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. Community Resource Centers dedicated to the needs and interests of self-directed learners are widespread and can enhance home-based learning. Today’s blog post highlights one such resource center, North Star, in Hadley, Mass. To learn more about resource centers near you, visit the Alternatives To School Community Resources page.
David and his mother have driven more than an hour to visit North Star. As I show them around the building, he is quiet. When we sit down in the office, I take up my notes from the phone call I had with his mother, and say, “So, you are 15, just finishing 9th grade in public school?” He says, cautiously, “Well, actually, I didn’t finish this year.” I pause, wondering how he feels about this situation, and not sure if he isn’t a bit embarrassed and vulnerable to tell that to a stranger in a school-like office setting. I just say, “Oh, what happened?”
“Well, the work just seemed so pointless and boring. I stopped doing it. And then I just gave up.” I heard a sense of defeat in that report, so I blurted out, “Congratulations! I bet stopping going to school was probably the wisest thing you could have done.” A tiny hint of a smile appeared at the corners of his mouth, and he looked at me to see if I was joking. His mother exclaimed, “Well, you haven’t heard that one before!”
An hour-and-a-half conversation ensued. Sure, David has struggled with depression, but he’s not seeing a therapist and he’s not on any medications. Since he stopped going to school in May, he’s actually feeling happy. He has one major activity, martial arts (in which he is pursuing his black belt), and he has one active intellectual pursuit, psychology. His mother, a social worker, confirms that David is much more alert and pleasant and thoughtful about his life since he stopped going to school in May.
In fact, his mother goes on to share the long version of David’s dismal school career, saying, “Every time a teacher told me, ‘I’m going to make sure I get through to your son,’ I knew we were in trouble. I always wanted to tell them, ‘Stop trying so hard.’”
I laughed out loud. “You’ve come to the right place for that!” Seriously, North Star staff pay careful attention to our members, and one of our primary concerns is to build relationships with teens. However, we do not try to “fix” or “change” teens, especially those who have no desire to be “fixed” or “changed.”
After I heard their full story, I began my description of North Star by asserting, “Everything I’m about to tell you and offer you are things you can do either with or without North Star. You do not have to join us to embrace a self-directed lifestyle that will work. Join us only if driving more than an hour a couple of times per week is going to improve your life.”
I then went on to describe our program: our classes, our one-on-one meetings for personal interests and tutoring, our advisories for each member, and our goal for helping each member construct a routine and a life they want. I explained that he could go to college if and when he wanted, starting right now. I told him that obtaining a GED would satisfy every bureaucratic need he might encounter without a traditional high school diploma. In short, I repeated over and over again in as many variations as I could manage to say: “Your choice to not complete 9th grade has cost you nothing, and it never will. You just seized a 3-year-and-two-month head start on your life. You are a risk-taker, and you are entirely correct in assessing the value of staying in school.”
Who else tells a semi-depressed kid who gave up on school prior to 9th grade finals that he has done the right thing for himself? Most of the teens I meet at North Star are not depressed. In each meeting, I find a different way to convey the truth that “School is optional” that is relevant to their experience.
I don’t know for sure that David will join North Star, and if he doesn’t, his mother will never pay us a dime. But watching his body posture and eye contact change during that meeting, hearing his mother’s support and appreciation for our message, witnessing her tears, and shaking his hand on the way out the door all made it a day well spent.
If you would like to find out how to tell teens that School is Optional, and that choosing to leave school for self-directed learning can be the best choice they ever make, please visit www.northstarteens.org or view my ted talk. If you would like learn about the network of others we are working with to spread our model, visit the website of Liberated Learners.