Student Resistance Handbook: A Review

51rQK3CDU8L._SL210_by Pat Farenga

More than one educator has said or written publicly that they have misgivings about forcing children to learn on demand in school; however, this is a minority view and students are viewed now, more than ever, as little learning machines to be tinkered with. Children eat, socialize, go to the bathroom, think, read, study, move from place to place, and, if they are lucky, exercise when school says. Further, school doesn’t just dictate what students can think about and ranks them on how they present those thoughts, it also justifies student captivity by claiming that it is necessary to treat children this way in order to create good citizens, and it uses the law to compel school attendance by children. Since the compulsory school system was invented many people have criticized these claims by educationists (my favorite is from the 1920s, when a schoolmaster claimed that school is vital for democracy, and Rita Sherman, a homeschooling mother, replied, “How can one learn about democracy in a place where it isn’t practiced?”), yet school continues its dominion over children’s lives and parents’ imaginations as to what children are capable of achieving.

Today school is more encompassing of children’s lives than ever, but school has little tolerance for children acting like children being kept in tight quarters; they are routinely drugged, ridiculed, mistreated, and punished harshly for offenses that no adult would tolerate in civil society (for some examples see, “19 Crazy Things That School Children Are Being Arrested For”). If that statement seems hard to believe, please view the documentary The War on Kids so you can see how unjust the school system can be to children. Cevin Soling, the filmmaker of The War on Kids, has written a new, brief, and powerful handbook that is bound to anger those who view children as a restive population in need of subjugation by educationists: The Student Resistance Handbook.

Soling opens the book with this quote, “Those who expect students to willing endure compulsory schooling, and the associated deprivation of rights and assault on dignity, have no regard for the human spirit and no respect for the souls of children,” and then he notes that “the purpose of this handbook is to promote the most basic civil rights to youth by empowering them to change the structure of compulsory schooling that denies these rights to them. . . . The philosophy of this handbook is that the primary task of those unjustly deprived of liberty is to engage in the struggle for liberty. Knowledge without liberty is meaningless.”

Soling is well aware that students who engage in the actions he describes may suffer serious consequences and,“Given the hysteria in schools and abject contempt for youth in American society, it is reasonable to expect that reactions could be wildly disproportionate to the acts perpetrated.” A quick view of the article or film I mention in the preceding paragraph show how true that last statement is. But then, what to do? For those who disagree with such institutional practices and are in a position to remove their children from public school and have them learn in a private or home school that promises a different learning environment, the answer can be clear. But for the vast majority of children in America there are no such choices and so they must endure the 12-year sentence of schooling we impose upon all people under a certain age (which used to be ages 6 to 16 but is now being stretched to 18 and as young as 4 as some states compel school attendance for even longer stretches). Soling writes directly to an audience of elementary and high school age students. By removing the patina of caring for children that school uses to justify its existence, he also exposes how our legal system hypocritically supports “student rights”:

Fascism is defined as an autocratic system of organization where dissent is suppressed and loyalty is demanded. Clearly, public schools are fascist institutions. Children are required by law to be in a state of captivity where they cannot act in any way that disrupts the process of indoctrination. Arbitrary rules must be followed at all times and abstract rewards and punishments are dispensed in the form of grades. Justice is dispensed arbitrarily by the teacher and the school administration. In many states, teachers have immunity from prosecution.

. . . The fundamental problem is that most people believe that schools dispense valuable information and willfully fail to comprehend that even if that were true, the fascist environment poisons every constructive intention of the school. . . .

. . . The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that schools have the power to act against student behavior that interferes with their “educational mission.” The spirit of this was first asserted in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Consistent with the Supreme Court’s hypocrisy, the decision that schools may punish and prevent any kind of disruptive behavior was heralded as a major student victory because it allowed for innocuous nonverbal gestures. Even today this abusive dictum is hailed as a significant landmark for the protection of student rights. . . .

. . . The most fundamental and important learning experience is to engage in opposing fascism in any form whenever it rears its ugly head. Fascism is a cancer that threatens liberty everywhere. Any act that directly challenges or undermines fascism is heroic. . . .

. . . Any institution that demands the surrender of one’s will, for any purpose, is irredeemably corrupt and must be taken down. Dialogue with teachers and administrators is a waste of time because they will either deny they are in a position of complete power or they will insist that it is necessary for the good of the students.

. . . Schools make children believe they are defective because they suffer when they are placed in an oppressive environment. That is just plain sick. In addition to approving the torture of children held in a captive environment, the defenders of schooling blame children for the mental health consequences of the abuse they endure.

Soling peppers his chapters with cartoons and clever quotes to engage the reader, such as these by Thomas Paine (“The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes”) and Benjamin Franklin (“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority”), as well as from students themselves (“I’m wearing black for my first day of school because it’s actually the funeral for my happiness”). In short, snappy prose Soling outlines the tactics for nonviolent protest and persuasion, how to use public statements, symbolic displays, systemic disruption (“Foment Dissent within Faculty Ranks”), resistance and non-cooperation, overload the system, target individuals, and how to handle punishment (this section suggests that the student record conversations and take notes about the punishment, and offers ways to cope with questioning, strip searches, spanking, paddling, corporal punishment, and quitting school).

This is not a timid book, and it is certain to raise the hackles of many supporters of school who feel children must be seen and not heard, and that teaching them to disrupt unjust situations in school and advocate for themselves is just not the good, polite behavior school expects from children. However, when adults like John Taylor Gatto write and talk about the destructiveness of school upon children and how he, as a teacher, subverted the school regime to help his student’s learn what, when, how, and from whom they wished, he is applauded by adults and some educators. When Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools kill creativity he is awarded with accolades from school people and millions of views of his YouTube video. But if a child talks about how school demeans him or her, or if they simply say they don’t like school, he or she is most likely told to put up with the situation because “that’s the way it is.” The Student Resistance Handbook is a strong dose of real action wedded to rational thought that any student can benefit from, even if they are unlikely to act upon any of its content other than agree with the chapter “Bad Arguments in Defense of Schooling.” At least they’ll know there are others who think as they do about school.

It is the potential for action that makes this book scary for adults who think, “Do we really want students to petition local school boards, renounce school honors, or target individual school personnel as a way to resist school?” (I want to note here that John Holt refused not only school honors later in his life, but he also refused to tell people where he went to school and what he studied as one of his practical, small actions to reduce the power of school in our lives. You can read more details about why he did this in his book Instead of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better.) Rather than work with the play toys of power—student government—Soling wants students to work with the real objects of power to achieve real goals that have repercussions in the world. This is something homeschoolers have leveraged for their own children—helping them to engage in real work in the world, rather than imagined tasks in a text. Homeschoolers are known to involve their school-age children during school hours in public, political protests against unfair rules for homeschooling and other political issues. I applaud and fully support homeschoolers for doing so, and I hope homeschoolers will support school students who can also benefit from such actions.

The big difference is school students won’t have many, or any, adults and teachers on their side. Soling makes no bones about this: “If teachers and administrators want to reach out and negotiate with you, it will be based on a lie. They will only want to negotiate the terms of your surrender;” or “While some teachers might appear sympathetic and want to actively engage in dialogue, despite their sincerity, their intent will always be to make you compromise your principles.” Soling provides many ideas and resources to students to “fight back and make those who support schools experience the same misery that they make you endure, and thereby enable you to attain some degree of control over your own life.” Soling defines victory as no one being forced to attend school and notes, “Given the rise of viable alternatives to school, this endgame is not completely far-fetched.” Though I doubt the shift to alternatives to compulsory schooling will happen in my life, I do have great hope for such a victory and I agree with Soling: “Engaging in the struggle for these minimal expectations is a form of victory. The only failure is abandoning your ideals or settling for less.” Soling’s hope is that if school continues to become unbearable for students, and students make school unbearable for teachers and administrators, that will force it to change.

If we truly believe—as John Taylor Gatto and Sir Ken Robinson believe today—that school debilitates personal initiative and abilities and, in addition, as John Holt and Ivan Illich noted in the 1970s, that school perpetuates class-based social problems, then we need a new system, or concept, of education to replace the factory-model schools we continue to use. We should be listening to what the students claim school is like for them today, and support student efforts to make school a more humane and equitable place for learning. Soling offers a clear roadmap for students who want to engage in civil disobedience, not illegal activities, in order to gain agency in their lives beyond being a “good student.” He is careful to show how repealing school policies like Zero Tolerance and random drug testing can be done using legal and administrative means, but if those fail then, “Make their lives as hellish as yours.”

This isn’t nice behavior by students, of course, and that’s the point: school isn’t being well behaved towards students, either. Some of the ideas Soling presents have been attempted by individuals in real life or have been depicted in movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might be viewed as an instructional video supplement to this handbook), but I think Soling is the first person to collect and codify these ideas into a course of action for students. If you’re a dissatisfied student in school I suggest you read this book to discover what you might be able to do to improve your situation; if you’re a parent or educator, I suggest you read this book to consider what school can be like to children and to see that their statement of “I hate school” can be based on being marginalized by school. If you’re a homeschooler or alternative school student, I suggest you read this book to see what you’re missing or what you left, and then to share it with your school friends who want to resist school.

Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends. 


Homeschooling from the Middle


Albert Einstein (image: wikimedia commons)

by Lisa Renee,The Synapse


When I began this home education odyssey, I had read all the requisite inspirational literature regarding the endless possibilities. Examples of exceptional homeschoolers are everywhere — the Colfax family, with their star academic progeny, the national spelling and geography bee winners, the kids who sail the world and live to write about it. And we’ve all seen the lists of famous homeschoolers, from Ben Franklin to Leonardo da Vinci. I was duly inspired. Homeschooling offers the freedom and independence, the creativity and the time to let talents blossom.

Many years later (and still in the trenches), I realize that I may have been under the spell of false advertising — delusions of grandeur, unrealistic expectations — common in American life, really. Akin to the idea that I will be sexier if I drive the right car, and even closer to the myth that life will be better with the right brand of university degree. Please don’t misunderstand — homeschooling has been a wonderfully rich and eye-opening experiment and has provided us all with a surprising amount of experience and education. I count it as a smashing success and would do it all over again.

But — we are undeniably normal.

There, I said it. My kids are all brilliant, accomplished and marvelous individuals (of course), but there isn’t a Mozart or an Einstein among us (both homeschoolers, by the way) — not yet, anyway. This revelation — that success isn’t necessarily defined in superlatives or related to fame and power — would have been a welcome relief to me twenty years ago, early in my tenure. It would have somewhat assuaged the intimidation whipped up by the many accounts of frenzied super-achieving that goes on in some homeschooling quarters. It has, unfortunately, taken me years to realize that my approach — basically just learning to live in the world kindly, responsibly, and with curiousity — is perfect for me and mine.

I have endured (yes, endured) many relationships with homeschoolers who insist that the project is about rising to the top — the Phd in education whose kids were so tyrannized by her forced march to success that they begged to go to school, the 15-year-old lunching with Hillary Clinton, the 14-year-old performing Bach at the Ivy League school, and the family that does everything better than you. I ran into their 13-year-old daughter at a book sale — she was wearing a stunning, floor-length crocheted dress of many colors. “Emily, that’s gorgeous — where did you get it?” Silly me. She made it, of course. This is the same family whose young daughters arrived at a dance, each topped with a jaunty, one-of-a-kind hat. “Where did you get them?” (You would think that I had learned.) Yes, they sheared the sheep, carded the wool, dyed the wool, felted the wool, and made the hats. On the weekend. Probably before I got out of bed.

I’m sure that some of you see yourselves in this. One of the great things about home education is the lack of limits — go where your curiosity, motivation, and determination take you. High achieving, accomplished homeschoolers are fairly common, I think. I applaud you and am endlessly impressed by your kind. But someone needs to speak up for the rest of us. I tried to keep up with the race-to-the-top pace for awhile and it wasn’t working for me. I learned that we needed less running, less competition, less friction, less pressure. We opted for more open spaces, more time to think — another great thing about home education. Perhaps that is why there are so many high achieving homeschoolers. They’ve had time and space to let their ideas grow.

Here’s what we do: cook, read, write, play, watch movies, argue, paint, draw, garden, noodle on instruments and dabble in life.

And here’s what we haven’t done, yet: write concertos, build barns, chair committees, cure diseases, keep bees, or save the world.

We may, but we haven’t yet. My kids are all bright and capable, each in a perfect quirky way, and are finding their own interesting and promising paths to success. The possibilities of homeschooling are truly endless and that alone creates a broad, open approach to learning and growing.


When the mainstream mentions homeschoolers, we hear about the winners and the losers — the fringe dwellers, the prodigies and the problems. Most of us, however live somewhere in the middle — we live proudly in the middle. We’ve had shining moments of triumph and crashing bouts of failure — just like most of the kids in the schoolhouses. Not every member of the school population can have the lead in “Oklahoma”, or win a national science competition or give the valedictorian speech. And, of course, not every homeschooler will be Einstein.

Speaking from the middle, we are happily toiling away in the world, finding paths to illumination, passion, kindness, and — ultimately — ourselves. This is something to encourage and celebrate.

There really is plenty of room for all of us.


If you appreciated reading this, please recommend and share it so others may, too. Thank you, from Lisa Renee and The Synapse. Be well.

Published in

The Synapse - Transmitting a range of voices to explore the essence of learning, teaching, and education.

Self-Directed Learning: Passion, Skill, Market


illustrator: Shona Warwick-Smith

(An excerpt from the new book, The Art of Self-Directed Learning, by Blake Boles)

Carsie Blanton grew up in rural Virginia where she played on the rolling grassy hills, hunted salamanders, read books, and fiddled around with musical instruments. Seeing a happy and engaged child, Carsie’s parents decided to simply never send her to school. They supported Carsie’s interests, made her part of adult discussions at the house, and gave her large blocks of undisturbed personal time.

At 13, Carsie discovered a deep love for guitar and songwriting. At 16, she moved to Oregon to join a group house with other artists, where she met a funk band who invited her to sing backup and tour the United States. As she traveled, she began building her own body of musical work.

In her twenties, Carsie independently recorded and released a few albums, leading to new gigs and a few big breaks (like opening for Paul Simon). She worked in coffee shops to pay the bills before her shows and CD sales became profitable.

Instead of going to college, she trained with top musicians, struck up friendships with interesting people she met on the road, and continued her lifelong habit of reading lots of hard books. She fell in love with swing dancing, started taking swing classes whenever possible, and eventually began teaching her own classes.

Then, at age 28, Carsie mobilized her fans on Kickstarter with the goal of raising $29,000 to produce a new jazz album, offering preorders of the album, personalized songwriting, and other interesting rewards in exchange for donations.

She hit her target and then kept going, all the way to $60,000, enough to produce her album, pay a few big-name jazz musicians to contribute, hire a publicity team, and take her entire band on tour across the United States.

* * *

Running a Kickstarter campaign is essentially like starting a business in an incredibly short time span: you’ve got to develop a product, create a compelling story, attract an audience, and then deliver. Like most business startups, most online fundraising campaigns fail. But Carsie, an unschooled young woman with no formal training, nailed it on the first try. How?

Having traveled, performed, and danced all across the United States, Carsie had built one heck of a social network, an important element for fundraising success. But I don’t think that was the main thing.

Carsie carefully planned her fundraising campaign, studied other musicians’ campaigns, and asked for lots of feedback before going live. Those actions certainly helped, but I still don’t think they explain everything.

Instead, I believe that Carsie received an early and powerful education in applying her self-directed learning to the needs of others.


With all of our talk about self-directed learning, it’s easy to assume that our educations should focus only on ourselves. But people who, like Carsie, want their hobbies to fund their lives know that focusing only on yourself is the fast path to going broke. Instead, we must take what we love and figure out how to use it to inform, entertain, educate, or help other people.

Tina Seelig of the Stanford Design School masterfully explains the idea with the threefold concept of passion, skill, and market.

  • If you’re passionate about something, but you’re not skilled in it, then you’re a fan. (Think, for example, of a beginning guitar enthusiast.)
  • If you’re passionate about something and skilled in it, then you’ve got a hobby. (Think of a guitarist with some training and experience.)
  • If you’re skilled in something, there’s a market for it, but you don’t have any passion for it, then you have a job. (Think of a guitarist who is good enough to play gigs, but he lost his love for guitar long ago.)

Combine all three elements—passion, skills, and a market—and you arrive at Mecca: meaningful work that also pays the bills. (Think of a musician, like Carsie, who loves playing gigs and can make a living doing it.)

Self-directed learners are typically very good at identifying their passions. They build skills when necessary. But finding (or creating) a market? That’s the hard part, because it means they must stop thinking only about themselves and start trying to understand other people.

Understanding the needs of other people, I propose, is exactly what Carsie was doing in her adventure-filled youth.

Playing music shows? An exercise in discovering other people’s tastes.

Working in coffee shops? An exercise in providing value to an employer.

Teaching swing dance lessons? An exercise in helping people learn something complex.

By paying close attention to the needs of others while also building her skills and deepening her passions, Carsie created a self-directed education that wasn’t just about herself. So when it came time to launch her Kickstarter campaign, she didn’t make the rookie mistake of focusing on me, me, me. Instead, she created something that other people actually wanted.

Do what you love, but also keep an eye on the needs of others—that’s how self-directed learning can turn into self-directed earning.

Blake Boles ( builds exciting alternatives to traditional school for self-directed young people. He directs the company Unschool Adventures and is the author of The Art of Self-Directed LearningBetter Than College, and College Without High School.

Autism and Overdiagnosis: A Q&A with Dr. Enrico Gnaulati

Reports of autism cases per 1,000 children grew dramatically in the US from 1996 to 2007.

Reports of autism have exploded over the past twenty years, leading some to believe that doctors are overdiagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder on a large scale. In the interest of spreading awareness about common factors that lead to the misdiagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),  Dr. Enrico Gnaulati, clinical psychologist and author of the recent book, Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, shares his answers to common questions about autism over-diagnosis:

Q: Why do you think Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is overdiagnosed? Where’s the evidence?

Dr. Gnaulati: The latest statistics out of the famed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that 1 in 68 children are now affected by autism. That’s a 30 percent increase in just two years. In 2002, 1 in 150 children were given the diagnosis and, in 1991, 1 in 500. The spike in diagnosis is mostly accounted for by “mild” cases of autism, where the afflicted child has acquired decent communication skills and has average, or above, intelligence. Many of these milder cases go on to shed the disorder—upwards of 30 percent, according to a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill study, making one wonder if the diagnosis really applied in the first place. Remember, ASD is generally considered to be a life-long, disabling neuropsychiatric condition that a child does not shed as childhood progresses. Consequently, with a sizable percentage of children supposedly shedding the diagnosis in the course of childhood, we have to start questioning the validity of the diagnosis in many cases.

Q: If a questionable diagnosis of ASD gets a kid some services he or she needs, even if the diagnosis just loosely applies, or is arrived at according to a more conservative standard, why is that a bad thing?

Dr. Gnaulati: What the average parent does not understand is that a diagnosis of ASD is a severe diagnosis that teachers, outside professionals, and the lay public still very much view as a serious, disabling condition. Applying a diagnosis of ASD can immediately classify your child in the mind of others as “impaired,” or “severely limited” which can then impact how they perceive and interact with your child. Others may then expect less from your child, or “talk down” to him or her, which your child then might internalize as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where he or she then think him or herself as less capable or limited.

When a diagnosis of ASD really applies a child’s limitations need to be accepted, worked with, and worked around. This is the most realistic and humane course of action. But, when a diagnosis does not really apply it can have untoward effects on a child where he or she might then create false self-limitations.

A child may have a cluster of speech and language, fine- or gross-motor delays, social and emotional difficulties which get lumped together as a case of mild ASD. That child may actually need services to address these developmental problems. However, separate, milder diagnoses can be used such as a Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, a Communication Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and a Developmental Coordination Disorder, and an Adjustment Disorder.

Parents are often unaware of how a severe diagnosis like ASD can follow a child and have unfavorable effects as that child enters adulthood, such as being denied, or having to pay more for, disability and life insurance, be prevented from pursuing certain careers in law enforcement and the military, or be denied a trucking or pilot’s license in many states, as well as a host of other restrictions.

If an ASD diagnosis applies it can be effective in getting a child much needed services and lead to a child’s limitations being accepted and worked with in humane, realistic ways. If, on the other hand, the diagnosis does not really apply your child may face false life limitations and restrictions.

Q: In your experience, what childhood phenomena are most likely to be confused with mild cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Dr. Gnaulati: That’s actually a more complicated question than it seems! Sometimes it’s as simple as a “perfect storm” of everyday circumstances that make a child look autistic-like. I have had cases where a child is being raised by non-English speaking nannies, who anticipated that child’s every need, thinking that to love that child is too do everything for him or her, like feed and dress and baby-talk to him or her beyond an age where it is appropriate. These same children did not attend pre-school and, as such, missed out on the rich array of social and emotional learning that entails. Then when they entered kindergarten sirens went off and teachers and school personnel went straight to assuming the children were autistic because they seemed to lack basic communicative and social skills.

Otherwise, delayed language development, a proneness to tantruming, fussy eating, a preference for isolated play with objects, being “slow-to-warm,” or introverted by temperament, are, in my experience, the most common aspects of children that get confused with a mild case of autism.

Also, in our “politically-correct” ways of trying to be gender neutral we may overlook how boys develop differently than girls,on average, setting many boys up for a false diagnosis of mild ASD. Girls learn to point as a communicative gesture earlier than boys, are more empathic, acquire language sooner, and engage in social play to a greater extent than boys. It is not until around age five that the average boy catches up with the average girl in these areas. Without a firm knowledge of this professionals can falsely diagnose boys who are slow-to-mature in these areas.

Q: Is there any advice you can give parents who are thinking of getting their children assessed to help them prevent a false diagnosis from occurring?

Dr. Gnaulati: If signs of autism are clear—minimal or no language; extreme withdrawnness; limited eye contact; very infrequent shared emotional reaction; frequent disinterest in playing with peers; bizarre self-stimulatory behavior such as swirling around in a chair or staring endlessly at a ceiling fan; tantruming often when fixed routines are not adhered to—the earlier an assessment is conducted and services implemented the better. However, when the signs of autism are vague, mild, or unclear, parents need to be aware that the conditions surrounding a typical autism assessment can contribute to a struggling child appearing more autistic-like.

For instance, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the inventor of the highly-effective Floortime approach to treating autistic children, conducted a study several years ago of 200 autism assessment programs around the country, many of which were located in prestigious medical centers. He discovered that only 10 percent emphasized the need to observe a child along with a parent or guardian for more than ten minutes as they spontaneously interacted together. He, himself, tended to observe a child playing with a parent for forty-five minutes or more, waiting for choice points to enter the interaction to engage a child directly to see of he or she was capable of more eye contact, elaborate verbalizations, or shared emotional reactions. Dr. Greenspan believed that these conditions of safety and sensitive interaction were essential in order to obtain an accurate reading of a child’s true verbal and social skills.

So, it is extremely important that parents insist that the person doing the assessment allow a parent to be in the room for an extended period of time to put the child at ease so that the assessment is being conducted with a child when they are at their best, emotionally speaking, and not unduly stressed. Young children vary in their ability to part from a parent and be in the presence of a stranger without being unduly stressed. You want to make sure that a stressed child, who is also possibly slow-to-mature, does not then get a false diagnosis.

Enrico Gnaulati Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, The Atlantic, and Salon. He is the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

A Message For The Downtrodden



by David Mills

If you have read my post (The teacher who dared to step outside the box) and think my experiences as an adult are shocking, imagine what it is like to be a child within this system. Students lie on the very bottom layer of the hierarchical pyramid, furthest away from the apex of control. They are subjected to far more evaluations, reporting procedures and behaviour modification processes than teachers.

I have always felt an affinity for children labelled with conditions such as dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (yes, our society has actually sunk to the depths of describing children as ODD). Many of these kids are no different to me! They are free thinkers and truth bearers. Their innate knowing and sense of self is so strong that they simply cannot keep quiet. They see through all the lies and hypocrisy of the system and they question it. They will not betray themselves by conforming to a school system that makes no sense to them.

I view these warrior souls as gifts to humanity. Far from silencing, suppressing and drugging them, we should be encouraging them! They are serving the evolution of human consciousness by drawing to our attention stale and obsolete systems and structures within society. If we listened to these children, we would be humbled by their wisdom. They have the power to lead us out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of truth. But they need adults who are willing to listen.

Consider thirteen-year-old student Zac with whom I did some coaching a few years ago. This boy was seriously struggling at school. His parents were very worried about his future. He was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD tendencies. According to Zac’s end of year school report, he was a lazy, uncooperative, insolent, time-wasting daydreamer. His test scores in the core subjects were well below average. In English, he was one of the worst performing students in his entire year group. “Zac spends more time gazing out the window than he does focusing on my class work,” wrote his English teacher.

One day I was in the middle of explaining to Zac how to add fractions when I noticed his attention drift to the window. Rather than attempt to redirect his focus, I chose to stop speaking and silently observe. Clearly, there was something far more important going on for Zac in this moment. He was looking up at the sky, seemingly transported to another world. I attempted to join him in this world by looking up at the sky myself. After twenty seconds or so Zac turned back to me:

“So sorry David, what were you saying?”

“No need to apologise,” I replied. “I’m curious to know what happened when you looked out the window.”

[For the record, I don’t ‘do’ learning labels such as ADD. I have yet to meet a single child with an attention problem. The problem always lies with fearful, change-resistant adults looking at a child through the eyes of judgement rather than unconditional love. The trick is to find out what the child is paying attention to and to allow learning to flow naturally from that place.]

Zac’s response still brings tears to my eyes:

“I was looking at the sky and wondering…… what would happen the day the clouds stop moving?”

It was one of the most poetic things I had ever heard come out of a teenage boy’s mouth. Knowing that Zac viewed himself as a miserable failure in English (as confirmed by his school report), this was a truly beautiful moment. My lesson on fractions faded into insignificance in the light of Zac having offered me a glimpse into his inner world. We spent the rest of the session discussing end-of-world prophecies and exchanging our knowledge on ancient civilisations and cultures.

As a result of this impromptu conversation I discovered that Zac had a passionate interest in ancient Greek warriors. The depth of his knowledge on the subject was quite extraordinary. The excitement with which he spoke about Hercules, Achilles, Theseus and other warriors was inspiring and infectious. He told me about their respective strengths and personal attributes. He gave me vibrant, imaginative descriptions of their clothing and weaponry. He told me about books he had taken out of the library on the subject. The articulate and authoritative manner in which he described his heroes was breathtaking. And yet… here was a boy with supposedly limited ability in English heading on the highway to failure.

What a tragedy that none of Zac’s teachers had bothered to ask him what he was thinking when he gazed out the window. What a sad indictment of the school system that none of his teachers knew or cared about his interest in warriors (I guess they were too busy “covering the curriculum”). What a missed opportunity. What a complete waste of human passion and potential.

To every downtrodden child within the system:

I see you. I acknowledge you. I feel your pain. I respect you. I value you. I trust you.

I’m listening.

Keep daydreaming. Keep looking out that window. Trust your inner voice. Follow your excitement. Pursue your passions. Be yourself.

I love you unconditionally.

David Mills is a UK-based education futurist and innovator, confidence coach, public speaker and former school teacher. He spent five years researching and exploring existing alternatives to the prevailing school system – including Waldorf/Steiner, Summerhill School (UK), The Kin School (Russia), Big Picture Learning (USA), the Sudbury model (USA), home education and unschooling – as part of his mission to formulate and share a new vision for the future of education. Eduspire is a child-led and innovation-oriented paradigm of education designed to meet the needs of 21st Century learners and to liberate future generations of children from the current monopoly of schools over education. David is passionate about the creation of natural learning environments in which children are free to be themselves and trusted to pursue their own interests and passions. He models this approach to education himself as a professional singer, actor and recording artist.

“Mom, Dad, can I stop going to school?”

IMG_1070by and

Those who are familiar with alternative education can find many stories of successful learning beyond school.  But many young people remain in forced-compliance, factory-model schools.

We’re adults who didn’t like school ourselves, and we feel compelled to respond to today’s unhappy students who want to take charge of their learning and lives.

As we researched and brainstormed ways to help, we found great promise in NorthStar Teens and the Liberated Learners centers based on their model.  North Star’s co-founder Ken Danford explains the model in his TEDx talk, School is Optional.  Ken helps families understand that leaving school need not be scary, and he provides a flexible program: voluntary attendance at a learning center, plus personal advisers who help participants pursue meaningful learning, making the most of their time and intelligence.

More and more people are launching Liberated Learners centers, but too many interested young people still don’t have access to them.  That’s why we developed Catalyst Learning Network.  It’s an online learning community inspired by Liberated Learners and by, a support site for teens who hate being forced to go to school.

Surviving School

The first thing you read on School Survival is, “It’s OK to hate school. There is nothing wrong with you.” For teens, this is often surprising news. Some venture further into the site, and find a rich community of young people from all over the world who have one thing in common: they are all struggling to survive school.

Conversations in chat room and on discussion forums center on strategies for making it through each day (as well as gaming, music, and thoughts about life). Even when the site endures the occasional teen meltdowns and conflict, School Survival is a sanctuary.

But none of these teens will find a real solution to their daily boredom, pressure, and wasted time unless their parents agree to a way out of conventional schooling.

Voices of School Survival

Kira, 15, and Siren, 14, both want to be game developers and have their eye on a program at a nearby technical college.  They’re emotionally drained by school, and they struggle with meaningless assignments, but their parents have refused to consider alternatives.  We’re working with Kira and Siren to develop a plan for early college, learning beyond school, and helping their parents understand the viability of these life paths.

MurkScribe is 15. He is at a “therapeutic school,” because he refused to do schoolwork at his previous school.  He feels he has no control, no way to pursue what he loves to learn. He plays the piano as much as possible, but he battles with anxiety and depression. He is tired of withering away at school, but equally afraid of a harsh, soul-draining job. His parents, immigrants who value duty to family, insist that he complete school and get a good job.  We’re working with MurkScribe to make the most of his time, and helping him explore paths in life that he’ll find fulfilling.

Mo just turned 15. He is bright, curious and outgoing. He was in a “dark place,” but his mood leapt when he discovered School Survival. He wants to help fix education. “The problems are the constant grading and ranking, the one-size-fits-all model,” he says, “and the compulsory element. The only thing taught in school is how to follow orders.”  He’s interested in a life path that includes programming and bringing the visually-impaired products industry into the 21st century.  When he has approached his parents about alternatives to school, only conflict has resulted.  We’re working with Mo to propose an alternative to his family.

“Mom, Dad, can I stop going to school?”

This question is difficult for many young people to ask, and difficult for many parents to hear. Those who enjoyed school are perplexed by their kids’ lack of enthusiasm. Those who “hated school like everybody else” tell their kids to buck up and get through it. Very few are saying “Yes. I get it.  Let’s work out another plan for your learning.”

That’s why we developed Catalyst.  We work with students and parents to find a learning path for each learner. We help students coordinate their learning experiences; organize writing workshops and other classes; arrange for speakers; recruit mentors; help find in-person activities like work and internships; document achievements in “success portfolios;” and even create high school transcripts.

If you are a young person looking for a change, a parent looking for alternatives, or if you know of a family in that situation, Catalyst can help. And If you’d like to mentor a young person who has made the leap out of school, please contact us as well. Help us spread the word and create a world where no one is stuck in obsolete, forced-compliance, factory-model schools!

Lisa Cooley has been an advocate of self-directed learning on a local and  national level for ten years. She is a violin teacher, the mom of 2 teenagers, and serves on her local school board. She is a co-founder of Catalyst Learning Network.

Brendan Heidenreich dropped out of high school as soon as he found a way to convince his parents.  He last quit going to college in 2005, when he was majoring in psychology and found a richer learning experience on School Survival forums, where he helps participants work through problems, discover options, and connect with allies.  He is also a co-founder of Catalyst Learning Network.

A Brief Biography of a Latter-Day Unschooler


wikimedia commons, The Dunce (1886), Harold Copping

by Charles Warcup, Germany

I should like to share these remarks as a snapshot of what, as I suspect, mirrors the experience of many people who attended ‘normal’ or relatively normal schools. Why should I do that? The point is, it took many years — in fact decades — for these things to become clear to me, and only then because fate took great pains to rub my nose into it all. So I suspect there are still an awful lot of people who simply don’t realize just how pointless-to-harmful their school experience was. That realization isn’t all that nice and it’s also quite sobering, but on the whole I think it’s worth getting there — especially for parents who are looking for appropriate schooling for their children.

Since September 2014 I have had the privilege of being a staff member at Bavaria’s first democratic school modeled on Sudbury Valley School, called the Sudbury School Ammersee. This experience represents the high-point to date of my coming to acknowledge the facts about my schooling. It’s not an acknowledgement that I really wanted to make, but the evidence, when viewed dispassionately, does seem rather overwhelming.

I would be interested to know if this rings a bell with anyone — well, as I’m sure it will, I’m actually interested in knowing how many bells it rings, and in which countries around the world.

To learn more about Democratic Schools, click to explore the Alternatives To School site.

In the 1950s and 1960s I went to a normal middle-class primary school, a minor public (= private) school and a grammar school turned comprehensive (i.e. an academically oriented secondary school that for political reasons had been converted to a non-selective secondary school). Then I studied mathematics, if that is the right verb to use.

About thirty years later a vague feeling of unease that had been with me all the time struggled up from my subconscious mind into my conscious thinking: I started a serious examination of the quality of my school education. Until that time I had, if I thought about them at all, attributed various scholastic disasters pretty well entirely to myself. And it must have been as much a puzzle to my parents as it was to me: He’s obviously quite intelligent — permanent place at the top of the class in the public school etc. — so how come he only just managed to scrape through university by the skin of his teeth? Delayed-action genetic defect? Too much time spent in the pub?

Now even more time has elapsed and I think I’ve understood what happened. I simply had a thoroughly ineffective school and university education that almost entirely failed to address my true needs and desires. I’m quite happy to take responsibility for my path in life and really don’t want to blame anyone else for things that didn’t go quite right. Nevertheless, I am now sure that my school education in particular was pretty much as useless as it could be. The strange thing is that for many years I thought it was quite good.

Poor bloke, you might say, had a bit of bad luck. But as indicated above, the terrible thing about it is that I am sure I share this fate with very many people. Probably millions, and most of them also think that their schooling was at least adequate, or even quite good as I did. How come? Why did it take me so long to recognize that my schooling was almost completely misdirected (rather than me)? Perhaps some of these reasons apply:

My schooling…

  • was supplied by people whom I didn’t always like, but whom I generally trusted.
  • was never seriously questioned by anybody around me. (There was a lot of moaning going on, but nobody thought of questioning the basics.)
  • was passed on to me in a tradition that appeared to be substantial and valid.
  • appeared to be confirmed by continuously growing prosperity in society as a whole.
  • appeared to be without an alternative. (My world view did not encompass any other ideas.)

Perhaps my near-failure at university should have given me pause for thought — after all, it was a clear indication that something was amiss. In contrast to that it is certainly more understandable when people who finish their main education with satisfactory or even good results don’t bother to question its validity in retrospect (even though they are sometimes unsatisfied, unfulfilled or unhappy in their later lives).

Clearly, there are strong forces at work within us that prevent us from doubting the efficacy of mainstream education.

I should like to use my own example to show how far apart assumptions and reality can be.

For many years during and after school I held fast to a variety of convictions, e.g.:

  • I am quite good at mathematics.
  • Everyone needs quadratic equations (taking these as representatives of middle-school math) in later life.
  • The English language is a useful vehicle, but not very interesting as an object of study.
  • I will never achieve good command of a foreign language.
  • Geography is rather boring.
  • Music is uninteresting.
  • Biology — yawn …
  • Art — forget it.

These convictions came, as far as I can judge, exclusively through the schools that I went to. Obviously that was not what was intended, but the fact remains that the convictions appear to count amongst the few things that my schools managed to inculcate into me effectively.

None of them is true or valid as the case may be:

  • I should never have studied mathematics. Success in school mathematics led me up a completely wrong path. I think it is great that some people understand higher mathematics, but to be honest it doesn’t really interest me in the least.
  • For several years while I was a teacher of mathematics I tried to sell quadratic equations to myself and my pupils. Afterwards I spent a long time in quite technical jobs and never once needed to solve a quadratic equation or anything of that kind. I still find them quite fun, but not exactly vital for a fulfilled life.
  • I still can’t imagine wanting to study English as an academic subject, but as a huge, squirming, many-headed monster, sometimes roaring and sometimes like a gentle breeze, inventing and reinventing itself every few years now — it’s absolutely fascinating!
  • I had four years of French in school and still don’t speak it very well (despite quite a few opportunities later on to iron out what the school messed up). On the other hand, I wrote the original of this article in German, of which I only had a few weeks in school, and I can read Dutch well enough to translate it professionally, despite not having had any formal training in it (OK, I know, maybe it’s because I never had any formal training).
  • During my later professional career I ended up having great fun writing a book about geographic information systems (in German, incidentally). These days I find geography highly interesting.
  • To my sorrow I don’t play any musical instruments. After leaving school, though, I found that I really enjoy a wide range of musical genres.
  • In one of various professions that I have pursued I discovered that biology is potentially very exciting.
  • I am secretly very proud of a little book that I wrote (if that is the right word) that consists almost entirely of images that I created myself.

In addition I have the feeling that my personal development was stunted or at least considerably delayed by my school experience. A different school environment would probably have been beneficial for many a useful step and enabled me to avoid quite a few pitfalls (and I have some concrete ideas about what such an environment may look like).

So as painful as the question may appear, I have to ask myself: What on earth was the point of my school education? Couldn’t it have achieved at least a little more benefit?

How about you? Do you also carry a bagful of convictions around with you that turn out to be largely false when you look closely? Or were you lucky enough to go to a school that basically gave you what you needed for a fulfilled later life? Honestly?


Charles Warcup grew up in a middle-class area of South London and for many years took it for granted that that little world, albeit not perfect, was more or less as things should be. During periods of work (and being out of work) as a teacher, a programmer, a GIS-specialist and a translator in various countries he came to see many things differently, including his time at school. He is married and has an adult son and has lived mainly in Germany since 1980. He is currently a staff member at Bavaria’s first democratic school, the Sudbury School Ammersee.

Self-directed learning IS the pursuit of happiness


MAP’ing the Tipping Point

by David Lane

In his blog, “Freedom to Learn,” Peter Gray explains an impending educational tipping point: “the point at which everyone knows several families who have left coercive schooling and chosen a path of educational self-determination, so it will no longer seem like an odd thing to do.”

I am part of a group in central Massachusetts that feels compelled to add our weight to hasten this tipping point.  Here’s why:

  1. Self-directed learning is the pursuit of happiness. It’s that simple. How does one pursue happiness? Everyone’s path is different, to be sure, but each path is one of self-discovery and exploration.
  2. Almost every policy, procedure and practice of coercive education limits, restricts or outright bans students’ control over their own learning experience. Coercive schooling effectively prevents students from self-directed learning, and therefore denies young citizens their inalienable rights.
  3. Disruption from developing technology is affecting every sector, and since education is supposed to provide training for these sectors, then education must respond to disruption by welcoming it. Technology facilitates the best form of educational disruption: self-directed learning.
  4. Young people see in their future problems that are potentially disastrous.  They worry that it is up to them to find solutions, or perish.  But these problems were all caused by the policies of older generations, including those of the coercive education system.  This system cannot provide them with the skills they need to solve the problems it is at least in part responsible for causing.
  5. Self-directed learning is more efficient, less costly, and produces superior results. Self-directed learning centers and alternative schools all over the world have lower operating costs than most public schools, and they serve the same populations of students.
  6. A crisis in democracy has fully infected our schools. Almost 200 years of coercive schooling have failed to prepare any significant increase in citizens who are active, literate participants in their own democracy.  As Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School wrote, “It seems rather difficult — in fact, close to impossible — to have people grow up in what is basically an authoritarian environment until they’re eighteen, and then suddenly have them transform into effective citizens of a democracy. It just doesn’t make sense.”
  7. Our own children have creative, interesting, beautiful, hungry minds that deserve more than what the coercive education system attempts to brainwash them into believing is their only option.

To learn more from Alternatives To School about the benefits of self-directed learning, please click here.

When my friends and I came to these conclusions, it also became clear to us that policymakers, school committees, administrators, and educators who ignore them are being irresponsible. They should embrace self-directed learning and enthusiastically provide more options for it.  But instead, they build stronger, higher, wider barriers against educational self-determination.  To them, self-directed learning is a threat.

We have decided we must throw our weight onto the scale and help the tipping point come now, not later.  Here’s how:

We are in the foundation stages of building a democratic, self-directed learning center called MAP the Pursuit.  MAP stands for Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.  These are the three ingredients for intrinsic motivation.

  • Mastery = the process of getting better at a skill every time one practices it.
  • Autonomy = the power and freedom to make decisions about one’s own life.
  • Purpose = the connection of one’s activities to something meaningful in one’s life.

When students exercise Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose, they learn on their own without being forced or bribed to do it.  With MAP, any young person can pursue his or her own happiness. This idea is not our invention. It is based on scientific understandings of neurology and psychology and practical, real world experience by leaders such as Sugata Mitra, Daniel Pink, Charles Tsai, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Peter Gray, Elliot Washor, Dennis Littky, John Taylor Gatto and many others.  People all over the world are creating learning environments based on the science of human motivation.  We want one, too, for our children and our community.

We invite everyone to join us.  Please visit our Indiegogo page to find out how you can at

David Lane has worked in non-profit, for-profit, public and private educational settings serving students aged 14 to 94 from the inner city to suburban neighborhoods, including Los Angeles, New York City, and central Massachusetts.  He has pursued his own path through these varied educational environments, which has led him to the firm conviction that self-directed learning IS the pursuit of happiness.  He is married to a brilliant woman who pushes him to be better every day and is the father of three beautiful, creative and trouble-making children aged 10, 12, and 14 years old.  Contact him at .

On the Virtue of Self-Directed Learning

unnamed-148 by Sophia Tenaglia

I first began homeschooling in 2009, right after the end of third grade. Up until that point, I had been enrolled in a really wonderful private Montessori school. (The Montessori method, built on the observation that children teach themselves, is, I think, pretty consistent with the principles of democratic schooling). I had enjoyed my time there, but my brother and I were growing out of the elementary school program and neither one of us had any desire to enroll in the public schools in our district, especially considering my brother’s bad experience when he went to our local kindergarten.

My family knew we didn’t want to go back to such a stifling, competitive, and negative environment, so we began to explore other options. It was actually my brother who suggested homeschooling, and after much thought, we decided it sounded like a great way to go. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of homeschooling; my ideas of it being very different from the way I’d describe it now. Back then, the word “homeschooling” simply implied doing normal schoolwork at home, the only difference being an absence from the pressures of school like tests and classrooms. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As my homeschooling path has evolved I have discovered a joy of learning and discovery that nine-year-old me was definitely not expecting.

One of the biggest revelations I have come to throughout my six years of self-directed learning is the notion that learning is supposed to be fun. The societal perceptions and overall structures of most schools I have observed give one the idea that there is a time for learning and a time for fun and games, and that both of these are quite separate. I believed that when you learn, you must always be focused, but never have fun, because you are learning so that you can do well on tests and then have a good job. I always operated on the basis of “work at school, play at home” but when home and school became the same thing, learning slowly began to take on a new meaning.

However, this meaning did not make itself known for several years. When I began homeschooling, I operated following similar school hours and conventions, forcing myself to focus on and learn things I had no interest in. Often, my mom would give me certain assignments to do such as reading a book or answering a few study questions, and I followed them with much bellyaching. These years were not the fondest of my life, but they were an essential part of my process along my self-directed path; an important part of homeschooling is discovering how it is you learn best. When I finally hit the point where I suddenly realized that I was in control of my learning, the line I had previously seen between education and everyday life disappeared.

In 2011, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a group of physicists for their historic and completely unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, instead of slowing down (as had been previously thought) because of the presence of a force called  “dark energy.” I remember hearing about this on NPR and being completely confused by what it meant. I puzzled over it for a moment, but then stopped, thinking: “Well, I’m not a scientist, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if I don’t understand this stuff.” However, in the following weeks I couldn’t get dark energy out of my head. It was accompanied by this nagging thought: “What does it mean?”

I don’t remember what my schooling was like at the time, but I do remember putting a hold on some of the “work” I wasn’t as interested in and starting to research the expanding universe and dark energy for my own personal benefit. There was no other reason for doing this in my eyes besides the fact that I wanted to learn about and understand concepts that I had previously assumed to be beyond my comprehension. Guess what? They weren’t. Once the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, I found myself getting more and more excited and enthralled by the work I was doing. It was fascinating stuff, and I was learning it on my own.

From this point onwards, my education changed markedly. Suddenly, I was designing my learning and education based on what was of interest to me by choosing what I wanted to learn about and when I wanted to learn it. My days became more unstructured and my schedule more flexible as I started paying attention to what I really wanted to do and what I was in the mood for. If I didn’t want to do math and wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five, then I would do that instead. If I wanted to write a story about an art thief in place of a research paper, so be it. This kind of freedom was eye-opening.

Hand in hand with this transformation, I also noticed myself becoming a more independent individual. My mom and dad stepped aside and really let me fuel my own life, and I started to feel this great surge of empowerment that I still experience to this day. This feeling showed up because I’m in control of my own learning, not my mom, not my dad, not some school or institution, just me. This is my life, and only I have the power to choose what I want to know and what I learn.

I’ve learned many amazing things from being homeschooled, but one of the most important is this: Teachers can teach me plenty of things, but when it comes down to it, I’ll only learn what I actually want to learn. If something isn’t interesting or if I don’t consider it to be beneficial to me in some way (whether it’s immediately beneficial or beneficial in the future) I’m not going to latch on, and its not going to stay in my mind; not for long at any rate. I don’t want to memorize a bunch of facts and then repeat them to a teacher, only to forget them in a few weeks. I want to supply my brain with knowledge that will satisfy my need to know and benefit me for years to come. We all have limited time in this universe, and it only seems right that each individual should decide how they should spend that time. After all, only I know what I want.

Sophia Tenaglia is a 15 year-old self-directed learner from Pennsylvania where she attends Open Connections in suburban Philadelphia. She spends most of her time absorbing and discussing stories, both real and fictional, in the many forms they come in. She is a strong believer in enjoying oneself while learning. 


This is not a school

 macomber1by Ben Draper

We opened the Macomber Center in 2012 as a resource center for self-directed learners.  Most of us had come from a democratic school background so naturally some people assumed that we were taking the first steps towards creating a democratic school.  What started to interest us, however, was not the potential to move towards something familiar, but the opportunity to explore something new.  We wanted to remain open-minded and flexible about what we were doing and how we might evolve.  There are plenty of alternative schools out there; we wanted to provide a genuine alternative to school.

From the very beginning, we rejected the idea of school.  We had no interest in having to enforce an attendance policy, which all schools — even democratic schools– have to do.  We wanted kids to be able to come and go freely.  We wanted the center to be used only as needed and not to hold kids back from pursuing other interests out in the larger community.  We were not interested in handing out diplomas either.  We didn’t feel that kids should need our stamp of approval to move on in the world.  Instead, we felt that they should be the ones to determine when and how they were going to make the transition into adult life.

As a resource center, we provide an environment where the natural curiosity of kids is given free reign.  They are surrounded by acres of natural space and are given the time and freedom to explore.  They have access to the essential tools of learning: computers, books, art supplies, musical instruments, and science equipment.  They also have access to knowledgeable, helpful adults.

One thing we share with the democratic school model is a strong emphasis on community life.  People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities.  This is not what we do at the Macomber Center.  The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community.  Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community.

So if kids do not come to the Macomber Center for specific activities, how do they spend their time here, and what is the role of adults, if it is not to teach classes?  The kids here spend their time engaging in all kinds of different activities.  For the most part, they pursue their interests on their own and with other kids.  There are also many activities that kids and adults do together: they play music together, they play games like bananagrams, and they also play outdoor games like tag, soccer, and frisbee.  They eat lunch together, engage in conversations and so on.

As for the traditional teacher/student relationship that exists in almost any educational setting, at the Macomber Center this relationship has to be understood within the context of self-directed learning.  In the course of pursuing their various interests, kids will sometimes ask an adult for help.  There is often a considerable amount of time and energy spent in conversation just trying to clarify what exactly the interest is, the best way to pursue that interest, and what the role of the adult should be in the process.  This is not just a preliminary step but an important part of the process.  Learning how to articulate exactly what the interest is and figuring out how to pursue it can be the most useful and satisfying part of the whole experience for the learner.  Sometimes the best way to help kids explore a subject is to organize a class, but even when classes are formed, they can vary widely depending on what makes sense for a given subject.  Often the role of the adult is not so much to “teach” but rather to help the kids plot a course and help keep things moving in a productive direction.

The great thing about the resource center model is that it is so flexible.  These centers are continuing to pop up all around the country, and they are all different.  They take on different shapes depending on the needs of their community and the background of the people who create them.  Everything, right down to the land they are on and the building they are in, influences the way the programs at these centers develop.  It has been exciting to see how the culture at the Macomber Center has evolved in ways that we, the people who started it, could never have anticipated.  It has taken on its own life and transcended our ideas and theories about what a resource center should be.

Ben Draper attended the Sudbury Valley School for twelve years and graduated in 1997.  He is now Executive Director at the Macomber Center in Framingham, MA, a center for self-directed learning which he helped start in 2012. Before that, he worked as an artist.  A number of his paintings have been exhibited in the contemporary wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as well as other galleries in and around Boston.  He lives in Natick with his wife, Rebecca and their two young kids, Tommy and Lucy. He can be reached at