Helping Teens Thrive Without School

I probably asked Ken Danford the “wrong” first question showing how much I didn’t understand his TEDx Talk I watched a few days ago while folding laundry.  Maybe I was distracted by the laundry but I think it’s the typically worried Mom syndrome that did it.  I asked him how they motivated kids and he booms loudly for all the young teenagers in the room to hear, “Hey, how do we motivate you guys?”   Somebody answered to the effect, “Huh?  You don’t.  We do it ourselves.”

Got it.  I think.  It’s hard to believe that I so believe in this process and yet understand so little of it.

The North Star blurb goes: “Learning is natural. School is optional.”  The North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens has been helping teens thrive without school since 1996. That’s two decades of rescuing teens from the boredom and misery of school and of teens finding their way through life without the help of formal, certificate-awarding institutions.  Many of them do end up in colleges – community or otherwise or even prestigious name universities and whatever the method or path, end up leading productive lives.

I loved school.  Not everyone does.  I wanted to go to school every year of my life until I realized life was one big school and now I set up my own personal university, fashion my own curriculum and search for my own teachers and mentors.  But seeing many young, aimless, unmotivated young people bothered me.  It gnawed like a zombie inside my brain.

What bothered Ken was that he was teaching social studies in a public middle school and he saw students year after year who would rather be somewhere else other than the classroom. “How would you feel working in a restaurant where people didn’t want to eat?”  In an interview with Blake Boles, author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning, Ken Banford shared this account:

And it came about in 1996, when Joshua Hornick and I were frustrated middle school teachers in Amherst, the Amherst public schools in Massachusetts, and, couldn’t see how to improve or change schools from within to make it so that teens would want to be there. I had liked school, I’d become a teacher for idealistic reasons, I was in a program to become a principal or superintendent, but I really felt sad about the relationships I was having with many of the teens and their experiences in the building, and I felt that in many cases I was making teens’ lives worse, not better, and fussing about trivial things with them, about bathrooms, about tardiness, and so on, and that, you know, on an individual basis many of them were just throwing their work away as soon as they thought they were done with it, and it didn’t seem very meaningful to a lot of people. And Joshua felt those things but he had a slightly different take on it, which was, that he felt in school, so many teens were just learning to get by, to settle for mediocrity, to see “teenagedom” as a time to get through without doing anything meaningful, just wait and wait, and pass on through. And he felt really sad to be part of that system or contributing in any way to that view of life. And so, he gave me a copy of “The Teenage Liberation Handbook” – that was my first introduction to homeschooling, and I knew nothing about any alternatives such as that…

Ken Danford started North Star and has been coaching kids not to go to school since 1996.  North Star is not a school; there are no grades, credits or diplomas.  What is there then?  It’s like an anti-exclusive club where all teens are welcome, have regular one-on-one meetings with an advisor and if they want, they can avail of tutorials, classes, read books in the library, hang-out with others in the lounge, play musical instruments, practice song, dance or theater, be involved in community activities and projects and do pretty much what they want without being judged or labeled.   Many of the teens who go through the North Star doors come from misery, anxiety and depression.  Some were suicidal.  Most of those feelings disappear once they realize they are free to lead lives they choose to lead, not dictated by “authority.”  They become authors of their lives.

In his TEDx Talk in Amherst, Ken said,  “Stop going to school and start getting a life? Who says that to teenagers?  That’s preposterous!”  North Star has made it their mission to offer an alternative to those who feel trapped in school.  To go back to my first question, the question is not how you motivate the kids.  Maybe they’ll want to volunteer, maybe not.  Maybe they’ll want to be involved, maybe not.  Maybe happiness precedes being active or motivated.  They’ll find that reason to get up in the morning themselves but what North Star provides is a safe place and a listening ear.

One teenager, Tristan told me how North Star saved him because he was able to develop social skills, hurdle his anxiety meeting people, build confidence and make friends. Another teenager found her voice through writing, learning about herself and figuring things out by herself.

Tristan toured me around the building which was a dream come true for me.  This was my vision in the flesh.  I had thought of this and I researched about this and here it was, standing twenty years strong.  What struck me most was what outreach director, Jodi Cutler told me, “We have hurt no one and we have turned no one away.  That’s something most schools can’t say.”

They have turned no one away.  They have turned no one away.  What kind of people do this sort of thing?  Super heroes?  To enter clubs, institutions, schools, universities, you have to hurdle tests, pass muster, be judged in relation to other applicants, be tight with the in-crowd, have the right sort of background or else you are turned away.  Sorry. Not up to standard.  Imagine a place where the only standard is the one you set up for yourself.

I can imagine a place like this happening in America or other developed countries, but in the Philippines?  No self-respecting parent would want this kind of hippie, pie-in-the-sky, set up for their child, right?   You never know till you try.

How does North Star keep itself afloat especially if they don’t turn away people?  Two thirds to three fourths come from fees that they charge the “members” and one third is derived from fundraising.  They eventually earn the trust of parents and their track record shows an impressive alumni.  One of the parents sent his two sons to North Star and it worked brilliantly for them — one graduated from Brown University and the other went into jazz.  Now that they’ve gone off on their own, their father joined North Star as a staff advisor.

Ken Danford has set up an international network called Liberated Learners.  Click on the yellow symbol over the Philippines.  It’s the only one so far in that region.  See what comes up.



Read the whole interview with Ken Danford by Blake Boles here.

Watch the full TEDx talk here.

Check out the Liberated Learners here.


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