Rock Tree Sky

Go to the homepage of Rock Tree Sky and the first words you will see are, “Where Learning is Living.” As we look deeply at education and what it means to learn, this has been a common theme that arises amongst the schools we have visited. All of life is an opportunity to learn, and all learning happens in the process of living. To try and separate the two is simply illogical. It often sparks me to think about the settings we provide for living and learning to take place. Are our students living with rocks, trees, and sky? Are they learning from the richness of our natural world? Or are they living with limited exposure to the vastness and beauty of life itself? Of course, there is that which we as educators may choose to provide for our students such as materials, spaces, books, classes, content, etc. But there is also that which comes from within our student. It is our task to recognize and embrace the beauty of life and learning that arises naturally as a result of simply living. I am grateful for the schools and individuals who bring these thoughts and questions to me, helping us all to thoughtfully consider what it means to live and learn.

Rock Tree Sky in Ojai, CA is one such place. We were fortunate to have our friend Liz, who has lived in Ojai for 30 years, connect us with Natasha Efross, one of the school’s founders. Upon first arriving at the school, there were children playing outside, various groups engaged in different projects, some mentors leading a small group. At first glance, one might call it chaotic, but upon deeper observation, you could see the children fully engaged in their individual experiences. There was learning happening all around us through play, interactions, explorations, and listening. The school was alive with a vibrant, lively energy. Next, we walked into one classroom that had a long table for soldering, a reading nook, and a game table. Jim Bailey, also a co-founder, commented that they have a principle of “cross-pollination” in the school. The spaces are deliberately set up so that there are a range of different activities available and happening at the same time in the same space. In this way, the children have the opportunity to observe one another and they learn a lot by listening and observing. They may be exposed to something they would have never considered otherwise and if they find something interesting, the mentors can support them in exploring it further. This revealed that it was their intention to ultimately design learning places for joy. Similarly, Natasha pointed out the way a small playground had been built right behind their garden. They wanted the children to see and be around the garden everyday, and a great way to do that is to make a place where they will come on their own because they want to play. 

Natasha shared some insights that revealed more about Rock Tree Sky’s approach to education, “We’re always discovering what works. Curiosity is natural in humans, we trust that it is there.” There is certainly a self-directed learning model that supports the school’s daily routine. There are daily offerings that the students can join, however, they are not required to join. Natasha mentioned that it is about 75% of the time that they will follow the plan, but there is plenty of space for divergence. Children will often come to the mentors with their own ideas for something they are interested in learning. For the older students, who come and choose to receive credits for the course work they complete through an affiliated program, they have a right to express how they feel about an assignment and honestly say that they may or may not be interested in that topic. Natasha will say to these students, “ok, we can get you your credits a different way.” There is a sense in the school that children should never be coerced, that core requirements can be meet in a variety of ways based on each student’s needs. It is wonderful to know that students feel comfortable in stating their feelings, that they will be heard, and that the teachers will work with them to help them discover a way of learning that better matches them as individuals. In doing so, they will authentically engage and empower students in their own learning journey. 

The current location of the school is a relatively new acquisition as Natasha and Jim began the school from their home. They have already done so much to make the space their own from the gardens to the playground filled with loose parts. There were also plenty of space that had yet to be developed. It made Rock Tree Sky feel like a living organism, one that was growing and evolving day by day and year by year. When there are open spaces that have yet to be designated, it means there is space to imagine and create. It is not just the directors or even the adults at the school that have a say in what those spaces become, but a school wide opportunity. Even the students may share their ideas to inspire what a space may be. 

There are a variety of unique learning opportunities for the students at Rock Tree Sky, one might even say there is something for everyone. One such project that caught our attention was their mushroom business. When Natasha showed us the place where they grow the mushrooms, it I think our jaws must have dropped as we gazed in amazement. The fog poured out as she opened the door to let us peer inside the small building, it was enchanting. In a collaboration between the community, teachers, and students, a mushroom house was built on the campus in which the students grow mushrooms. They are responsible for taking care of the mushrooms, as well as selling them at the local Ojai Farmer’s Market. Their popularity at the Farmer’s market is outstanding and they sell out early each week. Now they are working to find ways to increase their production to meet the community’s demands. Camden and I had the chance to go to the Farmer’s Market and see the students at their booth. They were sold out by the time we arrived, but it was wonderful to see the student’s taking such ownership and pride in their mushroom business. 

Finally, we come to the wonderful gesture that Natasha shared with us to embody a sense of the school and what they do. She raised her arms with a big smile and we could feel the expansiveness and openness radiate from her presence. Rock Tree Sky is a place of openness and freedom, a place to live, learn, and grow. We are so grateful for the time that Natasha spent with us and all that the school is bringing to its students. 

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