big signs for learning

North Star Banquet
Western Massachusetts

“You can choose to read the signs,” my friend Jay mused as he gave me a ride home from a rousing display of human potential. We had both been invited by a local entrepreneur, Bob Lowry, to attend the annual banquet for North Star, an alternative education program for teens. The program had consisted of a series of speakers sharing personal stories about their lives and learning. Jay was referring to a recent spate of serendipity in his life, and I thought about some of the signs in mine. North Star, for instance, has appeared several times in the past three months.

The testimonials were moving. One recurring theme was “the big sign” announcing the metaphorical presence of the north star in its particular physical location. The sign stands prominently on the North Star grounds right along the main thoroughfare connecting a string of small towns in the fertile and temperate Connecticut River valley. People drive by the sign everyday. I have passed it frequently myself!  Yet somehow the meaning of the sign – what it signals as a symbol and guide for the activities of proactive learning – seems to become salient only at certain moments of particular strain.

In mechanics, strain is a measure of deformation when bodies are altered from their normal boundaries due to the application of some force. The speakers at the North Star banquet, current and former students, family members, administrators, and award-winning teachers, all referred – in one way or another – to the natural inclination of human beings to learn. What everyone who spoke understands is that the stress of not being able to learn in one’s best mode indicates an unnecessary tension that can lead to an unpleasant compression of the youthful spirit of discovery.

“Learning is natural”

North Star’s motto frames their mission of creating an environment where kids who chafe under the conditions of traditional schools can successfully learn. In this respect, I imagine that North Star students have some characteristics in common: self-motivated, ambitious, and smart. The emphasis on ‘self-directed learning’ reminds me of teaching online courses, where a similar profile matters.  People who do well in online courses are able to manage the balancing of time between obligations (work, study, chores, etc) and recreation (not to mention sleep!)

Noticing signs when you need them is also natural. Signs are everywhere – “sign sign everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind” – the fact that we tune them out is no surprise. What is wonderful is when a sign that you haven’t been noticing suddenly appears in awareness, suggesting something new and enabling learning. At some basic level I think this is the gist of consciousness: to notice that there is something else, something more, something mysterious or enticing that you haven’t yet grasped…

…and here’s the chance!
North Star sign

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