I’m not against schools. Rather, I am against the continued monopoly that schools have over the resources for learning. I applaud the many students who thrive in schools. But millions do not, and they should be allowed to choose their own paths to learning.
When I wrote my first book, Beyond the Schoolhouse, in 1977, I dreamed of doing what Kenneth Danford has done, but I didn’t know how and society wasn’t ready for it. In this series of blogposts, I share excerpts from Kenneth Danford’s new book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional.
Who knew that the best answer to all of the stressful demands on the current American teen—getting good grades, finding a serious passion, building a strong resumé for college applications, wondering what to study in college, fearing how to pay for college, or considering an alternative to college—is a simple, powerful, and profound action: Stop going to school.
It’s one thing to know this surprising truth, and to declare that school is optional. It’s another thing entirely to make school optional for any interested teen.
What does it take to offer a viable and inspiring alternative to attending school? How do teens go from feeling trapped to feeling in control of their lives? How do teens thrive without traditional high school diplomas? The answers are not secrets, and they are not complicated. In fact, many of us live this way every day. It’s just a matter of making it possible for any interested teen to join us.
That’s the story we have to tell at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens.
By the fall of 1996, Joshua Hornick, my co-founder, and I were actually supporting school-attending kids who wanted to stop going to school. Did we really know what we were doing? Looking back on it, I believe the answer is “Yes, we knew we were doing something helpful.”
We saw ourselves as offering much more than just getting kids out of school: We were encouraging them to build their own lives, as if they were young adults, already finished with school. The first conversation we had with each teen and family may have focused on “leaving,” but every day after that was focused on “starting” and “doing.”
We felt this away about our own work, as well. We had left teaching school, and now it was time to get started on being good at our jobs. We didn’t have many doubts or qualms about our approach, and we had faith in ourselves and in the process. We were eager to have some of our own success stories.
Self-directed students choose what they learn at North Star
If I were limited to telling the story of just one alumna to convey why and for whom I started North Star, and what this work has meant for me, I would choose to tell the story of Willow Hearth. Willow was a friendly and serious student, who seemed willing to go along with whatever topics and assignments were part of my class. She appreciated my efforts to make things interesting and creative. However, she often struggled with doing the work. She wrote for our newsletter in January, 2000:
I was miserable in junior high. I was not getting my work done, even though I did homework for five or six hours each night, because I worked slowly and meticulously. Though I liked all of my teachers, many of my classmates, and some of my classes, it was clear to me that something was not right. Throughout my school years, I had only two or three friends. I was not part of any after-school clubs or programs, and I only went to one school dance. I would come home and cry every day, because I was so miserable. I did not know what to do.
Sometimes, Willow would spend hours on an assignment that I had intended to take twenty minutes, or she would misunderstand the directions for an essay, such that after all of her effort, I still couldn’t give it an “A” grade. I saw her tears of frustration. She knew I cared and felt regretful, and we were riding quite the emotional rollercoaster together. Willow would later describe our relationship of that year by complimenting me, “School made me miserable, but of all my teachers you made me the least miserable.”
The change I saw in Willow, from the last day of school in June to the first day of North Star in September, was extraordinary. In school, Willow had been stressed and tired and mostly alone. She made an effort to be nice to me because she liked my class. At North Star, she was a new person. She glowed. She smiled. She had energy. She had friends. When she entered our building, or came to my class, she didn’t need to try to be nice. She was now simply the person who had been suppressed in school.
We changed together. We were no longer fulfilling our roles as “teacher and student.” I imagine there may have been a moment that first day or that first week or that first month when we just looked at each other inside North Star, and thought, without saying it, “Look at us! Here we are. We’re really doing it.” I don’t know if that moment actually occurred, but I still feel chills and get tears in my eyes as I consider the possibility. I know Willow feels the same way.
That profound experience was on day one. I had already done something more important for one individual than I may have done in my previous six years of eighth grade teaching.
Willow’s story was an important piece of my TEDx Talk at Amherst College in 2013, where she asked me to express the following: Tell them I’m really content. I really like my life now. But school was really bad for me. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have survived four years of high school. I think maybe you saved my life. Thank you.
Over the years, North Star has welcomed many teens with depression, young people who arrived with concerns around suicide. I believe our approach has been effective in many of these cases, and in a handful of instances, literally saved lives. I know that Willow Hearth was my first such experience of feeling, “I made the most important difference I could have made for that person, and it worked.”
Learning is Natural, School is Optional, from which this post is excerpted, is now available at Amazon.com. You may also order an autographed copy direct from author Kenneth Danford at his website. These direct purchases mean that Ken gets to keep far more of the proceeds from his sales. This money ultimately helps fund further development of the unschooling movement through North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.