Category Archives: Transforming Education

Bringing it Home

A recent update sent in by a member of our LEAPYEAR QUEST group, which finished in 2012.

Oh boy, where to start? Today’s my first day of the summer and it’s in the sixties with light showers and a hazy overcast. I’m not complaining. I’ve been taking it easy and rereading some Hemingway all day.

I say it’s the first day of Summer partly in jest but it is true in a sense. Yesterday I completed the last of my Summer time responsibilities of which there were many and I’m looking forward to ten days of relaxation before the next semester starts up.

Not sure when I last wrote to ya’ll but a lot of unexpected  opportunities have unfolded this year. I started at SUNY Geneseo not intending to matriculate any more than a year there. I wound up doing well and making good connections, however, and even finding myself enjoying the environment. Over winter break I applied for a grant from the college as well, and was awarded it. One stipulation was that I must be a returning student in the fall. The work the grant money would allow me to do was worth the commitment of another 3 months and now as the fall semester approaches I even find myself looking forward to it.

My summer was invested in a few things that kept me more than busy but only the grant work is really exciting so I’ll explain that some.  My proposal for the grant was to invest the money in building a foundation for a new educational non-profit in my home region.  I’ve been meeting with a team of local educators for almost a year and the grant gave me a chance to get it off the ground and watch it evolve.  This past week I held 4 information sessions around the region about our organization, Discover: Self-Directed Teen Learning (  It’s been a really surreal experience, presenting to parents and educators (including my much disliked 5th grade teacher) and having them really respect and appreciate and want to invest in what I’m trying to bring to the community.

The grant also brought me to two conferences over the summer, one on long island and one in western mass.  Both were on alternative education and both were great places to glean new ideas and make new connections.  Now I’m back home and have given the series of market-research/community outreach sessions proposed by the grant.   I’m excited to take the next steps in this entrepreneurial process and see what these seeds grow into. At the same time it’s all very surreal.

I remember having to sit down during first retreat while reciting my Rilke poem. That’s how bad my anxiety was a few years ago. And I remember one time M made a comment about my natural skill as a leader and how I scoffed at her misinterpretation.  But apparently there was something in me that she could detect, despite my own naivety or self-doubt. And it’s just so crazy to think that a few supportive people along the way have given me the chance to sit here, nearly 22 years old, and feel good, finally about who I am and what I’m doing in the world.

There’s still a lot of big questions of course. And sometimes I’m not so enthusiastic about the work that I’m doing and the responsibiity of it and being in western new york so damn always.  Sometimes I get downright blue about it all in fact, and miss the care-free life I had not so long ago. Sometimes I want to mourn my own youth, you know? But then I realize the folly in doing so, eventually anyway, and before long I’m celebrating instead.

I remember writing you all an email from Bolivia that went along the lines of “I want to go back to western new york and bring educational empowerment to teens in my home region.” Well here I am, making it happen. And if that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

It’s funny how many unsure steps still bring us to our destination.

Taking time to give thanks – Cassie Bull

I was at my brother’s house last Saturday for the ‘Saturday Before Thanksgiving Feast’, a tradition put in place by our mother when she was alive. It was particularly poignant this year as our mother’s sister was in the ICU and we weren’t sure whether she would ever join us again. So we set time aside to celebrate, acknowledge and appreciate all who had gone before, all who are still here, and all who will go on after we are gone – three generations were present for the feast.

And we left out the thanks. We simply didn’t have it in our practice to bless the table, each other and the amazing bounty of the earth. How was this even possible? There were 14 of us. We sat down to a table literally overflowing with food. It was amazing and overwhelming in its bounty. Fresh bread baked that morning, thinly sliced turkey and pork that had been deboned and brined, mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, a fresh salad with the bright orange of persimmon and sparkling jewels of pomegranate, wine and sparkling cider overflowing our glasses. And for dessert, my newest culinary foray – blackberry, sour cherry and Banbury Pop Tarts used as scoops for sweetened whipped cream.

And we just sat down and ate. I joined them even though giving thanks is part of my daily practice, even though at home and at Maacama we begin every meal with thanks and appreciation, as a practice to generate rather than unconsciously consume. Again, how was this even possible? I got caught up in the eddy of what we always do, I got caught in the eddy of my unconscious behavior when I get together with my family of origin. I was caught as a singular voice in a group that was simply doing as it always does and doing it well, even though there was so much unspoken grace and grief present in the room.

This is what we all do if we don’t bring our conscious attention to doing something different! We do it at school, in relationship to the earth, with each other, and with ourselves. We forget that we aren’t entitled to any of it. We forget that the air we breathe and the rain that falls and the green that grows and the food we eat and the people we love and the health we enjoy aren’t a forever thing. We forget to say thank you. We forget that every day we wake up is a gift and it is filled with abundance, filled with the grace and grief of being alive. We just have to begin paying attention, break the habit of unconscious consumption and begin saying thank you – silently, out loud, shouted from the rooftops of your home town, to each other, with each step we take and every breath that is ours…Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Do it today, do it right now – turn to someone and say thank you, just because.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Take the time when you are home to do something different, to go against the tide of habits and traditions. Take the time to ask others to join you in leading with appreciation and gratitude – see your cup half full rather than half empty. Turn your complaints into requests and remember to lead with gratitude – this life you are living is not a given, it is a gift.

Signs you may need a Gap Year!

Signs You May Need A Gap Year : (source:  Center for INTERIM Programs)

You love learning, but can’t face having to write one more term paper.

You’d like to actually speak to someone in Spanish rather than just take another vocabulary test.

Partying is what you are looking forward to most about college.

Your mom and dad are “helicopter parents,” and going to Australia might be the only way to get them to stop hovering.

Life feels like a treadmill, and you’re only 18.

Something inside you is telling you that the world is just a little bit bigger than your high school football stadium.

You suspect you might benefit more right now from learning how to cook for yourself and find your own place to live, than learning more about string theory or quantum physics.

You know you want to be defined by more than just your GPA and your SAT scores.

You find your job or volunteer work more compelling than your classes.

The idea of having to choose a major fills you with dread.

Though you search inside yourself, you can’t think of anything you really want to do.

You can’t imagine going to college more than an hour away from home.

You are only going to college because all of your friends are.

You have an irrational allergy to talking about college, filling out college paperwork or writing college essays.

We have been schooled to have no inner life – JT Gatto

Our American system of compulsory schooling was created about 150 years ago.  “Schools were established when kids were experience-rich and information poor.  The world has changed; schools haven’t.”   (James Coleman)   Our accepted educational system generally asks young people to sit in age-segregated rectangular classrooms under fluorescent lights and absorb and regurgitate information for 12 years in a row.  When the bell rings, they move to the next room, whether engaged in the subject matter or not.   They learn about ‘what is important and real” second-hand through the process of having someone talk at them.     And all of this happens during the most physically active and inquisitive years of their life.

As a result, they learn that education is something that someone else does TO them, and that others know more about than they do.    To do school successfully they learn to stifle their organic physical vitality and much of their curiosity.   They become distant from their own authentic voices, and their hearts.  Rather than pursuing learning for its value to them, they learn to focus on how to jump through hoops for outer authorities.

From the full spectrum of human possibility and capability, schools select a limited band and focuses our attention there – compromising our wholeness throughout 12 foundational years of our development.

The focus of the curriculum is on the head, and particularly the left hemisphere.   The rest of the body is asked to sit still for much of the day.

The arts, creativity and physical education are marginalized, and are the first things to go if there are budget cuts.   They are systematically separated from traditional sources of wisdom – elders, religion, spirituality, time alone and in nature.

Academic subject matter is generally taught out of context – students can rarely tell you what the relevance of the subject matter is to their current life or their future.  Time doing something real is limited.    Students are generally limited to work in schools – thus not building their understanding of what adults do.   They rarely get to see the beginning, middle and end of a process.

The environment is contrived – students spend the majority of their time in environments that don’t bear a resemblance to the real world – age segregation is a good example.

Students aren’t trusted – time alone is monitored and limited.  Students rarely get to choose what they can study.  Because the student isn’t trusted, they learn to mistrust themselves.  Time outdoors in the natural world is limited.  Physical activity is constrained and controlled.  They learn implicitly that they aren’t important or to be taken seriously until they graduate from a college.

We don’t tell them specifically what it means to be an adult and how to get there.  We don’t tell them when adulthood begins – because we aren’t clear ourselves.  We give adolescents permission to drive between 16 and 18, we allow them to die for their country at 18, but we don’t trust them to drink until 21 – clearly a confused message about adulthood and responsibility.

They aren’t taught what integrity is and how to maintain it.  They don’t learn to feel their feelings – what to do with sadness, anger or fear – which is of vital importance for successfully navigating the challenges of life.   Many haven’t learned what to do about procrastination.

A majority of the college age students we come in contact with go into a trance as soon as an adult starts talking to them in any formal way.  They have learned to dial down their aliveness and natural reactions until they can get out of the classroom – when they can start living again.   Most are comfortable leading such split lives.

Then, we’re supposed to invest $60,000 to $250,000 in their “higher education.”   Does it make sense to ask someone who hasn’t done anything real in the world to choose a major?   On what basis can they make an informed choice?

Does it truly make sense to send someone off to college before they have developed a sense of themselves – before they have sampled the world of work – before they have taken time to live in the question of “who am I, really?”

We have accepted a situation in which college means muddling around for a year or two – but can we afford this?   Is this the best way to go?

In the light of the limited focus that is built into our educational system by design, consciously chosen and planned time outside of the classroom becomes an imperative.

Currently only 57% of first-time college students have graduated after 6 years.  (U.S. Dept. of Education).  This means that most students are taking a de facto gap year.

Before going on to enroll in college or choose a major, it just makes sense to do something for a year or two to help you restore your wholeness, and help you connect with your unique life purpose.

A song of endings and beginnings…

A song of appreciation written to her group by a member of the recently completed LEAPYEAR Pegasus group:

A Leap
I know a place where the creek runs free
And I know a place where I can be me
The creek it takes my hand and leads me in this land
It starts out with a step, then we start to jump, then we start to dance
And then it’s a leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love, a leap of joy
I know a place where food and love abound
And I know a place were true humans can be found
The love surrounds me, shows me who to be
It starts out with a step, then we start to jump, then we start to dance
Then it’s a leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love, a leap of joy
Hungry, aching souls reborn upon this land
Lost and lonely ones find hope in this land
And-well, wait, what about right speech? *Ahem*
I know a place where hope is relit
And I know a place where to truths I must admit
Cassie and Sam take my hand and point me down the road
But then they must let go
And again
It starts out with a step and then we start to jump, then we start to dance
A leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love,a leap of joy
Though I cross the bridge, you’re in my heart
You’re in my soul, you’re in my love, you’re in my blood
And you’re only a leap away
Because I know a place…

Thank you for the journey…

An amazing expression of gratitude sent from one member of the most recently completed LEAPYEAR – the 2010/11 Pegasus group.    It expresses the quality of bond and family that is created by many LEAPYEAR groups:

To the people who know me best,

What can I say after the most amazing year of my life?What can I say to the people who held a space that let the world open its arms high and wide to me?I want to tell you all of the infinite love and gratitude I feel for you all as Pegasus, as students, as travelers, as peers, as pioneers, as people.   I am so blessed to have been given a chance to see you at your best to love you all the more at your worst.

I think we can all say that this year has irrevocably changed us all. But I feel a change so deep and so steeped in the love that surrounded me all year that I couldn’t rest easy without naming it and sending it back to all of you in the ways I can.

I am here to stand witness to the beauty and light and infinite power and grace I see in each of you. I am here to hold the space for you all to look back on when your vision goes blurry to remember a time when you surpassed any life anyone could have ever dreamed up for you, when you held the power of the universe in your hands like a ball of white light and accepted a blind faith with a smile on your lips.  I see you all.

I don’t feel like I can really say what you all have meant to me in this year.  I am not afraid of time’s effect on our relationships, I am strong in my faith that we will all always be able to find home in each others hearts.

My heart is a home to you all, and you can seek it out whenever you need it. I am here in bliss to repay and offer up all the gifts you have given me.

To the people who changed my world and are the change in their own

I send:

All my love….

What is a gap year?

Simply defined, a gap year is a significant period of time that provides a gap in your life.  The term is most commonly applied to time “on” taken between high school and college, or a year “off” during college – during which you generally do something other than traditional academics in a classroom setting.   This time is generally used to explore the world, do a variety of real activities, then reflect and prepare for the next purposeful step in their life.

Prior to 1985 or so, the concept of a gap year was mostly unknown in the United States.   If you were making “normal” progress with your education, it looked something like this:

In this scenario, it wasn’t until your junior year that it was accepted to study abroad, or to learn in some way that was out of the box – though generally you just traded in a classroom in the U.S. for one in Salamanca, Spain, for example.

With the idea of a gap year gaining understanding – particularly in the past 8 years, this has become an accepted path for your education:


In this progression, it has become more accepted to take a year to mature, explore interests, gain self-esteem, travel, work, do internships and volunteer exchanges.   Unfortunately, today’s model still defines the gap year in reaction to traditional classroom education –  within the limited idea that education isn’t generally valid unless it happens in a classroom.

LEAPNOW is involved with expanding the definition of a gap year to focus on the wholeness of the human being as a primary goal of the gap period, and to remove the assumption that classroom learning is the highest form of learning.

How to set up your own Gap Year

With some work on the part of students and their parents, and with the help of the amazing resources available on the Internet, it is now within your reach to set up your own “time on.”

Important questions to answer when thinking about “time on:”

  • How much time is available to you? A summer? A semester? A full year?
  • How much money do you have available to you? Include airfare, spending $$, & activities.  It works well to structure “time on” in 3-month blocks – particularly if you wish to save money.    Three months is usually the minimum amount of time that you need to give in order to get room and board from an organization – enough time for you to be useful to them.  The more time you can give, the more likely you are to receive support from an organization – you become useful to them.
  • Do you want to travel with a group or alone? Or some combination of the two?  For students who aren’t used to traveling it can be very helpful to take a hybrid approach – start with a semester or summer of organized group travel, then do one or two three-month internships in the second part of your time on.   Such an year might look like this:

Sept – December :  Travel with an organized group

Christmas break: Home for the holidays – make some money, ground and re-load

Jan – March  3-month volunteer stint somewhere      This could also be a period of work to fund the year.

April – June     3-month internship, or two months and a month of travel.

  • Do you want a lot of structure or less structure? It is a good idea to start with more structure, then as the year progresses, increase initiative required & decrease structure.
  • Do you want to do a variety of things or just one thing? Most people want to do a variety of things.
  • Do you need to build in time to work to make money?
  • Do you want to include time to be a tourist or to wander?
  • What do you want to be doing?  What do you want to accomplish?

If you aren’t willing or able to do the work needed to set up your own “time on,” there are organizations dedicated to setting up structured “time on” for you for a fee.   They may charge you per placement, or a flat fee for a set period of time.   Their experience can give you a sense of security and they may be able to save you money by helping you find situations that pay or give room and board in exchange for work.

If you don’t know what you want to do, think about the following questions:

  • Urban or rural?
  • US or abroad?
  • Where do I feel called to go, or where do I want to go?   Is there someplace on the planet I feel pulling me?
  • Do I want to work with people, or not?
  • Do I want to work with animals, plants, the land?
  • Is there a language I wish to learn?
  • If money were no object, what would you do?
  • Are you willing to serve others?   Do physical labor?

Give particular attention to transitions.  You are most vulnerable when in transition.   It may make sense to pay extra to have someone meet you at the airport you fly into.  Make sure you have a backup plan – such as a  hotel near the airport to check into if you miss your connection.

To save money, you can do the following:

  • Stay in this hemisphere – to keep airfare costs down.   String a series of internships together in a region to keep airfares to a minimum.   Find people who can donate their frequent flyer miles to you.
  • Work in the areas of social service, teaching, agriculture, environmental work, construction, outdoor and manual work, work with wildlife, or hotel work.   These all tend to be situations that can offer room or room and food in exchange for your labor.
  • Consider working where you can legally work for pay – in the U.S., the UK, Australia.
  • Set up an internship or volunteer stint through a foreign-based volunteer placement agency – they will generally charge much less than a US-based organization.

One way to get oriented and grounded in a country is to start with a period of language study.  Plan on two weeks and up if you are brushing up a language, a month or longer of intensive study if you need to gain enough proficiency to get around comfortably.     Language schools usually can set up stays with host families, and often can set up internships for you.

Do your due diligence.  Make sure you can get names and contact information of others who have worked with the organization that you want to work with – then call or email them about the support they received.  There is no better source of information than someone like you who went before.

This will get you started thinking about the process.   Stay tuned for a blog entry devoted to available resources that will help you set yourself up.

Why take a gap year?

There are as many reasons to take a gap year as there are reasons for living, or for getting out of bed in the morning.   Here is a partial list:

  • Why NOT take a gap year?   There isn’t a compelling reason not to take one.
  • Life isn’t a race, college will still be there a year later.
  • Get out of the stale classroom – rather than learning by sitting in a room for 16 years in a row.
  • Get away from parents, friends and your hometown, and put it in perspective – discover the difference between what you have inherited, and what is essentially YOURS.
  • Explore learning in different modes and different environments
  • Grow a year older and hopefully, in the process, wiser or at least more practical
  • Experience other cultures, and see the world
  • Learn another language
  • Try on possible career choices in real time – try on the work represented by different college majors
  • Find and explore at least one passion
  • Try on new roles and identities. Experiment!
  • Discover new talents and skills
  • Take risks
  • Give your parents financial breathing room between children
  • Take time to earn money for college
  • Learn about practical economics
  • Learn practically about the world of work
  •  Become more interesting for your college essays
  • Recover from high school pressure and burnout
  • Be responsible for taking initiative for your own education and experience
  • Take advantage of one of the last accepted times to be irresponsible without feeling too guilty
  • Let the well fill back up
  • Feel the wind in your hair
  • Explore what you love and discover a worthwhile reason for attending college
  •  Break through our uniquely American sense of entitlement and realize how materially blessed we are.
  • Do something for someone else – be of service
  • Experience a greater variety of ecosystems – deserts, jungles, icebergs, et
  • Be treated as an adult – perhaps for the first time.  Practice being an adult.
  • Build self-esteem by overcoming real obstacles and achieving real successes
  • Learn by doing what adults do.
  •  Live on your own and show yourself that you can deal with loneliness and adversity
  • Learn to structure your own time
  • Take some time to wander in the world
  •  Escape from deadlines, other people’s expectations, and outer pressures
  • Develop a stronger sense of yourself
  • Find out how big the world is, and gain a sense of my own insignificance
  • Get out of the educational trance and learn that you are responsible for your own learning
  • Have psychological time and space to re-imagine your own life.
  • Differentiate yourself from parents, friends and your cultural assumptions
  • Learn how to live, work and travel independently
  • Don’t waste your parents money if you don’t want to be in college, or if you don’t have a good reason for being there.

Quotes about education

A couple of provocative quotes about education:

“On your own, you have to face the responsibility for how you spend time. But in school you don’t. What they make you do may obviously be a waste but at least the responsibility isn’t charged to your account. School in this respect is, once again, like the army or jail. Once you’re in, you may have all kinds of problems but freedom isn’t one of them.”
-Jerry Farber

“Modern schools and universities push students into habits of depersonalized learning, alienation from nature and sexuality, obedience to hierarchy, fear of authority, self-objectification, and chilling competitiveness. These character traits are the essence of the twisted personality-type of modern industrialism. They are precisely the character traits needed to maintain a social system that is utterly out of touch with nature, sexuality and real human needs.”
-Arthur Evans

“The function of high school, then, is not so much to communicate knowledge as to oblige children finally to accept the grading system as a measure of their inner excellence. And a function of the self-destructive process in American children is to make them willing to accept not their own, but a variety of other standards, like a grading system, for measuring themselves. It is thus apparent that the way American culture is now integrated it would fall apart if it did not engender feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.”
-Jules Henry