Students choose LightHouse for a variety of reasons. But there’s always a reason. LightHouse is not the default choice—we are not free, public school. We are an alternate choice because something about the traditional option available to our students is not working for them.
These reasons vary considerably. Some of our students were simply bored and disengaged. Some were overwhelmed by chaotic environments and are seeking a place to focus and devote themselves to topics of interest. Others did not learn well in large classroom environments, and what they ended up learning in school is that they are not smart. Some of our students responded to their feelings of not fitting in by acting out and creating behavioral disturbances, while others turned inward, shutting down or succumbing to anxiety.
For many, their negative school experiences led them to feel that they hate school, and even hate learning. Hate learning! If your experience of “learning” has consisted of being confronted with things you didn’t want to know and then getting in trouble for not knowing, then this is a normal response. Tragic, but normal.
So. How is it possible to take a diversity of students from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, skills, and abilities, and support their transformation from disengaged, disenchanted, and/or disruptive to inspired directors of their own lives and educations?
Read on. It’s not only possible, it’s not even that hard, because for each individual, this is who they really are.
Everyone wants to succeed. We don’t have to make them. We just have to make it possible.
Over a period of months and years our students become leaders in their own lives. Many begin at LightHouse having felt like victims of their educations, and emerge instead as directors of their own learning, and of their own futures.
This is a bumpy, messy, nonlinear process, unique to each student. Not everyone will go on to an Ivy League university (though some will.) That is not our goal. Our mission is much loftier. LightHouse exists to support young people in discovering and creating their best possible selves. (Read more about our values here.)
We are living in a moment of great possibility. Educational resources are vast and accessible. Now, more than ever before, anyone can learn anything. The problem is not the resources, or accessing the resources. The problems are
It’s impossible to separate the emotional content in these issues from the purely skill or knowledge-based issues, so we don’t even try. It’s all an interconnected jumble, requiring a variety of approaches and resources which are continually changing over time as students mature and gain skills and experience.
It’s a fascinating mess, unique to each student, but some core aspects are true and useful in pretty much every case.
Trust, connection, safety, positive relationships, inspiring and interesting things to do, respect, understanding, patience, flexibility, choice, encouragement, honest feedback.
That’s the ingredient list. It’s not hard. Though it can be trying, certainly. Growth and change do not happen over night. LightHouse is a new program, founded in 2015, but Josiah and I come from North Star where I was program director and Josiah was on the board. North Star was founded in 1996 and now has 20 years of data showing that this works. I was there for 12 years and worked with hundreds of students through this process. It works. So I don’t worry. Each student has their own timeline and set of issues, and sometimes those can be worrisome, but I am 100% confident in the process.
Our approach is catching on, you may have noticed. Everywhere in education now you hear calls for personalization, inspired, real-world projects, an increased focus on creativity, community connections, internships and other real-world learning, self-direction. LightHouse has the luxury of being free from so many obstacles, like standardized testing, that prevent teachers in other settings from actually implementing these ideals. We get to actually focus on the student in front of us and their particular needs. Instead of being constantly bogged down by requirements, at LightHouse we get to focus on possibility.
Truly, it is an honor to be able to do this work. To meet young people where they are, to develop trusting relationships, and to support them to build their own future… I am grateful for this privilege every day.
Catherine is Co-Director and Co-Founder of LightHouse in Holyoke, MA, and on the Board of Trustees for Liberated Learners. Before LightHouse Catherine spent 12 years at North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens as Program Director. Contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.