Today I’m excited to introduce Rebecca Pickens as a new addition to the STEAM-Powered Classroom; we are joining forces in the coming weeks to enhance our website and resources, and I couldn’t be more pleased! Rebecca lives in upstate New York with her husband and three children on a delightful herb farm. Her kids, at ages 3, 5, and 7, are just younger than my own 10 and 13 year olds, and I’m excited to include education ideas for this younger crowd. We’ve had some great conversations over the past few months about the concept of STEAM and student-led learning, and we’re going to share some of these thoughts with you too. Since she and I talk a lot over email, we decided the best way to introduce her to you is through a chatty interview. I hope you’ll join in the conversation in the comments below!
Gwyn: This is such an exciting endeavor for me, Rebecca! Before we jump into talking education philosophy, I want folks to hear about your incredible family and life on the farm.
Rebecca: Thanks, Gwyn. There is so much to talk about. I’m really looking forward to our conversations together.
My husband Dave and I have been on our farm for about 9 years now. It is terrific fun. We garden and keep goats, sheep, and chickens. We aim to raise much of our own food and to do so in a sustainable manner. I also work as an herbal educator and spend a lot of my time concocting teas, balms, and oils. It’s a good life!
I have been homeschooling my three boys since my oldest, Elias, asked to start school at age 3. It was never my intention to homeschool full time, but it turns out to be what works best for my family and we have loads of fun learning together.
Gwyn: You weren’t always country-dwelling homesteaders, though. You used to live the city life, and made a pretty radical change. Did the idea of having kids influence that decision?
Rebecca: You are right. Before coming to New York, we were fortunate to live in a bunch of wonderful places. For three years I taught in rural Japan. From there my husband and I moved to Washington DC, where I worked in development at the Brookings Institution. I’ve also had the good fortune to live, work, and play in the West Indies and Africa and also much closer to home in New England.
Living in the city was great fun and DC is an amazing place to work, but almost from the minute we got there I missed the physicality of living in a rural area. I like a little grit. I love rough bumpy roads and a bit of uncertainty. I appreciate seeing where my food grows and enjoy being around animals. All of this contributed to the decision to look for land. Foremost, it was a desire to have children and to be home with them that moved us along this path. The farm provides the opportunity for my sons to live in sync with their natural environment. This setting seemed to me a perfect classroom and playground rolled up into one.
Gwyn: So why do you want to work with STEAM-Powered Classroom? What do you find compelling about the STEAM philosophy? Ha – maybe I should ask first, what is the STEAM philosophy? We’ve had some great conversations about that this week.
Rebecca: Yes, we sure have! It’s important to note that the STEAM philosophy seems to still be evolving and taking shape. STEM which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics came first and is still more widely known. The STEM acronym was first used among educators to address a lack of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Advocates of this movement sought to improve student access to STEM subject matter. Proponents of STEM urged educators to recognize that these subjects should not be taught as isolated disciplines, but rather thoughtfully integrated into meaningful curriculum.
Then along came STEAM. Rhode Island School of Design is spearheading the movement to shift from a STEM to STEAM paradigm. STEAM supporters advocate for the integration of Art + Design with other STEM subjects. However, as you and I have discussed before, this interpretation of STEAM leaves out both the humanities and literary and performing arts; this seems to me a dangerous omission worth further consideration.
Why do I want to work with STEAM-Powered Classroom? Where do I begin? Because I love kids and I want their days to be spent engaging with meaningful subject matter that brings joy and satisfaction. Eva’s and Ian’s work is such a pleasure to follow, because they truly love and believe in what they do. Education must empower young people and assist in their development as creative, innovative thinkers. And yet I see little of this happening in a wide variety of academic settings, and it troubles me deeply. The sort of student-led learning which is so celebrated on your site is critical in developing the sort of thinkers who will tackle the challenges facing our global community.
I was listening to a program on NPR the other day. Two scientists were discussing radical work in the field of genetics. The scientists were excited over their admittedly groundbreaking research. What I found alarming was their lack of caution or ability to foreshadow. The program’s moderator kept prodding them to consider the potential dangers of their research (it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see the way their work could be misused), but both men were unable to do so. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” seemed to be all they could say. The people that called in were either folks without an understanding of science and consequently fearful of it all or those who scorned any intelligent desire to probe deeper and consider the ramifications of unfettered science. I kept thinking, where are the literature and history professors? Why aren’t they calling in? Without the disciplines that teach us to think critically, and without a historical context in which to put these discoveries, society can take some dangerous turns. A narrow interpretation of STEAM, or of any other educational philosophy, will take kids down a road more narrow in scope and vision than need be. When I read looser definitions of STEAM I feel hopeful.
I love that you and I are of the same mind on this! There is so much potential in and necessity for the integrated curriculum approach you speak of. I was working with some wonderful administrators in the public schools last year, and the topic of meaningful, integrated curricular work came up. One of the staff asked me how I handled mixing subjects together in our own home classroom, and I remember not having the words to answer her. It is so natural for us – that combining of perspectives of seemingly disparate topics – that I had to stop and think about our methods. It’s like breathing. If somebody asks you “how do you breathe?” you’d have to stop and think about it. The world isn’t categorized so neatly, or at least it shouldn’t be. Excellent scientists are steeped in the humanities; compelling writers and historians are in awe of their natural surroundings. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great example for me: he’s a brilliant astro-physicist who loves literature and talking and poetry. He is space and art all swirled together.
This constant flow works so well for us, because it opens the world up to new perspectives that truly fit our kids’ interests. In our house, nobody’s “just” a musician or a writer. We are products of our world, and our world is made up of so many subjects! Having our own passions also makes us appreciative of subjects we might not be naturally drawn to. TED Talks are great for that. There’s nothing like watching somebody talk passionately about their topic of expertise to make you see the wonder in it as well. I love that your own kids are already creating unique identities. Can you talk a little about how you are fostering their individual interests?
Rebecca: Space and art all swirled together; I love it! You have described beautifully the lens through which kids see their world.
Each of my boys have very different interests. Elias is a scientist and was absolutely born that way. Jo Jo is our quirky, colorful artist. For now, Walden is enthralled with all things prehistoric. As you put it so eloquently above, each of these passions grows deeper when viewed within a context enhanced by other disciplines.
When Elias learned to read, he declared fiction a waste of time. “I will only read the kind of stuff scientists read,” he’d insist. For all of the reasons we’ve discussed, I felt strongly about connecting Elias with good literature, and so I would casually make available fiction that I thought would excite him. Elias has since become a well-rounded reader and is currently enthralled with books about either mathematics, birds of prey, or dragons. Right now he is taking an online course about amphibians and reptiles. The format is a bit dry and the information is not new. He is trudging through it, and I see it hasn’t sparked his interest the way I’d hoped. At the end of each lesson, students sketch a picture of the animal they’ve studied, label its anatomy, and provide its scientific name and habitat details. By the time last week’s class was finished, I didn’t have the heart to ask Elias to do this assignment and suggested instead he go play. An hour later he returned giddy over the work he’d just completed. Lo and behold, in his right hand he held sketches of three species of dragons he explained he’d been researching at magic school. Each of these dragons was drawn in fine detail with its anatomy labeled, its scientific name written clearly on top followed by several descriptive paragraphs explaining each creature’s habitat. It was the work of a scientist with an imagination fueled by literature.
When given the freedom, this is how children learn. I try to provide Elias a wide range of resources along with the free time required to play with new information to make it relevant and rich.
Josiah is just five. His preference is to spend his time immersed in drawing and sewing. He is still reluctant to move far from his pens and paper and costume designs. We support his work by providing resources and ample sources of visual stimulation. As he grows older, should his creative endeavors continue, we’ll present new subjects in a manner that informs any art he wishes to make.
Walden, our youngest is having a grand ole time learning beside his brothers. His days are spent engaged in meaningful play. He spends a great deal of time with books and loves the opportunity to help his family by doing chores and taking care of his pets.
Gwyn: And all of this is of course some of the many reasons I was drawn to your family and story to begin with. I love the way you acknowledge and nurture the unique personality traits of your kids. I also like how you provide a “wide range of resources along with the free time required to play with new information.” We’re often so afraid of providing that time for kids to absorb and play with new knowledge. We feel pressured to check things off our curriculum list, fill in the blank, and cover more, more, more. Even after all these years and two kids accomplishing so much by being allowed to explore their loves in depth and at length, I sometimes get nervous if we’ve stuck on one thing for “too long.” I have to remind myself to hush it and allow the deeper learning to happen at its own rambly pace. That’s the learning of bread rising or wine fermenting. It’s slow, and it doesn’t look like things are happening. But if you’re patient, you’re rewarded in the end with something beautiful and rich.
I’m so excited to have you here with me, Rebecca. What do you guys think? If you’d like to extend the conversation and join in, please comment below!
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