Five Ways Our Teens Can Love Learning Again

In our last post, we talked about why many Grand Rapids teens hate school.  Alternative schools or private schools are not an option for some families, so let’s talk about ways that our young people can come to love learning again.

The most important thing is to not equate learning with only school.  Humans, including teens, learn all the time in the real world.  In fact, what they may have difficulty grasping or memorizing in the classroom often comes much more naturally in real life.  Here’s how:

1.  Meaning, meaning, meaning.  When a young person loves something — whether it’s animals, swing dance, cars, investment, or a sport — it’s because that thing has meaning to him or her.  If a teen’s interest is horses, then everything related to horses makes sense to her — if she can’t make sense of it at first, she pursues it and asks questions until it does.  The teen is fully engaged — emotionally, physically, intellectually, socially, and even spiritually.

All humans learn best when information has a meaningful context.  Yet teens are asked to repeatedly solve math problems using abstract numbers, or to recall historical dates and events without a context that feels meaningful to them.  Study after study has shown that though some students may be able to memorize well for tests, they are not able to apply their learning in real-world situations, where things rarely look exactly as they appeared on the test.

Fortunately, Grand Rapids is full of interesting people doing interesting things.  The arts, farm-to-table restaurants, environmental projects, cars, community events, more community events, games of all kinds, sports — our city offers a wide variety for the passionate teen in your life.

Swing dancing
Making Meaning from Movement: One of our members loves her swing dancing class every Wednesday night. The constant movement both challenges her and relaxes her in a way that typical physical education classes don’t.

2.  Problem-solving.  Teens know that their day is coming — soon they’ll be working jobs, managing money, and making adult decisions every day.  And yet everywhere they go, they are judged on how well they follow rules, not on how well they solve problems. How will they learn to problem-solve if they never practice?

Whenever possible, we can ask teens to join us in problem-solving.  Whether we’re working on home projects, fixing dinner, creating a blog, or scheduling a busy day, we can “think out loud” with our process and ask for input from our teens.

In a similar vein, if our teens struggling with school, homework, bullies, or a social situation, we can ask questions, including, “is there something I can do to help?”  It helps if we remember to wait for their responses, rather than jumping in with ideas.  We can invite them to write down possible solutions (even fantasy solutions) and talk over their options.

Central Station in Downtown Grand Rapids: Problem-Solving and a Ticket to the City

Because Grand Rapids is such a rich community, it’s a great place to offer problem-solving opportunities.  Would your teen like to figure out how to take the bus from the mall to their home, or from Meijer Gardens to the Art Museum to Blandford Nature Center? (And can they do the latter challenge all on one bus fare?)  Or make a day of it and ride The Rapid together for fun — it’s a great way to see the city and chat with our neighbors.  This is just one way to help teens practice problem-solving:  we’ll offer more in a future blog post.

Fortunately, others in the community have recognized the need, and teens are being invited to problem-solve more often through area programs focused on larger social issues.  Still, more needs to be done, and attending workshops doesn’t always give the daily practice needed to think through everyday situations in the real world.

3.  Getting involved in the real world.  Teens often feel they are wasting away in the classroom, cut off from the rest of the world.  Since teens are very concrete thinkers, they need exposure now, not later, to what real life feels like.

College visits,volunteer opportunities (including the zoo and a summer therapy program), opportunities to shadow professionals (including in the growing health care field), travel (even to different Grand Rapids neighborhoods), part-time jobs, and fun projects — from cleaning up the Grand River to making a movie (like the Open Doors Slender Man project) — are all opportunities to experience the world, and all are right here in Grand Rapids.

A teen works with a young child at the Comprehensive Therapy Center

4.  Spending time alone when needed.  How often are teens encouraged to really think their own thoughts, particularly during school time?  Waking up early for school, participating in after-school activities, and doing homework often takes up an entire day that could be spent observing, considering, and dreaming about the future. Grand Rapids has many community spaces where a teen can wander and think her own thoughts:  the Main Library (which also offers fun activities), the Blue Bridge and other bridges over the Grand River, the Quiet Cafe at GRCC, Blandford Nature Center, the Calvin College EcoSystem Preserve, Johnson Park, and Schuler Books and Music, just to name a few.

Schuler Books has lots of quiet places for a teen to curl up and think her thoughts.

5.  Playing and learning with others.  As Peter Gray writes,  “Teenagers have always been attracted to public spaces where they can hang out with friends, find new friends, and talk endlessly with peers about matters that concern them, away from parents and other authority figures. Such gatherings are crucial to human development; they are how teenagers expand their social horizons, share views on issues that matter to them, experiment with different versions of their personality, and develop the sense of independence from parents and other adults that they must in order to become adults themselves. ”

Our teens crave unstructured time together to figure things out — let’s give it to them.  The Friday Night Skate at Tarry Hall, grabbing a taco at the Downtown Market, or many of the activities listed in this article will fill that need. At the same time, teens need their parents and guardians to stay connected in a friendly way.   In a 2009, only about half the teens surveyed by the Grand Rapids Youth Commission reported that their parents asked about their friends, checked their homework or had regular meals with them. “We want to let parents know: their kids feel they are important.”

Teens trying out ideas and talking about what matters to them.

Offering meaningful context, providing real-world problem-solving and experiences, and allowing for both reflective times and social times to connect with friends and family — this is what the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens does.  We can help your teen love learning again, whether they stay in school or leave the classroom for a real education in the real world.

If you have other ideas for how to help our Grand Rapids teens love learning again, we’d love to hear them in the comments.  And if you and your teen would like to continue this conversation about how to love learning again, contact us.

We hope you’ve enjoyed another installment in our series, “Your Life — Your Learning!”  

With support from the Wege Foundation, Open Doors continues to explore what learning is and how it works (and doesn’t work) for the teens in the Greater Grand Rapids community.  Our hope is that more local teens and families will find tools for claiming their own learning on their own terms, whether they stay in school or choose to leave for an option like Open Doors.

Two Reasons that Your Teen Hates School

Grand Rapids, like many other cities, has it’s share of unhappy teenagers — teenagers who hate school, homework, their teachers, bullies, cliques, and more. And our teens are not alone in feeling unmotivated by school — nationwide, 40% of teens feel the same way. Other statistics testify to the problems teens are facing as they try to learn how to make their way in this big world of ours.

Families look for alternative schools or private schools, but they can’t always afford the tuition.  Even if they can, these schools don’t always get to the root of the problem.

We can all agree that education is important.  So why are some teens having problems?  If we look under the surface, we can see that traditional high school and middle school classrooms aren’t connecting to these teens for two main reasons.

The First Reason: Learning Styles

There is a huge diversity of learning styles among teens!  The traditional classroom structure that requires sitting still, quietly reading, listening, memorizing, and writing is simply not a fit for the majority of learners.

Many teens need to move around more — they need hands-on learning with concrete experiences.

MVI_2995 (1)
Cecilia’s learning style is very hands-on. She needed dissection, not memorization.

Other teens need to be able to talk things out to learn them.  While some teens need to hear things in lecture, others need a musical connection, and still others need to see content or map it out before they can truly interact with it.

With a full day of school, after-school activities, and homework, these teens don’t have the time to learn about how they learn best and to translate the day’s learning into their own learning style.  Instead, they disconnect, feeling bored and unmotivated in class.

The Second Reason:  Meaning

Teens, and all humans, need meaningful context to truly learn, while school too often provides disassociated facts.  Consider the words of John Taylor Gatto as he accepted a Teacher of the Year award for the State of New York:

The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?

Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek.

When a teen experiences something meaningful to his or her own life, motivation and real learning spring forth.  They not only retain what they’ve learned — they also can apply it in appropriate situations, and they can adapt it and build upon it as new situations arise.

Though this member didn’t stick with playing guitar, having a safe space to explore this interest for as long as he wanted was a meaningful experience. It led to more exploration and more meaning for him.

As a community, we can work to intentionally help our teens re-engage with their learning and their lives.  How?  Our next blog post will offer 5 ways to help our teens love learning again.  Or you can contact Open Doors and ask us directly — we’d be happy to help.


Note:  Welcome to our new series, “Your Life — Your Learning!”  This is our first post in the series.

With support from the Wege Foundation, Open Doors will explore what learning is and how it works (and doesn’t work) for the teens in the Greater Grand Rapids community.  Our hope is that more local teens and families will find tools for claiming their own learning on their own terms, whether they stay in school or choose to leave for an option like Open Doors.

How We Grow

In the extended quote below, John Holt speaks mostly of young children.  While reading it, you could replace each instance of “little child” or “small child” with “teen.”  Teens carry with them their sense of the wholeness of life, even as they navigate their new ability to think abstractly, even as they explore their new and bigger bodies, even as they face their transition into adult responsibility.  Here’s the quote:

My grandfather used to say of certain people, “Know nothing, fear nothing.” We tend to think of this of little children. We see their long-run fearlessness, their hopefulness, as nothing but ignorance, a disease of which experience will cure them. With what cynicism, bitterness, and even malice we say, “They’ll learn, they’ll find out what life is soon enough.” And many of us try to help that process along.

But the small child’s sense of the wholeness and openness of life is not a disease, but his most human trait. It is above all else what makes it possible for him—or anyone else—to grow and learn. Without it, our ancestors would never have come down out of the trees.

The young child knows that bigger people know more about he world than he does. How they feel about it affects, and in time may determine, how he feels about it. If it looks good to them, it will to him.

The young child counts on the bigger people to tell him what the world is like. He needs to feel that they are honest with him, and that, because they will protect him from real dangers that he does not know or cannot imagine, he can explore safely.

We can only grow from where we are, and when we know where we are, and when we feel that we are in a safe place, on solid ground.

We cannot be made to grow in someone else’s way, or even made to grow at all. We can only grow when and because we want to, for our own reasons, in whatever ways seem most interesting, exciting, and helpful to us. We have not just thoughts but feelings about ourselves, our world, and the world outside our world. These feeling strongly affect and build on each other. They determine how we grow into the world, and whether we can grow into it.”

– John Holt, “What Do I Do Monday?”

High School Dropouts: Including Teens In the Conversation

As the May graduation frenzy winds down, maybe it’s time to think about those teens who never make a traditional high school graduation.

If a teen is empowered, often with help from the adults in her life, leaving high school can mean taking back her education and becoming a self-directed learner.

But for too many teens — nearly a million every year, nationwide — leaving high school means all the hopelessness of dropping out — no job, no college, no creativity, no travel, and an increased risk of poverty, crime, and victimization.

How can we turn this around?  The first step is to ask the teens themselves.  That’s what this video is about.

We’ll say it again:  ask the teens themselves.   They’ll tell you how school isn’t working for them in its current form, if you’ll listen.  When interviewed, up to 40% of teens said they feel unmotivated at school, and up to 75% of teens named school as a source of considerable strain in their lives.  Which is interesting, given that 75% of all school students have a learning style (such as being a hands-on learner or a social learner) that isn’t addressed by the traditional classroom model of lecture, memorization, reading, and writing.

At Open Doors, our teens have said that their solution is to pursue real-world, self-directed learning.   Our teens are not “dropouts,” though they are not in traditional school — they are working, interning, volunteering, creating, writing, researching, and always, always learning.

We look forward to hearing what other teens, like those in this video, have to say.  We hope that more solutions for self-directed learning — the kind of learning that provides real meaning and growth — spring forth from the conversation.  Come to an event to find out more.

Can You Find Your Calling?

Consider the story of the famous Spanish bullfighter, Manolete (1917 – 1947), whose life was the subject of the 2008 film The Passion Within (UK) starring Adrien Brody.  No matter what you think of bullfighting, the story of Manolete’s calling has some interesting things to say about the journey of self-directed learning.

Born Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, Manolete would grow up to change the face of bullfighting, inventing new methods and revitalizing the ideals of el corrida de toros, which some would say holds the soul of Spain.  And yet, Manolete was a timid and fearful boy.

Delicate and sickly, having almost died of pneumonia when he was two, little Manuel was interested only in painting and reading.  He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.  Around his hometown, he was known as “a thin, melancholy boy who wandered around the streets after school lost in thought.  He rarely join other boys’ games of soccer or playing at bullfighting.”  This all changed “when he was about eleven, and nothing else mattered much except the bulls.”

– Barnaby Conrad, The Death of Manolete

As James Hillman tells it, “at his first corrida, Manolete, hardly out of short pants, stands his ground without moving a foot — and does in fact suffer a groin wound, which he regards diffidently, refusing to be helped home to Mother, so as to return with the comrades with whom he came.”

Was a dim knowledge of the call there all along?  Then of course little boy Manolete was afraid and clung to his mother.  Of course he kept away from torero games in the street, taking shelter in the kitchen.  How could this nine-year-old boy stand up to his destiny?  In [the acorn of his soul] were thousand-pound black bulls with razor-sharpened horns thundering toward him, among them Islero, the one that gored him through groin and belly and gave him death at age thirty and the largest funeral every witnessed in Spain?

… Manolete exhibits a basic fact:  the frail competencies of a child are not equal to the demands of their daimon [or destiny].  Children are inherently ahead of themselves, even if they are given low grades and held back.  One way for the child is to race ahead, as in the famous cases of Mozart and other “infant prodigies” who benefit from good guidance.  Another way is to shrink back and hold the daimon [or destiny] at bay, as did Manolete in his mother’s kitchen.

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code:  In Search of Character and Calling

At Open Doors, our teens do come to us with their code written deeply into their souls, their calling hidden among the glimpses we get of their passions, fears, and dearly-held opinions.  It is up to us, the adults, to listen and to become a student of that code.  Come to our events to find out how we help teens discover who they really are.


A Self-Directed Teen Speaks

A member of the Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning in Ontario, Willow shares her story.  “I looked from the outside like I was thriving in school,” she says.  In actuality, “I had succumbed to the anxiety of school work, social pressures, and the constant feeling that I was only worth the grades I received.”

Even though she was unhappy, it was difficult for Willow to leave the established norm of traditional school.  We know it can be difficult for our teens and families, too.  Willow’s words of advice to those teens who are thinking about leaving school:

“You may feel lost and alone, but this life you are considering will be so much more meaningful to you, because it will be your own life, and in the end, that’s all that counts.”

Nurture What They Love


From The Mother List:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and doctors said he would never speak. She tried special education programs and therapies aimed at addressing his limitations. When teachers told her there was no hope, she rebelled and took her own path.

“A lot of people thought that I had lost my mind,” she recalls.

Instead of focusing on Jacob’s limitations, Kristine nurtured his interests. Now her 15-year-old son is on track to win a Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics.

Relying on the insights she developed at her in-home daycare, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark” — his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could? This philosophy, along with her belief in the power of childhood play, helped her son grow in incredible ways.

This is our approach at Open Doors.  We focus on what your teen loves — that passion will lead to a world of learning!  We can’t guarantee a Nobel Prize in Physics, but we can help your teen become happier, more confident, and more fulfilled in his or her learning.

Come see us to find out more, or support our scholarship fund.


A few weeks ago, we had a new member join Open Doors.  Cecilia is fourteen years old and passionate about science, particularly biology and the healing arts.  But she noticed that nobody else at her school seemed to be as passionate as she was — they didn’t even want to be there.

Cecilia is also a hands-on learner:  the rote memorization required before she could dissect a simple worm felt lifeless and meaningless to her.  In her science class last year, the class got to do only one dissection, and her teacher had to leave the room because she was squeamish.

Cecilia was looking for people who could match her passion and meet her need for hands-on learning.  In her first week at Open Doors, she was dissecting pig’s lungs, facilitated by Rebecca Kirk — our director, a science teacher, and a hands-on learner herself.  Rebecca picked lungs first because the tissue feels and looks differently than any other tissue, and it’s not what you would expect.

lungs deflated and inflated
Pig’s lungs — first deflated, then inflated. Breathe out, breathe in.

Since that first dissection, Cecilia has her learning hands everywhere — feeling the chambers of a pig’s heart (in another dissection), drawing dissection diagrams, and even helping a veterinarian as he makes his rounds.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

She’s also full of explorations and questions.

“I feel like I know almost nothing about chemistry — where should I start?”  (We suggested Hunting the Elements, an excellent NOVA special.)

“It feels like humans are easier to help heal than animals — at least humans can tell you what’s wrong.”  (We passed on the DVD of Temple Grandin, to show how Dr. Grandin’s autism helped her understand cows through careful observation.  The reference to autism led elsewhere …)

“That’s another area — how the brain works.  I want to see it work.  And what causes it to work differently in some people?”  (It turns out that Cecilia was already pursuing a visit to a neurosurgeon at work.  After further conversation, we passed on a Psychology Today article called “Confessions of a Sociopath,” about functional sociopaths, which includes a bit about the role of genetics and environment on the brain.)

Then it was on to the Internet as we discussed cancer and how cells might replicate and what was known and unknown in that field.

Learning.  Often it’s as natural as breathing.



Media isn’t Passive

Some time ago, we heard an adult complain about a young person, the kind of complaint that seems to be pretty common about teens in general:  “He watches South Park, listens to music on his iPod, plays video games on his Xbox but has NO INTEREST in learning even the basics.  Kids today just seem to want passive stimulation.”

“Passive stimulation”?  That’s becoming a very foreign concept to us here at Open Doors.

For instance, some folks associated with Open Doors have a background in Film and Film Production. We notice that they’re always pointing out *how* TV shows and movies are made—how the perspective was framed, how the editing decisions worked with the overarching philosophy, as well as “how did they get that shot?” questions. That’s part of the conversation around here when we’re watching something together, or talking about what we’ve watched.


Those of us who have studied the dramatic arts watch a different set of skills at work:  the actors’ choices in every scene.  Contrary to the belief that actors are just glorified line-readers, actors develop a way of walking, of talking, of moving in relation to each character and their emotions.  For those who excel at their art, they can show us a character’s vulnerability in one gesture, one hesitation.  That’s some powerful stuff — enough to make you rewind and watch again, just to appreciate it.

The writers among us are always looking at the story behind the story as well. How is the plot structured?  What are the creators accomplishing by giving this action to that character?  We talk about those factors whether we’re discussing video games, TV shows, or movies. Our understanding is complex and is focused on the whole story system.  We explore each story as a fresh view of ideas that have been around for a long long time, some since the birth of human civilization.

As we’ve researched the video game industry, we’ve thought about the process behind the production—how the graphics are rendered, how some dialogue is written to be flexible enough to sound relevant at various stages of the game, how the process of creating the story is changed by adding interactivity.  We like to imagine the project management aspect of each game, especially the big ones.  There are passionate game designers in the industry, looking to push this media into new directions and tell new stories in different ways.  That’s exciting.

Many of us at Open Doors are music lovers. We love to scour out-of-the-way places for new music to share, and there are times our members are just taken with the music. They think about how the music is put together, and why it speaks to them.

When we’ve experienced live music in the community that surrounds Open Doors,  we could see all the connections being made—how the instruments were played, how the sounds and the rhythms came together, how it feels to move to the music and let it all come together inside of us. Our knowledge and awareness of music is growing deep and wide—it’s not about “the basics,” but about a gestalt — a holistic, systemic approach.

When someone complains about the lack of learning in media (or a word we prefer not to use, “screentime”), you might wonder if they’re looking in the wrong places? Are they looking only to see what a teen is doing or producing?  Are they expecting learning to look a certain way?  Are they missing the fact that when we watch, listen, observe, and respond, we are building an inner understanding that is deep and wide and whole?

At Open Doors, the adults blend our own experience and knowledge with what our teens seem to like doing. We remember to ask questions and start where they are—we get into their interest and appreciate it and enjoy it.  We don’t dismiss their love of media — it counts, and it’s a great starting place for more. Going to concerts, finding out how different bands have influenced each other, figuring out how people have made the movies they’ve posted on YouTube, researching FAQs, talking with different kinds of gamers, looking up the history of weapons that are used in video games, talking through the logic of different game strategies, looking up actors on IMDB—all of this keeps leading to more and more learning about how the world works, and about how the creative process works.

“Passive stimulation”?  No.  There is an aspect of of letting the experience fill us and wash through us as we consider how to how to store it and bring it into our worldview.  As Helen Luke says, “The person who quietly responds with intense interest and love to people, to ideas, and to things, is as deeply and truly creative as one who always seeks to lead, to act, to achieve.  The qualities of receptivity, of nurturing in silence and secrecy are as essential to creation as their [more active] opposites.”

Come see us to find out more.