Jul 14, 2021
Founder & COO, Microschool Builders, LLC Dr. Mara Linaberger believes that each of us has chosen to be here at this moment in time for a specific reason—that we are each on a mission that we choose for ourselves. And that figuring out what we love, what we’re good at, and how we can be of service is the engine we need to fuel a lifetime of joyful learning. Mara also believes that school often slows down or stifles that excitement for students. So she is on a mission to create a global network of 100 microschools in the next 20 years—to harness education toward helping amazing children to develop their highest potentials while making learning fun again! Mara is a life-long educator, author, technologist, artist, ballroom dancer, and musician, having spent 25 years in service as a public school educator, teacher trainer, and administrator. Completing a doctorate in Instructional Technology, she went on to earn a Superintendent’s Letter of Eligibility in Pennsylvania. Launching Mindful Technology Consultants in 2013, she continues to train teachers at the masters level on the use of digital portfolios as alternative assessments and on bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom. Mara is the international two-time best selling author of HELP! My Child Hates School and The Micro-School Builder’s Handbook. Mara currently lives in Harmony, PA, with her husband Michael while she travels far and wide, directly supporting clients in her global Microschool Builders programs.
Jenna says that she thinks many listeners of the Rogue Learner podcast are interested in knowing more about alternative and progressive education models, but who aren’t able to homeschool, may be interested in looking into microschools. She asks Mara to give an overview of microschools for the audience. Mara says that many people would characterize it differently but she sees it as the reinvention of the one-room schoolhouse. It’s usually a parent or educator who decides they want to work with a small group of students in a community. In most cases, micro schools have multi-age groupings, lots of self direction on the part from the students, more time outdoors, more time for field trips and hands-on projects. You can picture it as a one-room schoolhouse with technology, the ability to communicate with others and collaborate beyond our communities, and the ability to travel. They are really a great alternative for many kids. Jenna says it seems like a good alternative for people who want to build something different for students that is easier than creating a school which can accommodate up to 600 students.
Mara mentions that the word micro school was coined in 2010, but is not a new idea. She says Montessori, Reggio Emilo, Waldorf, and Sudbury are all labeled ‘alternative education’, but she thinks that word is loaded because they can be seen as schools which parents send their kids to when they’re getting into trouble or they just don’t fit in. She says that micro schools do accommodate those kids, of course, but there are plenty of other people who are looking for smaller, more personalized, more community-based, gentler, kinder, slower micro schools.
Mara says she’s seeing an influx of parents who are choosing micro schools with kids who are highly sensitive, diagnosed with adhd, gifted, kids with learning deficits or challenges. In the smaller learning environment, she says it’s a lot easier to meet the needs of each individual child as opposed to the public schools which sometimes serve hundreds of students.
Jenna points out that the one thing schools can provide is a sense of community, however in public schools the number of students is often so large that it’s impossible to feel connected and valued as an individual. She says that’s where micro schools can fill a need, the need for community. It would provide a space where you can focus on the wellbeing of the child, not just tests.
On the topic of testing and assessment, Mara says that it’s not used to measure the value of a child first and foremost, but unfortunately children adopt this type of thinking. They think an A means your good and a C means your bad. What an A means, is that you mastered the content and a C means you haven’t mastered the content and it should be used as a guidepoint for the teacher. It lets the teacher know whether or not the way they taught the content was good for the student. With micro schools, there is less emphasis on assessment because the facilitator/guide/mentor is with the child all day everyday in most instances and can observe the progress of the child without formal assessment. They can organically assess whether the child is attaining knowledge. In many micro schools, children will show what they’ve learned by putting on a show for the community, keeping portfolios, or videos. There are so many ways for kids to demonstrate what they know, tests are just one of them. Unfortunately for many kids now, tests create a personal sense of worth and value which is not what they’re intended to do.
Jenna says she agrees and points out that with unschoolers and homeschoolers, we are organically observing our children’s growth over time. It’s easy to see how they’ve acquired new vocabulary or are reading at a higher level. If proof is necessary for some reason, it’s easy to acquire it without formal assessments.
Mara says that some of the micro schools she works with are required to give formal, standardized assessments because of the state they live in, however the way that they approach it is as a celebration of how far the students have come. She says that in most cases children grow even further than what they would be expected to in a public school after a year, so the kids feel some sort of validation from their approach to learning.
Jenna says bureaucracy is there and sometimes there are gatekeepers. She says she likes how Mara flips it around, and uses tests as a celebration of all you’ve learned rather than a valuation of the child’s worth. It’s not used to measure a child up to anyone else’s standards, it’s more of a look at how far the child has come.
Jenna asks how Mara got involved with micro schools. Mara says that eight years ago she was working as the director of staff development, technology integration, new teacher induction, and data and assessment for a local school district. She thought that by moving up into administration, she’d be able to help change education and make it a sainer place for students and educators. At the end of her first year, a new superintendent was coming in and the budget was not balanced and so Mara’s position was eliminated. It was the first time she realized that she was dispensable. She looked for employment elsewhere, but came to the realization that she couldn’t reenter the public school system. She set up a consulting business and did some teaching online, but she also began to investigate the system of education because she was curious about how she could have been part of something that didn’t really value the skill sets she brought and was so easily cast aside. She started questioning what she could do with all of her experience now and knowing that education really wasn’t designed to create autonomous, happy, well-adjusted learners. It’s designed to create workers who can follow the directions they are given, knowing that that’s not really working for kids anymore and won’t work for us in the future because of how rapidly our planet is changing and requires a very different kind of ‘worker’.’ It requires someone who can think autonomously, who can be creative, and come up with solutions for problems.
Mara actually had dreams about one-room schoolhouses and she got curious about that. So she investigated that further and discovered they were still a thing. She read some books written by people who were running them. She went to visit one of them off the coast of Maine and actually got hired to open the school for three students. She stayed for three months before resigning due to the extreme isolation the island had from the mainland. While there however, Mara got to experience how a community of well-intentioned citizens could run a school even with a limited budget. She then wrote a book about making better school choices for your kids, and that led to her writing about how people could go about opening their own school. That book has grown into a full-blown business. Mara now has seven clients who have opened micro schools, which are networked together. She has six new clients who will be opening schools this fall. Mara says her vision, for the work that she’s doing, is to help people who want to get a small school open as a viable business that will pay the owner well and offer real value back to the community of learners and the community in general. Her hope is that all of the owners can work together and collaborate, so the kids are getting a global experience while at the same time still being grounded in their community.
Jenna says she loves the vision and can see how these schools will be popping up everywhere because she sees a need for them, especially for the teen population. In her own experience, she’s found that her kids are yearning for a place to meet up with a constant community of people on a day to day basis. Jenna says she sees how this could really work together with home education to create a real turning point for education.
Mara says she actually has a micro school owner who road-schools with her students. The students choose a location they’d like to go as a culminating activity for the learning. This last Spring they went to Mexico after studying the culture. She says what micro schools can offer road schoolers, homeschoolers, and world schoolers is a place where kids can drop in and feel like part of a community whether it’s for a few weeks or a year. Microschools are really powerful for families who are still a bit fearful to jump in alone or who are not able to do it themselves and are willing to pay someone else to offer that sort of experience to their child.
Jenna asks what it is like to open a micro school and what type of person does Mara look for in her clients. Mara says she prefers to work with educators or parents who are very familiar with self-directed learning. She has a nine-step process for opening a school. The first step is identifying the market - looking for which types of schools are offered in their community, what they do well, what they don’t do well, and most importantly what’s missing that kids want and need. Then she helps the owner identify who their ideal students and families are. Second step is mapping out the business. This requires figuring out the legal entity to select and discovering the school codes for their area. Some states will allow schools to open up as a private school, while others operate as a learning resource center for homeschoolers or as tutoring centers. The third step is marketing. Mara stresses that many people might get into this thinking that finding a space and mapping out the learning day is the place to start, but because it’s a business it’s really important to make sure there’s a buyer for your product, just like any other business would do. Jenna laughs and adds that she herself learned that the hard way as a long-time entrepreneur.
Mara says that as a micro school owner, you’re essentially providing an alternative for kids to their public or private school, so you really want to build something that is exceptional. Microschools give us this rare opportunity to do things we know are best for children, to use all of the best practices, all of the time and not to just pay lip service to them. The single best thing you can do when you’re thinking about building a micro school is to clearly identify who that ideal student is. She even tells her clients to draw a picture of that kid, or if it’s a real kid, take a picture of that kid, and paste it on your wall. If it’s a real kid, talk with them and let them describe to you their ideal “school”.
Jenna asks how the schools look on a day to day basis in terms of curriculum and facilitators. Mara says there’s a really broad range. She says there’s a number of microschools embracing the non-compulsory, democratic model like Sudbury schools, but there are also some who use curriculum in a light way. She has some school owners who use an online math and reading curriculum for the core foundational skills, but there are also those who let the kids master those skills organically too. They create lessons where and when they’re needed based on the needs of the students. The way Mara likes to work with micro school owners is to ensure the business is grounded and viable, the day to day and curriculum is really up to the owners and the needs of the community and students. Most of the owners look at offering a whole-person approach, addressing the mind, body and spirit. They don’t simply focus on academics. There’s an emphasis on spending time outdoors, doing physical activities, learning how to eat well, traveling, student leadership, conflict resolution, and sometimes religion (depending on the school). Jenna adds that she feels like most educators of today, including her, would like education to be geared toward the wellbeing of the whole child, not just their academic “success”.
Mara says that within her circle of people in the education system, she sees a block in people’s thinking, where they just can’t get past the scope and sequence of what a child must learn in a year’s time. She doesn’t get why people think there is only one way for kids to be taught or one type of learning that they all should have access to. Mara mentions how we are failing to prepare kids in public schools to question things and then later when they come upon a piece of news, they aren’t able to look into the source and evaluate what story is being told here. Jenna adds that schools offer no way for students to actually participate in the world and scrutinize it because it’s such a controlled environment.
Mara talks about how kids figure out what they have to do to get A’s and get their work done so they can feel good about themselves and so that their parents don’t hassle them. They go through the motions and they are not learning to think critically, they’re not learning how to have civil discourse, and how to vet sources and resources. She explains how microschools offer students the time and flexibility to talk about important world events as they come up. Jenna adds that there’s also no bell, so students can talk for as long as they deem necessary. Although microschools do have a general rhythm to their day, they all vary. For example, one of the microschool owners has a one hour window of time where the kids can arrive at school. The first hour they spend doing service work, like repairing things in the school or caring for the school’s animals. After that, they have tea and time for journaling. It’s a very gentle start to the day. This, as opposed to entering the room and starting a math lesson.
Jenna asks how Mara supports the microschool owners once they’re up and running and they have students. She says she offers two levels of service; one where she helps the business owner get their ideas on paper and the other is a membership group called the collective. They meet weekly, they get technical support in business, marketing, HR, and legal counsel. They are planning to meet once a year in person and find ways for kids to travel to one another's schools. The owners share resources with each other as well. The kids from all schools also meet via Zoom once a week too.
Jenna asks Mara if she has a favorite microschool that has been built under the microschool builders umbrella. Mara says she doesn’t have a favorite, but she can share some of her favorite things about some of the microschools so far. One of them does weekly skateboarding and surfing in Southern Florida. They are location independent, so students do all of their academic work online, independently and then participate in the in-person meetups too. They go on field trips together regularly - kayaking and farm plots are just a couple of examples. She has clients with schools that focus on the Sloyd principles and a couple which incorporate the outdoors into most of what they do. So, it varies a lot.
Jenna asks if Mara sees microschools gaining popularity worldwide or if it’s a US phenomenon. She says yes, it’s absolutely going up. There are other organizations doing similar work - helping people create microschools in their communities. They have a different focus. Acton Academy is one of them which began in Texas and has over 200 schools all over the globe. She says their ideal client would be a couple of parents who want to build a school where their kids can attend. She says she is getting calls from Australia, Europe and South America. It’s definitely a worldwide trend - people are craving small schools.
Mara mentions Clubhouse being a place where she’s met microschool owners. Jenna adds that she can’t seem to get into Clubhouse. It takes up so much time and feels like a huge time suck. Mara agrees, it takes a lot of discipline, but she acknowledges how wonderful it can be as a resource and a place to spread your message about self-directed education and create an awareness about microschools. Mara says one of her personal challenges is to not just talk about the future of education, but to take action.
Mara sincerely hopes that with the growing number of microschools up and running, the public education system might stop what they’re doing and decide that smaller, more personalized education, based in the community might actually benefit kids more.
Mara talks about how she looks for clients who already understand the student autonomy piece, because the rest (the entrepreneur skill set) can be learned. Jenna laughs about how Mara’s role is precisely what self-directed learning promotes. Mara says, that’s exactly what she wants to happen is for the owners to do the same thing she’s doing with them for their students - she plays into their strengths and facilitates their passions. Mara says her work is so rewarding. She never thought she’d be using her school running skills she acquired from the school district to help individuals build their own schools.
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