Dawn Frank Holtan

The Experientialists is the natural outgrowth of a life–my life–spent working to support learning, to make art and to create community.

I am Dawn Frank Holtan, and I was raised in Oakland by parents who always listened when I talked, and who encouraged me to question authority, think for myself, and proudly color outside of the lines. I began organizing and leading the children in my life while I was still a child myself–choreographing an annual Christmas ballet on my siblings and friends for my family’s holiday party while I was in elementary school, assisting with dance classes in exchange for tuition while I was in middle school, and teaching dance classes outright once I was in high school.

After graduating from Bard College with a double major in Dance (emphasis Choreography) and English (emphasis Creative Writing), I dove into Arts Management and Development Consulting. I continued working with children as a dance, fitness, and computer educator before realizing I could be a lot happier supporting my dance and writing careers as a full time teacher. I earned a California Multiple Subject Teaching credential while working as an elementary school teacher for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. I spent four years as a classroom and reading resource teacher, touring with my dance company and Dandelion Dancetheater in the summer, and rehearsing year round in the evenings.

Then my first child was born. My priorities changed dramatically, and before he turned two I left the classroom to focus on my own family. My frustration with the educational system led me quite quickly to the unschooling philosophy. My current thoughts on learning were honed by:

  • Writers, including John Holt, John Tayler Gatto, Alfie Kohn,  Alice Miller and others.
  • Books, including Nurture ShockThe Scientist in the Crib and others.
  • Reading and posting in online communities, including mothering.com, Taking Children Seriously email lists and forums, and multiple unschooling email lists.
  • Conversations with my parents, partner, children and friends.
  • Experiences in local community with fellow parents, including unschoolers, homeschoolers, and both public and private schoolers.

During my early unschooling years, I continued to teach dance classes, and then babywearing classes. I also began organizing events and activities for fellow homeschooling families, including video game clubs, dance jams and outdoor adventures. I co-founded the now-defunct Community Learning Web and was a co-organizer of SFBUN, the still thriving San Francisco Bay Unschooling Network. I’ve led multiple workshops at the annual HSC conference for many years. I’ve taught several classes–Dance for Children and Dance for All Bodies and Abilities–at California State University, East Bay. I’ve taught Dance Theater classes and continue to sub for Shawl-Anderson Dance Center’s youth program.

Throughout this journey, I’ve consistently searched for ways to create learning opportunities that are open-ended, and that enable people to come together so that they can have shared experiences that are bigger than what anyone can do all alone.

In the summer of 2014, at the request of my children, I prepared and taught a highly academic course combining Language Arts and the History of the Black Death. I didn’t know it at the time, but that class was the catalyst that led directly to the Experientialists. Happy with the creative writing and the performance elements of the Black Death course, I designed another learning opportunity with my kids and their friends. We opened up the history–instead of me deciding what we would learn and creating a reader, we narrowed our focus to one decade. The 1910s. We started at the library, and they each chose their own areas of focus. Since that time, I’ve facilitated many workshops, tinkering at each new phase to improve my model. I continue to refine our process–solving problems from previous experiences, implementing different approaches, and constantly discovering new ways to put more and more control of the experience directly into the hands of the young people I support. My primary goal continues to be to empower them and to facilitate their ideas, while helping them find consensus in the face of conflict.

Learning never ends. My goals now are remarkably similar to to the goals I had when I was nine and herding my younger siblings and friends into the living room in multi-colored tights with tutus and wooden swords. I want to work with other people, to create space for laughter, revelation and self-discovery. I want to spark that incredible feeling of being part of something much, much bigger than our individual selves. I want to learn more about the world and my place in it by creating something new with other people I trust.

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