Open Connections: A Conversation with Julia Dawn Bergson-Shilcock

Q&A   25 June 2019
By Julia Dawn Bergson-Shilcock, Open Connections


Just because we are adults and have lived more life; we aren’t necessarily the experts, and we aren’t to be feared. There is a mutual respect that allows for freedom, responsibility, and a celebration of that natural curiosity.

Julia Dawn Bergson-Shilcock

Q: What’s your and your family’s history with Open Connections?

A: My parents founded Open Connections in the late 1970’s, so I grew up with Open Connections right next to my childhood home. At the time, Open Connections was in a one-room schoolhouse in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I grew up in what people would label as a homeschooling, unschooling, or partnership education environment.

I attended Open Connections as a young person, and at the time, the programs didn’t go through the high school years. During those years, my parents unschooled my three siblings and me. Their philosophy was to learn through hands-on, purposeful work and activities.

One of those activities was interning at Open Connections, which I did all the way from my “middle school” years through graduating college—moving from unpaid to paid when I was 15. I never stepped foot in a traditional school atmosphere until I attended college. Once I graduated college, I was confident that working at Open Connections was the path I wanted to take—following in my parents’ footsteps.

However, my parents encouraged me to dip my toe in the waters of a more traditional 9-5 job to ensure I didn’t have any regrets in the future for not trying something new. I took a temp job at a local college in the accounts payable department. I had no previous experience in the field, but it did give me the 9-5 desk job experience that confirmed it wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted.

After fulfilling my temp role, I came to Open Connections full-time. Over 15 years later and I’m still here!

Q: Why has Open Connections always felt like the place you should be?

A: At heart, I’m a people person. So much of the work we do is about having a particular lifestyle, rather than simply educating kids. The Open Connections experience is about making connections, seeing the good in people and the world, having an abundance mentality and can-do attitude, and problem solving. This type of work gives me the forum to weave all of those skill sets together.

I was a Sociology major in college, so I get to tap into that experience as well. I get to put family first with my own children—ages five, eight, and ten. They also attend Open Connections, so I get to cross paths with them throughout the day. I also have the opportunity to help other families see there is a different way to approach education. It doesn’t have to be stressful or burdensome or “something you get through.” Instead, education can be fun and engaging—as it should be.

Q: What has always been at the core of the Open Connections philosophy?

A: Open Connections was founded on the belief that young people are born naturally curious about the world. You don’t need to teach a toddler how to open up cupboards, dump things out, mix the items around, and explore each item they touch. People want to figure out the world around them.

Unfortunately, what can happen in a conventional public or private school setting places the emphasis on right and wrong answers. In such a setting, young people often retreat and are afraid of offering up their thoughts on a problem due to the fear of failure. Or, they are quickly identified as “smart,” and it’s no longer about the learning process as much as it’s about the rewards—the grades and gold stars. They aren’t learning for the sake of expanding their knowledge and for a love of learning. They are memorizing and regurgitating.

This is at no fault to the educators themselves; it is the fault of the system where we are expecting teachers to implement this Common Core curriculum that is expected to move at a certain pace. There is no way, in this system, for 30 young people in a classroom with one teacher to match up to a one-size-fits-all model.

At Open Connections, we have never changed what we call our Process Consciousness and Process Language. The way we interact with one another increases the likelihood of creating a positive outcome and experience for all. An example of that language includes “young person,” rather than a “kid” or a “child.” We believe a shift like that shows people we are all on an even playing field. Just because we are adults and have lived more life; we aren’t necessarily the experts, and we aren’t to be feared. There is a mutual respect that allows for freedom, responsibility, and a celebration of that natural curiosity. These are the core principles that have never changed.

Q: As technology has become a foundation in our everyday lives, what have been the biggest shifts Open Connections has made?

A: We have taken the positive components of technology and made sure we haven’t jumped on the bandwagon of one-to-one technology where everything becomes tech-based. We make sure we balance their tech time with healthy doses of hands-on activity time outside. For younger age youth (until age 8), there’s basically zero time spent on computers at Open Connections. Starting at age eight, we consciously build in some opportunities to engage in the tech world through purposeful activities. All of our programs, regardless of age, spend significant time outside each day on our 28-acre campus, regardless of the weather; if it’s snowing, we’re sledding. If it’s pouring rain, we are still out there exploring the creek.

We acknowledge the fact that we live in a tech-based era and are setting young people up for success in that world. We have computers and a state-of-the-art makerspace, but we’re very conscious about how we utilize technology in our program. We are intentional about not allowing phones or handheld devices by adults or young people during program time because we have found it helps everyone be fully present with their peers and engage with the group in a prosocial manner. 

Q: How do you enroll parents into the idea of learner-centered education and the philosophy at Open Connections?

A: Right off the bat, I always let parents know this isn’t an educational choice, rather it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s important for parents to know that we use the term Partnership Education—we are working in partnership with families and young people.

Unlike traditional schooling (where the education is largely handed off to the school) or a conventional homeschooling or unschooling environment (where the education is solely in the hands of the at-home adult), we take a hybrid approach at Open Connections. Youth ages 4-18 attend our program two to three days a week, and we help our families design what their non-Open Connections days look like. That will be different for every family.

If a family is looking for a program where everything is handled for them and they don’t have to think about anything, I’m upfront that Open Connections won’t be the best option for them. That doesn’t mean every family has to completely buy-in and sign on the dotted line. We certainly have families for whom enough about our philosophy piques their interest, so they try it. They need a lot of hand holding in the beginning, and that’s where our community events and support comes in because we’re not just a place for parents to drop their young people off. We’re really a community.

We take the positive aspects of what schools provide—like a campus with peers around the same age and resources you wouldn’t have access to at home, like a makerspace, art studio, and wood shop. You have these components along with the space and time to choose things that are life-giving to you. For some families, that presents quite a paradigm shift—the concept that there isn’t one set curriculum, or that young people don’t need to learn certain things at certain ages. There is as much of a learning curve for parents as there is for young people. It’s about accepting that life and learning are connected and that it’s not about counting hours. The goal is to bring these subjects or content areas to life in a meaningful way.

Q: What’s a young learner story that sticks out in your mind as proof of why it’s important to trust the process?

A: A number of years ago, I was working with a young person who was nine years old. He had been at Open Connections since the day he was born. He had two older siblings who attended, so he was always coming and going before attending himself at the age of four.

He had many gifts. He was a budding filmmaker, loved to be outside, had a charismatic personality, was a people person, and was quick with numbers. However, reading hadn’t clicked with him yet. Had he been at a conventional school, he would have been labeled with a learning difference. He fell outside the typical “learning to read by age five or six.”

This young person was an emerging reader but was not fully literate at this time. It’s Open Connections’ philosophy to celebrate all types of learners and the strengths they display. With time, he went from an emerging reader to a fluent reader who was reading 400-page novels in a matter of months. It finally clicked for him. He wrote a note to me that said, “Thank you for believing in me when I couldn’t read.”

For me, I was simply practicing what we preach at Open Connections. However, I recognized the notably positive impact the Open Connections approach had for this particular young person. Letting him know he was worthy and had wonderful gifts to share even when areas of society focused on his supposed deficits, showed me what Open Connections was providing young people was recognizing everything they brought to the table—rather than solely focusing on their weaknesses. To his parents credit, they were trusting the process and they saw all of the other gifts he had; they knew reading would click for him in his own time. That’s one of those stories that is really gratifying not only for his achievement in that moment but for what he carried with him on his non-Open Connections days during each week.

Q: What do you wish people asked you more often about the learner-centered work you do at Open Connections?

A: I wish people would focus more on the “soft skills” (skills we wouldn’t define as “soft” at Open Connections)—the ability to solve problems, think flexibly, adapt to unexpected situations, to be accepting of people who have different beliefs or opinions, and to be loving, caring, and compassionate. We still get questions from society at-large, and even from some who attend Open Connections: “Are they going to be successful?” and “Will they get into a good college?”

I wish the conversation would shift to “How do we cultivate a lifestyle now that will increase the likelihood our young people will be positive, thoughtful, loving, and contributing members of society—in whatever form that might take—now, and in the future?” I also wish we could acknowledge this will look different for every person. We need to shift the conversation to be more about the emotional intelligence side of things, because that is what will shift how we think about education and begin a societal shift toward a more joyful, happy, and loving world.

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