We opened the Macomber Center in 2012 as a resource center for self-directed learners. Most of us had come from a democratic school background so naturally some people assumed that we were taking the first steps towards creating a democratic school. What started to interest us, however, was not the potential to move towards something familiar, but the opportunity to explore something new. We wanted to remain open-minded and flexible about what we were doing and how we might evolve. There are plenty of alternative schools out there; we wanted to provide a genuine alternative to school.
From the very beginning, we rejected the idea of school. We had no interest in having to enforce an attendance policy, which all schools — even democratic schools– have to do. We wanted kids to be able to come and go freely. We wanted the center to be used only as needed and not to hold kids back from pursuing other interests out in the larger community. We were not interested in handing out diplomas either. We didn’t feel that kids should need our stamp of approval to move on in the world. Instead, we felt that they should be the ones to determine when and how they were going to make the transition into adult life.
As a resource center, we provide an environment where the natural curiosity of kids is given free reign. They are surrounded by acres of natural space and are given the time and freedom to explore. They have access to the essential tools of learning: computers, books, art supplies, musical instruments, and science equipment. They also have access to knowledgeable, helpful adults.
One thing we share with the democratic school model is a strong emphasis on community life. People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities. This is not what we do at the Macomber Center. The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community. Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community.
So if kids do not come to the Macomber Center for specific activities, how do they spend their time here, and what is the role of adults, if it is not to teach classes? The kids here spend their time engaging in all kinds of different activities. For the most part, they pursue their interests on their own and with other kids. There are also many activities that kids and adults do together: they play music together, they play games like bananagrams, and they also play outdoor games like tag, soccer, and frisbee. They eat lunch together, engage in conversations and so on.
As for the traditional teacher/student relationship that exists in almost any educational setting, at the Macomber Center this relationship has to be understood within the context of self-directed learning. In the course of pursuing their various interests, kids will sometimes ask an adult for help. There is often a considerable amount of time and energy spent in conversation just trying to clarify what exactly the interest is, the best way to pursue that interest, and what the role of the adult should be in the process. This is not just a preliminary step but an important part of the process. Learning how to articulate exactly what the interest is and figuring out how to pursue it can be the most useful and satisfying part of the whole experience for the learner. Sometimes the best way to help kids explore a subject is to organize a class, but even when classes are formed, they can vary widely depending on what makes sense for a given subject. Often the role of the adult is not so much to “teach” but rather to help the kids plot a course and help keep things moving in a productive direction.
The great thing about the resource center model is that it is so flexible. These centers are continuing to pop up all around the country, and they are all different. They take on different shapes depending on the needs of their community and the background of the people who create them. Everything, right down to the land they are on and the building they are in, influences the way the programs at these centers develop. It has been exciting to see how the culture at the Macomber Center has evolved in ways that we, the people who started it, could never have anticipated. It has taken on its own life and transcended our ideas and theories about what a resource center should be.
Ben Draper attended the Sudbury Valley School for twelve years and graduated in 1997. He is now Executive Director at the Macomber Center in Framingham, MA, a center for self-directed learning which he helped start in 2012. Before that, he worked as an artist. A number of his paintings have been exhibited in the contemporary wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as well as other galleries in and around Boston. He lives in Natick with his wife, Rebecca and their two young kids, Tommy and Lucy. He can be reached at .