I’m about to graduate in a little over three weeks from now (aauughhhh!!!!), and I did my senior project last summer in order to make my final year here less stressful. Doing my senior project early means that I’ve had opportunities to take fun elective courses during my last semester, such as the canoeing course I’ve written about previously. I thought I’d take some time to write about my senior project experience so that any prospective students out there in cyber space can have an idea of how Prescott College’s learning philosophy can be applied.
My competence is in Human Development, which is essentially a combination of developmental psychology, learning theories, holistic health, family systems theory, sexuality studies, communication, expressive arts therapy, and counseling skills. I love working with kids, and so for my senior project I wanted to find an internship where I could apply my studies in Human Development in a practicum setting. During the fall of my junior year, I searched for internships and found the perfect one: an internship at an Earth-based early-childhood center called the Gazebo Park School at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I applied immediately, and a few months later was called for an interview and offered the position. I then filled out the requisite paperwork to turn it into my senior project, and in May 2014 after the semester finished I packed up my car to drive to Big Sur. My internship was three months long, from mid-May to mid-August. This meant I had plenty of time to learn and grow during my time there.
For the first two weeks of my internship, I was instructed to be a “tree”. This means that I only observe the other teachers working with the kids rather than interact with them myself. I took lots of notes and paid attention to the intricacies of working there. The reason they have new interns do this is because the Gazebo Park School has a unique philosophy that can be hard for people to adapt to. Being a “tree” is intended to prompt people to challenge our preconceived ideas of how to interact with kids, thus paving the way for new, more holistic methodology to take root.
Let me give an example of Gazebo Park School’s unique philosophy. At Gazebo, there is an emphasis on the cultivation of empathy, self-awareness, and relational skills. This means that when kids get in an argument with one another, rather than scold the kids or put them in time-out, a teacher might come over and offer suggestions about how to work through the conflict. For example, if I see Jack and Jill fighting over the same toy, I might calmly walk over and say something like, “So I notice that you both want the same toy, and that you both seem to be pretty upset about not getting to play with it yourself. I wonder if you could use words to express your feelings to each other rather than yelling?” I might then offer solutions on how Jack and Jill might resolve the conflict. Perhaps they could play with the toy together? Perhaps they could take turns? The important thing is that Jack and Jill find the solution together rather than having an adult come in and fix it for them.
One of the central beliefs underlying this teaching philosophy is that learning occurs in every moment of life. Getting in an argument with a friend is a valuable learning experience. I can learn how to voice my feelings, work through disagreements, and find solutions. Whatever emotions or experience a child may be experiencing in any given moment is their teacher. Thus, my job as the adult isn’t to shield kids from negative experiences; it’s to support them in their own explorations and to make sure they’re safe.
Since experience is the greatest teacher, kids at Gazebo have pretty much free rein to explore, create, and play. We keep an eye out to make sure the kids are safe, and then we support them in whatever project or activity they feel drawn to. Thus, the curriculum is “child-centered”, meaning we let the kids take the lead. If a kid is really excited about gardening, we might offer a gardening project where we plant seeds. Some kids love to paint, so we’ll set up easels for them to make art. Some kids love the slip-n-slide, so we’ll help them set it up on days when it’s warm enough. Oh, I forgot to mention that Gazebo has a garden, chickens, and two goats the kids get to help out with.
On top of my work hours, I wrote weekly reflections with the intention of tying my experiences in with my three years of academic learning in Human Development. There was so much I was experiencing at Gazebo on a daily basis that tied in directly to my education, and writing helped me make sense of it. For example, in the classroom at Prescott College, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of empathy and community in the course of human development. The development of empathy is related to our experiences in community. When we see empathy modeled for us as children, and when we experience empathetic relationship with others, we can then experience empathy ourselves in our relationships. In many ways, our early-life experiences of human relationship can act as a “blueprint” for relating throughout the rest of life. Whereas I’d read about this in books and written about it, it was an easily observable phenomenon at Gazebo. I could SEE, with my own eyes, the kids learning how to relate with one another. If a child was feeling sad one day, his or her friends would come over to offer hugs and comfort. There was a two year old who loved to climb up on a bale of hay and jump off into a pile of pillows, and he always wanted an adult to witness him jumping. The cultivation of individuality was occurring in the context of a safe and nurturing community. Reading and thinking about this is one thing, but seeing it in action and witnessing the growth of the kids over the course of three months made the learning so much more tangible and real.
Kids at Gazebo have the time and space to figure out for themselves what they’re passionate about. Not once in my three months at Gazebo did a see a kid feeling “bored”. Because they didn’t have adults constantly telling them what to do, they were led by their imagination and curiosity. The same is true here at Prescott College. Because the curriculum here offers so much freedom to explore and be curious, I’ve had the time and space to ask questions like, “What am I passionate about? What makes my heart sing? What do I want to contribute to the world?” Being able to ask such questions and seek out my own answers has been an invaluable experience. I feel much more in touch with myself that I did four years ago, and much more aware of what I want out of life.
I’ll close by bragging a little bit: there are hot springs at Esalen, and I went in them everyday for three months. Sometimes I only got to go in the hot springs once a day, but more often I went two or three times a day. My favorite routine was going before breakfast, after work, and after dinner. The springs were on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the sunsets were stunning. From the springs I sometimes saw whales, seals, and dolphins, and the sound of the waves was very soothing. I had my own room at Esalen, and I liked to sleep with the window open so that I could hear the ocean throughout the night and when I woke up in the morning. The food was amazing, the gardens were beautiful, I met inspiring and kind people, and I had a great time exploring Big Sur on days off. I had an incredible time with the internship and learned a lot about myself and about working with kids. I wouldn’t trade my summer at Gazebo for anything. It was the perfect senior project for me to display my competence in Human Development. On top of that, I can put the internship on my resume which could help me find jobs after I graduate.
That’s the benefit of experiential education: actual life-changing experiences.