Most impressive of all, we seem to be preserving the atmosphere and spirit of North Star amidst this dramatic improvement in our physical premises. We have added a weekly continued on page 2 4
Welcome to the new era of North Star! We have moved into our new home, the old Russell Street School building in Hadley, just a short walk away from our previous space. This 1894 brick building is four times the size of our old space, and has quickly become a comfortable and exciting place to be. We have room for activities like never before: a dedicated music room with a drum set and amplifiers, an art room, a beautiful and quiet library or reading room, and a large empty room available for theater, circus, capoeira, and concerts on a baby grand piano. Catherine Gobron spent the majority of her summer painting and renovating and planning out the use of this building, and our smooth transition is the evidence of her commitment. We encourage all of you who have yet to visit to come in and check it out.
Twelve years ago, in the fall of 1995, I was Lesleyâ€™s teacher in school. Lesley actually liked my class, but she would not complete any assignments. (Which makes her completion of this Liberated Learners essay at my request either a minor miracle or evidence of how things change.) Ours was one relationship that forced me to consider changing careers. I appreciate Lesleyâ€™s reaching back for stories and memories to describe her homeschooling and life experiences during these past twelve years. Lesley and her parents have been stalwart supporters of North Star in many ways, and our enduring friendship is just the sort of relationship I was seeking with my students when Lesley and I left school together.â€”K.D.
Here's a happy childhood memory for you: In sixth grade, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that I shouldn't be reading during my lunch period.
community meeting to our calendar to ensure open discussion of how people are feeling in this new space, and so far, the comings and goings of teens and staff feels very similar to the traditional North Star atmosphere. Alumni know they are visiting the same program they remember. As I approached this annual alumni issue, perhaps nostalgia pushed me back to some of our oldest alumni, people who remember our origins as Pathfinder Learning Center in three small rooms in an office building in Amherst in 1996. Lesley Arak was there on the first day, Nathanael Miksis arrived the first year, and Kiva Singh was one of core members from our first few years. I have stayed in touch with each of them over the years, and both Lesley and Nathanael have volunteered some teaching time at North Star. Our ties are strong, and having these alumni share their stories helps connect North Star’s exciting present to our historical roots. Of
continued on page 34 2
She said that it was my "social time" and that I should not bring a book with me tomorrow. To this day, I still have no idea what she thought she was doing telling me that. It's a good example of the feeling that my memories of public school give me – pointless monitoring, rules and restrictions. I am 25 years old. I left school at the end of 8th grade, when I was 14. When I put it down on paper, it seems so long ago. How horrible, I think, if it had gone on longer. Thank goodness my 8th grade Social Studies teacher turned out to be Ken Danford. That was his last year in public school and I imagine he saw me as a good candidate for his venture, project, experiment: basically smart, but unmotivated. In fact, if you Google my name you'll find an article in which he refers to me as a "classic underachiever." (This always, always makes me think of Bart Simpson.) Happily for me, the other thirty results for me that come up in Google are all things like "Photo by Lesley Arak" or "Lesley Arak, a local photographer..." (More on that later) That's right, sixth grade teacher whose name I leave out only so she won't come after me and suck out my soul through my eyeballs, I managed to turn out okay despite the horrible sin of not being pink and fluffy but reading during lunch period instead. Yes, when I look back on grades 6 -8 I can be a little bitter. So, here's the story: The older I got, the harder school got for me. Not the work – I always understood quickly, tested very well, read like crazy. It was more the environment as a whole that was hard. Getting up early enough to start class at 7:45? Rushing out the door to get there before a bell rang and I got a "tardy" detention? Being assigned books to read that I'd read, on my own, two years earlier? And don't even get me started on mandatory co-ed swim class during puberty! Asinine became one of my favorite words in Jr. High. I also became a major brat at home, as many of us do at that age. (Don't worry, parents! Most kids grow out of it!) So, when Mr. Danford (soon to become Ken!) offered me another option, I was elated. I remember going to the first informational meeting about North Star (then called Pathfinder) with two of my best friends, and passing notes to them saying "I so want to do this!" They wanted to, too, but their parents didn't go for it. Yay for my
parents, who decided to take the chance with me. I spent two years at North Star, and during that time I learned what I think was a hugely valuable lesson: There is Another Way To Do Things. (Seriously, remember that. It can be applied to almost any situation, and it's incredibly liberating.) Instead of English classes where our assignments were things like "Find 10 words in the assigned reading that you don't understand, look them up, and use them in a sentence" (which I could never do, since I already knew all the words, thanks very much) my parents hired a grad student to tutor me. We met once a week in a coffee shop, talked about books and plays, went over my writing. Although she did give me writing assignments, they were fun, interesting and logical. Also, since she actually got to know me and my skill level, they were challenging and appropriate. I remember spending whole science periods back in 7th grade reading the Pocket Astronomy Guide because for some reason the teacher didn't have a lesson plan together. (Once she brought in a video of her own knee surgery and made us watch it. I still have no idea why.) While I was at North Star I volunteered for two years at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, and acted as a teaching assistant for the EcoBus field trips, a hands-on, traveling science program for the Amherst elementary schools. (Best moment there? Getting to take my little brother's class on a trip.) Being flexible and having free time was a new and wonderful thing for me. My first year of
News and Notes
North Star begins the year with 45-50 members, approximately two-thirds of whom are returning from last year and one-third who are new this fall. Our staff has expanded in some ways: beyond Catherine and Ken, the team includes Susannah Sheffer, John Sprague, newcomer Joe Seitz, and Carrie Roe. We have approximately another twenty people contributing as teachers and tutors. New courses include Evolutionary Biology, Capoeira, Sustainable Living, DIY Record Label, Yoga, World Religions, Anatomy, ArchaeoAstronomy, Performance Poetry, and Cooking.
continued on page 44
Liberated Learners Fall 2007
course, the stories are impressive in themselves, reassuring everyone that homeschooling during the teen years leads to fascinating adult lives. Thank you to these writers and to the entire community of which they are examples.
p At North Star homeschooling I used some of that free time to perform in that year's Valley Light Opera production. I had never been in any plays in Jr. High, but I enjoyed branching out and giving it a shot. After two years of homeschooling, I realized that I was wishing for a little more structure in my day, and wanted to find new ways to continue with my education. I never even considered going back to the Amherst High School, but Ken told me about a program that I could apply for: I would technically re-enroll in Amherst High, but all of my classes would be at Greenfield Community College, and I would earn both college and high school credit. It was called the Educational Transition Program, and it rocked. (Too bad our brilliant former governor cut the funding for it.) (Editor’s note: the program still exists; now participants pay for it). College was great. The required 101 classes were quite easy for me and the atmosphere was way more adult and friendly than it had been in high school. I was able to study things that interested me, and discover new things that were interesting, too. Most memorable were my Law classes (I took a ton of them, and even toyed with the idea of law school), plus Anthropology and Sociology (both awesome), and my two semesters of belly dancing (highly recommended). Most satisfying was the fact that I earned my diploma from Amherst High without ever having to take a single class there. There's that Other Way I was talking about. The next few years sort of fade together in my memory. I took a lot of classes at GCC, some for credit, some for fun. I worked quite a lot. Besides doing payroll and office work at the family business, I've had various jobs from age 16 on. I was desperate for a car, and saved up enough for a down payment. I think I was 17. I guess I just sort of lived my life, reading a lot, working, spending time with my friends.
Now, all my life I had been interested in photography. I was always the one with the camera, taking pictures of my friends and family constantly. When my friend's mother got remarried when we were 15, she asked me to take the wedding pictures. About four years ago I started shooting out of a studio space with a partner, in Springfield; we started small and now rent 1,200+ sq feet. What began as basically shooting with friends and friends of friends for fun has expanded into a fledgling business. I shoot model portfolios, individual portrait sessions, commercial product photography (clothing and jewelry), weddings, events – anything and everything. In the fall of 2005 I enrolled in Hallmark Institute of Photography, in Turners Falls, because I felt that if I wanted to pursue photography seriously as my career, I needed a stronger technical background, and a better understanding of the industry. Hallmark is one of the top commercial photography schools in the country. Its focus is preparing people for a solid career in commercial photography. I graduated in the top 10% of my class. The irony for me was that Hallmark bills itself as “Photography Boot camp.” The classes are 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. The structure of each day is extremely rigid, and there are no extensions on assignments, ever. After years of a very unstructured lifestyle, I was shocked to find myself thriving in this environment. I think it really comes down to the fact that here was a school where the entire focus was on something that I loved, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. So there’s my life up to this point. I plan on continuing my career as a freelance photographer, and look forward to seeing what the future holds. If you’re interested, a large body of my work can be found at: www.khavi.deviantart.com/gallery. Or you could just Google me.t
As always, many teen members meet with adults individually for help, support, conversation, and tutoring in specific subjects. We are continuing our work with the Greenfield Community College Outdoor Leadership program, with instructional days of canoeing and rock climbing in October. Our Geography class is considering potential destinations for a North Star trip later this winter or spring. Board member Bob Lowry is hosting our Donor Appreciation Dinner on November 14th. Donors to North Star are invited to this elegant dinner and update; please contact North Star if you would like to attend. We will be holding our 12th annual Bake-a-thon on November 20th, in which we will bake for the Amherst Survival Center’s Thanksgiving Meal. Meanwhile, we are ready to invite community organizations seeking space for evening and weekend meetings or activities to contact us regarding the use of our building. We welcome your referrals. continued on page 54 4
I feel that I have watched Nathanael mature in a sort of time-lapse photography. He arrived at North Star relatively young, and since moving on from our program he has shown up every other year or so as a volunteer or with news of his studies and work changes. His success in college and his career, despite his self-described lack of a homeschooling portfolio, adds to the picture of an intelligent, worldly, and serious young man. His thoughtful responses here are valuable resources for our current families and for readers interested in how the choice to homeschool turns out in different cases.—K.D.
What have you been doing since we last heard from you? The time since I last wrote for Liberated Learners has been a very eventful and exciting period for me. In December 2005, I finished my last semester of college (I took one extra), earning a degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with two minors in math and political science. At that time I also ended my longstanding part-time internship with ISO New England, Inc. in Holyoke, MA to begin, a month later, a graduate program also at Umass in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (ISO New England, Inc. is the non-profit operator of the high-voltage electric power system for the six New England states; it also operates the competitive wholesale electric markets and conducts longer-term planning for grid expansion and upgrade). During the summer of 2006, after my first semester of graduate school, I had an opportunity to study for two months at Électricité de France in Clamart, France, just outside of Paris. More recently, I decided to put aside my studies, after completing just about a year's worth of coursework, in order to take a full-time permanent position with ISO New England, Inc. This past July, I joined the Market Monitoring
Department as an associate market analyst. My group investigates potential anticompetitive behavior and inefficient market rules in New England's wholesale electricity markets on both a real-time daily basis and in more formal periodic written reports for our various stakeholders and federal regulatory agencies. While the learning curve has been steep and the work is never easy, I love what I do. Oh, and I turned 25 this September, so now I've got the quarter-century mark licked. Since you have entered the world beyond North Star/homeschooling, have you felt prepared? Have you encountered any obstacles because you didn't go to high school? Have you met peers who have seemed better off than you because of their high school experiences? I don't have straightforward answers to these questions. In many ways, I have felt under-prepared in contrast with my peers who followed a more traditional educational path. Because I didn't write so much as a single essay in four years of homeschooling and was at essentially an 8th grade math level at age 18, I started college largely at square one. Materially, I was also lacking, because in contrast to some of my homeschooling peers I didn't keep a journal or have any portfolio to show for my years of independent education. On the other
hand, however, I think my experiences with North Star did give me a certain advantage that I've heard is not uncommon among young people who have homeschooled: an insatiable intellectual curiosity that has stayed with me to this day and the unselfconsciousness to ask questions in school and at work until I fully understand something. When you tell people you homeschooled, what kinds of reactions do you receive? When I tell people that I didn't go to high school (which I believe is a slightly more accurate representation of what I did, or didn't do, than saying homeschooling, since I didn't spend much time at home anyway) usually this results in some mild expression of puzzlement, which I always enjoy. Without some contextual knowledge or experience, many people I encounter have difficulty associating an absence of secondary schooling with subsequent success. Is homeschooling still part of your identity? Do you still talk about it? Does it still matter to you? Absolutely. Although I don't have as much occasion to talk about it as I used to, since education discussions now mostly focus on what I did in college, homeschooling is and always will be a large part of who I am. Do you feel you made the most of your homeschooling years? Any advice to our current members?
discipline, for my own strength-of-character's sake and because it would have alleviated my parents' concerns. On the other hand, I like where I've ended up and I couldn't have done it any other way. My advice to current members is to take every advantage you can; you will never be as unconstrained with your time as you are now. If you have an interest in something, there are many people you haven't met yet who do too, so go talk to them or ask around and get an introduction through someone you do know. Attend lectures and take advantage of the academic and cultural wealth of the Pioneer Valley. Have more questions than opinions. Don't ever fear sounding ignorant. Be aware that, as someone who's under 16 or 18 or 21, while you don't have the full rights of an adult, and consequently do have less freedom in some respects (which can suck, believe me I know), you have more freedom in other ways; it's all about using the assets you have (time, energy and often the goodwill of society, though this last one can be expressed in funny ways). Know that rules, laws and social norms exist for reasons, often very good ones. Find out the reasons and then decide if you think they're legitimate. But take responsibility. It's the best thing you can do to get respect. And chill out. Don't worry if you don't have strong interests right now in things you're told to value, like math or English or history. Really, don't. And tell your parents to chill out too. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but I did anyway. Liberated Learners Fall 2007
Finally, we are pleased to report that one of the participants in our Replication Workshop last spring, Molly Russakoff, is progressing with her plans to convert her bookstore in Philadelphia into a homeschooling clubhouse. Her efforts have received some important media coverage, and we look forward to hearing more from Molly. Perhaps a Philadelphia trip will be part of North Starâ€™s program this year!
What are your current plans for the future? No, I didn't make the most of my time, and I always felt a little guilty about it then. I mentioned above that I never wrote nor studied math. I only did what I felt like doing, which was mostly being outdoors and reading, although I did start a small mail-order business at one point and spent a summer as an organic farm apprentice in Vermont. For a lot of the time, though, I was very much an undisciplined slacker. In retrospect, I think I would have been better off if I had done some things differently, especially with regard to keeping a written record of my activities, both because I would have been better prepared for college and because I think it would have been good to maintain some 5
Work harder and smarter and get promoted. I'm partly kidding. I love what I'm doing now. It plays very well to my strong interests in politics, law, economics, environmental issues and technology. I might go to law school down the road or finish my engineering Master's degree, but I'm enjoying the real (non-academic) world right now. Do you have any overall reflections on the homeschooling approach? I'm sure glad it's a viable alternative, but it's not for everyone at every time. I think it compels young
people to be independently minded, which is always a good thing, and freedom from structure can be a good thing too, but there are limits. A strong case can be made for the structure of school, or even the structure of a strictly planned and executed homeschooling curriculum, neither of which I'm personally qualified to speak on. Really, I believe that homeschooling is an umbrella term describing myriad possible approaches whose only common theme is an absence of formal school enrollment. Because of this, I think that it's very much like real life, with all of its creative potential and risk too. Some people argue that school is artificial, and they're right. But then again so are many things throughout society. Homeschooling can offer a good opportunity for the perspective at a young age to let you choose which artifices you like and which you don't, or put another way, which you value and which you don't.t
Kiva’s smile and welcoming nature had a terrific impact on our program. She was part of a core group of friends who were committed to North Star and a large part of our early growth and expansion, including co-contributor to this issue Nathanael Miksis. I remember Kiva as someone always ready to join or try anything, and her list of recent jobs at the end of this essay suggests that this openness is an enduring personality trait. The style of Kiva’s writing feels so familiar: chatty, open, and reflective.Though I have not visited Las Vegas, Kiva’s reports of modeling, dancing, and working in the entertainment industry have always made me smile. I regret that the geographical distance has made it difficult for us to see each other with the frequency I see other alumni. North Star visitors to Las Vegas should look her up!—K.D.
When I began at North Star, it wasn't North Star at all. It was bitty-little three-year-old Pathfinder 6
Learning Center, hardly knee-high to a grasshopper. That size was more than partially due to its location, in the basement of 256 North Pleasant St, Amherst. This is where I found my hope, my happiness, my pride, and eventually where I began to find myself. There is a misperception that those who seek unconventional schooling (A) Believe we didn't come from apes and don't care to hear otherwise, either; (B) Beat up senior citizens and burglarize convenience stores; (C) Are failing out of everything short of gym. Or (D) All of the above. I love to burst bubbles. In fact it could be said that I have an unhealthy obsession with disillusioning those attempting to box others in. I d/evolved from apes. I'm a “moral orle” whose lifestyle does not include elderly abuse or theft, and the only thing I came close to failing was gym. All this in mind, school was indeed far from a cakewalk. Academically I was in fine condition, which isn't so hard when you have no friends. With bi-coastal parents I changed elementary schools three times while switching back and forth every summer. I could always make friends, but by mid-year I would be squeezed out of the social circle they had been cultivating from preschool. To make matters worse, I was different. My hair fell half way down my thigh and I knew far too many worlds. My family was weird. My dad grew up in India and came to the states as a slight twist on the quintessential hippy. My wonderfully eclectic pagan mother moved me into a community house, our clothes came from Goodwill, and neither parent ever had a car less than a decade old. Our houses (by age 12 I had lived in 11 different ones) were cluttered to the brim with trinkets, strange witchy artifacts, hordes of craft supplies, and bushels of whole grain organic goodness. I was weird. I knew it and so did everyone else. This all might have been enough, but it wasn't the final straw. I knew I was done with public education on Columbus Day of 1996. I would not write my report because I deemed the traditional story to be lies, hearsay, and invention. My school career had to come to end because the system was flawed. I knew this and I knew I must bide my time until I could reach my salvation. September of 1998 (when I began homeschooling instead of going to 7th grade) changed
Liberated Learners Fall 2007
q At North Star
everything. It was akin to the first explosive exhalation after holding your breath under water for longer then you care to remember. I came alive. I have always been hungry for knowledge, and drilling myself on state capitals, fascinating as it may be, didn't hold a candle to psychology with an emphasis on experimental brain surgery. Or social issues that are happening now, that are shaping and changing the world we live in now. Gender politics in ourselves and the media. What are the parameters of healthy sex and sexuality? How do you make ice cream with liquid nitrogen? These were the questions of our time. These were the things that would shape us as individuals and as a culture. They were all there. They were all up for discussion and best of all, no one believed Christopher Columbus discovered America. What came next I'll abridge because what is six years squeezed into three paragraphs between friends? When I left North Star I was 16 years old. Earlier in the year my mother had moved to her now-husband's house in Las Vegas and I had elected to stay on in Massachusetts. After a time I began introverting, hibernating for the wild life to come. Those who knew me during my years at North Star (where I came to be incessantly outgoing and quite the socialite) may find it hard to believe I was ever able to hermit away, but I assure you I had plenty of practice in my earlier years and I transitioned smoothly. Only this time it was better. This time it was a choice. I focused on my creativity and myself. Eventually I deepened my seclusion and moved into the attic of a little purple townhouse in West Concord, Massachusetts. I cocooned myself there and come one year I burst out in a spiral that has yet to fully slow down. Putting almost everything I owned in storage, I took to the nomadic life for a couple of 7
seasons. Eventually this landed me in Las Vegas, Nevada where I reside today. Vegas has treated me well, when all is said and done. I've befriended more people who come from drastically different cultural backgrounds than ever before. I've worked a longer and stranger line of jobs then I could hope for. There’s magician's assistant, illustrator, tutor, foot model, casino decor-designer, dancer, graphic artist, and actress, to name a few. All that considered, there’s still a lot missing here. For instance, a well-developed academic community, a strong political presence I resonate with, trees, farms and the “happy valley.” But that is part of the adventure, finding things that are strange, challenging, and exciting. Las Vegas is certainly all of that and more. I think it’s safe to say, many of us do not need our cities as much as our cities need the many of us to make them great. I have a chance to impact a Goliath of a burgeoning metropolis here. I hope I can make it a little brighter before I leave. I want to tell you about my plans for the future. How I'm writing books and showing my art at galleries and rehearsing for this year's Vagina Monologues. I want to tell you about some fiveyear or even five-month plan. But I can't. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't know if or when I'll finish these books or why I show, let alone create, my art. I have a single goal in life. The very goal itself does not matter. The active pursuit of it is everything that matters. Like following the North Star, there are no straight lines. There are mountains and rivers, challenges and triumphs, and all along there is only one goal. You will never obtain it, though the pursuit of it can set you free. If you’d like to see what I’ve been up as an artist, you can visit www.KivaSingh.com or drop me a line at email@example.com Thank you for, and to, everything.t
Help support North Star
Contributions like yours help fund our operating costs. We rely on donations to generate member scholarships, staff salaries, and improvements to our space and resources. Please help us continue to grow.
North Star is a project of Learning Alternatives, Inc, a non-profit corporation under Massachusetts Law and Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
State and Zip
Contributions to North Star are tax-deductible. Thanks for your generosity.
clip and mail to North Star 135 Russell Street Hadley MA 01035
âŠł North Star members .....relax and make music
135 Russell Street (Route 9) Hadley MA 01035 413. 582.0193 or 582.0262 www.northstarteens.org