the time. Sometimes we go and check in with that teen in the moment. Are you not enjoying this class? Are you finding it too difficult to resist the lure of Minecraft in the other room? What’s happening here? Other times we check in at the next advisory meeting. We inquire: why are you making these choices? Is something preventing you from learning? Do you have a genuine interest in this class, or is your participation based on an agreement you have made with your parents? If it’s the latter, what do we do about it?

One of the phrases I often hear from North Star staff is that self-directed learning is not the easy way out. We usually hear this in the context of the teens, but we feel it applies equally to parents. We recognize that it can be frightening to trust in the idea of relinquishing control (to varying degrees) over how your teenagers use their time and energy. We marvel as we see a 13 year old grapple with knowing his parents expect him to go to a given class while desperately wanting to stay with his friends playing Minecraft. By allowing him to be in an environment that forces him to make that choice several times in a day, he is becoming an expert at choice and what matters to him (i.e. the two compelling forces of commitment to parental wishes and passion for a game with friends). As staff, we are able to get into the nitty gritty of why he made the choice he did. Compass teens are developing amazingly valuable skills that may be invisible to the eye of someone who only believes in the importance of the ‘what.’

In some ways, we feel that we are constantly torn between two paradigms of education. We strongly believe in what we do and recognize that it is unconventional (although “conventional” education is less than 200 years old – causing some in the alternative education world to refer to that approach to learning as the educational experiment). We try to share articles and studies on our Facebook page to demonstrate that many others share similar educational philosophies.

We would like to make our beliefs very clear so that you know where we are coming from:

1. We will not make teens attend classes they do not want to attend. We will notice, discuss, and provide feedback during our advisory meetings, but we fundamentally believe that making authentic choices helps to uncover the truth of what people want and who they are.

When we advertise for teachers on Volunteer Ottawa, one of the phrases we always use is “Teens will be in your classes because they want to be, not because they have to be.” We have noticed that when teens are in classes because it is part of an agreement with their parents, those teens are the ones most likely to cause disruption in the class. This, in turn, jeopardizes our ability to retain volunteers who are not expecting to have to deal with issues of discipline in their classes. It also affects the learning of the teens who are there because they want to be.

It is your right, as parents, to make agreements with your teen as to which classes they attend. We will call a family meeting if we feel that the arrangements you have made are clashing with the environment we are hoping to create.

2. We are not even sure that going to classes is a better use of time than playing Minecraft for some teens. (We are using Minecraft as the example now; it will likely be something different in a few years’ time). We are in favour of teens living their lives with passion. We see the teens who participate in the ‘Minecraft Club’ interacting cooperatively, resolving conflict, debating, negotiating, and making friends. It is so exciting that we have had to move them into the classroom space because their energy affected the whole common area! Kids who have had difficulty forming friendships are making good friends. In light of a lot of bad press on video games, we thought it might be helpful to provide an interesting and well-reasoned article which takes a positive position on games: The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games.

In his book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” author Peter Gray writes “Play is nature’s way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences, and get along with others as equals. There is no substitute for play as a means of learning these skills. For life in the real world, these lessons of personal responsibility, self-control, and sociability are far more important than any lessons that can be taught in school.”

At Compass we do not control kids’ behaviour, but we also do not leave them entirely alone. We occupy the middle, gray area. If a teen is choosing to use the bulk of his or her time playing video games, we would explore with that teen what purpose gaming is serving in his or her life. In having this discussion, we would not have any judgement or agenda to compel that teen make different choices; in keeping the conversation neutral, we allow the space for teens to genuinely explore their own behaviour. We believe that the teens who come to Compass are making the best choices they can at any given moment.

3. The first step is for kids to experience that they are in charge of their own lives. We are not selling classes at Compass; classes, in addition to being learning opportunities in and of themselves, provide an opportunity for kids to choose. The ‘no’ that a teen expresses is just as telling, interesting, and powerful as his or her ‘yes’ – sometimes more so. North Star’s director, Ken Danford told me that when he hears teens thanking their parents as they are preparing to leave North Star, it’s usually in the context of saying: “Thank you for trusting me to make choices even when you disagree with them.” It can be difficult watching our kids making different choices than we would make for ourselves or for them. In the end, it’s about trusting the process.

We do not control the play of infants and small children. We trust that they will learn to roll over, walk, develop motor coordination and social skills through their play. We place enticing, interesting objects in their vicinity and allow them to choose from among them in their free play. At Compass, we bring in interesting, passionate adults who have a desire to share their knowledge. We also have other teens with whom they can interact, the possibility of one-on-one tutorials, and a consistent time to meet with a mentor to discuss how it’s all going.

We respect parents having their needs in terms of what their kids learn. We suggest that if your teen is resisting going to a particular class at Compass and it is something you feel is essential that your teen learn, consider the possibility of ensuring it gets done at home.

Thank you for being a part of our process.


Abby & André