Happiness as a Priority

Brené Brown’s TED talks on wholehearted living have over one million views.   As Brown says,  “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”  Clearly there’s an audience ready to hear messages of hope and personal change.

It’s wonderful that so many adults are working to improve their lives.  But why wait until you’re grown up?  Let’s empower young people to create happiness and engagement in their lives now.

Many would support this idea.  It sounds good. Yes, let’s empower students to be happier and more engaged in their lives, as long as that means that they continue moving forward on the tracks we think are best for them.

It’s easy to encourage students to do more of what we want them to do anyway, to thrive within the existing channels.  But what about students who are not thriving within the existing channels?  Are we ready to empower students to learn to seek happiness and engagement outside of traditional frameworks?

In a TEDx talk given by 13-year-old Logan LaPlante (see link below) he describes seeking happiness as the primary force behind his education.  One might assume that given the choice, 13-year-olds will seek happiness in video games or other non-productive activities.  This may be true in some moments, but fluff activities alone will not result in happiness.  We know from research, like Brene Brown’s, that happy people are engaged in meaningful work.  In his talk, LaPlante describes the meaningful ways in which he spends his time, none of which include school.

LaPlante is an able and articulate young man.  But he is also an average, normal kid.  Average, normal kids are capable of living and learning without school, of seeking and finding meaningful ways to spend their time, of being happy.  He clearly has resources available to him.  But his greatest resource is the support of his parents and community.  If young people have support (or even if they don’t), they can make happiness a priority in their education and find meaningful ways to spend their time right now.


18. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
Categories: Huffington Post | Leave a comment


Mauricio Abascal and I are taking 13 teens on a service trip to Nicaragua on 3/13/13.  Our flight leaves at 1:30 pm.  I’m not sure what to make of this number coincidence…  I’m going to call it a good omen that portends a powerful, meaningful experience.

Not that I need a bunch of 13’s to tell me that this is going to be an amazing experience for the travelers.  This will be the sixth long-distance service trip that I’ve led with North Star teens.  I’m very familiar with how meaningful this kind of travel can be.

These trips aren’t easy for anyone who goes on them.  It’s not a cushy vacation.  There are a lot of challenges.  We will be spending many days in close proximity to one another.  Everyone will be forced to endure the sight, sound, and smell of someone else whom they will find unpleasant, at least in some moments.  Travel is exhausting.  Being surrounded by strangers speaking a foreign language can be intimidating.  There will be new and strange foods, new and strange surroundings, new and strange customs.  There will be risks of dangers from petty thieves, insects, road hazards, drinking water, and who knows what else.  Plus, it’s expensive.

Doesn’t sound very inviting, and yet I have 13 teens clamoring to go.  Four of them have traveled out of the country with me before, so they already know why it’s worth all the trouble.  The others just believe, informed by their own previous travels, our stories, and their imaginations.  They are about to embark on an adventure that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Travel is a powerful learning experience.  We can see things in a new environment that are often invisible to us in our own familiar surroundings.  It’s easy to ignore problems in our native culture.  We often overlook the beauty, too.  We’re enmeshed here, and caught up in our own day-to-day drama.  When we find ourselves in a totally new place removed from our regular lives, suddenly we can see things that we may never have thought about at home.  Social and class strata might jump out at us, or environmental problems like trash and waste removal, or bureaucratic breakdown.  We have those issues here, but we’re used to them, so they’re easier to tune out.  We might become enthralled by the insects or trees or wildlife of a new place, while we may scarcely notice these things at home.  Visiting a foreign place helps us regain our eyesight.

I feel strongly about service and enjoy sharing my commitment with teens.  Service is a powerful force because it benefits everyone who touches it, the “giver” as much as the “receiver.”  I put those words in quotes because while we might think of the person who donates shoes, for example, as the “giver,” and the person who needs and accepts those shoes as the the “receiver,” in fact it’s not so clear.

We’re going to Omotepe, Nicaragua and we’re going to build stoves and create a library at the elementary school.  Hopefully many people will benefit from our work.  But we will take home more than we give, I guarantee.  We will take a sense of empowerment.  The teens will learn in a deep way that they can effect change in their world.  Their actions matter.  They can do something to help.  Reality is within their control, collectively and individually.  At the same time they will gain a fuller understanding of the scope of the problems in our world, and be humbled by their own limits.

They will find that the world is open to them.  They will use a passport, travel by plane, go through customs, check bags, take busses, check in at hotels, interact with strangers.  In the future they will be much more likely to do it all again without me, because now they know they can.  They will manage their own stresses and anxieties, and then they will know that they can.  They will learn about a new culture and its history, which will allow them to see their own more clearly.

Finally, on service trips we are invited to interact with locals in a way that we rarely could as regular tourists.  People will greet us and open their lives to us more than we could ever buy with money.  Through service we are offered a genuine exchange.  We will gain deeper insight and access than a traveler can usually expect.  We will give as much as we can, and return home much richer than we were than when we started.


15. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
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Group Process

Originally published in the North Star Blog on February 11, 2012

We had a very productive group process at community meeting this past Monday. The main issue we discussed was whether or not North Star should have glasses and mugs for anyone to use. I told the back story on this topic at the meeting, and I’ll tell it again briefly here. When we first moved into our beautiful building at 135 Russell St., almost five years ago, we were thrilled for so many reasons, not least of which was access to water. Now we could easily wash paintbrushes, make tea, and have washable dishware, among other things.

In the Montessori world, where I am from, classrooms have real glass glasses available for the children to use, even the three-year-olds, which they are then taught to wash and care for. A lot of learning happens from this: how to be careful, how not to spill, how to clean it up if you do, how to wash your glass, and the dawning understanding that washing your own glass is your responsibility. I was excited to introduce glassware into our North Star environment with the thought that some of the same benefits may come to our members. Furthermore, North Star tries, and I personally try, to be as green as possible. I dislike the idea of endless paper or plastic cups and dishes being thrown out everyday in our space. So I put out the call for real plates and glasses and so forth, and, as usual, the community responded. Soon we had enough of everything to manage entire potlucks without using disposable stuff.

Awesome. Except that there are many differences between the North Star environment and the Montessori classroom. Our space is much bigger than a single classroom and our teens move freely around carrying their cups and plates with them, which are then sometimes forgotten all over the building. There also isn’t always someone near the sink in the hallway to remind people with dirty dishes that carrying them to the sink isn’t good enough, you have to wash them, too. So while the majority of our teens were responsible dish users, we still ended up with a sink full of dirty dishes nearly every day. And that sink is a big sink. Since the whole enterprise was basically my idea, the problem was basically my problem, and dishes became a daily chore for me at North Star. For some time I felt that this was part of my environmental mission and was willing to wash the dishes myself because it meant that so much trash was kept out of our dumpster and landfill. I sometimes had help from other staff and parents. We were given a dishwasher, and that helped in some ways.

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that 1. our teens were not learning the hoped-for lessons about responsibility and in fact were being shown that they did not need to deal with their own debris because I was there to do it for them and 2. my time as Program Director could be much better spent. We began the following year with all of the dishes put away except when we were having special potluck events with our member families. We ordered and distributed North Star water bottles which every teen was requested to bring and use for drinking water and they were told that any other utensils must be brought with them from home. This has been the mandate for the last two years. However, water bottles get lost or forgotten, dishes from homes get brought in and left at North Star, and dishes that are put away for potlucks get dug out and brought into circulation on other days. We find ourselves once again with clean dishes in the cabinet and dirty ones in the sink, and a new complaint: teens want glasses and mugs available in the space.

This is the main topic that we discussed this week at community meeting and that was the back story I told. Lots of ideas and suggestions were shared and considered, and eventually the group settled on this: North Star would provide a small number of glasses and mugs for teens to use. Ideally they will care for them responsibly. Any dirty ones left at the end of the day will become the responsibility of that day’s teen cleaning crew.

Managing dirty dishes within a community is not exactly a riveting topic. However, there is a lot within this that is totally worthwhile. As you know, North Star does not insist on any particular course of study for any of our members. However, I think we do have what I sometimes refer to as a hidden curriculum, and you can see part of it here within this issue. By hidden I don’t mean, surprise! we’re tricking you into learning things, but rather that certain beneficial understandings and personal developments are often natural consequences of taking on self-directed learning at North Star.

For example, through this process regarding the dishes our teens are learning how to be part of a community, how to share space and resources, how to be responsible for their own debris and why that is important, how to share their thoughts and opinions in a group, how to solve group problems, how to be both environmentally and practically minded.

I don’t know whether our new dish solution will be successful in the short and long term, but for me, that’s not the most important point. If it’s not, we’ll reconsider it and create another solution. Like so much concerning learning, the process can be more important than the outcome. It’s also not quantifiable. What each teen took from this discussion will vary considerably, which is fine and expected because for some of them, it’s all incredibly basic and obvious, while others may have never engaged in a group process before because they have never been part of a community where their opinion mattered or had any power. Some who were present may not ever use dishes at North Star or be called upon to wash them, while others were very concerned and invested in the issue. It’s not possible to say what each teen takes from any single learning experience. But we don’t have to. Over time we see our teens grow and change and mature in their abilities. We know this kind of real-life learning is valuable. If not today, then maybe tomorrow. It takes time, but luckily we have time, or rather, we make time.


11. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
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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: Self-Directed 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 self-directed 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, and tough, and 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 self-directed.

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.


09. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
Categories: Huffington Post | Leave a comment

Is Antagonism Between Students and Teachers Inevitable?

Negative exchanges occur between students and teachers in schools every day. We accept it as normal for some student-teacher relationships to be antagonistic. These exchanges might feel inescapable or even necessary, but they are also counterproductive, not to mention unpleasant. What are the effects of antagonistic relationships? What would it take to maintain supportive relationships between students and teachers and eradicate antagonism?

A story from my childhood:

One year my desk was in the middle of my classroom, second to last in the row. The boy who sat behind me was from Washington Drive, our low-income housing neighborhood. During class one day while we were all supposed to be doing something quietly, he went up to the teacher’s desk at the front of room and quietly shared whatever problem he was having. I have no idea what he said. He may have lost his book. He seemed to be having some mishap that was preventing him from doing whatever the rest of us were doing. Perhaps this was the 50th time this problem had occurred or perhaps he spoke disrespectfully to our teacher. Maybe the teacher just didn’t like him. Whatever it was, the teacher erupted. He stood up shouting and came around his desk to be toe to toe with the boy who sat behind me. He had the class’s full attention.

Shouting loudly, he poked his finger into the boy’s chest, forcing him to take a step backward. He shouted and poked him all the way back down the aisle, backing him up into the boy’s own desk, right behind mine. I cowered beneath them as the boy who sat behind me bravely accepted his berating. Then my teacher gave him one more big poke and the boy fell backwards over his desk onto the floor.

And the whole class laughed.

Our class had several lessons reinforced that day. Bigger and stronger people are allowed to mistreat smaller people, especially if those smaller people don’t have advocates elsewhere in their lives. Those with less are worth less. Do not interfere with the actions of the authority in the room, because next time it could be you.

I don’t know why the class laughed when the boy fell. Perhaps because we were terrified and needed some release. Perhaps because we were glad it wasn’t happening to us. Perhaps because we were identifying with the authority and taking a feeling of power from intimidating the weak. I’m not sure. None of it was good. All of it was educational.

The boy was powerless. He was at the mercy of the violent whim of my teacher. He had no choice but to show up again the next day, and every day that year, and accept his lot.

For the teacher’s part, he had limited options as well. He had taken on the responsibility of shepherding our motley crew from point A to point B. His job was to maintain order, establish authority and obedience, and get us to memorize the information he put before us. Many teachers resort to yelling to achieve these ends.

No one in this dynamic has a lot of options available to them, including the students like me, holding their breath, waiting for it to be over. Teachers have to corral their students forward using whatever means available, and students have to go along, doing the best they can within the framework.

What would have to change to create universally healthier dynamics and more empowered relationships between students and teachers? What would have to be let go? Would it be worth it?

If we could go into the past and somehow whisper to my child self as she cowered under my shouting teacher, “Would it be worth it to change the structure here so that this wouldn’t happen?” She would whisper back, “Yes, please.”

My guess is that the boy who sat behind me would agree.

If we could go back and magically stop time to ask my teacher, “Do you wish that this dynamic was different and that you weren’t screaming at this child?” Would he whisper, “Yes, please” too?

(HP post ends here. NS blog post continues)

At North Star we think that the problem inherent in the commonly negative dynamics between students and teachers is rooted in the compulsory nature of the relationship. Nobody has much choice regarding whom they work with, what they teach or learn, when, or how. It’s a recipe for resentment on all sides.

For teachers, the structure of the relationship makes it easy to see the individual needs and preferences of their students as annoying obstacles. It speaks to the deeply caring natures of most who choose to teach that they don’t all resort to negative tactics all the time.

For students, it’s easy to see the adult teachers in their lives as harassing, demanding people who are best avoided if possible, rather than helpful facilitators of learning.

At North Star we reimagine the relationship between teachers and students by supporting a vast amount of choice for all involved. Teachers teach what they are inspired to teach and students learn (or teach!) what they are inspired to learn, and with whom. The negative dynamic just melts away. “Structure communicates more powerfully than words” is one of our principles. We strive to create a structure that communicates respect.

This approach creates a whole new set of challenges that students and teachers in school don’t have to contend with, though none of these challenges include shouting, humiliation, or fear of adults. Is it worth it? The staff at North Star thinks so. Students and parents get to decide for themselves.


04. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
Categories: Huffington Post, North Star | Leave a comment

Do We Value Student Compliance or Student Empowerment?

Originally posted in the Huffington Post Education Blog on January 29, 2013.

It’s lovely when students value the learning opportunities available to them. How should we respond when they don’t?

[Note: All of the names in the following sequence have been changed, except mine, of course.]

My program offers one-on-one tutoring in a range of subjects for students who want it. One of my math tutors, Samantha, was away for most of January, so I got a sub for her students. Samantha has one student in particular, Emmanuel, who is not strong in math, but works on it diligently with her support. It doesn’t come easy for him, and it’s not something he would do for fun. But he’s committed to improving his skills so he meets with his tutor regularly and does his best.

I set Emmanuel up with Kris, the sub, for January. I was expecting that Emmanuel and Kris would work together for the duration of Samantha’s absence.

I checked with Emmanuel in the morning after his first session with the sub. “How did it go?” I asked. Without hesitation he replied, “Well, I didn’t like Kris. She wasn’t patient and calm with me the way Samantha is. She wasn’t mean or anything, but she was pushy and basically made me feel like I’m stupid. She just didn’t give me the kind of support and encouragement that makes me feel capable the way Samantha does.”

“Oh no!” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t go well. I really like Kris and thought that she would work well with you. But it sounds like it was a bad match. It’s OK, though, I can schedule you with a different sub.”

But he had had enough of my guesswork. “No thanks,” he said. “I think I’ll just put math on hold until Samantha comes back.”

Emmanuel is 13 years old and he has learned to advocate for himself.

As the program director, I felt beholden to his parents. I had said that he would be having math tutoring. I worried that it would reflect poorly on the program if the math wasn’t happening. I was faced with a choice. Should I bribe, cajole, or threaten him into doing his math? Or not?

As teachers and parents we’re not surprised when some kids don’t want to do their math, but we often think that it’s our job to make them do it anyway.

Is it? Is it my responsibility to dismiss his opinion and his choices?

Emmanuel and I discussed it for another minute, but he was resolved. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s not a big deal to wait.” I agreed with him. It’s not a big deal to wait.

Which is more valuable: a few weeks of resentful multiplication review, or maintaining trust and respect in my relationship with him? Which should I prioritize: my convenience and desire to tell his parents that yes, he’s working on math, or his confidence and burgeoning ability to identify and communicate his requirements for learning? For me (and Emmanuel), the answers to these questions are obvious.

Today happened to be Samantha’s first day back. Emmanuel was happy to see her. They had their appointment, and he picked up where he left off a few weeks ago, empowered and confident.


02. February 2013 by Catherine Gobron
Categories: Huffington Post | Leave a comment


Originally published in the North Star Blog on January 25, 2013

A few weeks ago I asked adults on facebook and twitter what advice they would offer to teens.  I got a lot of lovely responses.  You can see them on our facebook page, HERE.

I don’t know whether any teens read through the comments or if they gained anything from them.  It’s nice to imagine that some did.  Advice tends to be much easier to give than to receive, but who knows which suggestion might stick in someone’s mind.  I appreciate the 20 or so people who took the time to offer some thoughts.  The North Star community is full of adults who would love for young people to benefit from their knowledge and experience.

A few days after my call for advice for teens I posted again, this time asking teens to offer advice to adults.  I got zero responses.  I could speculate on why this was so, but I’d be guessing.  I brought it up last week at community meeting and asked again if any of the 30 or so teens at the meeting had any advice for adults.

It was a brief discussion.  No major outpouring.  A few teens offered advice that were more like requests.  “Don’t be condescending.”  “Don’t call me cute.”  And then, “Be less terrible,” which was met with a roomful of spontaneous applause.  The suggestion to be less terrible apparently resonated with the group.  Not every teen cheered, but most of them did.

I don’t know what to make of it, to tell you the truth, but it struck me as meaningful.  I’ll leave it to you to consider what they meant and whether there’s anything to be done about it.


31. January 2013 by Catherine Gobron
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Writing Workshop

Originally published in the North Star Blog on January 12, 2013

Just before our recent winter break we had an Education major from UMass ask to come in and observe a class.  This is common.  North Star hosts all kinds of visitors nearly every day.  There is a lot of interest in our approach.

This visitor was particularly vocal and appreciative.  He sat in on Writing Workshop and was deeply impressed by the quality of the discussion.  “It could easily have been one of my classes at UMass,” he said.  He had understood that students at North Star choose their own classes and that there is no assigned curriculum.  Perhaps that led to an assumption that students would choose classes that were easy for them and that the work would be light or superficial.  He was surprised and delighted to find young students choosing to work hard.

We had two more education-focused visitors this week.  The first was an Education major from Vassar, mildly curious about our model and full of the usual questions about whether young people can really manage to learn without compulsion.  I spent some time chatting with her about our approach and beliefs, and felt a little badly to tell her that we disregard much of what she is being taught to do. Here’s this bright young woman giving Vassar exorbitant amounts of money to teach her how to make sure students learn certain things at certain times, then she shows up at North Star and I tell her that we don’t pay any attention to any of that stuff.  We don’t make sure, we make possible.   I understand how our approach could feel like an affront to someone in her position, though that’s certainly not my intention.

I also understand that size is in our favor.  It may be necessary for systems with hundreds or thousands of students to create rules and rubrics to try to do right by all of their students.  We have 60 students, and are thrilled to support all 60 as the insightful individuals that they are.  It’s not our goal to take responsibilty for their learning.  We help them to learn to be responsible for themselves.

The other educational professional who visited us this week came to the open house yesterday.  She has been teaching in local public schools for 20 years.  She is a devoted teacher who loves kids, loves teaching, and hates her job.  She had tears in her eyes walking through the building and chatting with our teens.  “I can’t believe the buy-in,” she said.  “I can’t believe the willingness to participate and learn.”

I tend to take it for granted.  Spending so much time at North Star, it’s easy for me to forget how the rest of the world lives.  It’s nice to be reminded of how lucky we are.

This short video gives a deeper look at the Writing Workshop observed by the first visitor mentioned above.


12. January 2013 by Catherine Gobron
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“This idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, ‘positive and negative reinforcements,’ usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, ‘If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.’ Even worse, they say, ‘If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.’ It is the creed of a slave.”

John Holt, How Children Fail

Nearly every week we host visitors at North Star who are interested in our model. The idea of self-directed learning is really spreading and groups from all over the country are considering starting programs like ours. We had a lovely group come in for a consultation earlier this week. One of the members of the group kept coming back to questions about classes and attendance. It was hard for him to accept and believe that our students are not compelled to attend any classes, and yet they choose to do so.

He’s not alone in his astonishment. Many visitors are skeptical or amazed. It’s a common concern for parents, as well. Even if they can accept that some teens may choose to learn without coercion, they are often doubtful that this will be true for their own child. Teens, too, may have fears about their own abilities to motivate themselves. When you have only experienced coercion, it’s hard to know if you will be able to fly on your own.

It’s a normal and common concern, but it’s a strange one, too. Do we really believe that young people will not pursue their own interests? Do we really believe that young people will not have any concerns for their own futures? Do we really believe that young people will not work hard for something they care about?

Looking closer, we know that these assumptions are false. We see teens sweating through hours of football practice in the heat of August when they are so inclined, or learning the lyrics to hundreds of songs, or building intricate models, or programming complex computer games. Interest, access, support, time… these ingredients lead to hard work, growth, and learning for people of all ages.

Our problems arise when we try to make the football player be a programmer or the model-maker into a singer. It’s not that they don’t like hard work, as we’ve seen when they are doing the thing they care about. It’s that they don’t like hard work that they also don’t care about. Who does?

Perhaps our cultural assumptions that young people will not learn without coercion should be rephrased. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that people will not learn things that are not meaningful to them without coercion. Then we might be right.

Personally, I would take it another step further and argue that people will not learn things that are not meaningful to them with or without coercion. Our education system is certainly successful in forcing young people to sit through classes that are not meaningful to them. In the short term, many of these young people may also be able to successfully regurgitate a certain amount of information from these classes. But have they learned?

How many among us can recall having been exposed to certain classes and information but now have no memory of these subjects? Answer: D. All of the above. Virtually everyone. So what’s the point?

Worst Case Scenario: Many non-coerced young people grow up to be uninformed and uneducated. They were not forced to learn and so they did not learn.

Current Reality: Many coerced young people grow up to be uninformed and uneducated. They are forced to learn and yet they do not.

Best Case Scenario: Non-coerced young people grow up with intact self-esteem, a strong sense of self and personal responsibility. They pursue interests that have meaning to them using resources that are a good fit. They learn because they are free to do so and that is the natural inclination of a healthy human.

The way I see it, we don’t have anything to lose by striving for the best-case scenario.


07. December 2012 by Catherine Gobron
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What Happens Next

Originally published in the North Star Blog on October 20, 2012

My thoughts on learning and education are influenced by my training as a Montessori teacher.  Montessori education is called “preparation for life.”  I would describe North Star membership similarly, and even take it one step further.  North Star helps prepare teens for life, and membership at North Star is life.  Our focus is not solely on preparing for the future.  We put a lot of stock in the present, too.

Instead of keeping school and life in separate compartments, the goal is to unify worlds into one engaging, challenging, positive experience of living.  Learning happens 24/7, and it all “counts.”

One of our Guiding Principles is “The best prepartion for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present.“  We have the great pleasure of saying to teens, Life begins now.

On a philosophical level this is very appealing, and it’s all true.  North Star teens are developing lives that they care about right now.

This process is highly individualized.  Each teen’s trajectory is very personal.  Supporting their unique paths draws on all of the creativity, resources, and experience of our staff, and is endlessly interesting.

What each student needs and wants varies dramatically.  North Star staff act as guides and advisors.  We are experienced and we have good ideas.  But the choices and decisions belong to the teen in question. This is their show.

This process is about self-discovery and intrinsically motivated action.  Most teens do not arrive at North Star with these abilities.  It’s a process.  And this process is undermined by universal criteria or direction.  We do not say, it’s good to do it like this or it’s good to do it like that, because like life, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

However, I also recognize that it can be maddening to face such vagueness.  You might be thinking, What does it mean?  What does it actually look like?  What do they do?  What are they then prepared for?  What do they do after North Star?

I’ll try to give some specific examples and commonalities without giving more weight to any specific set of choices.  It’s important to note that choices and interests change over time, often significantly.  There are many ways to be successful and what is perfect for one teen at any given moment may be way too much or way too little for another.  Our goal is to help each teen identify and access a set of activities that challenge and engage him or her at an appropriate level, right now.

These activities may include classes at North Star, one-on-one meetings at North Star, a social, community experience at North Star, a relationship with an advisor at North Star, AND a varying amount of activities outside of North Star.  Outside activities may include art or theater classes, writing circles, volunteer work, classes at community colleges or one of the Five Colleges, auditing a class at one of the Five Colleges, internships, sports, dance, paid employment, online classes, and/or personal projects.  Sometimes North Star staff suggest outside activities and make connections to internships or college classes, and sometimes teens and families get these things happening on their own.

This is the living right now part and it is the focus of what we do at North Star.  The best preparation for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present.

Membership at North Star gives teens the opportunity to build many kinds of skills, including time management, goal-setting, the ability to access a variety of resources, creative thinking, real-life problem solving, critical thinking, and self-knowledge, to name a few.  Adolescence is a very safe (and comparatively inexpensive) time to explore and develop these skills.  Teens emerge with a greater understanding of who they are and what they are really interested in doing than they might without the trust and opportunity that North Star provides.

The college freshman drop-out rate is extremely high in the United States.  As many as one in three college freshmen do not return for their sophmore year.   Reasons for leaving college vary, of course, but it seems likely that the ability or inability to manage time, follow through on goals and assignments, and access useful resources influences success rates.

Most North Star teens choose to go on to college.  For a partial list of colleges attended by our alumni, go HERE.

Some teens begin attending community college classes at 16 or older, continue through an associate’s degree, then transfer to a four-year school as a junior.

Other college-bound teens may take community college classes, audit classes at The Five Colleges, and use North Star classes, self-designed courses, and/or online classes to create a personal transcript and apply to college as an incoming freshman.

Some of our alum try community college classes and find that they didn’t like learning in a classroom setting in high school and they don’t like it at community college, either.  We wholeheartedly support that choice, as well.  We know that a high school diploma is not necessary for a successful future.  We believe this is true for college degrees, as well.  We want what our students want.  If they want to go to college, we support them and help them create that reality.  If they prefer to work, start their own business, travel…, we support those choices, too.  We don’t value one of these choices over the other.

We do not suggest going on to college just because a teen is of a certain age and many of his or her peers are moving in that direction.  Rather, we encourage our students to use the the critical and creative thinking skills that they’ve been developing to carefully consider what they want and how to get it.  College may be the best and most useful choice when they leave North Star.  And it may not, depending on the individual.

We are no longer living in an age when a successful academic experience and college degree resulted in a well-paying job and a safe retirement, if indeed we ever were.  More than ever, lifelong learning is the name of the game.  In my strong opinion, the best preparation for the future is learning how to learn, learning what kind of resources are the most useful to you, what kinds of things are most interesting to you, and by developing skills in communication and time management.  One does this through experimentation and by working to create the best possible present.

Just like life, this process is bumpy, non-linear, fraught with mishaps, and absolutely worth it.

I’m not alone in this opinion, of course.  North Star is not the only organization with these thoughts about the best preparation for the future.  There are many voices and similar opinions, including Tony Wagner’s, co-director of Harvard University’s Change and Leadership Group.  Go HERE to see a lecture of Wagner’s in which he describes what he considers to be the seven essential skills needed for success in the 21st century: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, creativity and imagination.


20. October 2012 by Catherine Gobron
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