Two of the younger Learners in our cell have been joined at the hip since we came back together on September 8th. But starting on Wednesday, one of them was scheduled to be out for the rest of the week. For the remaining younger learner, the only living organisms that can he wants to play with as much as the Learner who was going to be absent are the Abrome Cuddle Buddies (dogs). And because the weather was going to be perfect (not too hot, not too cold), I decided to bring Cuddle Buddies Ingrid and Ivan out with us.

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Starting our day with a hike up the hill

Unfortunately, the Learner who informed us that they were going to be out for the rest of the week, and the Learner who is in a different state helping their grandparents were not the only Learners who were out on day twelve of the new academic year. Three of the Learners decided to stay home for various reasons, leaving our cell with only two Learners, again.

We have always valued Learners having the option to come and go as they please, so long as they are active members of the community. Attendance has always been optional, and we don’t have a minimum number of days or hours Learners have to be present each week. This gives Abrome Learners lots of flexibility to travel, take classes at the community college, participate in sports or other activities that tend to take place during after school hours, participate in an apprenticeship, or just take a day off when they need to recharge. It also helps promote staying home when a Learner is feeling sick so that they don’t end up making others sick—something that is particularly important during a pandemic.

But with freedom comes challenges, for Abrome. If the Learners are never around then they are not really helping us co-create culture nor are they really a part of the community. And then the question becomes, why are they not around? Is there something happening at Abrome that they don’t feel good about? Do their parents or guardians want them here more than they want to be here? Do they have social anxiety that makes coming really difficult, even if they want to be here? Or is it that they really want to be around particular Abrome Learners, but if those Learners are not available then maybe they should stay home, which could create an unfortunate feedback loop.

During this pandemic the challenge is complicated by our small operating cells. We limited the size of our operating cells to four to seven Learners, each, to limit our community’s exposure to Covid-19. Because we also believe in mixed-age environments, that means that any given Learner may only have one or two Learners in their general age range at a time. And if those Learners are inconsistent in their attendance, then the remaining Learner may be left wanting for peer interaction. And now that we are outside, some Learners, especially older Learners, have been less eager to come every day, especially if the weather is not great.

I am not sure how we are going to deal with this challenge. Should we try to organize the cells by age bracket? Or do we group cells so that Learners are more often with the Learners they most want to be around? Do we trust that as the Learners get used to being outside they will show up more often? Do we mandate attendance? No, of course we don’t mandate attendance, but if someone never shows up it is worth wondering if that spot is better filled by someone who will show up. I have also had all the members of the community fill out an exposure survey, and we will be reviewing that, and that may permit us to have larger operating cells which could certainly help. Although that is by no means certain. I will be revisiting this issue over the ‘off-week‘ with the other Facilitators so we can figure out how to best support everyone in the community.

A panoramic view from the top, with Cuddle Buddies

A panoramic view from the top, with Cuddle Buddies


Remote turnout was good, though

For the Learners who did show up, we had a good morning meeting and then we agreed to take a hike uphill toward the top of the park with the Cuddle Buddies. I absolutely love hikes to start the day and I hope that this becomes a regular practice. Of course to do so as a group requires that everyone has the ability and willingness to do so, which we had on Wednesday. When we got to the top of the hill we had an absolutely gorgeous view to match the perfect weather, and we settled in for some conversation while I prepared for the morning check-in with the remote Learners. There was a good turnout of remote Learners which allowed for a healthy discussion on the new game a Learner just downloaded to her phone.

After the remote meeting ended I tuned back in the conversation with the Learners and Facilitator Lauren at the top of the hill. Lauren introduced a riddle to the older Learner and he struggled with it for a surprisingly short amount of time before cracking the code. He has always enjoyed a good riddle, and it would be a good idea to continue bringing riddles to challenge him this year. Unfortunately the hike to the top was without backpacks for the Learners, so we couldn’t spend our day up there as their lunches were in their bags. So we eventually headed back down toward the meeting area, collected the bags, and then headed back to our usual location near the lake.

Another challenge of operating in small cells, especially when attendance is low, is that there can be a limitation on interest to do things together. In Self-Directed Education environments we benefit from each person added to the environment because they bring with them all their unique experiences, interests, knowledge, and skills. But the fewer people who are present, the fewer opportunities to marry one person’s interest with another person’s curiosity. And on this day, when we pulled out our foldable chairs and set them up, we anchored ourselves into position for much of the rest of the day. We were around each other, and available for each other, but the dynamism that typically flows through an SDE space was absent. This led too quickly to looking at the phone instead of at each other and at the amazing things that were happening around us. And to be honest, it did not feel that good. I later reflected that in the after action review with the other Facilitators at the end of the day.

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A non-native Egyptian Goose

Fortunately there was nature around us to pull us out of our phones and into the world around us. Like the Egyptian Goose who was hanging out near where we set up. Or the fish that were jumping in the lake behind us, and the large catfish that a nearby fisherman caught. There was also the young Learner rediscovering a feather of a woodpecker that they had been looking at on Tuesday, and then the discovery of a bunch of holes in the tree the feather was found under. Holes that were clustered in horizontal lines around the tree, and that were presumably created by the same woodpecker.

The slower day also allowed me to present a Self-Directed Education offering so that Facilitator Lauren and I could discuss how to facilitate in more difficult situations. We also held a meeting for the cookout we planned for Thursday. It was during this meeting that a group of young people from a homeschool pod came into the park. Drawn in by the dogs, they approached us but they did not have their masks on. I was pleasantly surprised to see our Learners create distance for themselves from the young homeschoolers who were not wearing masks.

As the day came to a close we checked in with the Learners at the afternoon roundup. While I felt the day was challenging because of the smaller numbers and the more sedentary afternoon, the Learners were feeling pretty good. The weather and the Cuddle Buddies clearly helped. I also later learned that a Learner got hit in the chin with a rock in the other cell, and I reminded myself that slower is not always necessarily bad.