North Star: A Conversation with Ken Danford

Q&A  04 September 2018
By Ken Danford, North Star

 

If North Star is about doing what Ken wants you to do, this isn’t any better than school. From the very first day, I had to accept that I was surrendering control.

Ken Danford
Executive Director, Co-Founder

Q: What’s your story leading up to the launch of North Star in 1996?

A: I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio—outside of Cleveland—with excellent public schools. Shaker Heights’ motto is: “The community is known by the schools it keeps.” I did well all throughout school. I went to Amherst College, where I became interested in psychology and teaching, and then went onto Brown University’s teacher training program with Ted Sizer, where I grew passionate about reforming school from the inside.

I started out working as an eighth-grade history teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. A few years later, I took a year with my wife in South America teaching English with WorldTeach. When we returned to the US, we landed back in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I taught again as an eighth-grade history teacher.

It was in Amherst where I really hit the wall—feeling discouraged. I had previously thought the problem with schools was funding, teacher pay, and morale. And, I thought it was the lack of freedom for teachers to choose what to do with their curriculum and all these other things, like having to teach to the test, that got in the way of real learning.

Of course, those things are real problems, but in Amherst, I saw a different issue that was most difficult for me—most kids didn’t want to be in school. No matter what we did, kids were more interested in what they could do after school because that was when they could pursue their own interests. They’d rather have snow days than be at school.

I would look at my kids in the classroom who really looked forward to doing their activities after school, and I thought, “I want to be one of the adults who gets their best energy. How come I get all the nonsense and delay—‘can I go to the bathroom’ or ‘look over there it’s a fly’—from kids who do know how to behave and do have interests they want to pursue?”

This was true across the board—from the lowest performing to the highest performing kids.

 

I began to think if I became Principal or Superintendent that this wasn’t really reformable. School was actually doing what it was supposed to do.

Ken Danford
Executive Director, Co-Founder

On top of all that, I felt like I was harming kids who didn’t fit what traditional school called for. They were being told they weren’t very good at life—they weren’t on Honor Roll, they were getting scolded, I was supposed to give detentions to kids who slid in ten seconds late, etc. All kinds of nonsense, creating the kinds of relationships with these kids that I did not want to have.

I began to think if I became Principal or Superintendent that this wasn’t really reformable. School was actually doing what it was supposed to do. This is what people want—separate kids by “A” kids and not-“A” kids and require them to be there all day and learn how to behave. This is the industrial model, and it is functional. It hasn’t changed much since my grandparents were in school because it’s actually what it’s supposed to be.

I was discussing all of this with my buddy, Joshua Hornick, who happened to know some things about the world of homeschooling, unschooling, and self-directed learning. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say at first because it was too strange and irrelevant to my path up to that point in 1995.

Finally, I accepted Joshua’s gift of The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn, and I read that book in a single night. I discovered there was this subculture of people who weren’t going to school and were thriving. They were starting with their interests and taking themselves seriously. Homeschooling was this giant head start on life for them.

I was stunned and in disbelief. How could this (teens thriving) be true without people like us teaching them? I began investigating things more deeply—reading books by John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, David Guterson, and others. I started interviewing local homeschoolers and researching college admissions. I discovered homeschooling was a liberating way for people to have an alternative way to school and that they could do it as conventionally or unconventionally as they wanted.

 

I felt like I couldn’t provide [the space for kids to explore their interests] in school. I had to be the one who said “be interested in my topic now or else.”

Ken Danford
Executive Director, Co-Founder

At this point, it seemed, for Joshua and me, that we should help more people live this way. We believed the kids in our school could really benefit from having this opportunity available to them. We asked what it would take for a 13-, 14-, or 15-year-old to leave conventional school and find homeschooling as a viable alternative. North Star was our answer. We quit our jobs and created a community center that would have coaching and support in creating visions for their individual futures.

We wanted to do everything on our terms, which meant not making kids do things they didn’t want to do. Everything at North Star is voluntary. The kids can attend as much or as little as they want. There aren’t grades, credits, or diplomas. All that said, 70-80% of our kids go on to college or university. We opened in 1996, and I’m still doing it because it’s so much fun.

Q: What was the final nail in the coffin during your traditional teaching journey?

A: At some point, there’s a pretty major cognitive dissonance between teaching about labor union history, freedom, and people fighting for their rights and looking at these kids and thinking, “We just boss you around all day. Why don’t you stand up for yourself? Why don’t you resist? This is ridiculous. You have to be here at whatever time in the morning and stay here all day for 12 years or somehow your doomed? And, you have to conform to us, the educators? We have complete arbitrary authority? Why don’t you all just fight back?”

I never actually said those words, but I’m teaching about Anne Hutchinson who believed she could pray without going to church, and I’d ask my students: “Do you think you can learn without going to school?” Or, we would be learning about the International Workers of the World and listening to their songs, and I would declare to the class: “Imagine all the kids around the school holding hands and swaying with ‘Solidarity Forever,’ exclaiming, ‘We’re not going in until there’s no more homework.’”

During my final year teaching at a public school, I stopped giving exams and tests. I mostly did projects. For the final project, I had each kid interview a parent, grandparent, or someone they knew in their neighborhood about some recent part of history they were involved in—women’s rights, race relations, Vietnam, etc.

This was their final, rather than a test. I had 102 students do this project. Once everything was turned in, I had this big stack of stories, graded them very intentionally, and wrote long notes about how great of a year it had been.

The last day of school, when everyone came to pick up their report cards, only a handful of kids came to my class to get these projects. Many of the kids who came to get the project flipped to the last page, looked at their grade, and dumped it into the trash without reading any of the comments.

At the end of the day, the stack of two-thirds of the projects that hadn’t been picked up just sat there. I went home and came back for clean up days and eventually had to just put them all in the recycling bin. What’s that about? You interview your grandmother and you don’t even want it? What is bankrupt about this? This was atrocious. How could I be a part of that? It was too discouraging.

Q: What advice would you give fellow educators if they wanted to remain true to their core passion as an educator, without relying on the subject they’ve been trained to teach?

A: First and foremost, I don’t think you can do it in a school—the job there is to do your subject matter.

In high school, one of the things I participated in was a peer counseling group. One of the first things I learned in peer counseling was to defer judgment. When people talk to you about whatever, you keep a straight face and ask informative questions. You let people express themselves.

I also had very supportive parents who encouraged my brothers and me to pursue our own interests and figure out what we liked doing. I felt like I couldn’t provide that to my kids in school. I had to be the one who said “be interested in my topic now or else.”

The hardest part about this transition is letting go of that specific interest. When I opened up North Star, I put history on the calendar and said, “I’m going to start with the best stuff”—which for me is recent history. I go into North Star and say, “Ok, we’re doing the Eyes on the Prize series, who’s coming?” Four kids out of 30 were interested, while the rest went outside and played some goofy game on the grass.

They would rather do that than come to my class! I was so mad. That’s when I learned, either you accept that not everyone shares your interests and trust that those who do will come as they wish. Or, you don’t. By creating North Star and having an environment that encourages kids to be self-directed, we’re either doing it or not.

 

By the time you get everyone’s little bit of everything, that’s too much for everybody to do everything.

Ken Danford
Executive Director, Co-Founder

I don’t have to share their interests, and they don’t have to share mine—live and let live. My accepting their rejection is the first step toward this lifelong learning path we want these kids to take. If North Star is about doing what Ken wants you to do, this isn’t any better than school. From the very first day, I had to accept that I was surrendering control. That acceptance had to fit in my heart in a certain kind of way. When you are asking teachers in school to do this, the question is: Can you live with that?

Traditionally, the answer is, “No! Everyone needs to learn the basics of science.” But, then, we go down the rabbit hole of “everyone needs to learn the basics of math, literature, language, computer literacy, exercise, music, art, etc.” By the time you get everyone’s little bit of everything, that’s too much for everybody to do everything.

Something has to give. And, at North Star, I give in at the first moment. Let’s all treat ourselves like everyone is already 18, graduated from high school, and has what they need to direct their lives. Now, let’s explore what suits you, is challenging and interesting to you, and is what you’re ready for. Making that commitment takes a certain mindset. You have to really believe the value of that approach is more important than making sure everyone is exposed to a little bit of everything.

Q: North Star, more than most, begs the question many would ask: How can a system that is so loose provide an environment where kids don’t waste their time playing video games all day?

A: At North Star, we actually don’t aim to “ensure” kids don’t come here and play video games all day. Who does? Almost nobody. But, they have every right to do so if they so choose. One of our guiding principles is: “We don’t make sure. We make possible.”

This is not an either/or question. Most people see our principle and think, “If we don’t ‘ensure’ anything, then we ‘ensure’ nothing.” We just let chaos reign. Or, we don’t care about anything.

Every kid has an advisor they meet with once a week to discuss how life is going. We say, “It looks like you’re doing a bunch of stuff here, what do you like the best?” Or, “It looks like all you’re doing is playing video games, how is that going for you?” Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, that’s what I like doing right now, and I’ve never had friends like this or a space to do this in before. I can’t do it at home, and I really look forward to coming here. It’s my favorite part of my life right now.”

With over 22 years of doing this, the kids who say that turn out absolutely fine. In the end, no one comes here and just plays video games forever. It’s a myth. It might look that way to someone who’s new and walks in to see a group of kids at the table on their computers. They think, “That’s a whole lot of nothing.”

The truth is, that’s a whole lot of miracle happening. These are kids who were socially anxious, depressed, refused to leave the house, have never been happy a single day of their teenage lives, and now bug their parents saying, “C’mon let’s get going. I want to get to North Star already.”

A year or two of letting all the bad stuff fade away and letting them make some friends and feel a sense of belonging leads to them taking some classes, interacting with the adults, engaging with their tutors, earning their GEDs, trying a college class, and before you know it, they’re pursuing a computer science degree at UMass when they are 17 years old.

It’s not rocket science. We’re not miracle workers. It’s that the power of the approach is valid. If you let people be in control of themselves, sure, at first they might do things that make you uncomfortable. But, over time, they seek out a life that inspires them.

Yes, North Star is the loosest structure you’re ever going to find for a learning institution. And, that does not mean we’re the “do nothing” institution. We might be the “do the most” institution.

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