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September 22, 2020


Dear Staff and Families,


Happy First Day of Fall! Did you know that because day and night are the same length on the autumnal equinox, ancient cultures associated this day with the concept of balance? While Autumn typically represents maturity and abundance, many of us continue to feel a sense of dormancy like the winter when COVID-19 entered our world.  We must recognize, however, we cannot afford to sit back and wait for life to “return to normal,” and it is up to us to shape the new normal.  At this time when human rights and life science are at odds, it is more important than ever that we work toward mutual peace and respect, resisting the urge to react with anger, and instead find ways to respond with kindness and empathy.  With egos and self-interests aside, we must together focus on the children and their learning. 


Our world is experiencing exponential change requiring skills of agency, analysis, experimentation, questioning, and collaboration.  It is incumbent upon us to seek a community for ourselves and our youth to develop and strengthen those skills.  As learning moves beyond a classroom and requires active effort on the part of the student, we are forced to work smarter turning to observations, assessments, interviews, and reflections, as well as each other, to identify strategies which meet students where they are, provide the appropriate level of choice on their learning space and activities, and move away from the passive learning that will leave them left behind. Students who make connections to the world through experiments, workshops, group discussions, and games are those that thrive.  Engaging in learning communities teaches us how we can turn passive learning into active learning with simple techniques such as pausing a video to ponder and share how to apply the information in either a real or hypothetical situation, or making flashcards for rote memory items. 


Element schools are offering multiple opportunities this Fall for parents to interact and create active and engaging opportunities for learning for their children.  As we wrap up our support around the new digital workflow this month, we will move on to parent workshops around time management, empowering student agency, creating personal learning networks and pods, and more.  


After mowing my lawn yesterday, something possessed me to start the blower process in the opposite direction than usual.  Lo and behold, I found it took me half the time and a lot less frustration than trying to maneuver the “usual” path.  For the nine years I have been in this home, every one of us, from professional landscapers to my son, has followed the same path with the blower.  My purpose for sharing is not because I feel you might have any interest in my landscape habits, but because it is a reminder that “The way we have always done things” (even if it made sense at the time), may not be the best way to do it.   We are all familiar with Déjà Vu as that experience you feel has already happened. Vuja de, in contrast, describes something familiar from a fresh view, like blowing your yard away from the trash area instead of toward it.  It is time to ask different questions, keep an open mind to new ideas, and discover outdated practices that no longer serve us well.  In spite of C-19, it is a time of abundance…time to turn to the people and practices that can bring us better results.


Terri Novacek, Executive Director

The Fine Line, and Life, of Interdependence

By Terri Novacek

Executive Director

Element Education


We have become a codependent society. We depend on others to provide care, education, and food for our families. While lower income families rely on the government for basic needs and services, higher income families have access to the private sector for these and more, including the maintenance of our homes, our yards, and ourselves. One might say, we have reached a point of relying on others for our sense of self and well-being.


Co-dependence is not to be mistaken for interdependence. While on the surface “co” (together, with) sounds warm and fuzzy, co-dependence is really just being dependent…together. As such, it can hinder growth, create animosity, and thwart self-worth. Inter (among, between) on the other hand, provides a sense of self within a community while offering flexibility and freedom. Although interdependence comes naturally between plants and animals, humans struggle to find the fine line.


The shelter in place mandate sparked by COVID-19 is in some ways returning us to our agrarian (land based) roots and lifestyle in which people remained in one place, took responsibility for and focused on the immediate family, maintained their property, and created social structures within a community. It was a society of interdependence. In this unprecedented time of our lives, we seek solace in our homes and neighborhoods, working and learning at home with mixed ages and generations, and setting up virtual co-ops, play dates, happy hours, family gatherings, and support groups. We are, once again, faced with finding a balance between ourselves and others with more time for personal interests, taking back personal responsibility, engaging on a more meaningful level, and setting new and healthier boundaries.


Although we may not all be ready to set up the farm, with spring in the air and more time at home, more people are testing their green thumbs. There is a plethora of resources for growing your own food from vertical, raised beds, and container gardens to larger scale gardens that could feed a neighborhood. Local garden centers and feed stores are operating as essential businesses, and the checkout lines are comparable to those at grocery stores. Even those not ready to dig in the dirt or wrestle with chickens to get their eggs are finding a need to put more thought into their food acquisition, meal planning, and meal preparation. One no longer stops at the store or take-out on the way home from a hectic day, but instead develops a carefully planned shopping list to get by for more time on less money before venturing out with rubber gloves, face masks, and sanitizer to brave the germs of the local market. Others order online to have items dropped at the doorstep or delivered to the car in the parking lot. With everyone at home, meal planning and prep has once again become a family affair. We are being nudged into frugality, mindfulness, and…interdependence.


At a time when our society is wrestling with child-care and education, we wonder, whatever will we do with the children? Who will teach them and make sure they are safe? The answer: We will…amongst ourselves. We will take responsibility for our own children and turn to others to assist, not replace, us.


As we come to realize our children will likely be home with us the remainder of the school year, there are mixed responses of panic and joy. Today’s youth are faced with the challenge of preparing for life, work, and social expectations yet to be determined. The young child that decades ago could aspire to be a first responder, scientist, teacher, or entertainer no longer has clarity on what those, or any, career will look like when they reach adulthood. The most promising way to prepare for the future is to develop the skills and mindset to navigate one’s way in a blended, self-paced, and mastery-based learning environment. As a parent, that can seem a daunting task, but we must remember two important things…learning is natural, and we are all in this together. Unlike our agrarian past, our “community” extends much beyond our town. All the world’s a classroom, even if we can only experience it via the internet right now. Resources and support are plentiful. It just means we need to think differently. Element Education, with its philosophy of self-directed, self-determined, whole child learning, is a resource which offers the interdependence between parent, student, educator, and the learning environment.


It is a wonderful time to embrace this opportunity to connect with our family, our friends, our community, our land, and ourselves. It is a time to get back to a place of… interdependence.




Yes, you do. In fact, as you reflect, you will come to realize you may have more than one. Even if this is your first time hearing the term, or you’ve never formally created a PLN, you likely have several which serve different purposes.



A Personal Learning Network (PLN), quite simply, is an ever-growing network of resources used for learning. As humans, we are learning all the time – growing in knowledge, skill, and perspective. Some of us more than others, and some of us in a more deliberate and focused manner; but humans are, by nature, natural and constant learners. A PLN is the group of peers, coaches, and specialists in which a learner interacts. Interaction may be in person, online, through social media, blogs, video, etc. By tapping into a multitude of resources the learner has access to a broad range of knowledge and expertise around a topic of desired focus. Whether a K-12 student seeking information to demonstrate understanding of the human cell, a parent craving more knowledge on guiding a child’s social choices, or an adult or professional in need of more skill in a key aspect of desired work, we are wired to keep improving at something.



Connectivism, the learning theory that explains how internet technologies create opportunities for people to learn and share information across the internet and among themselves, encourages students to seek out information online and express what they find, thus created a “connected” community, or personal learning network. With the guidance of a Facilitator or Coach, the student utilizes technologies such as Web browsers, email, wikis, online discussion forums, social networks, YouTube, and any other tool which enables the users to learn and share information with other people.


The massive open online course (MOOC) phenomenon comes from the connectivist theory. In a connectivist MOOC (cMOOC), anyone can enroll, open software and systems across the Web facilitate learning and sharing, and it follows a specified curriculum for a designated period of time. While facilitators guide the cMOOC, its participants are largely responsible for what they learn and what and how they share it; this connected behavior largely helps create the course content. References (1)(2)



All students, parents, and staff in Element schools have PLNs which include, at a minimum, each other. In addition, they likely use a wide range of home and community resources.


Create a map of your current PLN. You can draw one out on paper or create one on your computer.



Connect with new people. You can go big (the planet) or go slow (someone new in your community). Consider using a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) such as Coursera or Udacity. Follow a Twitter Chat or sign on to a Google Hangout. Extend your network beyond the walls and boundaries of your home, neighborhood, school, and community. Go global. You will be amazed at how many people across our country and planet share your interests, talents, goals, and passions.


Contribute. You may want to simply read, listen to, or watch at first, but don’t just be a “taker” all the time. Be sure to be a “giver” as well. You will find that your experience, struggles, and questions are valuable to others. Schedule time each day to interact with your PLN. Read articles, comment on posts, engage in dialogue, and share resources. The deepest learning comes from that which is authentic - in which we learn for a meaningful purpose and are able to share, or teach, what we’ve learned.


Reflect. Keep a log or journal of your PLN and the time in which you engage with it. What is your return on investment? How much time are you spending with your PLN and how much value have you gained from it? Is your engagement meaningful? Is it helping you learn and demonstrate your learning? Is there more you need from your PLN? Are there ways in which you should consider expanding your PLN?


Share. Who do you know that would benefit from your PLN, or any of its components?


Enjoy your personal learning adventure, and remember… you are the leader.



  1. Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning2(1), 3-10.
  2. Downes, S. (2010). New technology supporting informal learning. Journal of Emerging Technologies in Web Intelligence2(1), 27-33.


Homeschooling:  A Mutual Benefit

As it turns out, the notion of “follow the child” is just as much education for the guide as it is for the child. The best education I’ve experienced was a result of home-schooling my own children. 


After ten years as a public-school classroom teacher, I resigned to stay home with my newborn and toddler with the idea I would return to the classroom when they both entered school. 


It was my September-born son that led us to the decision to home-school.  When the Kindergarten Readiness test results showed him above level for academic readiness but not so high on the “sit and listen” scale, his preschool teacher suggested holding him back a year “because he was a boy.”  When I asked her more about it, she confirmed that yes, I could wait a year and he would likely have problems because he would be bored, or I could send him now and he would likely have problems because he was a boy that liked to move.  Hmm.


It was his father’s suggestion to homeschool.  I agreed to try it for kindergarten, and that was when we learned about personalized learning charter schools.  It was not until eleven years later that my son expressed interest in attending a conventional school.   It was time for us to practice what we preached and let him take control of his education even though his choice was not our first choice.  He did fine with the transition; however, he did feel more like a prisoner than an emerging adult like he was accustomed to being treated in his home and charter school setting.


Two years into the homeschool journey, it was time for little sister to enter kindergarten.  She was the first of the two to venture in the “real school” forum.  A 4.3 GPA, member of ASB, teachers loved her, good group of friends.  What else could we ask for, right?  She chose to return to homeschool through the charter school for her last year and a half so she could “get back to meaningful learning.”  During that time, she took an internship in her first passion, a job in her current passion, and spent time “researching and achieving goals that propelled her toward happiness, rather than learning the same things while sitting at a desk in an environment run by bells.” 


Despite my many years of both formal and informal education, it was those years of homeschooling with my children that led me to the highest level of learning…self-driven personalized learning.  Through the process, I was able to dive deep into the areas of interest my schoolteachers and college professors glanced over and stretch myself to learn more about the things that sparked my children’s interests.  It was a wonderful journey of self-reflection, discovery, and challenge. 


And the journey continues.  While my children head into the home stretch toward bachelor degrees and complete independence, I remain engaged in the wonderful world of self-driven personalized learning through my continued role at Element Education, an organization which has been operating within this model since 2001 -  long before it was a big enough movement to be considered a trend.


It occurred to me early in my career that learning and teachers come in many forms, and I’ve seen it in action during my seventeen years with Element Education. Little did I know, the charter school would become much more than support for my children’s learning journeys but an avenue to share the thrill of personalized learning with others as well. 


Personally, I don’t view self-driven personalized learning as a trend, but as a shift necessary for personal fulfillment in the present and future.  The day of the teacher who imparts knowledge is behind us, and the day of the educator who guides learning is here.   I get so much joy each time I enter our learning centers or community engagement activities and observe students of mixed ages actively participating in learning, assisting each other with respect, and asking questions to stretch themselves rather than getting the answer just so they can “be done.”  I love the partnership we have with parents – each of us adults recognizing the learning plan begins with the child, not with the curriculum…and not with us.


There are conservative schools focused on tests and training students to be alike, and there are progressive models with little accountability or foundational supports.  We operate in the middle – what I consider the best of both worlds.  Our model provides the benefits of traditional schools such as opportunity to make friends of all ages, get away from parents for more independence and self-governance, experience cultures outside the home and neighborhood for new ideas and skills, and engage with content area specialists with training in pedagogy.  In addition, we offer the benefits of homeschooling such as freedom for students to choose their own learning network, pursue their own interests, observe, interact, play, practice, and explore on their own schedule and in their own way.  We partner with parents to support students in building the foundational skills necessary to drive their own learning… and then we hold on and enjoy the ride.