About me

Kathleen Kesson

As a scholar and researcher, I am accustomed to listing books and journal articles that establish my credentials, but you can find some of that, if you’re interested, in my Books and Selected Essays. I am guessing you would rather know about me as a person.

When I was young, I never wanted to be anything but a dancer and a maker of dances.  I started lessons on my third birthday in a musty loft studio on Mission Street in San Francisco.  One of my earliest memories was dancing and singing to “Me and My Teddy Bear” on the recital stage. Tap dancing was my first love, but I soon went on to study classical ballet in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 16, Eugene Loring, the director of the American School of Dance in Hollywood offered me a scholarship at that prestigious professional school. So, I moved south, enrolled in Hollywood High School for my senior year, and spent the next few years studying and working as a dancer in various venues: television, movies, musical comedies, in the Los Angeles Opera Company, and in the grand hotel casino showrooms.  It was in one of those places, backstage at the Old Golden Hotel in Reno, Nevada, that a wardrobe lady who claimed to read palms zipped me into my satin and tulle, grabbed my wrist, stared down at my palm and said “Why, you’re not a dancer, you’re supposed to be a writer!”

You can read a bit about that journey, how I went from being a Hollywood dancer to an activist in the alternative education movement to motherhood and finally to my current life as a professor, scholar and writer, in my new book, Unschooling in Paradise. Sometimes I feel a bit like the proverbial cat with nine lives. The book, my first one written for a popular audience, is a (sort of) memoir about the five years our family spent “unschooling.” Writing a memoir has really tuned me in to the “storied” nature of our lives, and how we become who we are by what stories we choose to tell and how we shape those stories.

So here’s part of my story: I live in two very different places, dividing my time between the noise and grit and excitement of Brooklyn, where I have been a Professor of Teaching and Learning at the urban campus of Long Island University since 2002, and the mountains of central Vermont, where I am currently researching personalized learning and spending as much time as I can in my garden tending fruit trees, perennials, summer vegetables, and oodles of bee and butterfly attracting flowers and herbs.  I care deeply about the future and the legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren, and try to do my very small part to keep the Earth habitable for humans and all the other species with whom we share this fragile and beautiful planet!

As a professor, I have worked with educators and school leaders for many years with the aim of making schools more just, more joyful, and more creative places to spend time.  Sometimes this feels like “swimming against the current” as schools increasingly speak the bureaucratic language of assessment and accountability. I spoke with my twelve- year-old granddaughter recently, who is in middle school at an acclaimed public school in the Boston area. This lovely girl is an avid reader, an excellent student, and an accomplished young violinist. And she “HATES school” and she is “bored.” She can’t wait for her 7th grade year to be over, but first she has to spend the next few weeks in a high state of stress, preparing for lengthy finals in Science, Latin, and Math, in which she has to “remember everything I have had to memorize in a year!” It’s stories like this from so many young people and their parents that have sparked a lifelong interest in alternative approaches to education, everything from innovative pedagogies in public schools, to democratic free schools, to unschooling. I passionately believe that childhood should be a time of joyful exploration, of engagement with the world, and of learning who you are and what your purpose in life is, not a time of drudgery, stress, competition, and boredom.  It’s what led me to “unschool” my four boys back in the 1980’s and it is what leads me to the study of personalized learning now.

I hope you will enjoy reading some of my work, and that you will be in touch to express your own thoughts about education!