A Real World Education at Open Doors

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Mar 15, 2014 / 0 comments

“I saw fifth-graders who were already jaded, and first graders who were still eager to learn. What happens in those years between?” This is the question that elementary science teacher Rebecca Kirk asked herself five years ago. In her search for the answer, she has explored a myriad of educational approaches across the country, and delved deep into the study of how humans learn best. The result? Kirk is now the Founder and Director of Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is in its first year of operation. Open Doors is dedicated to offering the world as a classroom to its members.


A Real World Education at Open Doors, Grand Rapids, Michigan


The Open Doors Center welcomes teens, ages 12-18, who find themselves unmotivated by traditional school. Motivation and real-world experience, Kirk found in her travels, are the keys to how humans learn. When young people are able to build their learning upon their interests with the help of respectful and experienced adults, they become passionate and dedicated learners.

After leaving school and joining Open Doors, teen members may explore any of their passions: duct-tape art, film, personal finance, critical thinking, French, making social connections -- the list is endless. Though in school a teen might be criticized for his or her love of video games, at Open Doors, that interest is supported and explored with respectful conversation. Members have followed their passion for video games into the study of computer programming with the help of a local university professor. One member’s interest in video games has led to studying the fields of economics, game theory, and psychology. He is now exploring communications by publishing how-to guides for the online gaming community.

In another case, a science-loving member left the limits of school -- where after months of memorizing she had been scheduled to dissect a worm -- to find she could follow her dream academic plan right away. She began studying and dissecting pig lungs with Kirk the very next week, as well as shadowing a local veterinarian and researching the healing arts.

Teens are often craving hands-on, real-world experience,” said Amy Carpenter-Leugs, Outreach Director at Open Doors. “And they need choice. At Open Doors they can develop a learning plan based on their passions -- and then they set their own goals, and work toward them at their own pace, changing things as they go. The staff is here to mentor them and facilitate their path to claiming their own learning and their own lives.”

Open Doors is based on North Star, a self-directed learning center for teens in Massachusetts. Kirk talked about her time at North Star. “Unlike any other place I visited, North Star was totally non-coercive. It showed me that you don’t have to do anything except be respectful -- and give students full choice.

“What struck me was how happy everybody was. The students were happy with what they were doing and happy to be with each other. The instructors were happy, and so was the board.” Kirk completed an internship at North Star and came home to develop Open Doors with a local leadership team.

“We intentionally chose to locate the center in Eastown because it provides a community environment in which our teens can find interesting opportunities to do internships and volunteer their services. The community outside our walls is just as important to learning as the community within them.”

As teens prepare for the next chapter of their lives after Open Doors, the staff mentors them through the transition as needed. “We have members who are going to college, those who are developing as entrepreneurs, and those who are learning a trade, “said Carpenter-Leugs. “Travel, volunteering, creating art -- all of these are possibilities, both when a teen is at Open Doors and afterward, in their adult life. What’s important is that we’ve helped them build the self-knowledge they need to choose their next step with confidence. Our members hold real excitement for who they are and what their future holds.”

To find out more, visit opendoorsforteens.org.



Photo courtesy and copyright Open Doors for Teens, adapted by Wandering Educators