Central to our vision of what makes Self-Directed Education work for young people (and one of the reasons conventional schooling does not) is age mixing. We do not segregate Learners by age, and can have Learners as young as four-years-old and as old as nineteen in the same space (currently our youngest is six-years-old and our oldest is eighteen). We have talked about and written about the many benefits of age-mixing, as have many others. It generally gives younger Learners people that they can look up to, mimic, and learn from. It generally gives older Learners the opportunity to see themselves as protectors and mentors, to practice leadership skills, and most importantly, to develop empathy. Mixed-age environments are much more likely to become dynamic learning environments as Learners more naturally fall into supportive roles for each other because of the acceptance of variable developmental stages, based on interests as well as capabilities, and because age-based comparisons are not omnipresent. And without the social pressure to outperform or have power over, peer bullying becomes much less likely, as well. There are very few downsides to mixed-age environment.

One of the few downsides to mixed-age environments, though, is that if there are too few Learners it can make it more challenging for some of the adolescents to want to spend their day in that environment. Adolescents, after all, tend to be hyper focused on identify formation and building relationships with others, and that is most easily done around other adolescents. That is why we have met far too many teens who have hated school, who were being harmed by school, who wanted nothing to do with school, but who still went to school just to be around their same-aged friends. Or worse, just to be around same-aged peers that they had hoped could become their friends, someday.

At Abrome, during this pandemic, we are meeting in small groups of four to seven Learners each, for three-week in-person cycles. This means that any given group may only have two or three adolescents in them. But one of the adolescents chose to be remote for most of the first cycle because of allergies and Covid concerns, while another went to Indiana to help the grandparents move, and another those to go remote until October to tie up some personal projects. With those teens out, mixed with the relative discomfort of being outdoors during Covid-19, something older Learners who have not spent a lot of time outdoors have had a more difficult time with than younger Learners, we saw that other adolescent Learners chose to stay at home far more than we anticipated in the first cycle.

On Friday, a day after we had a blast at the cookout together, only one Learner showed up at Abrome in my cell. Not an adolescent. One of the Learners was in quarantine after returning to Austin from Indiana, and another was unable to attend because they were staying with a different family member for the end of the week. But four others stayed home, and this was on the tail end of a week where attendance was spotty for each of the four (sometimes scheduled appointments, often not). It seems that when one stays home, the others notice, and then the others feel less of a need to show up because they don’t know if the others will show up. This challenging situation is made more difficult by the fact that two of them are new Learners who are still getting to know the other Learners. So I have been thinking about what we can do to change the situation so that we are coming together, building community with each other, instead of becoming a drop-in, add-on program for homeschoolers (something we never want to become).

Attendance is optional at Abrome. We have never demanded that Learners show up a certain number of hours or days a week because we want each to have the flexibility to travel, participate in community events, become an apprentice, take a community college course, stay home when they need a break, or more importantly, to stay home when they are sick. And we think this is a pretty critical feature of a Self-Directed Education community so we are not going to change that. But we need the adolescents to show up consistently.

We are still going to be outdoors. In the heat and cold, the sun and the rain. The pandemic demands that of us, as bringing them together indoors would not only put them, their families, and Facilitators at risk of contracting Covid-19, but it would also be a public health risk that potentially contributed to the spread of Covid-19. We chose to go outdoors this year so we could more safely come together in community with each other. And we are still going to be in small operating cells while (local) community spread of Covid-19 is still present. And looking at recent indicators it does not look like we are doing enough as a society to bring infections down.

Right now I am thinking that there are two things we can do to get adolescents to want to be at Abrome every day, instead of just on the most comfortable days. One is to ask for a firm commitment from the Learners of meeting remotely or in-person, as opposed to providing the flexibility to just drift in and out. That way most Learners will know exactly who is in their operating cell and who will show up. The second is, for the next cycle only, to break the cells up into age bands so that the adolescents all get to be in one group for the full cycle. Then hopefully they will create stronger bonds with each other and that will allow them to more eagerly show up for each other, even when we revert to mixed-age operating cells in November. Neither of these are certain, and I will be meeting with Learners and the Facilitators to discuss these options, but I am hopeful that this may help address the adolescent Learners’ needs.

So how did day 14 at Abrome go? Well, for the one Learner who showed up it was a pretty great day. First, he got the full attention of not just two Facilitators, but also a prospective Facilitator who shadowed for the day. I am pretty sure our 1:3 Learner-to-Facilitator ratio trumped the student-to-teacher ratio at any other educational setting anywhere in Texas, on Friday. I brought Cuddle Buddies Ingrid and Ivan to Abrome for the day, and he was attached to one of them, switching off between them, for almost the entire day. We started the day with a hike to the top of the park where we held our morning meeting. Then after spending a good amount of time at the top (where I logged into the morning check-in for remote Learners, and Facilitator Lauren broke out some sketching materials) we decided to go on a hike.

Our lunch spot on Day 14

The hike was intended to be shorter than the hike we took on Monday, but longer than the other hikes we have taken because we wanted to rediscover the waterfall and pool that we discovered on Monday. After a few wrong turns and detours we found the waterfall and pool and settled in for lunch. Facilitator Lauren made her way into the pool to a moss covered rock while the Learner looked on and contemplated joining. He didn’t, but he did practice throwing sticks across the pool toward the rocky outcrop that the water was falling over.

The tadpoles are doing alright

The tadpoles are doing alright

We eventually moved up over another hill and down across the same stream at a different point, and then worked our way back down toward the lake with a stop off to refill our water bottles. By the time we got to the lake there were a good number of people in the park. We did a lot of people watching, especially the people who were slackening on webbing that they strung across the inlet. The prospective Facilitator talked to the other Facilitators about what Abrome does, and also spent a good amount of time engaged in conversation with the young Learner. I checked on the state of the tadpoles (they were still alive, although fewer in number), and then I jumped in the lake a couple of times. Facilitator Lauren also jumped in the lake to cool down.

After my afternoon check-in with the remote Learners, the four of us made our way back to the pickup location. On the way, at 3:30 p.m., we stopped for our afternoon roundup. We not only reflected on the day but also on the three week in-person cycle we were wrapping up. We then did gratitudes which was a wonderful way to wrap up our day. By the time we returned to the pickup spot, the Learner’s parents were there waiting and he said goodbye and jumped in the car, and we were able to have a short conversation with them before they drove off. The three remaining adults stuck around for some conversation before the prospective Facilitator decided to take off, too. Facilitator Lauren and I wrapped up some loose ends in our conversation and discussed the virtual info session that would be held the next morning for prospective Learners and their families.