North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2007
by Ken Danford 

For those of you new to North Star today, I want to introduce our program before you hear from the other speakers. North Star is legendary for what we aren’t or what we don’t:

We are not a school; we don’t make anyone come; we don’t make members go to classes; we don’t make anyone learn anything; we don’t take attendance; we don’t give diplomas; we let teens come and go as they please.

We are also clear about what we think teen homeschooling is not: teen homeschooling is not replicating school at home being taught by one’s parents.

Here, I want to take a few minutes to tell you what we do, in fact do:

Teen homeschooling is a means for teens and their families to set their own priorities; design their own schedules; find their own classes, tutors, and resources; and decide for themselves when to start and stop. One analogy is summertime. Some of us fill our summer with camps and programs. Of course, some camps are full of structure, and others encourage more, spontaneity, shall we say…maybe dig a hole one day, and then come back and move that hole the next day. Next time you walk around Woodland Village, walk carefully. Just like there are many kinds of camps, there are many kinds of homeschooling approaches. In the summer, many of us mix weeks of camp with unplanned weeks for lazy days with family. Some go to the beach or travel. Some read a lot. Even with no credit and no grades, many of us learn new things over the summer due to the opportunities and inspiration we find for ourselves. Some people even consider this open-ended opportunity to create our own schedules a favorite part of the year.

Just as most people do a mixture of these things in a summer, and children in the same family may do different things, the teen homeschoolers I know use a mixture of approaches for their learning.

So the first thing we do at North Star with new members is have this essential conversation about what to do and how to do it, and how teens and parents can see themselves as being on the same team. We help families move beyond the “parent enforcing school expectations conflict” to explore the genuine dreams and concerns about what is needed to build an interesting and productive life. From this point forward, we are involved with the teens and parents as much as requested. Sometimes the issues are academic: can we find a math tutor, can we recommend a good book? Sometimes the issues are more abstract, such as my child doesn’t seem to have a passion yet, or how do I know how much is enough? Sometimes there is conflict, when agreements aren’t kept or communication breaks down. Sometimes we are the closest non-family members supporting a teen with depression or some self-destructive behavior. At North Star, we don’t separate learning from life, and our work with families begins with what is most pressing for each individual, whether that is academic, emotional, social, or family-related.

Once we help devise a plan, it’s true, we don’t make teens come to North Star. But sometimes, they call us asking for a ride, and we go fetch them. Sometimes, they find North Star a difficult place to be, and we meet them for tutoring in coffee shops or libraries. We check in with teens by phone, by email, by instant messaging. And by now, most of you have heard me claim that teens are waiting for us in the morning, they have to be sent away in the afternoon, and our members are among the few in our country who root against snow days.

When our members do choose to come to North Star, yes, it’s true, we don’t make them go to classes. We offer a huge calendar, with over 30 different adults, college students, and teens coming in each week. We have numerous tutorials, from the ordinary such as math or writing to the more uncommon such as voice lessons, guitar, psychology, and Japanese. We have teens coming to us to remind us it’s time for their tutorials. We all know that many of these tutorials are as much about relationships as they are about academics. One-on-one writing provides a setting to consider one’s procrastination, or the death of a loved one, or one’s mixed feelings about a relationship. A math tutorial may be about how much to charge when babysitting, or how to plan one’s time, or why deal with the GED or SAT anyway.

To give you a real sense of what this all means, I want to share this email I received about a recent staff-teen meeting (combination of check-in and tutorial, outside of North Star, might I add):

I just met with G. I'd brought her German tapes, a National Geographic film about the ocean (she's interested in that), two high quality young adult novels, and a Torey Hayden book. She's really taking off into homeschooling. The incredible thing was that she showed me a piece of writing she'd done in the middle of the night -- this is when she does her real, raw, fresh writing -- and it was all about walking into the writing workshop at North Star for the first time and being so anxious and then hearing me say something about how we can tell when our writing is good and not good, and it blew her mind because she'd never heard an adult say that, it was always assumed in school that the student couldn't judge her own writing, and she barely knew what I meant at the time but now six months later she's getting it, and homeschooling has freed her mind to realize that what she writes is real and it counts and she has something to say

and she is finally free to do what she was born to do (that's a direct quote). Holy cow; it was so moving, I can't tell you enough about it.

Still, you might walk into North Star and see some teens doing essentially doing Nothing. But, as one of our newest members related her feelings in an end of the year presentation last week, when I asked how she felt as a newcomer in the room, “Doing Nothing is doing something!” She followed this insight with a startling explanation of why having free time isn’t boring: “I haven’t had time to do nothing like this before. With school, sports, homework, and family activities, I’ve never had this chance. I think everyone should have more time like this.” The other adults in the room exchanged mildly embarrassed glances acknowledging our own lack of this experience: calm, down time in a friendly, social environment. 

We help teens find internships, but that hardly describes it. We connect a member with a particular horseback riding program staffed by just the right caring women for this person’s needs. We take a young man to the Food Bank Farm when it’s clear he needs this support to get started. Our members come to us for help when they want to stop smoking, or when they are applying for their first job, or when they want to figure out how to approach their parents with their next plan. When a young man said he might join the military for the sake of its radiography training, we responded. We took this young man first to meet a friend who is a lab technician at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and we received a full tour of the labs and met many interesting medical technologists eager to share how they learned their skills. Then, we researched the local programs, scheduled a visit at Springfield Technical Community College, and went there together for the tour.

We don’t give grades or diplomas, but we write lots of letters of recommendation. We do plenty of GED and SAT preparation with those members taking these tests. We see our alumni moving on to college and beyond, including last year’s speaker Ethan Mathews to the Commonwealth College Honors Program at Umass and upcoming Liberated Learners writer Olivia Marti to MCLA. Evan Brill, 17. is ready to become the youngest person to do the Outdoor Leadership Program at GCC. Emily Rosenberg graduated from Amherst College last month, as did Kati Lewantowicz from UMass. (alumni raise your hands…those having attended or planning to attend, wave…college admissions is part of the homeschooling world.)

Sometimes teens arrive healthy and passionate and focused, with good relations with their parents, and eager to get on with their lives. (Really, one or two of them are like that!) But one of the amazing things that North Star does is work with everyone who walks in the door. This obviously includes people who can’t afford our fees, hence this fundraiser. But, it’s more subtle than that. We accept families that never dreamed of themselves as homeschoolers. We have kids arrive with depression, or with failing grades. We have teens arrive in conflict with their parents, or with parents who are in conflict with each other. We have teens who come having been suspended or expelled from their previous school. In one instance this year, I asked a fifteen-year-old girl what she does with her free time, and she answered, “I hate school”. She meant it as an active process, that hating school filled her thoughts all of the time. When I asked what she likes to do, she couldn’t answer beyond repeating, “I hate school.” Since she has been out, one semester, she has begun to take her interests in photography, modeling, animals, and working a bit more seriously. She is one of our liveliest members, and I especially like how she regularly wanders into my office space just to peek in and check on me. 

In every case, we begin optimistically explaining the premise that homeschooling can work for anyone, and that with our help, anyone can take charge of her or his life. We don’t select our new members; we have open admissions. Among the things that we don’t do at North Star, please remember this one: we don’t reject anyone who wants to enter. 

You will hear about Jonah, who couldn’t really sit still for elementary school and for whom only the brave try to imagine the past year in middle school. You will hear about Oliver, who has modeled personal integrity by seriously studying the things that interest him and directly and politely refusing to pretend to study things that he doesn’t. You will hear from Ben, who has used the freedom of homeschooling to pursue his interests in a guided, supported, inspiring manner. These stories are different, and I hope you will contrast them and appreciate the spectrum they represent. It turns out these stories are all about boys, but our next issue of Liberated Learners features two girls.

Finally, you will help us recognize Black Snake and TMD, two people who have been influential for my own children. At the year-end ceremonies, Black Snake recognizes the spirit of each camper and conveys a native name upon each child, one that stays with them. Her explanations of how the names come to her from the Great Spirit are both moving and revealing; many of us know how accurately she seems to know each child in her relatively brief time with them. But she has given away her secret; she has said on multiple occasions that the real work they do together at Woodland Village is nothing more than talking and listening, playing and sharing. Today I am honored to share this event with these two individuals, who like many of us, have discovered ourselves and a good way to live from sources other than school.

There is a big gap between dreaming and doing, between imagining and implementing. Most teens need help when confronting this gap. There is also a world of options in working with teens between making them do what we want and ignoring them. Catherine, Susannah, John, and the rest of our staff live in this world of options, and we bridge this gap with one teen at a time every day.

In the same way that a summer camp is not just for kids who already love to be outdoors, North Star is not just for people who are already homeschooling or who are already demonstrating self-directed learning in academic areas. North Star is for anyone who wakes up feeling constrained by school; who, when feeling unhappy asks, “Isn’t there a better way to live?” For those people, North Star answers, “Yes, there is a better way, and you can start living it right now.” Thank you for giving us the ability to provide this answer to any interested teen in the Pioneer Valley.