I’ve got the best job. Talking with folks who share our passion for innovative, child-centered learning is great fun. These sorts of conversations are invigorating and instill in me all sorts of hope for the future. I hope they might do the same for you!
I recently had the good fortune to talk with Michelle Simpson-Siegel, Executive Director of Oak Meadow, a popular distance learning program, which also provides homeschool curriculum. It was exactly the sort of conversation that I enjoy.
Michelle received her undergraduate degree in Education and English from the University of Rhode Island and has her graduate degree in Environmental Education from Antioch University New England. Before joining her team at Oak Meadow, Michelle taught English, was a Learning Specialist in the Massachusetts public schools and worked as a Program Director for The Massachusetts Audubon Society
Welcome to STEAM-Powered Classroom, Michelle. I must begin by telling you that I hear wonderful things about Oak Meadow from a variety of different kinds of homeschooling families. Tell us about Oak Meadow. How does your program work?
Oak Meadow offers a flexible, progressive education to independent learners. Since 1975, we have provided K-12 print-based, homeschool curriculum and we enroll 600 students in our fully accredited distance learning school every year. We are a great match for families desiring the freedom to learn in an authentic and experiential way, without sacrificing academics. Our model allows for structure and flexibility. In addition to these formal educational pathways, we also engage with the natural parenting community, alternative students, and a variety of educators by sharing a wealth of free resources: a seasonal journal, a lively FB community with useful, provocative postings daily, and fully curated Pinterest boards to inspire anyone’s educational journey.
You identify authentic and experiential learning as important components of Oak Meadow’s model. This, I think, is where Oak Meadow and STEAM-Powered Classroom’s educational philosophies most intersect. Can you talk more about what authentic, experiential learning looks like?
Authentic and experiential learning is essential to our mission and is challenging in an online platform, especially for families who are concerned about “screen time.” Essentially, when we say “experiential”, we mean hands-on; we really want kids doing, making, and experimenting with real world materials, not just virtual ones. Similarly, having the lessons be “authentic” means that the subject matter attempts to address “real world” concerns that may be meaningful to the student. As a school, we decided that we wanted to use technology primarily as a tool for communication, not as a platform to disseminate content. Ideally, we have our students get content and instructions from our print based curriculum which encourages them to venture into their backyards, libraries, and communities to “do”something—-to research, analyze, explore, experiment. When they return with their findings, the aim is to share the finished work with their teachers and fellow students via our online platform. This is our model of blended learning that seems to hit many of the right notes for families looking for a more nature based and holistic approach to education.
Oak Meadow has been around for a long time. How has the program evolved over the years?
Our program has had quite an evolution. Oak Meadow was founded as a brick and mortar school by Lawrence and Bonnie Williams in 1975. They lost the lease on their school building but wanted to continue to support their school community. Lawrence had the idea to put the school’s curriculum in print and assist the families in homeschooling, which was illegal at the time. This inspired Lawrence’s work to get homeschooling legalized in the U.S. Now OM is an international community of independent learners. Over the past 39 years the organization has had to respond many changes—-in the educational landscape and the world in general— and while we’ve developed the program to meet many students’ different needs, the mission and philosophy of the school remains intact. There is a lot of common wisdom inherent in the OM philosophy. It endures.
Oak Meadow’s program is often mentioned in the context of Waldorf education. Strictly speaking, you are not a Waldorf program. How does Oak Meadow’s philosophy overlap with Waldorf principals and in what ways is it different?
Many of our families cite our Waldorf influence as a special strength of Oak Meadow. Oak Meadow co-founder and President Lawrence Williams was a Waldorf class teacher, and there is still a strong Waldorf influence in our curriculum, especially in the early grades. But just like many expert schools and teachers, our program draws on the best practices of multiple methodologies, theories, and approaches: Montessori, Constructivist, Reggio, Progressivism, Experiential, PBL, Multiple Intelligences, and others. We are still aligned with Waldorf in a few key areas: students use Main Lessons books, learn to knit and play the recorder, and learn their letters and numbers through stories. We share the Waldorf preference for natural materials; we aim to keep students working with the same teacher(s) over many years, and we favor formative assessment. However, our curriculum has evolved over the years in response to the need to provide a standards-based curriculum that will satisfy homeschooling regulations across the country. We also diverge from Waldorf pedagogy regarding literacy, the “four temperments” and other tenets of anthroposophy. The OM K and 1st grade program do incorporate literacy and numeracy. We do use the concept of the temperments informally but it is one of many lenses with which to understand students better. Some of our teachers are Waldorf trained, most are not. My understanding is that in Waldorf schools, the intention is really guided by anthroposophy, and our school isn’t. We have our own mission and vision. Today Oak Meadow provides a very creative, experiential curriculum that is playful in the early grades, rigorous in the upper grades, and engaging for all students.
Speaking as both as an educator and as a mother, what do you believe to be the fundamental elements found in superior learning materials? What draws you and your colleagues to particular educational resources at Oak Meadow? What do you look for in the books and art materials you bring home to your own family?
Any product that invites inquiry, wonder, and imaginative play are at the top of the list. At OM and in my own home, I try to avoid anything that has “scripted” play–though these toys have certainly infiltrated! We are committed to delight-directed learning and love letting nature and a child’s curiosity guide play. I allow my kids to choose their own books at the library and I rarely censor what they choose, unless it is egregiously inappropriate. For art materials we try to recycle and upcycle as much as we can. My kids are getting older so we’ve started to let them take apart old/broken appliances to see how they work—we are definitely hopping on the “maker-lab” train! I bet your next question will be about technology!
You’re absolutely right! As you are aware, there is a great deal of discussion in education circles about the STEAM philosophy. There are many ideas regarding the types of curriculum and learning environments which best cultivate skills required for this sort of learning. How does Oak Meadow’s belief in inquiry, wonder, and imaginative play provide children with the foundation they need to pursue STEAM interests?
Fostering a student’s curiosity is foundational. The drive to discover and understand is paramount to learning. The medium is almost secondary. Kids can learn to use tools at any time—-whether it is a pocketknife or an iPad. Our challenge as educators is to determine at what point it is appropriate to introduce certain tools. We also want to assess what is gained and what is lost, at all times. We typically do not give two-year-olds knives or allow ten-year-olds to drive cars. For example, at OM, we have been clear that we want hi-tech tools to be used for creativity and communication, but we want the content and academics to be real. I have seen some seriously unsatisfactory educational software out there—dragging a virtual ruler across a screen to measure a virtual mouse—-real meaningless stuff that isn’t really based in anything authentic. It seems much more worthwhile to have kids engage in a river ecology study, outdoors in their own communities, collect data and then use technology to share those results with other kids worldwide—a good model of citizen science. This seems much more grounded in best educational practices, than say, simply playing Minecraft all afternoon, which is creative, amazing, and fun. I’m interested in gaming as a pathway to learning—-it isn’t a new concept, but we need to keep it in balance and in relation to other types of learning. “Edutainment” works, but so does real challenge, discipline and practice. The critical question is when do we introduce children to certain tools? It is the same question we ask ourselves as parents and educators all the time and it extends to content too: we can teach kids about slavery or the Holocaust, but at what age is it appropriate to read Beloved or watch Schindler’s List? When can they use Bunsen burners? Is there a “right” age for an iPhone?
It’s been such a pleasure connecting with you, Michelle. Before we go, how do you anticipate your program will evolve in the years ahead? How will Oak Meadow continue to meet the educational needs of children in our ever changing 21st century landscape?
We are always responding to what students need and to the changing educational landscape, while maintaining our core values. There are many exciting initiatives ahead, both local and international! We recently moved into a beautiful, historical new space in downtown Brattleboro, VT. This will allow us to establish a self-directed learning center. Our town has some unique educational opportunities: the NE Center for Circus Arts, The NE Youth Theater, a dynamite music and art school, and a wonderful museum are all here. OM hopes to be the hub for academics while our local homeschoolers access these amazing local resources. Abroad, we hope to continue to provide educational access to students who desire a progressive, independent education. We currently work with a school in Dubai and an orphanage in India. We hope to better connect our students from around the globe; we all have so much to learn from one another.
At the close of this interview Michelle raised a fundamental question: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a child’s engagement with technology? When did you introduce your children to computers? Were you at all hesitant to do so? What criteria did you use to evaluate your child’s readiness for such resources?
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