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The Search is On! By Ken Danford, Executive Director North Star needs a new home! This piece of news arrived rather abruptly in early November, when the Town of Hadley’s Select Board agreed with the Town’s Building Inspector’s assessment that our building should be vacated pending major improvements. Fortunately, we have an option to remain where we are for one more academic year, through June, 2014. Thus, the project of finding a new home has begun, one raising all kinds of basic questions. One idea that we had not considered previously has emerged as a core vision: North Star will buy a home, and over the next decade transform our financial situation into a position of strength. The steps involved in finding a home and arranging the financing are complicated, but we now feel that we are facing a pivotal opportunity for our organization. We have spent the past three months investigating many possibilities, and have established some of the legal systems we will need to move forward. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the staff, the Board, and the community as we consider various options. We welcome your suggestions of potential sites. We will need your help in identifying potential lenders for this purchase. For now, while this project requires a large amount of thinking, planning, and exploring, we are remaining calm and patient! Meanwhile, January brought in a host of new members, and North Star has been full of fresh faces. We have approximately ten new members already in 2013 (Welcome to Rabeya, Alex, Jesse, Casey, Will,

Michael, Samantha, Arun, Ian, Hannah, Justin) and the stream of phone calls and visitors has continued into February. We may have one French homechooling family moving here specifically to join North Star for the spring! As always, I appreciate how This drawing came to our attention via the internet with no artist warmly our current members credit. Thank you to whomever created it! welcome these functioning well before joining our newcomers into the daily life of program and are thriving even more North Star, and in turn, how with our support. This issue of immediately these new members Liberated Learners features Justice welcome the next round of visitors. Simultaneously, we have lost Lynn Erikson, a wonderful example of this point. Justice arrived at North a few members, but it is hard to remain sad about a 16- or 17-year-old Star during her middle-school years with a strong sense of self, full of teen who, after three years with curiosity and basic academic ability. North Star, feels they are ready for She could have succeeded in any full-time community college, work, and more. Alas, for us, these healthy, school had she decided to surrender herself to a system. Instead, she ambitious folks choose to move on. confidently trusted herself and her This idea of healthy, support network to create an ambitious teens brings me to a final interesting life outside of any fullpoint. Many people assume that time school. Here, you have the North Star is a program designed for good fortune to read about the teens who have personal problems outcome. Please consider Justice’s that make school difficult for them. In fact, though North Star’s approach piece as an indication of how lifeexpanding North Star’s approach and is excellent for teens facing all sorts program is for teens who can manage of issues, the program was primarily school but choose this option from a conceived for fairly healthy teens position of strength. Justice is whose only “trouble” is that they extraordinary, but she is not alone! don’t like school. North Star is full of impressive people who were


North Star’s 9th Annual Celebration of Self-Directed Learning

Sunday, APRIL 7, 2013 11:00 until 1:15 at Greenfield Community College

Please join us for a complimentary brunch and unlimited inspiration!

This year’s Self-Directed Learning Award recipient is Jeff Napolitano, Influenced by the writings of Jonathan Kozol and John Taylor Gatto, Jeff Napolitano left high school at the end of 11th grade. He finished a bachelor's degree at UMass Amherst, where he engaged in campus organizing. He is now the Director of the Western Massachusetts program of the American Friends Service Committee, which focuses on anti-war organizing, immigration advocacy, non-violence training, and campaigns for economic justice.

This event is a North Star fundraiser. If you’d like to attend, RSVP to Lauren at with the subject RSVP by March 24 and include number of guests.

Replication by Ken Danford This fall I have continued to spend time speaking with others around the country about the North Star model. I have created a map that depicts this network. You can see it here: Joel Hammon, co-founder of the Princeton Learning Cooperative, has become increasingly involved in these conversations. Together, Joel and I, and the North Star Board of Directors have decided the time has come to establish an independent non-profit organization to manage the consulting, outreach, and fundraising involved in spreading our model. We are pleased to announce the creation of Liberated Learners, Inc as the umbrella organization for this task. The first act of Liberated Learners, Inc is to host what has been North Star’s summer Replication Workshop, July 12th-14th. This year we are expanding the event to a conference, and we are inviting all of those who have attended during the past two years to return with teens. We anticipate a weekend of activity, conversation, and reflection about what is needed to support teens and families to leave school and then maintain and thrive in this approach. We also expect another group of educators interested in starting their own programs to attend as well.


Justice may be the most thoroughly self-directed learner I have ever met. "She has always been fiercely protective of her freedom to learn what she wants and how she wants. "In a world that fears such freedom will lead to self-indulgence and narcissism, Justice choice to become a healer and caretaker of others is beyond inspirational. "I was thrilled to have witness Justice speak on a panel in front of John Taylor Gatto himself, a moment I will cherish for the rest of my career. "I can hardly begin to declare my confidence and best wishes for Justice as she continues her studies at Hampshire in the fall. - Ken Danford

A Different Yardstick by which to Measure Life’s Progress

by Justice Erikson !

I have always had a strong love of learning. I learned to read at a very young age, and have always searched for the root causes and flip side of every topic. When I was little, I loved school. I loved grades and tests, homework and highlighters; and to some extent, I still do. What I don’t love is the compulsory nature of something that should be chosen for one’s own self. I have gone to public school, private school, and a free school. For the past four years I have unschooled with North Star, taken college courses, and have recently been accepted into Hampshire College’s Fall 2013 class. I use “grades” here to describe years of learning, but grades have become increasingly irrelevant in my life. I choose to measure my life’s progress with learning, passion, and happiness instead. ! I loved kindergarten and first grade, but they didn’t challenge my ever-curious and increasingly non-conformist mind. The curriculum didn’t allow me to read chapter books in first grade; my teacher had to give them to me secretly. I tried unschooling with my dad’s then-partner Kelly in second grade, using the philosophies of alternative education visionaries such as John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, the same that inspired much of North Star’s philosophy. I spent second grade doing a number of selfdirected educational activities, but by third grade I missed having friends. So I went back to public school, where kids and teachers alike were mean and unwilling to provide me the educational opportunities I desired. Then I went to private school, where kids bullied despite pacifist ideals and the classroom didn’t provide as much freedom as I wanted. During my time in school, Kelly had started a small school in our house: The Ashuelot River Freeschool. I spent fifth/sixth grade there, but by that time it was only me and one or two other kids. This format of learning emerged as the best way to play to my strengths educationally. ! That year I decided to skip a grade by taking the sixth grade standardized test, and passed with little effort. My freedom to focus completely on one task or subject for long periods of time allowed me to learn two years of math in a couple of weeks, something that I did again this summer when I

learned all math beyond basic middle school math up through algebra in two months. I have always prioritized personal learning and achievement over tests and grades. During those years (5th/6th and 7th “grades”) I played video and computer games in addition to reading, writing, knitting, sledding, crafting, going on math binges, etc. I wouldn’t say these were the most productive or useful years of my life, but they were certainly a lot more valuable than the average middle school experience from what I hear. In “eighth grade” (at which point all grades became entirely irrelevant) I decided to come to North Star immediately after hearing about it for the first time. My first two years I spent taking classes on a wide range of subjects, but never having tutorials or studying very much independently. These classes taught me to think critically about everything, make up my own homework, find my passions, and look at traditional subjects from more interesting angles. Outside of classes I sat in the common room, took walks, debated informally, read books, played games, wrote essays and stories, and had an active social life. Those years were primarily social development and selfdiscovery, and they were invaluable to who I am today. I discovered that I am passionate about alternative medicine, I learned what I need from friendships and relationships, I learned how to look at history, society, and medicine through the lenses of radical anthropology. I learned the history of Africa in great depth. I learned how to eat well and heal myself naturally for very little money. I learned how to use performance arts skills in my daily life. I learned more than I could ever list here… all of which I will defend to my dying day as being more valuable than a high school education. ! Why? At this point in my journey as a liberated learner, I have the assurance that what I spent my grade school and high school years doing was absolutely worthwhile. I don’t have a moving story of escape from dangerously unfortunate school circumstances, but the liberation of my learning was no less crucial or joyful. I may not have every gap in my traditional education filled, but when I feel moved to fill them I do so happily and quickly. For the past four years, North Star has helped me find new opportunities and next steps, provided me amazing resources, and given me support and confidence in holding my education firmly in my hand, and dancing with it. I am confident and exuberant about moving forward in my education at Hampshire College and beyond.


book and worked her way through that. We continued working, playing, experimenting, always learning for the next two years. Josiah kept asking me if I thought I should make her do math. I said, “YOU can make her. I won't.” When Justice says they weren't the most productive years, I'm not really sure what she's talking about. She The story of Justice's education is best described a learned to manage her own interests and time, discovered a series of false-starts, hold-ups, furious races forward only to love of working with textiles, learned about technology, find more mind-numbing delays, near asphyxiation, a slow nutrition, music, plants, healing, writing and more than I could resurrection, and finally, freedom. possibly catalog here. I did keep a blog, which recorded a Justice had always been ahead of kids her age. small fraction of what we did: Although her school acknowledged that she was already Having successfully moved herself into the grade she wanted academically at about a second grade level, they refused to let to be in, she was again lacking socialization by the winter of her skip kindergarten. So she danced through. By the time '08-'09, and started talking about going back to the private she came to live full-time with her dad and me in the summer school. I didn't think it was the best idea, but I told her, “Well, of 2004, she was 7 and had just finished first grade. She was if you're going back you have to catch up on all the math I into reading Charlotte's Web, playing in mud puddles, making haven't made you do in the last 3 years.” I gave her a text elaborate art projects, making up songs and recording them in book; she rejected it, I found another; she rejected it. Then a her dad's studio, dressing herself and her brother in ridiculous friend told us about Khan Academy, and Bam! She took off. outfits and costumes, and living life at full volume. Josiah The words, “Stop doing math! It's been 2 hours! Go to bed!” and I took one look at our local public school in southern NH were uttered for the first time in our household. She reand said, “No way.” learned and caught up on 4 years of math in 2 weeks. She was After much conversation, we decided I would leave delighted with herself, her dad was relieved, and I was my teaching job to home-school Justice – specifically to untriumphant that going with my gut instinct of not pushing her, school – something I'd read a lot about not making her do something she wasn't and was really excited about. When ready to do – just like I'd read in all September came, she kept asking me, those books – actually worked! “When does school start?” When I told It was then that I remembered her, “It already has!” she was confused. my college friend Joanna Weinberg She wanted to be doing “school” type talking about her job working with stuff - workbooks and worksheets. I teenagers who didn't go to school but printed online worksheets for math and wanted to do something else. I handwriting, and quickly had to buy couldn't remember what it was called, entire workbooks because I couldn't but Googled around and found North print out the multiplication pages fast Star. I showed Justice a video on enough. YouTube and her immediate reaction When she wanted to go to was, “Oh. Yeah. That.” We met with school the following fall, Josiah and I Ken in May and went to AERO later Kelly (in North Star T-shirt) with two of her decided it was her education, and the that summer, where she met Patch heroes, John Taylor Gatto and Mary Leue at whole point of what we'd been doing Adams, with whom she is still in touch. AERO Conference 2010 was to give her freedom, so we'd let her She started at North Star that fall, just give it a try. We found a private school before her 13th birthday. By AERO that seemed like it would be alternative enough to satisfy my 2010 she was paneling for North Star. radical educator needs and socially interesting enough to At North Star it was clear she had found her people, allow Justice to have some real friends. She stayed there for her place. She loved going, loved her teachers and classes, the rest of third and fourth grades. The school was warm & loved what she was learning and the way she was learning it. fuzzy on the outside, but full of mean girls and bullies. As for She wasn't alone or bored, she always had projects to work on, math, the strong-willed, thirsty-minded child who couldn't get and she came home talking about the cool stuff she'd done. enough math had, by the end of fourth grade, become She was being challenged and challenging herself more and completely math-phobic to the point of falling out of her more. chair, dropping her pencil and crying at the dining room table Justice is an example of what can be accomplished over her math homework. We started writing notes on her when a child is allowed to charge ahead full-steam. And also homework saying we refused to make her do it and stopped proves the benefit of not having to think of oneself as a failure making her go to school if she didn't want to. because a subject isn't being taught in an accessible way. So After much personal deliberation on her part, Justice many kids with her early drive to learn have it beaten out of decided not to return to formal school for fifth grade, but them early, as she almost did. I hate to think of what might instead focus on a sixth grade curriculum so she could get have happened to her creativity and drive had we forced her to ahead to where she, and all of her parents, felt like she should stay in school, to do math the way they were making her, to have been from the beginning. She found a book that she creep along in writing and reading. liked, “Everything Your 6th Grader Should Know” and By the time Justice got to North Star, it was just a worked her way through it, got a seventh grade writing text matter of letting the arrow fly.

Letting the Arrow Fly. by Kelly Taylor


TEACHER PROFILE Melanie Dana taught for 10 years at an alternative high school in the Boston area before moving to Western Massachusetts nine years ago. She has been homeschooling her two children for the past six years. Her favorite courses to teach are math, science, wood-shop and anything with a cross-curricular focus. She has an Ed.M. in Teaching and Curriculum from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“All the things that make North Star such a great place for teens also make it a wonderful place to teach. Free of an imposed curriculum, standardized tests and rigid definitions of subject matter, I can focus on getting to know students as unique learners and enjoy developing courses based on wide-ranging interests. This is my second year teaching at North Star; prior to that I was a homeschooling parent and, before that, an independent high school teacher in the Boston area. One of my passions is helping people to see that math is so much more interesting and playful than the algorithms so many of us learned by rote in school. Last year I taught a class called “The Beauty of Numbers,” in which we spent most of the year exploring the golden ratio. This year’s class is called “Time and Place,” and is a mix of astronomy, geography, geometry and physics. The other class I’m teaching this year is “Roots of American Music” which uses music as a vehicle for understanding American history. I am so grateful to North Star for the opportunity to do something I enjoy so much and for the pleasure of working with such a bright, creative and fun group of students.”

Social Media: Stay Connected

You knew North Star had a FaceBook page.

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The most important alternative education conference, AERO, has invited North Star to make a keynote presentation at its annual conference over Memorial Day weekend in Queens, NY. This opportunity is truly thrilling! 5

North Star Program Director Catherine Gobron now blogs on the

Huffington Post. Here is one of her recent posts entitled “An Invitation to Step Outside.�

As it turns out, how people behave in one setting does not predict how they will behave in a very different setting. Quoting one of the guiding principles of North Star: SelfDirected Learning for Teens:! School success or failure is not necessarily a predictor of a child's potential for success or failure outside of school. An unmotivated student may become enthusiastic and committed after she's left school. A student who doesn't thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. When we change the approach, the structure, and the assumptions, all kinds of other changes often follow. There are no guarantees, of course. A selfdirected approach may not be right for everyone. But knowing that there are no guarantees goes both ways. We can't predict what isn't going to work, either. In recent years I worked with one teen in particular for whom few people had high expectations. She had been having a negative school experience for years and had a difficult relationship with her school's administration due to her destructive behavior and poor performance. Her relationship with her parents was strained, and she had been arrested on minor charges. She was angry, defiant and confrontational. Things were not going well. Then one day in school she had a confrontation with a teacher over a small issue. She asked to go to the library during study hall and the teacher said no. She swore at the teacher, using a nasty epithet. The teacher responded by calling the in-school police officer, who then arrested my student-to-be on charges of assault. My student-to-be was already on probation, so this infraction led to one month in juvenile detention. Her parents were devastated and angry, and felt that a return to school was out of the question. Their child was out of control and gaining speed in her downward spiral, but they saw that more of the same approach wasn't in anyone's best interest. Things could hardly be worse; they were ready to try almost anything. Shortly after I met my new student I also met with her probation officer. He told me that in his 20 years of working

with juvenile delinquents this teen was the most manipulative, duplicitous youth whom he had ever known. He said, "You give her an inch, she's going to take 10 miles." He felt strongly that our vision for supporting her as a self-directed learner was wrong-headed and dangerous. Meanwhile, his method of working with her wasn't getting any positive results. The harder he pushed, the harder she pushed back. This kid was strong, tough, smart and stubborn. She would sooner go down with the ship than fall in line. As it happened, she neither went down with the ship, nor fell in line. Outside of school and the justice system, those are not the only two options. We gave her a lot more than an inch. We gave her almost nothing to push back against. At the same time we gave her respect, support, resources and the belief that she could succeed. We acknowledged that her life was her own and that she could choose to drive it into the ground or she could choose not to. I'm happy to report that she chose not to. Over the next two years she learned to take herself and her life seriously. She got a job, passed the GED and started at community college. Turns out that she really loves working with the elderly. She is now on her way toward a nursing degree, with very good grades. This process was not easy for her, nor completely smooth. She has slowly and steadily learned a great deal about who she is, what she wants, how she learns and which kinds of environments and relationships are helpful to her. Her process has not been linear or predictable. She has had a lot of support, especially from her parents. While she has been supported, she has also been entirely selfdirected.

I am confident that there is no one on earth who could have forced or coerced her into shining as she is shining today. She benefited from more responsibility, not less. More trust, not less. More choices, not fewer. This is not the obvious approach for working with a teen in trouble, but maybe it's worth some consideration, especially when more of the same clearly isn't working.

Follow Catherine at:


WHERE ARE THEY NOW? ALUMNI check in: Where are you now? We want to know! E-mail Lauren at



Drew Van Orderlain (member 2007-2010) is in the process of moving to Florida to train and play in professional tennis tournaments. He was recently a finalist of boys 18-and-under

New England section championship. He is just starting out on the pro circuit and lots of hard work ahead. Good luck Drew!

My newest adventure: Moving to CT and running a restaurant! My fiancé (engaged less than 2 months!) purchased Home a year ago. I helped design and open it, and now run and manage it. We specialize in what we call “extreme comfort foods” and pride ourselves on our all local beer list, using local products, and supporting the community. The restaurant is called Home because we want you to be comfortable as if you were in your own! qAQHsRTedAQFQYC8us0wWDoMvD5R5FiuEUZ2A CStLFAKBkQ/" Check us out on the web and come visit in person!


Thanks to our Business Sponsors! Bueno Y Sano, The Pilates Studio in Hadley, Alternative Recycling Systems, and Surner Oil

Ben Rosser (member 2003-2009) is working as a professional photographer in New York City. Here is an example of his portraiture. Check out his work at

Portrait by Benjamin Rosser


Please join us for a free brunch and unlimited inspiration at North Star’s 9th Annual Celebration of SelfDirected Learning. Sunday, April 7, 11:00 am - 1:15 pm in the beautiful Dining Room at at Greenfield Community College. This event is a North Star fundraiser. HELP SUPORT NORTH STAR We’ve been changing lives for 17 years! We are committed to our policy of making membership available to any family regardless of their ability to pay. North Star receives NO state or institutional funding. Individual donations help keep our doors open. This year we offered over $50,000 in fee reductions. Thank you for your generosity!

Can you make it? Yay! RSVP to with number of guests by March 24. Can’t make it? We’ll miss you! Please consider supporting North Star with this slip or donating at 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. Contributions to North Star are tax-deductable. Please mail your donation to: North Star 135 Russell St. Hadley, MA 01035


Change Service Requested A Project of Learning Alternatives, Inc.


Liberated Learners, Winter 2013  

Newsletter from North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens featuring original essay by teen member, Justice Erikson.