Whole Life Learning Center

Our journey continued as we travelled to Austin, Texas. Our long journey from Arizona to the lone star state brought us through long back country roads that seemed to go on forever, and past a series of taxidermy shops that were the hub of the small dispersed towns. From coastlines to cowboys, this journey has taken us to some unique scenery and revealed the multitudes of people and cultures that extend across this country. I was happy we had the chance to swing through Austin on our way back to the east coast as it gave us the opportunity to visit the Whole Life Learning Center.

We met both Michael Carberry and Caroline Riley Carberry who started the school together 11 years ago. It was inspiring to hear their story of how they began the school and formed their vision of education. Caroline referred to it as their “dream school,” a place where the social-emotional-spiritual aspects of life were at the center of learning. The school is composed of living classrooms in which the children often “learn with their hands and hearts in the soil.” It was clear that Caroline and Michael had spent time developing the values of the school and upholding them without compromise through the years. One of the pinnacles of their philosophy was relationship-based learning and the notion that all learning happens in relationship. When there is a quality relationship formed, quality learning naturally arises. Teachers strive to create loving and clear boundaries that build trust with their students.

There are some practices that the school invokes at every grade level (K-8) to support these values and philosophy. For example, there is a quote of the week with a particular theme that the teachers and students will explore together such as, “Learning through challenge means I’m growing.” Other themes such as curiosity, authenticity, leadership, and gratitude are mapped out in a book that Michael created to guide them through the year. It included activities, games, and songs that might be used to support the exploration of the theme as well as space for teachers to explore the theme with the students in their own way. This comes back to how the Social-Emotional curriculum is at the core of the school and as Michael shared, “It is about attitude, not just aptitude.” As the whole school follows this practice and weekly themes, it helps develop the culture of WLLC.

Another practice that Michael shared with us as we walked through the kindergarten classroom, was the use of the Heart Map. Posted on the wall for all to see was a large heart filled with the ideas of the students. These ideas reflected the students’ interests and what they wanted to learn about. It stayed on the wall and was referred to by teachers to gain inspiration throughout the year. Anything and everything that the students suggested was added to the heart map space. Michael shared a story about one child who said “walk on the moon.” We might be inclined to say to this child, “oh no, we won’t be able to do that.” However, at WLLC, every idea and voice is heard and valued and every idea is added to the heart map. In this true example, while the children were on a field trip at an arboretum, one exhibit they had setup allowed you to feel like you were moon walking. We never know what might present itself, opportunities to learn can arise anywhere, at any time if we are open to them, even the most wild and unlikely ideas. Similarly, every Friday one student chooses something they would like to do or explore as the theme of the day, such as making potions. As students get older, they can decide for themselves what type of business they would like to run, such as making soap or geo-pots. At every age there are opportunities for the students to follow their interests and receive support from the teachers in that exploration.

Another space at the school to celebrate is the garden and apothecary that Caroline, along with community members, have helped to create and grow. They have the apothecary on site and sell their own products to the community. Students will help in the garden, although the actual processing and packaging of products to be sold is done by adults. However, the children are surrounded by nature and engage their senses as they see, smell, and taste what grows on their campus. The garden is mostly tended by community members and those who come for herbalism classes. As Caroline described the space, “Stewarding of the land is being owned by the community… it is a food forest for all!” It was wonderful to see how the school was a place not only for the students, but for the whole community. It is a reminder that we all live, learn, and grow together.

Teachers at WLLC also have a chance to learn and develop themselves, such as through workshops. Michael shared with us about programming they arranged for teachers conducted by the beloved Margo Macleod and the Awareness through the Body trainings. These staff trainings help teachers use their senses, connect to their bodies, and cultivate a witness awareness. Spirituality and connectedness come through teachers which brings forth a school-wide reverence for nature, sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity. Time and space is created for brotherhood and sisterhood circles (also called leadership circles) that ask deep questions about life and promote mindful discussion of topics relating to who we are. In what ways are we as educators connecting to our bodies and observing our own development and transformation? It is wonderful that we spend so much time considering the best methods and ways to help our students, but through understanding and developing ourselves, we naturally uncover what it means to learn and grow for all beings. May we be inspired to take time to value self-reflection and connection.

As we concluded our time at Whole Life Learning, we asked Michael to share a gesture with us to embody the essence of the school. He smiled and happily agreed. Without any explanation, he reached for a leaf and carefully placed it on the ground next to their small pond. He then kneeled down, place the top of his head on the leaf, and proceeded to slowly raise his legs up into a headstand. He held the pose steadily and then began moving his legs wide in many directions. He carefully came back down and said that he would leave it up to us to interpret. This was certainly the first time anyone has preformed an inverted posed and Camden and I cheered Michael on as we watched him joyfully play and challenge himself. I think I will let you make your own interpretations as well. We are so grateful to Michael and Caroline for their time and willingness to meet with us and share their insights.