No one person is an island. We all rely on others for emotional sustenance as well as most of our basic physical needs. The best (easiest) way, I believe, to meet those requirements is through collaboration while participating in community. Our consumeristic culture, unfortunately, is driven by competition which is completely antithetical to cooperation and sharing. As a society, we, as a result, tend to make negative judgments about anything that smacks of synergism. We simply view any attempt to work together as cheating. It has been instilled into our collective psyche from earliest childhood.
One of Deep Root Centers’s most important assignments, within our philosophy, is to build community with these unique young people who have signed on as members. DRC expects each student member to participate at least three – four days each week. Because, if certain individuals don’t get involved, the DRC community does not and will not reflect their distinct personalities and perspectives.
Within our community, we are creating a culture of kindness. Our one rule: Respect yourself, everyone here, and this space, hangs from the bulk head in the chill space. We have all agreed that if anyone’s behavior goes out of bounds, we can call each other on it by simply saying, “that is not OK.” We also have a community meeting every Monday morning, where everyone is encouraged to bring news, questions, and ideas to the whole group.
Many of our student members have just recently left an educational environment that did not feel safe, where they were bullied and where they worried about fitting in. Consequently, they are all learning to be comfortable in their own skins, to be themselves, and to make close friendships, while acquiring confidence, without a sense of entitlement. These are probably some of the most important lessons they can possibly receive right now. This is why DRC encourages and celebrates social time amongst all of our youth.
Upon entering the DRC facilities on any given day, as I have mentioned before, it often appears that a three ring circus has invaded our space. Kids of all ages are often hanging out in the chill space conversing with each other and the adults, while playing board games, Minecraft, and retro Nintendo video games, or they may be using social media, and watching youtube videos. Other youth may be taking apart a bike in one corner. Some could be in the project room painting puppet characters, so they can create detailed storylines for a puppet show. There may be other students in the main class room covering our chairs with glue and fabric and some may be using the laptops to work on their math lessons through Khan Academy, finding images to print for a book they are making, or watching a documentary about wolves. You will most likely find a seven year old hanging out with a thirteen year old playing an imaginary game based on fictional characters. The music room is often occupied with one youth playing the intro to “Smoke on the Water”, over and over again with another joining him on the conga drum. Several volunteers come in to teach classes in subjects like: Japanese and photography. One or two young people are probably completely engrossed in a book and oblivious to the pandemonium surrounding them. Many of our teens also leave the Center to get lunch, walk to Heritage Park, or the Buck Street Playground to enjoy the sunshine and Spring weather.
All of these activities have one thing in common: they are all done in collaboration. If someone needs assistance, we encourage other students to help them, and, no-one can be accused of cheating when they ask for help or use a hack to find a solution.
When people say that building a collaborative, respectful learning community, with multiple ages, is not possible, I invite them to visit the DRC community to experience this phenomenon themselves. It is, indeed, eminently possible when: you trust each other, everyone understands they have options, and when kindness becomes the default mode for every single interaction within.
Maria Corse is the founder and executive director of Deep Root Center in Canton, NY. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Anthropology from SUNY Potsdam and is a seasoned teacher with ten years experience in a non-public school in Canton. Maria firmly believes that all of life's lessons can be learned through conversation, hands-on-experience, making mistakes, getting dirty, and playing. She is passionate about supporting youth to follow their interests while taking charge of their education and exploring all of the possibilities life has to offer. Contact Maria: firstname.lastname@example.org