ArtsEd: Two education experiments center arts practices

The ideas of the established Wayfinding Academy and brand-new Alder Commons lead to a central role for the arts

During the past few decades we’ve seen rising enthusiasm around new small, independent education experiments. It’s one of the many cultural changes in Portland during the past few decades that have tapped into the DIY movement. In many of these, the arts have figured prominently, both as something to be studied and as a way to engage students in doing things as opposed to crunching pre-manufactured information. When the arts began to disappear from public school curricula in the 1990s, it had the curious side-effect of spawning these new projects, commercial and nonprofit, to fill the void. The experiments continue, even after the passage of the Arts Tax, which brought back art teachers at least to the early grades of public schools in the city.

Two experiments in education are breaking new ground in Portland. The Wayfinding Academy, now on its fifth cohort of students, has carved out a new route for college-age young people looking to make their mark on the world. Meanwhile, a program on the horizon, Alder Commons, hopes to push the envelope further by serving all ages with special consideration for school-age children.

Wayfinding Academy keeps its core curriculum front and center./Photo Nim Wunnan

While neither identifies specifically as an art program, both cultivate an atmosphere that encourages and develops young artists in ways that traditional schooling often fails to. The early success of the Wayfinding Academy is exciting proof that viable alternatives to expensive four-year degrees are out there for young artists. Directly inspired by Wayfinding, Alder Commons will soon launch a great experiment to see what happens when community members of all ages who are looking to take control of their own education and creativity have a shared, nurturing home.

Wayfinding Academy: Freedom and guidance

Something remarkable is happening in a quietly charming, goldenrod building just a few blocks off North Lombard street in downtown St. Johns. The former YWCA location became the campus for the Wayfinding Academy in 2016, and since then a small but thriving community has taken root in this unique experiment in higher education. Founded by educator Michelle Jones in 2014 at her kitchen table in discussion with two other professors, The Wayfinding Academy has since caught the attention of The New York Times and The Oregonian alike. No other school in the lower-48 states offers a comparable program—when asked to name the Academy’s peers, Jones said the closest program is Outer Coast College in Sitka, Alaska.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Jones developed Wayfinding Academy’s unique curriculum in response to the ways in which she saw the traditional academic system fail students and teachers alike. During her 15 years teaching Leadership and Organizational Behavior—the subject of her PhD—Jones says she “had a front row seat for what is broken about that system.”

The Academy’s structure and process is carefully calibrated to address what is broken in higher education. Tuition for Wayfinding’s two-year program runs $11,000 per year, with a growing list of available scholarships. Understanding that, while cheaper than most colleges, their tuition can still deter many students, the FAQ states plainly that “we strongly believe finances should not be a barrier for anyone who wants to come to Wayfinding.” It pledges to work to create custom plans to accommodate any budget.

TJ Brown’s piano announces its purpose./Photo Nim Wunnan

This is part of Wayfinding’s very hands-on admissions process: Instead of an admissions department, they have a Matchmaking Department. The 20-30 students in each cohort come from all walks of life—some transferring from traditional colleges, some having never attended higher education. After graduating, they follow diverse paths, some directly to jobs in their field, some transferring to other colleges to focus on an area of study, some to travel the world. Wherever they go, you can follow their stories on the Academy’s site or in their weekly newsletter.

The fundamental problem that the Wayfinding Academy’s curriculum is built to address is the expectation that students entering a university program should already know what they want to do with their lives. It’s right there in the name—students come to the Wayfinding Academy to find their way in the world in an open yet structured, supportive environment. They are sent out into the world after two years with real-world experience, confidence in their chosen field, and a fraction of the tuition burden of typical private colleges.

It’s in this dialogue between freedom and guidance that the arts intersect with the mission of the Wayfinding Academy. The academy welcomed its first cohort of students after receiving approval in 2016 from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission to grant Associate of Arts degrees in “Self and Society.” So while Wayfinding doesn’t set out to provide an arts-based education, it shouldn’t be surprising that the paths students take to find their way while critically engaging questions of self and society consistently overlap with artmaking and art strategies.

Each Wayfinding student engages with issues of self-expression, societal critique, and communication through various subjects and media to a degree rarely found outside of arts programs. Murals, sculptures from alumni and supporters, hand-drawn historical timelines, and colorful mind-maps adorn the walls throughout the campus, as if they emerge naturally from the daily searching, questioning, and discussion that happens at the Academy.

The language and structure of the Wayfinding curriculum also echoes much art school pedagogy. For one, all students produce a portfolio as a graduation requirement. Like many traditional art programs, Wayfinding eschews letter grades in favor of more nuanced, real-world demonstrations of the skills and experience that students gained during their study. These “Living Portfolios” have taken the form of a presentation on liquid fluoride thorium nuclear reactors, a 10-minute documentary on the origins and ecological effects of plastic, and a storybook

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Study at Wayfinding follows a rhythm that would be familiar to anyone in a studio-based art program. Students’ self-directed work is supported by frequent meetings with faculty—called “Guides”—and a vibrant program of visiting lecturers and workshops or “Labs” in Wayfinding parlance. Open to the public as well as students, this year’s Labs include “Hip Hop and Spoken Word: Resistance Culture Confronts Fascism,” hosted by musician, activist, and KBOO manager Mic Crenshaw; and dancer and Wayfinding alumna Hannah Martin’s “Integrating Dance into Everyday Life.” And providing a shared foundation, all students participate in the Core Curriculum while pursuing their passions in the service of finding their unique calling. The course of discussion-based classes centers on the “self and society” qualities of their degree, such as “communicating effectively,” “making good choices” and “engaging with information.”

One of the trickiest things about fitting art into students’ education is that while we know that it does contribute to their life and their mind, it’s hard to quantify exactly what that contribution is or how it happens. It’s even harder to guarantee what the Portland Public Schools calls “high-quality dance, music, theatre, and visual arts education.” For all the hands-on experience, supportive instruction, and inspiring programming that a school can throw at a student, any kind of artmaking cannot avoid a particular kind of self-study or self-education.

Eventually, artists at all levels encounter questions that can only be answered in a dialogue between themselves and their medium. A set of very personal but very real skills and strategies develop out of the ongoing practice of this dialogue. There is a unique form of critical problem-solving involved in answering questions that you yourself invent. It will always involve some degree of “wayfinding”—not just discovering an approach to things but also deciding, with purpose.

When we talk about the importance of art in education, we often talk about the transferability of the deep lessons that it teaches children. But when students decide they do want to become an artist, full-time or not, the question “what will you do with this” awaits them at nearly every turn. Visiting the Wayfinding Academy, with an eye towards arts education, feels like watching exciting new answers to that question emerging in real time.

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A major part of the philosophy at Wayfinding is that students should never have to apply for a job after they leave. Between their own pioneering spirit and the personal and professional network they develop during the program, meaningful employment should emerge from their ongoing pursuit of their interests. As student Eva Fulagter put it, “having the freedom to incorporate art” into this pursuit lets students find ways to meaningfully connect with the community that they will serve and be supported by, while finding the space to develop their own creative voices.

Photographer Karl Hayes at Wayfinding Academy/Photo Nim Wunnan

While perusing a small, ad-hoc gallery on the mantle of the fireplace in one common room, we ran into Karl Hayes, who is not just studying to become a photographer: he is actively documenting work for students’ Living Portfolios and beginning to pick up outside gigs. Then there’s TJ Brown.

Described by Jones as “committed to environmental advocacy and social justice,” Brown (they, them) had been interested in curation since high school, but felt shut out of the traditional path of pursuing a masters in art history. After leaving a traditional but unsatisfying studio art degree program, Brown moved to Portland to attend Wayfinding Academy. There, Brown’s path led to art-making, curation, and real-world experience. At Wayfinding, Brown was able to forge a path of study that included volunteering at Clean Vibes, a company dedicated to providing sustainable on-site waste management for outdoor events and festivals, as well as an internship at Ori Gallery.

By the end of their time as a student, they had chosen—and very much earned— the title of “curator.” As part of their Living Portfolio, Brown curated a large art show that helped put Wayfinding Academy on the map of venues for the St. Johns Artwalk, and growing public awareness of the venue has led to more and more private rentals of the hall for community and cultural events, including dance groups. Now, Brown applies their curatorial eye to work in new jobs—curatorial assistant at Ori and Matchmaker at Wayfinding Academy. 

The Wayfinding Creed declares, “we are humans to be cultivated.” We need to remember that cultivation is a strategy with a very particular set of values: Patience, nurturing, consistency, space, freedom. These are harder to track and price and quantify, but absolutely vital to a free society. Thinking about the challenges of cultivating the arts in Portland and other cities where growth and economics are putting the squeeze on space and funding, I’m reminded of an essay by Lewis Thomas. He was making a case for why the planning of science can’t be forced, why its successes can’t be scheduled.

“What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.”

from Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas

While TJ, Jones and I talked, a violin lesson suddenly emerged out of the flow of students coming and going. As they set up in a cozy corner near the window, Jones explained that these lessons started spontaneously when some students noticed student Amelia Wirth playing violin and asked if they could learn, too. Standing in the event hall talking with TJ and Michelle—surrounded by murals, TJ’s colorful piano, and a swirl of students—I had a great sense that the air was right at Wayfinding Academy. Soon it filled with the sound of violins practicing

Alder Commons: Self-directed education

In a few months, the building at 4212 Northeast Prescott St., which started its life as a  Montessori school, will once again open its doors to students. However, the new tenant, Alder Commons, is offering a radically different vision of education than you’ll find in any comparable school building in Portland. Alder Commons aspires to become a community-driven center for Self Directed Education, serving youth and life-long learners alike and blurring the boundaries between education and real-life creative pursuits. While a relatively new project, Alder has its roots in many established educational communities in Portland and beyond. Founded by husband and wife team Karl Keefer and Rachel Munzig, the idea began, appropriately, with a self-directed journey through a stack of inspiring research.

Shortly after they met, Rachel introduced Karl to the writing of Ivan Illich, whose 1970 book Deschooling Society “started the journey,” according to Keefer. Over the next few years, they entered a “rabbit hole of devouring every book about self-directed education we could get our hands on”—highlights of which can be found on the inspiration page of the Alder Commons’ website. Major influences on their philosophy include the work of the Sudbury Valley School and the philosophy of Self Directed Education.

Karl Keefer and Rachel Munzig, co-founders of Alder Commons/Photo Nim Wunnan

The Alliance of Self Directed Education, for which Keefer is the technical lead, describes Self Directed Education, or SDE, as “Education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person being educated.” Towards this end, they list six “optimizing conditions,” principles for cultivating self-driven learning:

  1. Responsibility
  2. Unlimited Time to Play
  3. Tools of the Culture
  4. Helpers Not Judges
  5. Free Age Mixing
  6. Community

The vision for Alder Commons is closely aligned with these conditions. Projects like ASDE make it clear that there’s growing momentum for radical approaches to education. However, the open-ended nature of the project can still make it difficult to describe exactly what will go on at a place like Alder Commons.

Munzig acknowledged this in a blog post, saying, “Though we’re not trying to be everything to everyone, we are trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people.” Keefer notes, “we want Self Directed Education to be a viable option for kids everywhere, but the movement around this is still so small that the vast majority of people have never heard of it, let alone seen or experienced it.” Projects such as Agile Learning Centers, Liberated Learners and Portland’s Village Free School have provided some practical inspiration for what a place like Alder Commons could look like in the real-world.

In describing their ultimate vision for the space, Keefer and Munzig paint a picture of community members of all ages mixing with overlapping interests and projects. Keefer says, “I think there are much better environments for kids to grow up in than the ones that are broadly available today. This project is an attempt to make some of those ‘better ways’ a reality for folks in Northeast Portland.”

Working with existing homeschool associations such as the Portland branch of Flying Squad, they are well aware of the need for welcoming spaces where young people can explore their hobbies and interests. They hope to host the sort of community activities you’d expect at a traditional youth center alongside more structured, directly-educational projects such as study groups and workshops, complemented by book clubs and collaborative art projects. At the same time, artists, makers, small businesses, and other projects that fall outside the traditional categories of education will fill the building with creative work-in-progress. The space has the capacity to serve more than a hundred casual members, or perhaps half that in dedicated daily classes and projects. Of course, these are just guesses—it’s raw potential right now, waiting to be activated by the community that chooses to use it.

By integrating a spectrum of activity from the community in one building with enough resources and space to accommodate them, they hope to cultivate an environment not just conducive to self directed education, but likely to inspire it. Munzig envisions that it will “feel a lot like a community center.”

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When you walk in the front door, you’ll see a bulletin board with a list of offered classes, workshops, and clubs, and the times and rooms where they’ll be meeting. You’ll also see postings of what else is happening in the community, including a flyer for the music lessons being taught across the street, and another for the co-working space that’s a mile west of us.

The 7,000-square-foot building is set back from Prescott Street behind a parking lot suited for about ten cars. Visitors enter a two-story atrium with a pitched roof—one of a few simple but effective architectural decisions that adds a feeling of light and space to what could otherwise feel like a low-slung, generic building on a busy intersection.

Two other choices work very well together. First, all the study and activity rooms have a view of the outside, generous windows in the front and actual doors in the back. This gives every room on the back side of the building immediate access to a third feature—an enclosed and landscaped backyard with a small playground, and a covered walkway that wraps around one side and the length of the school. A mosaic mural by former students at the Montessori school and an assortment of colorful playground equipment add personality to the space. A combination of shrubbery and wood fencing shelters it effectively from the traffic noise on the corner. The variety of room sizes and shapes will allow Alder Commons to offer dedicated private studios, bookable study and practice rooms, a library, and a shared common space. One of the largest spaces in the building will be the Art and Maker space.

Like Wayfinding Academy, Alder Commons and the SDE community at large recognize the importance of the arts in relation to their broader philosophy of self-actuated study and participation in community. The Art and Maker space is meant to accommodate individual artists, traditional co-working arrangements, and independent maker-based businesses while remaining open and welcoming to youth members of Alder Commons. The vision is to create an inspiring place where ideas can cross-pollinate and young people can learn from experience—a place where a teen interested in coding or fashion design could feel comfortable walking up to an adult at their computer or sewing machine and ask what they’re doing.

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Getting “the air right” is a major focus of Keefer and Munzig’s preparations right now. They’re actively seeking artists who need studio space and working on acquiring a broad range of art and craft resources, hoping to offer a range of materials from maker-space tools like 3D printing to a woodshop. They’ve just hired educator, maker and tinkerer Steve Davee as a consultant to design the space and fill the “makerspace wishlist.” Davee also serves on the board of Portland Free Play—one of the many existing art-education-adjacent organizations and communities with which Alder is cultivating a collaborative partnership. This growing list includes the neighbors across the street, Metalwood Salvage, which offers “industrial arts” classes, and, around the corner, the music school Hi-Note.

While recognizing their privilege to be in a position to invest so much of their own time and money in the project, Keefer and Munzig know that they alone can’t guarantee its success. They’ve done an enormous amount of work already, and the potential for Alder Commons to become a thriving, accessible creative hub for diverse creative communities is very exciting. In the journey to finding their building, Keefer and Munzig’s vision has expanded to include a small base of volunteers and a proper board, including Michelle Jones of Wayfinding Academy.

In taking on a mission to consolidate resources for so many different ambitions in Portland, they’ve also taken on a consolidated version of the risk that every new space is exposed to. Alder Commons still has to make rent. While they don’t own the building, they have an arrangement with the new owner of the building, an LLC formed with the intention of leasing to Alder Commons that Keefer describes as “friendly landlords that are making a property investment, with a willingness to lease to a higher-risk-than-usual tenant.” Alder Commons is trying to lay the groundwork to provide a home for all the ad-hoc, non-commercial, and other too-small-to-have-a-location projects that, despite the rising rents, still pop up in all corners of this city.

And that’s the scary thing about cultivation—a grassroots movement needs countless blades of grass to grow together, each on their own but part of a whole.They can do everything right and still not reach a point where the community can support itself—pay the rent, keep the momentum of curiosity going with a back and forth of learning and teaching, offer enough stability that projects that don’t have homes elsewhere can feel comfortable settling at Alder.

Through sliding-scale memberships, community partnerships, fundraising, and plain old elbow grease, the volunteers, board, and founders of Alder Commons are working to stitch together just that kind of community momentum. The big experiment has already begun, and they plan to open their doors to the public by this summer.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated that Alder Commons’ building was 9000 square feet. The figure has been corrected to 7000.

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