Unschooling Voices

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Kathryn Baptista, who heads the Northeast Unschooling Conference and Rue Kream, author of Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life, were interviewed for an article on unschooling for The Patriot Ledger in Boston.
Click here for the entire article plus photos.

When DROPOUT isn’t a bad word:
Some local teens are thriving by setting their own schedules and learning by doing

Anna Finklestein, a 16-year-old Sharon resident, is learning on her own and is director of Stepping Out Theatre. Her second professional production, "The Laramie Project," which features actors 14 to 23 years old, is completing its run this weekend. Anna Finklestein left Sharon High School after the ninth grade because she was bored and felt she could put her time to better use. She started a professional theater company for young adults, interned at Boston’s Huntington Theater and took college courses at the Harvard Extension School.
This year, she got a part-time job at Ward’s Berry Farm. At 16, she spends her spare time thinking up future projects and how to accomplish them - like starting a coffee shop, a homeless shelter or a baby-sitting service.

‘‘I’m unschooled. I basically control what I do,’’ said Finklestein, whose second theater production, ‘‘The Laramie Project,’’ closes this weekend. ‘‘I would not be doing any of this if I was still in school. I wouldn’t have time.’’

Nationally, an estimated 1.5 million students are being taught at home, with as many as 150,000 considered unschooled. Unschoolers are home-schoolers with no set curriculum. Rather than attending school or following lesson plans set by their parents, they focus on what interests them and learn along the way.

They discover mathematics and science when baking or gardening, engineering when playing with toy cars and astronomy because they just happen to like the stars.

‘‘Learning doesn’t have to be something done in a certain place, on a certain schedule, in a certain way,’’ said Rue Kream of West Bridgewater, the mother of two unschoolers and the author of ‘‘Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life.’’
State law requires children to attend school until the age of 16, or to have a home study plan approved by their local school committee. Finklestein had one before her 16th birthday.

‘‘It was just a normal home-schooling plan that included all of the basic materials and opportunities for cultural enrichment,’’ said Sharon School Superintendent Claire Jackson.

Eight students are currently being home-schooled in Sharon, she said. It’s up to the parent to monitor the child’s progress. ‘‘We certainly can’t supervise minutely what happens to that plan. I don’t think it’s the intention of the federal or local governments to do so,’’ Jackson said. All states allow home schooling. Some require curriculum outlines, and others just mandate a statement of home education, said Kathryn Baptista, a Salem mother who organized a conference on unschooling last spring.

Unschooling Conference

More than 300 families - about 60 from Massachusetts - attended Baptista’s Northeast Unschooling Conference in Peabody last spring. Some, like Finklestein, leave school on their own. Others are encouraged to do so by their parents or are never sent to school at all. Some education experts worry that unschoolers will lack social skills and basic life skills necessary for life.

‘‘Schools provide sort of a liberal arts education. You get well-rounded. Does that happen in an unschooled situation?’’ said Lorne Ranstrom, chair of the division of teacher education at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy. ‘‘Who’s in charge of that kind of teaching? Is it her parents? Is she pretty much on her own?’’ Donna San Antonio, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, agrees. ‘‘The idea behind unschooling is that not everyone is going to be a biologist or a mathematician,’’ San Antonio said. ‘‘The idea is that people can follow the path that their own learning brings them. ‘‘The problem is that we never know where our lives are going to bring us. Some people find themselves in situations where doors are closed because they didn’t have biology or they didn’t have algebra 2 and pre-calculus.’’

That’s what worries Finklestein’s mother, Janet Penn. ‘‘Something came up and somebody mentioned something about symbiosis,’’ Penn said. ‘‘I said, ‘Do you know what that means? What do you think about learning some of the basic principles just so you understand them?’’’ Penn said. ‘‘Her response was typical of an unschooler. ‘When I need to learn it, I learn it.’ ‘‘She has a lot more time than most teenagers to think, think about her life, read things that may not relate to anything, that sort of, ‘Who am I?’ and, ‘What place do we have in the universe?’’’ Penn said.

Home-schoolers and unschoolers do not receive standard diplomas. They can take a GED course or register with online schools. Finklestein was registered last year with Clonlara School, an alternative diploma program based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Movement started in ’70s

The unschooling movement started in the 1970s when teacher John Holt published ‘‘How Children Learn, How Children Fail’’ and founded a magazine called Growing Without Schooling. The movement has had a second wind in recent years, after the publication of Grace Llewellyn’s ‘‘The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education,’’ which encourages teenagers to leave full-time school and let their curiosity guide their learning.

In 1996, Llewellyn founded the Not Back to School Camp for home-schoolers and unschoolers 13 to 18. Finklestein attended it last summer. Finklestein said Llewellyn’s book was an eye-opener. She went to work on her parents and after some prodding and debate they decided to let her take a year off from school.

‘‘She said, ‘I am not happy in school. I don’t think I’m learning in school. I don’t think I’m learning how to learn in school. And you always taught me to go after things that I believe in and am passionate about,’’’ her mother said. Her parents insisted that if they were not happy with her progress, she would go back and repeat 10th grade. But after a year, they saw her blossom. She became more articulate and started reading voraciously, rather than watching television, Penn said. ‘‘I saw her getting passionate and excited. She was clearly not engaged in high school,’’ her mother said. ‘‘What I see is a young woman who’s very thoughtful. She’s respectful. She’s using her time well. It’s been incredible as her mother to watch.’’

Out before kindergarten

Jennifer Harnish of Natick took her son out of school before kindergarten. ‘‘He’d shown an ability to really learn on his own without needing a teacher or me to teach him,’’ Harnish said. ‘‘I just couldn’t imagine him sitting in a classroom or sitting at the kitchen table, making him do work every day.’’ Now he is 7 and spends his days at home, at the park with other home-schoolers or at the zoo or a museum or local organic farm. ‘‘It’s real life learning,’’ Harnish said. ‘‘It’s amazing to see the math concepts he picks up without us having to teach him anything in particular. For example, with recipes if we’re making cookies and we have to double the batch then he’s working on multiplication or fractions.’’

Cassia Gordon, 17, of Norton, a lifelong home-schooler who recently switched to unschooling, said she got sick of the structure and having to get a certain amount of work done every day. ‘‘Unschoooling, in my mind, is doing what you’re interested in and what you feel would be best for you. It’s more self-directed and generally less planned and less scheduled,’’ said Gordon, an actor in Finklestein’s play.

Not for everyone

Unschooling isn’t for everyone. In well-educated families, ‘‘It probably doesn’t do the children any harm,’’ said Charles Glenn, interim dean of Boston University’s School of Education, who had a few children of his own drop out of high school and go on to college. ‘‘Unschooling is ideal for all children, but not for all parents,’’ said Kream, of West Bridgewater. ‘‘Unschooling parents need to be enthusiastic about life and learning themselves, they need to want to be very actively involved in their children’s lives and they need to be caring, supportive and respectful parents. They also need to believe that the desire to learn is intrinsic to human beings.’’

Finklestein generally wakes up between 8 and 9:30 a.m. and goes to bed by midnight. She’d like it to be earlier. Some days, she works in the morning and then heads to driver’s ed and then to rehearsal. Other nights, she stays home and reads or hangs out with friends, takes a walk or visits with her grandmother. She just finished ‘‘Memoirs of a Geisha’’ and reread ‘‘A Wrinkle in Time’’ and Llewellyn’s ‘‘The Teenage Liberation Handbook.’’ She’s taking an American history class and plans to take two or three courses in the spring.
Finklestein is working toward a two-year college degree through credits at Harvard University, but doesn’t plan to go to college until she’s ready. ‘‘I won’t have a conventional-looking transcript, so I’m kind of staying away from the mainstream college frenzy,’’she says. ‘‘If I feel like I’m ready to spend $40,000 to talk and learn things, but I feel like first I need to do some more soul-searching. ‘‘I’m really interested in sort of spreading my wings some more and leaving Sharon and exploring things on my own. I’m very independent.’’



Class dismissed...how the unschooling movement is changing how we think of learning.
By Rachel Tennenbaum

Imagine waking up on a Monday and driving up to Berkeley to check out a new art gallery opening. That night you play some video games and crack open a book before hitting the hay. Think this sounds like a day off for a college student? It’s actually the school day of a 9-year-old. No, it’s not a fantasy Ferris Bueller-style: It’s a daily reality for thousands of young learners who call themselves “unschoolers.”

Unschooling. Some call it a counter-culture, but others just call it natural learning. It’s an offshoot of homeschooling coined by educational philosopher John Holt, but it varies from traditional homeschooling in the sense that there is no curriculum. None. No math, no English, no science, no history. You just live.

It’s the freedom to express yourself in any way at any time,” said Kevin Greene, a 15-year-old unschooler. “If you’re an artist you can paint, you can let your mind wander.”

It may sound difficult to wrap one’s head around — to just live and fill a life with knowledge? This is shocking to most Americans who have attended school their entire lives. But for those who practice unschooling, it’s not that crazy. The idea is that people have a natural curiosity and can learn from living, and this is what will fill up children’s days.

“It doesn’t really seem necessary to have people be in an institution to learn,” said Pam Tellew, mother of two unschoolers. “I think libraries are about a zillion times more important than schools.”

The Internet is a tool that is especially supportive to unschoolers, Tellew added.

So what does one do all day if there’s no school? The question may be flawed.

“You sound like you’re talking about learning about one specific thing… That’s not really what we do,” said Jesse Boss, an 11-year-old radical unschooler. Radical unschoolers like Boss often have no limits on what they study, how much dessert they get and no bedtimes.

“There is no typical day,” said Annie Twist Lubke, a mother of two unschooled boys, Cortland and Caedan. “[One day] we’re traveling up to the city, San Francisco and Berkeley, to get together with other unschoolers. Another day we’re over chopping wood at [the boys’] grandparents house so we have fire. Our days really go wherever the interest is and whatever’s on our schedule.”

Another idea behind unschooling is that all information is interconnected. It’s not that the children aren’t learning, parents say; it’s just that information is not divided up into a curriculum.

“The thing is that we don’t create it as this big subject,” Lubke said. “It’s not this big scary thing — it’s just part of our day.”

She explained that her sons, for example, learned multiplication figuring out the square footage of a shed. Unschoolers and parents insist that this sort of learning will make education pleasurable, as opposed to creating fears of inadequacy.

“It’s been really interesting because it just confirms what I’ve felt all along — anything is an avenue to learning, anything that engages you teaches you something,” Tellew said.

This can be anything from soccer to the video games which one of her sons plays avidly.

And for television fans everywhere, 11-year-old Boss had this to say: “I’m pretty sure my little brother learned math watching television.”

The theme of interconnectedness does not stop at pedagogy. Unschooling expands to breed an idea of jointness throughout life, information and social systems. It’s simply about knowing how to live.

“So much of the focus on schooling is academic information. I’ve come to understand that, yes, all that’s good, but the critical thing is that you know how to learn, how to think, how to communicate,” said Mike Boss, Jesse’s father.

Boss considers unschooling more of a form of parenting than just an educational philosophy.

Parents play multiple roles in unschooling. They are not just teachers, but facilitators in a system foreign to most of them, since almost all attended school. At a large gathering of unschoolers in Boulder Creek, only one parent had been unschooled. The revival of this movement is just now seeing its oldest off to college. For parents, it’s a struggle at times to maintain an open mind.

“Every once in awhile I get a bug in my head saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t think I know that this is out there in the world,’” Tellew said. “I started telling them about math and they didn’t really care. Pushing that kind of stuff is what gives people that resistance.” She would rather her children follow something that excites them.

In this case, parents act as the school themselves — many families often register with the state of California as a private school in order for their children to receive credit for their education. Others work with the local school board or with the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) in order to get their requirements squared away with the state.

Studies have shown that this type of learning as a family dynamic has proven effective. Dr. Doris Ash is an assistant professor in UC Santa Cruz’s education department and has researched science learning in informal settings like aquariums and zoos.

“The family for me is a stand-in of a social unit that can collaborate together,” said Ash, who watches families as they interact and learn from their environment. “Some kind of exquisite mix happens between what people already know and the activity they’re learning. What kind of knowledge does [the family] build collaboratively? It’s always the case that they know more together than alone.”

Unschooling and home schooling have been growing in popularity during the last few decades. An average conference of unschoolers can pull in as many as 700 to 800 individuals. Other alternative educational systems have gained popularity as well — notably Montessori Schools, which emphasize self-directed child activity, and Waldorf Schools, which stress interdisciplinary learning.

These schools, and unschooling, are an antidote to what some see as the rigid standards surrounding education and evaluation. Dr. Ron Glass is a philosopher and an associate professor in UCSC’s education department. Much of his research focuses on the moral and political philosophy of education and the ideology of education.

“The notion that learning should somehow follow human nature has been around since the time of Rousseau,” Glass said. But the schooling we’re all now familiar with, he explained, is relatively new.

“The school system that we have now was invented in the late 19th century and had very explicit models: factories, railroads and the army,” Glass said. “So they took features from each of those areas and created a school system. The school was designed to basically rank and sort people into the economic, social, ideological order.”

But the 21st century is a very different time than the Industrial Revolution, with few remaining factories.

“Before there was all this standardized curriculum and testing — all that began in the late 19th century — there was no such thing as school failure,” Glass said. “People just went to school or they didn’t.”

Now that the curriculum has become more rigid, it has begun to create problems. Glass said, “It’s the system that produces winners, losers, those who pass, those who fail, those who count as somebody and those who count as nobody.”

Many are beginning to react against the current schooling system. The change, however, is slow.

“I think schools have become so tightly connected to economic, political and social opportunities, and because of that people aren’t willing to abandon the standard model,” Glass said. Still, he continued, people are beginning to push back. Unschooling and the revival of home schooling are two examples of such a change.

“[People are] trying to find a way to have schools be of good quality and give people real opportunities, but without hurting people along the way,” he said.

While these new options are helpful, Glass pointed out that for the time being they are mostly available to families of solid socio-economic ranking. Children with two working parents must attend school.

While questions about lower education are soothed, many still worry about college. How will children transition into the real world? How will they go about applying to college? The reality is that it’s not so difficult. Many unschoolers begin to attend community colleges around the age of 15 or 16, and others have specialized in areas of interest, something looked upon favorably by many private schools. Much also depends on personal goals.

“If [the kids] decide that they want to go to college, they’ll get themselves ready for it,” Tellew said. “What I’ve also seen is people growing up this way and saying, ‘You know, this isn’t what I want.’ It’s more about finding something that’s meaningful to them and meaningful to the world. They don’t care as much about the trappings of [societal definitions of] success.”

But the unschoolers themselves aren’t worried. In fact, they see things a little bit differently. A group of unschoolers met last week for a campout in Boulder Creek sponsored by the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) for all homeschoolers in California, where they found good luck with weather — they camped out under the first week of sun in almost a month. When asked about the perks of unschooling the kids counted friendliness, ease in communication and vivacious curiosity among the benefits.

“Not getting caught up with everything,” said 16-year-old Teamo (pronounced “te amo”) Gregori. “You can just learn and figure things out your own way.”

“Another advantage is getting up a little later,” Jason Ramos said. What time did he wake up that day? 2 p.m.

Ramos stood among a group of boys aged 8 through 16, all of whom were enthusiastic, well-spoken and appeared to be having a great time. Inside, children and adults were walking around together, playing outside or sitting engrossed in card games. A man playing cards wore a blue shirt proclaiming the famous Mark Twain quotation “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It’s clear that something has begun, and the kids know it too.


Unschooling Voices #13

Unschooling Voices #13 has been posted. The link and details for participating in edition #14 can be found at the
Unschooling Voices main page.

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