What can we do together?

“What can we do together?” emerged as the theme of our fifth Annual Liberated Learners Conference at North Star held June 22-24.  Staff and board members from nine centers converged to compare notes, swap stories, and inspire each other during the gathering. The fresh energy of participants from new centers including Embark, BigFish, and The Hive sparked the veterans from North Star, The Learning Cooperatives (Princeton, Bucks, and Raritan), Bay State, and Deep Root.  Along the way, we challenged ourselves to identify some ways in which we might support each other to expand and fortify our programs.

The conference included a wide range of workshops including topics such as Outreach, Teaching in a Self-Directed Setting, Using the Online Portfolio, Building Community, Supporting Staff, and Managing the Back-End.  The workshop that I found the most helpful turned out to be Programming Across the Network. In this session, we began considering how we might have our teens interact more regularly during the year. Could we offer joint classes or share tutors through video-conferencing?  Could we jointly sign up for online resources that might be too expensive for one center to purchase alone? As we pursued these possibilities, our imaginations got into gear. Maybe we could share the costs of purchasing a database or other management systems that are costly for our small programs. We discussed writing grants and doing some fundraising together more assertively. Perhaps we can work on some group travel adventures with teens from multiple centers, or at least create opportunities for teens to visit other centers and also consider longer homestays or exchanges for our members to experience a new community. This one session reported back to the general meeting with both enthusiasm and commitment, and we have generated four new committees within Liberated Learners to follow up on these ideas.

This outcome felt like a new level for our mutual support. Over the years, many of us have come to be friends and feel supported in sharing and resolving short-term problems at our centers with each other. I enjoy having a set of colleagues confronting many of the same issues I face at North Star, and I appreciate the creative thinking and problem-solving skills other centers have used to respond to their issues. I value the team of Liberated Learners as a mutual support network.

This conference, however, had the outcome of finding some new and tangible ways to do things together.  We might increase our purchasing power, we can expand our resources, we can more actively engage our teens, and we can make a stronger presentation about our model to potential grantors and donors by working together.  

We missed having our long-term friends from Beacon, Compass, and Open Doors at this year’s conference, but I’m confident they will contribute meaningfully to this conversation.  Meanwhile we anticipate the addition of some new members in 2018-2019 from the groups currently planning centers in Portland, ME (The Bridge) and Manila, The Philippines (Abot Tala).  We already have one new planner joining the process in Ontario.

When we gather for our conference in late June, many of us arrive somewhat exhausted from the closure activities of our programs. Having a chance to relax, share stories, and reflect on the year, turns out to be a rather re-invigorating experience for most of us. Having this community of friends and colleagues has become a favorite way to transition to summer and imagine some fresh ideas for the fall.  Thanks!

Ken Danford

About The Author

Ken Danford is Co-founder and Executive Director at North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens and Co-founder of Liberated Learners. Ken has been working intensively with teenagers and their families since 1991, and now consults with adults interested in opening a self-directed learning center with guidance from Liberated Learners. Contact Ken at ken@northstarteens.org