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Soul Centered Education

Springhouse Community School, a small, private secondary school in the rural Appalachian town of Floyd, VA, is committed to soul-centered education, an education that focuses on “the vital, mysterious, and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person” (Plotkin, Soulcraft Ch. 2). We founded Springhouse on the belief that what is most needed from our formal schooling systems is not a requirement of rote familiarity with a standardized set of facts but an opportunity to recognize, articulate, and embody the gifts that each person carries. We provide this space for our students by incorporating one-on-one, small group, and intergenerational mentoring, project-based learning experiences, and community collaboration, all within a psycho-spiritual developmental framework that cultivates wholeness.

At Springhouse, our mission is to prepare adolescents for young adulthood by providing an educational experience that is individualized, rigorous, and engaging. Before we dive into the second half of this statement, we need to spend some time with the first. By adolescence and young adulthood, we are not simply referring to stages of biological development. To us, adolescence does not necessarily begin with puberty, nor does young adulthood necessarily begin on one’s 18th birthday. We use Plotkin’s Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, which outlines eight life stages from early childhood to late elderhood and describes the developmental tasks, gifts, and “psycho-spiritual center of gravity” of each stage (Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, Ch. 1 pg. 61). For example, middle childhood is characterized by the tasks of exploring the natural world and learning cultural ways, the gift of wonder, and a center of gravity focused on family and nature, while adolescence is characterized by the task of creating a secure and authentic social self, the gift of fire, and a center of gravity focused on peers, sex, and society. Progression from one stage to the next is marked by completion of the tasks and a corresponding shift in the center of gravity. Many of our younger students have not successfully completed the tasks of childhood so we walk with them as they learn to identify and transform their childhood strategies, such as playing the victim, tantruming, making excuses, or people pleasing. It might be more accurate to say that our mission is to assist young people in their journey from childhood, through adolescence, and into young adulthood. We have many stories that illustrate this process.

This year we welcomed a new student named Doug. Doug is the youngest in his family and the only boy. He lives with his mother, a single parent and business owner, and he was an average student at his previous school. From the outset, Doug was effusive about the school and its positive impacts on him. After a few weeks, however, we noticed that Doug was failing to complete many of his assignments. When confronted, he said that he would do better and that he loved the school. Despite several of these confrontations, nothing changed and we quickly realized that Doug was masterfully employing a manipulative strategy of people pleasing to avoid doing what was being asked of him. He figured that as long as he spouted praise and made promises that we would conveniently look the other way. When we realized what was happening, we sat down with Doug and named this pattern of behavior. We asked him to reflect and name it for himself, which he was able to do. We also invited Doug into something deeper – an honest relationship with his challenges and strategies as well as his gifts and dreams. Doug’s behavior did not immediately and entirely shift after this conversation, but because we laid the groundwork, we have been able to engage Doug in a different way. In his weekly one-on-one mentoring time, Doug has been able to further explore his behaviors and, perhaps more importantly, practice cultivating an authentic approach to his life. What’s more, as soon as he slips back into people-pleasing mode, he either catches himself or someone (compassionately) calls him on it. After months of this type of engagement, Doug is starting to cast a new narrative for himself and he is able to more fully engage with the tasks of adolescence. We are currently developing a set of passages based on these developmental tasks to complement our set of competency-based academic requirements. Together these frameworks will guide students toward graduation and truly prepare them for the next stage of life. Working with a young person at this level of honesty and depth requires a healthy, active relationship so each student at Springhouse works with a mentor. The pair meets at least once a week to review academic progress and to address any issues that may be hindering the student’s development.

These meetings occasionally prompt the mentors to create rituals and ceremonies to deepen a student’s self-understanding or to help propel the student through a transformative experience. When Joel, a creative and shy 9th grade student, submitted a report for a project to his team of mentors, he was questioned about the originality of his writing and eventually asked to rewrite the paper in his own words. Receiving this feedback triggered Joel. He crumpled up his paper, threw it into the trashcan, and teared up as a look of anger and disgust crept onto his face. Joel’s mentor sat with him and asked him to explain what was going on. He said that he had borrowed someone else’s words because he is not a good writer and never has been. He followed this with a flurry of negative comments about his intelligence and his worth as a person. The mentor asked Joel to retrieve his paper from the trash can and to draw on it an image of this harsh internal critic that was having its way with Joel. With this assignment, Joel’s face changed from one of defeat to one of determination. He knew exactly what the critic looked like – a pair of menacing red eyes set wide on a plane of darkness. He proudly brought his creation back to his mentor who then told Joel to gather a group of his classmates and bring them outside. When the group came outside, Joel’s mentor was waiting with a book of matches and an empty small metal trash can. She instructed Joel to put his paper into the trash can with the face looking out and to explain to the other students what it represented. After Joel had clearly articulated what the face stood for, he took the matches and set the paper on fire. As the paper went up in flames, the other students offered Joel encouraging words about his gifts and their appreciation of him. Joel successfully reworked his paper, and now, whenever his inner critic is active, he has a powerful image of its transformation. This type of experience coupled with a consistent mentor presence and a school community that values wholeness ensures that Joel is on his way to an authentic existence. The individual mentoring work that we do at Springhouse is a core aspect of fostering psycho-spiritual development, but because we have an expansive, integrated perspective, we view every experience as an opportunity for soul-centered growth and development.

The second part of our mission – providing an educational experience that is individualized, rigorous, and engaging – includes both the mentoring work and the more traditional academic work. At Springhouse, students participate in a combination of project-based classes, group projects that are either student- or adult-initiated, and individual, self-designed projects. All students participate in a Waldorf-based math curriculum, a language arts curriculum that weaves together history, science, myths, and popular culture, a physical fitness program of either strength training or yoga, and a Spanish curriculum. Other classes that have been offered include An Exploration of the Darkness, in which students study psychological, cultural, and scientific conceptions of darkness, Becoming a Naturalist, in which students learn about the local flora and fauna, Radical Civics, in which students learn about their rights as citizens, and Green Building and Design, in which students design a building based on green building concepts. Students have also participated in a class on death and dying. This class was offered in collaboration with a local hospice service. Students partnered with a young adult from the Springhouse Well program and visited a hospice patient in the community every week for the semester and into the summer. This class will continue to be an integral part of our curriculum. Group projects have included building a PC from scratch, designing and building a remote-controlled hydrogen fuel cell car, learning how to breakdance and beatbox, studying art history, and creating a rock band. Group work is a powerful way to better understand oneself and to learn the skills needed to navigate the complexity of today’s economy.

Project-based learning offers young people a certain level of autonomy and independence that allows their gifts to flourish while also bringing their struggles into clear focus, as exemplified by Joel’s story. One of our youngest students recently rediscovered her passion for writing and has already written more than 100 pages of a fantasy novel that she plans to complete by the end of this school year. She is being mentored by a novelist from the community who has helped her to organize her story and develop other essential writing skills. This type of mentoring by community experts who are passionate about their work is a common theme at Springhouse. One of our older students has spent the past year studying solar energy. As part of his multi-faceted studies, which have included community college classes and an assessment of our school’s solar array, he has shadowed the owner of a local solar energy business, helping him on job sites and learning complex concepts through firsthand experience. Two other students who are determined to study abroad in Japan and France during their high school years have been learning these languages with native speakers in our community and preparing to host a culture fair to raise money for their tips. Springhouse is truly a “community” school. In addition to mentoring student projects, community members also offer their gifts and showcase their passions by leading workshops and classes. Every Friday we have a different Experience Friday workshop, which is either led by a student or a community member. Past workshops have included Ghanaian drumming and dance, gourmet chocolate making, glass blowing, blacksmithing, and science journalism. Every year we also take a spring and fall Experience Week trip as an entire school to immerse ourselves in different cultures and to learn from individuals who are doing powerful work. We have traveled to Harlan, KY to learn about the ways that mountaintop removal coal mining impacts communities, ecosystems, and individuals, and to Asheville, NC where we experienced different ways in which people engage with creativity in their personal and professional lives.

This year, students planned our entire trip to Cloudland Canyon State Park and Chattanooga, TN. Connecting with people who are living authentically, who are actively expressing their soul’s calling, enlivens, inspires, and motivates us, and it provides direct evidence to our students that it is possible to create the life that they want. In our short existence, we have found that teenagers respond exceptionally well to two groups: 1) people who are living soulfully and 2) people who are a few years older than they are, particularly individuals in their early 20s. From the outset, this second group has been attracted to our school to teach, volunteer, and generally engage. When we realized that we had a cohort of committed 20-somethings who our students loved and looked up to and who had their own big questions, we created The Well. This program was designed to assist young adults as they shift away from their adolescent identity, search for and establish a sense of meaning and purpose, and hone their mentoring and leadership skills. Participants engage in weekly one-on-one mentoring work with the advisors, assist and lead classes, provide project support to students, study the work of development and mentoring specialists such as Bill Plotkin and Michael Meade, and peer mentor one another in a weekly group meeting. This year we had 9 participants in the program, ranging in age from 23 to 33. Our students have benefitted tremendously from their relationships with these adults who are committed to working on their developmental tasks. Based on our experience with this program and a clear call from our community for this type of work, we are opening the Well program to anyone looking to deepen into their soul work and their relationship to Mystery.

In addition to engaging young adults as integral members of our school community, we meet regularly with the parents of our students to discuss adolescent development from a soul-centered perspective, to address their own unfinished developmental tasks, which often hinder their parenting efforts, and to cultivate a community of support during this challenging time. In a parent meeting of this year, we held a grief ritual in which parents were asked to share something they are grieving as their children transition out of childhood and into adolescence. With tears streaming down their faces, parents reflected on the immense challenges of letting go of their little kids and embracing the complexity of the teen years. They also tapped into some ungrieved emotions from their own teen years and were able to be witnessed and held in their grieving. These meetings have been transformational for many of the parents involved. With authenticity, vulnerability, and courage, our parents are helping to co-create a thriving culture that can truly serve our young people. This year, we will be offering support to Springhouse parents and parents of adolescents from the larger community. Explicitly engaging parents and inviting them to do their own work is essential to the transition of their children from adolescence to young adulthood. The need for cultural regeneration is urgent. As psychologist John Schumaker recently stated, For the younger generation, the course of boredom, disappointment, disillusion and demoralization is almost inevitable. As the products of invisible parents, commercialized education, cradle-to-grave marketing and a profoundly boring and insane cultural programme, they must also assimilate into consumer culture while knowing from the outset that its workings are destroying the planet and jeopardizing their future. (The Demoralized Mind, 2016) If teenagers hate going to school and school is designed to prepare students for life, then schools are essentially sending the message that you should be prepared to hate your life. This is unacceptable. Fortunately, a movement to rethink education is coalescing.

We are engaged with a national network of innovative schools from around the country through the Education Reimagined initiative, a project of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. In this group, we are establishing a common lexicon for our innovative work, documenting the different expressions of learner-centered education, and crafting tools to assess the effectiveness of our approaches. To shift the course of our culture, we must support each individual in their psycho-spiritual development and prioritize soul discovery as an essential component of the education process. As Michael Meade says, “If each person has natural gifts and innate talents, then the true nature of education must involve the awakening, inviting, and blessing of the inner genius and unique life spirit of each young person” (The Genius Myth). Springhouse Community School places soul at the center where it needs to be. Plotkin, B. (2007). Nature and the human soul. Novato, CA: New World Library. Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the mysteries of nature and psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library. Schumaker, J. (2016). The demoralized mind. New Internationalist, http://newint.org/columns/essays/2016/04/01/psycho-spiritual-crisis/ Meade, M. (2016). The genius myth. Not yet available in print.

About the Author: Ezekiel Fugate

Ezekiel has a master’s degree from Yale University in Environmental Engineering and a Bachelor’s Degree in Math and Engineering from the University of Virginia. He and his wife manage a small-scale permaculture homestead that includes dairy cows, chickens, an integrated orchard/vegetable/herb garden, honeybees, two dogs, and a chubby baby girl. Ezekiel is an all-around plant enthusiast, and he is constantly curious about the intricacies of the web of life that sustain us. He is deeply committed to regenerating a healthy culture by leveraging the art of mentoring, creating meaningful rituals, and living authentically.

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