Inspired, Sobered

One of the pleasures of this past week has been organizing my notes from my first Liberated Learners conference. June 22 I caught a red-eye to the east coast and then spent the weekend reveling in hundreds of micro and macro “aha” moments. Having returned home I’m more excited than ever about all the goodness I know will unfold at The Hive.

Breakfast time at Liberated Learners annual conferenceAnd I’m so inspired by all the people – those I met for the first time, and those I got to reconnect with for the dozenth time. In the first category, for instance, soft-spoken Katy Burke (middle, left), who was a happy public school teacher until she found that she couldn’t, in good conscience, administer the state-mandated tests. Not a rabble rouser by temperament, she sought ways to stay true to her own lights without shaming anyone around her – without even standing in the way of the testing process, just standing firm in her knowledge that she herself could not be the one to administer the tests. When it eventually became clear that even her polite way of opting out was jeopardizing her job, she found that – even as a single parent who very much needed a steady income – she simply could not comply. She resigned. Which turned out to be a great thing for the teens at the Princeton Learning Cooperative, who soon benefited from her career switch and her enthusiastic presence.

Joel Hammon and Susannah Sheffer at Liberated Learners annual conferenceAt the top of my “reconnect” list would be my long-time heroine and friend Susannah Sheffer (pictured left, with Joel Hammon). I first encountered Susannah when I was writing The Teenage Liberation Handbook and she was editing the magazine John Holt had started, Growing Without Schooling. Susannah and the rest of the Holt Associates team had kindly granted permission for me to use material from GWS in my book.  We met in person the first time I spoke at a homeschooling conference, where she was also speaking  – Sacramento, 1992. Turned out we were the same age and had so much to talk about.

Every project Susannah takes on fills an important niche that nobody else has taken the time to thoroughly examine. There was, for example, her 1995 book A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls, which offered a hopeful perspective on the famously depressing 1990s research about schoolgirls.  Whatever she’s engaged in, Susannah dives deep into the details, paying close attention to nuances, never overstating anything. (In contrast, I admit, I have sometimes felt like a clumsy, loud cheerleader: Quit school! You can do it! Everything will be fine! Rah! Rah!) Susannah has worked since 2005 as a part-time core staffer at North Star, while also continuing to immerse herself in projects that dig into the deepest marrow of human experience. She worked with Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights for many years, and her most recent book is Fighting For Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys. You think I’m off on a tangent but no, because Susannah brings this work – yes, this extremely “adult” work involving the scariest possible material  –  directly to bear on her classes at North Star. She leads teen discussion groups,  and even a one-on-one tutorial, on precisely these subjects. What she tells the rest of us (in George Popham’s workshop on “Leading Classes in a Self-Directed Environment”) feels so important: that teenagers are fully capable of learning to engage in focused, text-based, high-level discussions in which they listen carefully to each other, respond thoughtfully, and ultimately broaden their perspectives.

A number of people have asked me, over the past 6 months, why I’ve chosen to work with the Liberated Learners model – as opposed to other self-directed learning models like Sudbury or other democratic schools, Agile Learning, or just some independent concoction of my own creation. I have nothing against any of these; I’m especially curious about Agile Learning Centers (which is newish, and potentially compatible with LL); I think they’re all basically wonderful. There are several reasons I particularly adore Liberated Learners and feel personally aligned with it, but none of them surpass the people. From the bold, pragmatic, and optimistic leader of the pack, Ken Danford, to the dozens of newer folks who have forsaken their secure and (relatively) high-paying public school careers to heed the call, I love these humans. They inspire me with their vision, their intellectual zeal (I will not soon forget George Popham’s enactment of what transpires in his Euclidian geometry class), their commitment to social change, their sly and ever-present humor, and their devotion to the specific individual teenagers with whom they work.



I know, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop – the “sobered” part.

So the day after I landed home, Joel, my main mentor at Liberated Learners (and author of The Teacher Liberation Handbook), left me a voicemail. We needed to talk, he said. Turns out the Liberated Learners board of directors unanimously agreed it would be best if I didn’t try to open the Hive on September 7, as I have been quasi-publicly proclaiming.  Not only were they looking out for The Hive – and the possibility that by opening in a rush we’d jeopardize our long-term health – but they were also looking out for my sanity, my kid, and for Not Back to School Camp, which I remain deeply involved with and which is on the brink of convening in the Oregon forest for year #22.

As grateful as I am for all the big picture illumination and nitty gritty coaching offered by Liberated Learners, I find that I am equally grateful for this thoughtfully-considered request that I take a chill pill. It is part of my lifelong M.O. to take on too many things at once. And I was already worried about how I was going to capture all the necessary ducks, let alone line them up neatly, within the next 2 months. But having put the word out that we were aiming for September 7, I was loath to undermine The Hive’s credibility by changing my mind. I was determined to work nights, weekends, whatever it took, to meet that deadline.  To hear from Joel and team, though, is another matter: that gives me (literal) pause.  The last thing I want to do is jeopardize the long-term health of The Hive, or to reflect badly on the Liberated Learners organization, by opening before we’re truly ready, sanity intact.

And so while we’re still hoping for sometime in the fall, there is no longer a specific opening date on our calendar. We’ll continue working to get all the needed elements in place. (We welcome all kinds of help and collaboration – telling teens about The Hive, volunteering to teach a weekly class, donating cold hard cash or the books that you decluttered out of your home library, signing up for fall work crews. Let us know if you want to be involved!) When the time is right, we will mop the floors and open our doors.

Share This Post:
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Email this to someone
Grace LLewellyn

About The Author

Grace is Director of The Hive: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Eugene, OR. After two years teaching middle school language arts, Grace changed course and wrote The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education, and later founded Not Back to School Camp, with locations in Oregon, Vermont and California. Contact Grace at