Community Resources for Self-Directed Learning

Families considering taking their children out of school often feel at loose ends without the direction and security of a school community, especially if the parents don’t know anyone else whose children are learning without attending school. One question that frequently comes up is, “What do young people do all day if they aren’t in school?”

This section aims to answer that question and also help such families begin to create the kinds of connections that address both their intellectual and emotional needs.

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo

There are numerous ways in which people of all ages can grow and learn outside of school–developing their skills, pursuing their interests, and becoming happy, productive and useful members of society. The lists presented here are in no way complete, nor are they meant to be. The idea is to kick-start and broaden your thinking in case your own schooling to date has left you assuming that school = learning and no school = no learning. But it usually takes less than six weeks before the question, “How are we going to fill up our time?” is replaced by, “How are we ever going to find time to do all there is to do?” It’s a great “problem” to have.

Resource Centers

Different types of organizations refer to themselves as resource centers. What they have in common is that they serve children (and families) who are registered as homeschoolers, even though the children may spend multiple days a week at the center. There appear to be at least three major distinguishing characteristics among the various centers.

  1. Some basically provide classes, created and led by adults (perhaps by parent members), that can resemble regular school classes in subject matter (algebra, Spanish, chemistry, etc.) but don’t usually give tests or grades.
  2. “People cannot discover new oceans until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Anonymous

    Other resource centers are considerably more self-directed in terms of structure, even though they, too, feature classes largely led by adults. The work usually involves a much more hands-on, real-world approach—what some call “learning in the context of purposeful activity,” with no grades, transcripts, etc. Some of these centers actively help young people and families leave school and become self-directed learners. (The oldest and most mature of these programs is North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens (www.northstarteens.org), established in 1996. Located in Hadley, MA, North Star offers a calendar of classes and activities, as well as opportunities for individual tutoring. Each teen also has an advisor. All activities are voluntary, and the center provides no grades, transcripts, or diplomas. North Star has a weekly meeting for teen input into decisions, but the program is mostly run and organized by the professional staff. North Star is open four days per week, with the vast majority of teens choosing to attend two or three days per week. In the past few years, a number of people have created programs modeled after North Star (see below). The Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) is now in its fourth year, and in 2013, the leaders of North Star and PLC established a new organization called Liberated Learners, Inc to assist others in replicating this model.)

  3. A third type of center is more of a hybrid that seeks to provide even more of the services of a school-like community with a great deal of self-direction on the part of the children educationally/pedagogically. They attend programs on a regular but usually part-time basis. They are not generally involved in the management of the organization, although they do participate in (and organize) events such as dances, film festivals, parents’ meetings, etc. Tuitions are set per day or per program, and financial assistance may be provided. An example of this type of organization can be found at OpenConnections.org.

Here are examples of the more self-directed types of resource centers as described above:

    • Beacon Self-Directed Learning (www.beaconlearning.org) 123 Whalley Avenue, New Haven, CT. Tel. (203) 747-8735, or e-mail Beacon Self-Directed Learning is based on the North Star model (see below) and provides teens who are, or want to, homeschool with a community that includes peers, adult mentors, and optional classes.
    • Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning (www.compassteens.org) Bronson Centre, 211 Bronson Avenue, Ottawa, ON K1R 6H4, Canada. Tel. (613) 916-6303, or e-mail Compass is a centre that helps teenagers live and learn without school by supporting teens to create a customized education based on their interests, abilities, and goals.
    • Construct Learning (www.constructlearning.org) 39 East Central Street, Natick, MA 01760. Tel. (781) 449-1436, or e-mail . Construct Learning is based on the North Star model (see below) and provides teens who are, or want to, homeschool with a community that includes peers, adult mentors, and optional classes.
    • Kite’s Nest: (www.kitesnest.org), 108 S. Front St, Hudson, NY 12534. Tel (518) 945 8445
    • Macomber Center (macombercenter.wordpress.com), 63 Badger Rd., Framingham, MA 01702. Tel. (508) 816-7431. The Macomber Center was established in 2012 as “an environment where children can discover for themselves the art of independence, responsibility and respect for others.”
    • North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens (www.northstarteens.org), 135 Russell Street, Hadley, MA 01035. Tel. (413) 582-0193 or e-mail . The goal of North Star is to help students regain control over their own learning to become effective homeschoolers by fostering community and offering courses and curriculum resources.
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  • Open Connections (www.openconnections.org) 1616 Delchester Rd., Newtown Square, PA 19073. Tel. (610) 459-3366 or e-mail . Founded in 1978, Open Connections is a resource for homeschoolers/unschoolers of all ages who enroll in youth-focused programs for one, two or three days per week. The campus is located on a 28-acre former farm/estate thirty minutes west of Philadelphia.
  • Open Doors: Center for Self-directed Teens (www.opendoorsforteens.org) 1324 Lake Drive SE, Suite #1, Grand Rapids, MI 49506. Tel. (616) 965-6968. Open Doors “is a progressive, secular learning community [based on the North Star model] where teens feel valued, respected and inspired to explore and develop their own natural learning experiences.”
  • Open Road Learning Community for Teens (www.openroadteens.org) 7215 SE 22nd Avenue, Portland, OR 97202.
    Tel. (503) 489-9836, or e-mail .
    Based on the North Star model, Open Road “provides individualized, non-compulsory education that empowers teens to direct their own learning and fulfill their potential.”
  • Parts and Crafts (www.partsandcrafts.org) 577 Somerville Avenue, Somerville, MA 02143. Tel. 410-967-5207, or email . The Parts and Crafts Collective runs hands-on creative arts, science, and engineering programs for kids and adults to help people learn and do and make things.
  • Princeton Learning Cooperative (www.plcteens.org) 16 All Saints Road Princeton, NJ 08540. (Mailing address: PO Box 167, Princeton, NJ 08542.) Tel. (609) 851-2522, or e-mail . The Princeton Learning Cooperative offers a range of services that include counseling, daily programs, and a community of self-directed learners.

Family Groups (Including Cooperatives)

Families in a given geographical area often decide to create their own version of a resource center. Their size, structure, programs and activities vary widely, because they are tailored to the interest of participating families. Some groups are cooperatives, with the parents taking turns as instructors; other groups hire one or more part-time or full-time facilitators in order to free up the parents to do other things.

Such groups are usually found by word of mouth or via neighborhood listservs, newsletters, community bulletin boards, or websites. Many of them are private groups that advertise themselves only when they need to fill slots. Ask around to find out if there’s already a cooperative in your area; if not, start putting out feelers to identify families that might be interested in other learning options (many times you won’t know what other families are considering unless you ask), and start your own group. Established groups can be great sources of information for advice on how to create a group and find a venue. [More detailed guidance about the nuts and bolts of starting a group will be forthcoming on this web site. Sign up for our email alerts to find out when new content is posted.]

Example:

Voyagers, Inc. Homeschool Coop and Resource Center (www.voyagersinc.org), 530 Main Street, Acton, MA 01720. Tel. 978-263-8425, or e-mail . Voyagers is an inclusive, energetic group of over 80 families from eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and northern Connecticut who come together to provide rich social and learning opportunities for children and teens through their co-op offerings resource center.

Apprenticeships and Internships

Historically in the US and elsewhere, young people transitioned into the adult world by working alongside experienced adults who had mastered their trade, be it silversmithing, farming, the law, or even medicine. They were usually apprenticed full time in a way that could have been either a blessing or a curse, or somewhere in-between.

“In earlier days no one believed that a person was only what the school said he was. To be not good in school was to be–not good at school, bad at book learning, not a scholar. [But back then] most of life was still open, and the growing child had a hundred other ways, in his many contacts with adult life, to show his true intelligence.” John Holt

More recently, the concept of interning has arisen, often (usually) as a part-time venture but/and with the same objective of helping the young person learn new skills and information in the context of performing real work (as opposed to mere academic study). One application of this approach that has become especially popular is the notion of a so-called Gap Year, in which a youth who has graduated from, say, high school has chosen to take some time off from schooling in favor of more hands-on learning for awhile before attending college.

Self-directed learners of all ages have begun to adopt this approach as part of their education. Often–especially for the younger learners–their internship/apprenticeship experience is of short duration, such as a six-week stint (or less), or really part-time, such as an hour a day or even once a week. They pursue an interest and explore its depths as much as they are inclined and for as long as they find it rewarding, usually (but not always) without pay but certainly for the benefit of valuable learning. For older youths, such as teens, this can be a great way to see if you really like a certain field before committing yourself to it (and your parents’ money!). How many people go to law school (or even college) before realizing that this is not for them, thereby investing enormous amounts of time and money that might better have been used elsewhere?!

We know of elementary age youths who have volunteered to work in animal shelters and veterinarian offices, hospitals, stores, Community Supported Agriculture organizations (CSAs), computer programming businesses, senior centers, bookstores, and many other areas of adult life. In each instance, the youth became both student and co-worker in a way that led to huge gains in knowledge and maturity. In many cases, the youths not only added value to the sponsoring organization, they sometimes offered ideas that led to process improvements and innovation in their workplace, much to the delight of their hosts.

Another benefit of such arrangements is that they often result in relationships that become lifelong friendships and the source of influential letters of recommendation when/if the youth applies to college or seeks employment elsewhere. These letters can be critical components of a youth’s portfolio in the absence of a traditional transcript with letter grades, and college admissions people who know how misleading such grades can be find them especially reassuring in the assessment of the applicant. It also helps one “stand out” above the crowd of National Honor Society members when, say, a highly successful businessperson sings the praises of certain teen.

The range of options for interns and apprenticeships is as broad as the world. And there is no need to find an existing program–just the desire to show initiative and ask. People who love their work also usually love to share their knowledge with people who are genuinely interested in it as well. We suggest that you begin with short-term arrangements, established as two-way experiments. That way, if either party decides it’s not worth continuing, one can bow out gracefully with no negative repercussions. On the other hand, such relationships can be extended–even to the point of full-time employment, either then or in the future–if that becomes a mutual choice. The sky is the limit. Either way, valuable life lessons are invariably acquired.

Other Community Resources

“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.” Albert Einstein

  • Libraries – Public, private and university libraries offer access to information, resources, classes, speakers and lectures, to create rich community learning environments.
  • Bookstores – Look especially at local, independent booksellers, which sometimes provide author lectures, book signings and apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Scouts – These cater to all age levels, from Cubs/Brownies to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts.
  • 4-H Clubs – These offer exposure to the world of animal husbandry, among other topics, and are beginning to emerge in urban as well as rural areas.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Groups and Garden Centers – CSAs and garden centers encourage access to agriculture and sustainable growing techniques. Garden centers often welcome volunteer help.
  • Nature Centers – Many of these offer public and homeschooling classes and resources, as well as apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Adult Education Courses – Such courses feature workshops and mentoring on a wide range of topics, from academics to practical skills to the arts. Some courses have minimum age requirements (sometimes even higher than 16), but when they meet a responsible youth who clearly will not be disruptive, they can sometimes be convinced to bend the rule.
  • Museums – In addition to local museum classes and events, most major museums offer online resources and materials for curious learners. And once you become a frequent participant and they get to “know” you, they are sometimes open to creating new opportunities, such as apprenticeships or internships, or just letting you “hanging out” and help them with work, such as setting up exhibits.
  • Historic Sites – These provide “living history” experiences and volunteer opportunities through a variety of national, state and local resources, including historic homes, churches, battlefields and trail systems.
  • Art Centers – Many community art centers offer classes for youth and adults in visual and performing arts, handicrafts, art history and appreciation, etc., and are often eager to accommodate homeschooling groups during less busy periods.
  • Factories – Many factories and other businesses conduct tours for groups interested in production and manufacturing; once you’re “in,” ask about coming back and getting more involved.
  • Friends and Relatives – Every family has friends, extended family members and neighbors who have particular interests/hobbies/skills that could ignite a whole new area of learning and development for their children. Think of playing math games with a favorite uncle (as opposed to his being a math tutor!).
  • Hobby Clubs – There are many hobby clubs for adults that are perfectly suitable for, and open to, seriously interested youth – electric trains, stamp and coin collecting, musical groups, gardening clubs, doll and dollhouse clubs, etc.
  • Sports – Many public school districts are required by law to allow all residents equal access to their athletic teams. Most communities also have community-wide youth sports teams for a wide range of ages and interests.
  • Music – Look for local orchestras, choirs and singing/musical groups, as well as private and group lessons.
  • Dance – Some areas have community dance classes, homeschool dance resources, and community performance opportunities.
  • Theater – Community and university-affiliated theatrical productions are often looking for both performers and production crew volunteers.
  • Volunteering – Volunteering can be a great way to learn how the world works, help others, pursue a particular interest, build skills and knowledge, and make personal contacts that can be helpful in the future.
  • Tutoring – Tutoring, of course, is older than schooling; it was the way the youth of the privileged classes were “educated” for thousands of years. Today, tutoring, in the right circumstances, can be a great way to learn about a subject. It can also be a relatively harmless way to be introduced to a subject to see if there is any interest. Colleges are often good sources of affordable tutors because their students usually don’t have the same income requirements of older adults (let alone the corporate tutoring services). Also, many college students are passionate about their subject matter and can better communicate that to their “students.” Of course, your own child might be a great tutor for another youth—even one in school.

Online Options

No matter the subject of interest, the Internet can be a powerful way to learn about it.

“The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do, but how you behave when you don’t know what to do.” John Holt

Skill-building – It’s possible to find assistance in learning virtually any skill via the Internet. Depending on the skill and the learner, this may be all that is needed; otherwise, it may be a first step that includes follow-up with a live individual (tutor, mentor or fellow learner) or access to physical materials. Take woodworking, for example. A site such as woodworking.about.com offers a comprehensive set of instructional materials. For a high-level example of skill-building in this area, including videos, go to www.finewoodworking.com. If you want to learn more about cooking instead, you can try videos.tasteofhome.com or Escoffier Online, a site that seems to offer the virtual equivalent of cooking school attendance. Of course there are literally hundreds of other options available on these or almost any other topic in which someone of any age might have an interest.

Academics – Academic resources abound through online sources. One example is the Khan Academy, which offers free, high-quality access to a variety of subjects. A newer option on which anyone can teach or take a class on any subject is the University of Reddit. Cyberschools, including cyber charter schools, can be especially helpful for those who live in remote areas and don’t have access to many of the resources listed above. OpenCourseware, offered by many large universities, allows access to most course syllabi and lecture notes, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as Edx and Udacity offer either free or low-cost college classes, including from top universities.