For several years our family had been with the SelfDesign distributed learning (DL) program, an unschooling-friendly sort of virtual umbrella school to which we reported in various creative ways on a weekly basis in exchange for support primarily in the form of a resource allowance. Then the local school, a place full of humanity and creativity and innovation, started its own DL program partly at my urging. We switched our enrolment to them and were pretty happy there.
Last year, though, there were some personnel changes that created a whole new learning curve in the local program, and it also became apparent that Fiona was outgrowing the cohort of kids and the target age-range of the occasional workshop offerings. So when we happened to visit SelfDesign’s Nelson location in the spring for some casual homeschooler get-togethers, we were intrigued by all the options they were offering their high school learners, and by the enthusiasm we got from staff about creating enhanced options for “Gateways Learners,” students in Grades 8 & 9. We saw all the great elective courses they offered for Grade 10+ credit that were available for motivated Grade 9 learners as well. We were told about the great camps and retreats that were offered two or three times a year. With Fiona heading into Grade 9, looking for more independence, challenge and social connections, SelfDesign looked like the place to be.
So we switched, and started the year by reconnecting with our fabulous Learning Consultant (i.e. liaison teacher) from back in the day. Fiona decided to take self-paced Math and Science at the Grade 10 level at the local school through cross-enrolment, and that was all great too.
But then it turned out that there actually wasn’t a Gateways program this year. They were going to be working on a few ideas that they could hopefully roll out later. But nothing for now, just the same routine of home-based learning and reporting as used during the K-7 years.
The first learner retreat was to take place in late October, open to students from Grades 8-12. We got Fiona all signed up and enthusiastic. But then they decided the age-range was too wide and decided to restrict it (and all future camps/retreats for learners) to those aged 14 and up.
The next frustration came when they began rolling out their exciting new opportunities for Gateways learners. These turned out to be real-time video-based online meet-ups that, while they might have been interesting to learners who were entirely new to social media, missed the mark horribly for Fiona. Online pretend play with adult facilitators over glitchy software? She took one look, muttered something derisive and sarcastic and that was that. For a kid who had been rocking Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for years, this was meaningless and laughable.
I started advocating for something more meaningful. I heard from other parents that their tweens and teens were looking for more opportunities within the program. I began writing long messages to SelfDesign personnel and having Skype sessions with key people to discuss my ideas. They seemed interested.
Sadly, what began slowly rolling out continued to miss the mark and to suffer from logistical problems. The online clubhouse was basically just a message board system oriented around topics like Arts & Crafts with well-meaning adult facilitators but no structure. Furthermore, because it was built within GooglePlus integrated with SelfDesign’s site, Fiona was too young to get permission to participate. (Google requires social media account users to be at least 13. Fibbing wasn’t an option because her birthdate was determined by her school registration.) Similarly they began offering workshops as Google Hangouts; again, Fiona was too young for access. And the initial workshop topics (Reflecting on Your Learning, and Learning to Write a Weekly Report on Your Learning) were things Fiona had been doing for years and didn’t want any help with. And they were live workshops, always scheduled at times that conflicted with other activities that she’d committed to in September.
And then the kicker. Because she was working through Math and Science 10 quickly, she was going to finish them long before the end of the school year. She had hit all the learning outcomes for many of the Grade 9 “subjects” by November. And so she was keen to add more Grade 10 courses in order to stay challenged. But SelfDesign was unable to let her take any Grade 10 courses at all within their system due to governmental funding hassles. And furthermore they wouldn’t let her cross-enrol in more than 2 courses in a different school because, in essence, they feared it would “look bad” to the government to have her doing so much of her learning in a different program.
All of which we understood, but it was just so frustrating. As it turned out our wonderful LC was feeling hugely over-extended with her student roster, so when we told her we were jumping ship and going back to our local DL program it was a blessing for her.
Sure, our local DL program will never offer a meaningful social group or workshop activities for home-learners that will meet Fiona’s social and intellectual needs. But because it’s a public-school-based program rather than an independent program like SelfDesign, the rules are much simpler. We don’t have to report every week. It’s no longer impossible to combine learning at the Grade 9 and 10 levels. And the program is so small that they are happy to build what she wants.
So she’s doing half Grade 9 and half Grade 10 and she does a couple of courses online and a couple in the classroom (actually now just Science, since she wrote the Math 10 final exam last week) and the rest of her learning is capricious, self-led and self-reported in a basic blog that she makes an effort to post to once or twice a term. And life’s good.
The plan is for enrolment at the high school in Nelson next year. Documenting her academic level through some advanced courses this year should ensure appropriate placement without any hassles.