While in Georgia, Camden and I travelled to Madison, GA to visit SoulShine ALC where we met with three incredible educators: Lora Smothers, Nicole Gustafson, and Thea Faecanby. These three have a deep, intertwined history together navigating the exciting world of self-directed learning and unschooling. ALCs or Agile Learning Centers are an expanding network of intentional learning communities leveraging agile tools to support Self-Directed Education. As a brief introduction:
“Self-directed education can include organized classes or lessons, if freely chosen by the learner; but most self-directed education is more informal and part of everyday life. Play, trying something new, having lunch with a friend, reading science fiction on the subway: there’s learning in all these endeavors, and in Self-Directed Education, as long as the learner is making their own choices that learning is granted as much value and space as more formal pursuits.”
We were enthusiastically welcomed at the small, simple campus of SoulShine, a newly established Agile Learning Center. Nicole had previously been at a different program called Atlas and before that was at Freedom to Grow Unschooling alongside Lora, who was the director of the school for several years. Their stories were revealed to us in a creative and emergent puppet show. Lora theatrically used items from the space to present a visual representation of her journey coming to alternative education. She employed the help of a box to represent public school (a metaphor accurate to represent the feeling of being boxed in) and some animal puppets played the part of Lora and her mentor Teri Cole-Smith. Our whole visit was just as spirited and engaging as this wonderful puppet show story. More about Lora’s story can be found in her inspirational Ted Talk.
We began our time together at SoulShine, seated inside the small yurt. This was the only indoor location as the rest of the learning spaces were all outdoors. They are in the process of building up the wooded space behind a friend’s farm. The farm provides an excellent learning environment complete with chickens, dogs, a humpbacked cow (Norbert), a goat (Norman) and a variety of living creatures to observe and learn from. They have composting toilets with wood chips beside them to put on top when you are finished. Nicole explained that this was an important part of the beginning of their school year, learning how to use a composting toilet. In the yurt, Nicole and Thea led us through a “set-the-day meeting,” a common element found among ALC’s. They have a board with post-it notes that lays out the announcements, ideas, and morning/afternoon plan for the day. We all contributed to the ideas and then we decided together which of those we could do today and in what order we should do them.
From there, we went outside and proceeded to experience a “Spawn meeting.” This meeting has a different intention which allows more space for setting intentions, discussion, and sharing. In our Spawn meeting, Nicole asked us each to choose an animal spirit guide from a deck, recall a dream, and share a question we had with the group. It was an open opportunity to share what was meaningful for us in that moment and help us to be present for our time together. ALC seems to have a vast array of games and activities that promote this sacred space for sharing and expressing oneself. Each day, the spawn meeting will vary, but has a similar intention of checking in and being present. It is clear that these educators valued the unique inner lives of their students and supported this deeper development by providing a designated time for this type of discovery.
Next up was our mini yoga session together where I had the chance to share my passion. Since Nicole’s daughter Evie was with us, we made it into a children’s yoga experience. Together in the yurt we moved through the frozen yogi game, “hello sun” sun salutations, and some animal inspired poses to express how we were feeling. It was an interesting experience because even though Camden and I were there to visit and learn about their school, they were open to learning from us as well. I think in a subtle way this represents their approach to guiding education. The flow of learning is not singular in direction, only flowing from the teacher to student, but flows in multiple directions with an underlying philosophy that we are all valuable and thus can learn from each other. Our time together and being in each other’s presence revealed a lot about who we all were. Sometimes we don’t need a lot of words and details to know each other, it is enough to simply be together and to be open to what arises while we are in each other’s presence. This was such a sweet reminder that I am grateful to have received from Lora, Nicole, and Thea.
Another gift from our visit was a “three for the price of one” gesture. These three inspirational beings all offered us a gesture to convey the essence of their ‘schools’ and approach to education. In a full bodied, heart felt expression, they willingly shared their individual interpretations with spirit and joy. We are so grateful for our opportunity to connect with Lora, Nicole, and Thea and we all left feeling we could have chatted for hours more.