Social connections not only feed the soul and enhance mental health, they also pay practical dividends. They form the foundation for a respect-based culture that focuses on how to effectively balance “the me and the we” in order to achieve more as a team than would be possible alone.
Founder, The Hub
We know that same-aged children can share common ground yet differ in many ways, including in the interests and strengths that shape their lives and eventual career choices. Ten-year-old Zack may really enjoy working with images, and be drawn to art classes, producing videos, and similar activities; Sophie may be more keen on animals, and really enjoy ecology programs, watching wildlife documentaries, and so on. How they learn life’s basics may also differ. Zack’s parents may favor an online curriculum that tracks one set of standards, while Sophie’s may prefer in-person learning that follows a different set of standards, or a more organic approach.
A customized education—a curated set of resources and experiences that are tailored to an individual—can serve them well in all instances. Yet, Zack and Sophie may also crave a consistent peer group. Meeting both sets of needs—customization and community—can be a challenge.
I personally observed this phenomenon as our homeschooled daughter was entering her tween years. She had attended several homeschooling groups (which I’d co-founded and helped manage) in Washington, DC. But after childhood, maintaining a sense of community became more complicated, as young people began to gravitate toward more specialized pursuits that took place at different times and locations. The benefits of customization came at a cost. The primary reason I heard from parents who eventually abandoned this approach in favor of more restrictive full-time programs was that their children missed having regular interactions with the same group of friends.
I saw an opportunity to create a communal space (like a college campus, but on a smaller scale and for all ages) where a range of educational activities could be pursued, in a modular way, to satisfy the desire to balance customization and community as individuals travel along distinct, “this size fits you” educational pathways.
Origins of The Hub
I originally envisioned The Hub as a physical location (depicted in these conceptual floorplans) that would gradually grow to offer a menu of original and third-party educational resources and programs, for everyone from toddlers to retirees; mentoring and other support services; and co-working, studying, gathering, and recreational areas. This was inspired not only by my personal observations, but also by my professional research and writing about education, and visits to a wide range of education models.
However, early 2020 threw everyone a curveball. I’d been on the verge of signing a lease for a suite of rooms at a church—where I planned to start with interdisciplinary “micro-academies” for ages six to twelve, in which participants could enroll for one to four days per week; an all-ages hang-out space on the fifth day; and a co-working area for parents—when the city shut down. I spent some time in wait-and-see mode, then decided that arranging meetings in person was going to be fraught with too many complications for the foreseeable future, and resolved to offer a more streamlined online concept instead.
I surveyed the online education landscape, attended Zoom classes, consulted members of The Hub’s advisory council (including a professor who had researched online learning best practices), and ran a couple of experimental summer camps. The facilitators and I saw for ourselves that you can’t simply relocate an in-person experience to the virtual world. We also saw that young people over the age of eight felt very comfortable interacting in this sphere and, if given both freedom and just enough constraints to encourage creativity, could take the digital tools at their disposal and run with them. I identified a niche The Hub could fill online, to make it easier for learners to balance customization and community: We would provide mix-and-match online programming (initially for tweens, then expanding upward) that emphasized both intellectual and personal growth, while also feeding the soul by encouraging meaningful connections and creative expression.
A Modular and Organic Learning Framework
The Hub officially launched in September 2020, with a “minimum viable product” prototype—a two-days-a-week, interdisciplinary micro-academy for ages nine to twelve. Based on a request, I also added “wrap-around services” to help parents (regardless of their children’s enrollment status) looking for advice about how to curate customized educational pathways.
After making some refinements based on feedback from that first handful of participants and their parents—such as lengthening sessions and break times—The Hub gradually enrolled more children in the micro-academy and also added complementary “à-la-carte” workshops, forums, clubs, and camps to the menu. Some of these were explicitly requested; others have evolved from micro-academy activities that have struck a chord. Their themes have ranged from playing and designing games, to multi-media collaborative storytelling, and Socratic dialogue (whose participant-chosen topics have ranged from eels to the Ukraine-Russia war to the size of the universe). Because we view The Hub’s programs as complementing many existing offerings, our resources page lists online and in-person ideas for how participants can spend their remaining time, in order to round out a customized education.
The Hub’s programs are organized by age range, to take advantage of scaffolding and other benefits of mixed-ages learning, but maturity and maintaining good group dynamics are more important than exact chronological cut-offs. The Hub also strives to offer grants, when possible, to young people who are a good fit but whose families can’t afford full tuition. Those who enroll in our programs are either full-time homeschoolers or dual-enrolled in schools with compatible schedules. They’ve been based in the United States, as well as in Canada and several other countries across three continents.
The facilitators and I saw for ourselves that you can’t simply relocate an in-person experience to the virtual world.
Founder, The Hub
The Hub’s Showcase Program: The Micro-Academy
Our inter-disciplinary micro-academy, with two facilitators at the helm of a cohort, meets twice a week from September through May, for four to five hours at a time (the new teen cohort sessions will feature an extra hour, by request). The time is divided among shorter activities, which can take the form of games, collaborative creations, discussions, workshops, participant-generated quizzes, or presentations; months-long group projects; and occasional guest speakers and interactive field trips (e.g., a guided walk-through of a historic French town, with participants helping to decide the path in real-time). The longer format also allows facilitators to invest the time and energy necessary to take both customization and community to another level.
Topics, themes, activities, project goals, and roles are chosen collaboratively by everyone, based on interests, strengths, and areas targeted for improvement. This means no two terms are the same, as interests, abilities, and needs evolve. In lieu of following a fixed curriculum that is limited to one “subject,” the micro-academy is guided by its objectives (well-rounded intellectual and personal growth, plus feeding the soul) and a daily framework, which can be tweaked at any time to better meet the group’s needs—time blocks have occasionally been shortened, lengthened, or rearranged to improve each day’s flow.
Some shorter activities, including certain discussions (from the specific, such as the history of an Indigenous tribe, to the meta, such as how we know what we know) and games like the popular geography game GeoGuessr, may involve the entire group. Others take place in smaller breakout rooms, whose themes have been as varied as creative writing, math challenges, art, book club, debate club, and Star Wars. A theme may last for only one session, or it may continue for days or even weeks, with one topic naturally feeding into another. The Star Wars-themed breakout room, for instance, led to discussions about character development, narrative arcs, the technology of special effects, the ethics of cloning, and the state of cloning science in the real world.
Participants also spend part of each session working on a big group project, which they present to family and friends to wrap up the term. Past projects have included building imaginary digital worlds, creating a book of collaboratively written short stories, creating an e-zine compilation, and producing a video newscast. The longer projects are also multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary—the world-building projects, for example, delved into topics as varied as evolutionary biology, geology, history, governance models, sociology, languages, and cultural symbols.
In the same way that people of any age already learn many things in life, anyone who wants to do an even deeper dive into a topic can do so on their own time. They can then offer to synthesize and share highlights of their findings.
Facilitation and Socialization in the Micro-Academy
The micro-academy facilitators are not expected to be subject-matter experts in everything that’s covered, which would be impossible. Rather, their role is like a combination of composer, musician, and conductor, with the goal of everyone co-creating a beautiful piece of music. They come prepared to suggest activities, guest speakers, and field trips, and then make the necessary arrangements on the back end. They also actively participate in everything, modeling qualities such as intellectual curiosity, learning, and grown-up conversation. All the while, they also look for opportunities to challenge participants to think more deeply and creatively, to consider new angles, and to develop valuable “soft skills” such as the “five C’s” (critical thinking and problem-solving; communication; collaboration; creativity and innovation; and citizenship), while ensuring that the group culture is maintained.
Having a team of two facilitators per cohort has practical advantages—such as guided breakout rooms, and a colleague to confer with—and also provides a richer experience for the young people, with two adults bringing different life experiences, perspectives, interests, ideas, and personalities to the table. (Facilitators have discussed their roles and observations in much greater detail in The Hub’s information session recordings.)
As for the social aspect, participants interact during activities, but connection isn’t just an afterthought; it’s integrated into the format. Ice-breaker games help everyone learn about each other, and facilitators also touch base individually with participants from time to time. If the group dynamic starts to feel “off,” time is invested to get to the root of it, and course corrections are made—for example, one of the facilitators may discreetly check in with a participant who isn’t engaging as much as expected, or an agreement is negotiated to keep video cameras on whenever practical and to let others know if you need to step away. Discussion is not only tolerated but encouraged during activities, as long as it aligns with the group’s community agreement principles. The Hub’s private communications platform on Basecamp is also used to stay in touch at any time, including during travels or holiday breaks. Some participants have also met up in real life, to lead a field trip or attend a session together in someone’s home, if they happen to live in the same area or are passing through.
Social connections not only feed the soul and enhance mental health, they also pay practical dividends. They form the foundation for a respect-based culture that focuses on how to effectively balance “the me and the we” in order to achieve more as a team than would be possible alone. This culture is built intentionally, by discussing and agreeing to its tenets, which are described in the community agreement living document, and reviewing them if things start to veer off course. (It’s much easier to develop an intentional culture if a cohort starts small and then grows once norms are firmly in place.) Participants who feel more connected to each other are more amenable to the give and take that’s sometimes required to respectfully listen to others talk about interests they may not be as enthusiastic about, knowing their turn will also come. It also encourages them to look out for each other and feel accountable for fulfilling project obligations.
Facilitators can gauge whether the micro-academy is meeting its goals by observing—e.g., is Isabel asking more complex questions and taking on greater responsibilities? We ask participants and parents for feedback too. But some of the best indicators that we’re doing our job are when children are eager to return, and when parents recommend the program to others.
Scaling Outward Instead of Upward
The Hub’s pivot to an online space has offered a number of advantages, such as greater flexibility, lower geographical barriers to participation (which also expand participants’ horizons, because they get to hear about and sometimes view other locales), and lower expenses (those savings are passed on to families and facilitators). So we’re continuing down this path, while also remaining open to supporting others who might be interested in launching other types of hubs—physical, virtual, or hybrid—tailored to their community’s needs.
Over the coming year, we’ll be introducing a new set of à-la-carte programs, including a one-day-a-week “nano-academy,” which will be a streamlined version of our flagship program. Meanwhile, the original micro-academy cohort has aged up with the participants and now caters to younger teens, and a new tween cohort is being launched this fall. This will mark our first step toward replicating the micro-academy model in an organic and highly decentralized way, with a parent serving as the point person for the new cohort.
Going forward, we anticipate more new cohorts to be launched in tandem alongside point parents, with The Hub organization—in partnership with grantmakers—boosting its capacity on the backend. The Hub will provide cohorts with templates and support, and handle some things that are more efficiently carried out through a central structure. Cohorts that run concurrently will have opportunities to interact so that everyone will retain a “homeroom,” while gaining access to more facilitators, young people, and breakout room options. The details will be decided organically by those on the front lines—point parents and facilitation teams will have a lot of leeway to shape each cohort’s experience, carrying the customization and community ethos to yet another level.