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Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead

Comments from Annie: I am susceptible to parental guilt recently; both my children cultivate and nourish my weakness by recounting their many experiences in a school system that leave them drained of energy and joyless. Not unique to us, is the dilemma of whether it would make any sense to keep them out of school altogether.

My eldest child can speak from the vantage point of college now. Playing the testing game and taking the AP classes (which were basically her only choice) resulted in a very nice scholarship to a college of her choice. She still laments the “quality” of her experiences in High School, however, and has opted to dismiss the option of skipping some of her important introductory level college courses because of the poor quality of her AP classes.

There are other issues about the college experience that avoided our scrutiny or awareness. These are more food for guilt but deserve another essay.

Speaking as an eloquent and passionate insider about the college atmosphere, this daughter notes, with horror, the rampant drinking, drug use, and unprotected sexuality on campus, information about which was carefully avoided during her recruitment process. Certainly the semesters of time devoted to the D.A.R.E program of such supposed “awareness” in public school didn’t work with the majority of students. There are definite disappointments for her; I worry that both of us had unrealistic expectations about college too.

But my youngest, a student of much greater self-determination than her sister (herself quite a challenging student to follow,) lives the stressful, brutal existence of greater yet “accountability” since more of NCLB-guided policy has kicked in with her graduating class. And she is miserable.

Aside from the joy of participating in her school chorus and the opportunity to be a part of the adolescent journey of social growth with her peers, I am consistently losing the private debate I have with myself when I am the voice of practicality and say that my child learns much else about life by being a part of this destructive institution.

“What does she learn?” I ask rhetorically of the side of me that wants to let her sleep longer than the brutal 5:30 alarm she sets to catch her 6:30 bus. “She learns that there are many demands in the real world that are not reasonable or fair.”

When she works relentlessly, for hours on end, on worksheets to support an AP class because its pace is compromised by the block schedule, I tell myself she learns to manage the grunt and thankless work she will inevitably face in her adult life.

When the pleasure and joy of literature is destroyed by the curriculum developed to support substandard tests, and standardized testing policy, I counsel myself that she will learn about the drudgery and disappointment of many institutions she will later face in her life.

When her teachers have the very blood that drew them into teaching siphoned out of them by the system which stole their professional integrity and freedom, I rationalize that her sensitivity and awareness of the injustice creates opportunity and prepares her for her own battles.

But my other side argues from my heart and says this child of mine deserves to be happy and reminds me how swiftly her older sister moved out of her childhood and entered the next phase with no opportunity any longer to go back and do anything again or differently.

“My child could be studying art in visits to art museums,” my sensitive side says, “solving algebra problems in her pj’s at 11 a.m. in front of the fireplace; she could be learning with joy, not fear, not exhaustion.”

I am always weighing it out, the risks against the benefits, and try at the same time to use our presence within the system to help effect a change…And as the debate continues, a plea consumes my heart and my mind: please don’t break my child, please don’t break my child….

Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead

CHICAGO, Nov. 23

On weekdays, during what are normal school hours for most students, the Billings children do what they want. One recent afternoon, time passed loudly, and without order or lessons, in their home in a North Side neighborhood here.

Hayden Billings, 4, put a box over his head and had fun marching into things. His sister Gaby, 9, told stories about medieval warrior women, while Sydney, 6, drank hot chocolate and played with Dylan, the baby of the family.

In a traditional school setting, such free time would probably be called recess. But for Juli Walter, the children’s mother, it is “child-led learning,” something she considers the best in home schooling.

“I learned early on that when I do things I’m interested in,” Ms. Walter said, “I learn so much more.”

As the number of children who are home-schooled grows — an estimated 1.1 million nationwide — some parents like Ms. Walter are opting for what is perhaps the most extreme application of the movement’s ideas. They are “unschooling” their children, a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks.

In some ways it is as ancient a pedagogy as time itself, and in its modern American incarnation, is among the oldest home-schooling methods. But it is also the most elusive, a cause of growing concern among some education officials and social scientists.

“It is not clear to me how they will transition to a structured world and meet the most basic requirements for reading, writing and math,” said Luis Huerta, a professor of public policy and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, whose national research includes a focus on home schooling.

There is scant data on the educational results of unschooling, and little knowledge about whether the thousands of unschooled children fare better or worse than regularly schooled students. There is not even reliable data on how many people are unschooling, though many experts suggest the number is growing.

Here in Chicago, a group called the Northside Unschoolers has 100 families registered on its online list. There are similar organizations coast to coast, including the San Francisco Bay Unschooling Network, Unschoolers Unlimited in Guilford, Conn., and the Unschoolers of the Ozarks, serving Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, although accurate figures for the number of families they serve are hard to come by.

Adherents say the rigidity of school-type settings and teacher-led instruction tend to stifle children’s natural curiosity, setting them up for life without a true love of learning.

“When you think about it, the way they do things in school is mostly for crowd control,” said Karen Tucker, a mother of three boys who is an unschooler in Siloam Springs, Ark., and belongs to the Unschoolers of the Ozarks. “We don’t duplicate the methods of school because we’ve rejected school.”

Coming under the umbrella of home education, unschooling is legal in every state, though some regulate it more than others. The only common requirement is that students meet compulsory attendance rules.

In states with the most permissive regulations — many of them in the Midwest, including Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan and Nebraska — the idea of unschooling has flourished in recent years, with families forming online communities, neighborhood-based support groups and social networks for their children.

Members of such organizations form a united front against sometimes fierce criticism from outsiders.

“When you are in a subculture of a subculture, you often get painted as the freak family,” Ms. Tucker said, “and people believe that what the expert says is true, instead of thinking the alternative viewpoint portrayed has some merit.”
Ms. Walter, a natural-childbirth instructor, has had to assuage tense feeling from some of her peers.

“Sometimes people take it personally, like, ‘Oh, school’s not good enough for you?’ ” she said. “No, no. It’s just that this is what works for our family.”

Only 25 states have testing or evaluation requirements for home-schoolers, so it is difficult for researchers to get a representative sample of students to even begin to answer their most basic questions about unschooling. And among home-schoolers, unschoolers bristle the most at the thought of standardized testing.

Ms. Tucker has allowed her son Will, 13, to be tested, but she refuses to look at the scores.
“They’re meaningless to him and me,” Ms. Tucker said. “If you attach a number to your child, your opinion of the child changes, good or bad.”
The Billings children are not graded.

Weekends are no different from weekdays, summer from winter. They draw or read or play outside, or go on family outings to libraries, museums or the gym. They also attend activities and take lessons familiar to pupils in traditional schools like Girl Scouts, swimming for Gaby and piano — if they express an interest — but none has seen the inside of a regular classroom.

“I don’t really know what that’s about because I don’t go to school,” said Sydney, who says she likes her life just the way it is. If she had to go to school, she said, “I’d be at school all day and not have time to be with my mom and do fun things.”

Unlike the more familiar home-schoolers of recent years, unschoolers tend not to be religiously motivated. They simply do not approve of ordinary education, and have decided to rearrange their lives around letting their children explore their worlds, unencumbered by the usual pupil-teacher relationship.

If Will wants to pick up a book, Ms. Tucker said, that is fine. But the decision to do so will be his choice, she said.

“The important things that you need to know are important because they’re useful to know,” Ms. Tucker said. “We all desire to get up and learn to walk because it’s a useful skill to have. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that, just an infant. Will had never been given a lesson in reading, but he read at 7. I tell people it took him seven years to learn to read because all of his experiences added up to learning how to read.”

Much of the basic mathematics that Ms. Walter’s daughters have learned so far, she said, sprung from their desire to calculate how much allowance money they would have to earn to buy dolls featured in their favorite toy catalog.
Each child gets a small weekly allowance that is deposited directly into her own bank account, then the adding and multiplying begins. The lessons have inadvertently, and painlessly, extended to taxes, shipping fees and postage, which she sees as another benefit of unschooling.

“It’s more real-world stuff,” Ms. Walter said. “How many kids get out of high school and don’t know how to balance a checkbook?”
The United States Department of Education last did a survey on home schooling in 2003. That study did not ask about unschooling. But it found that the number of children who were educated at home had soared, increasing by 29 percent, to 1.1 million, from 1999 to 2003.

Experts assume that the upward trend has continued, and some worry that the general public is unaware of the movement’s laissez-faire approach to learning.

“As school choice expands and home-schooling in general grows, this is one of those models that I think the larger public sphere needs to be aware of because the folks who are engaging in these radical forms of school are doing so legally,” said Professor Huerta of Columbia. “If the public and policy makers don’t feel that this is a form of schooling that is producing productive citizens, then people should vote to make changes accordingly.”
Pat Farenga, an author and advocate of unschooling, said the fears were unfounded.

“One criticism I hear over and over is that children won’t be ready for the real world,” Mr. Farenga said. “That’s ridiculous. We’re saying get them out of the classroom and into the real world. It’s not about isolating them and drilling them.”

Peter Kowalke, 27, was unschooled as a child and went on to earn a degree in journalism with a concentration in math three years ago from the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

“You don’t know everything, and there are definite gaps in most unschoolers’ backgrounds, but you cover most of what you need,” he said. “And if you find out that you need something that you haven’t studied, you’ll have much more drive to actually learn it.”

“But it can be tough,” said Mr. Kowalke, a magazine writer who is married to a woman who was also unschooled. They met while he was filming a documentary about his educational experiences. “It’s always harder to forge your own path without someone telling you what to do.”

Correction: Nov. 29, 2006
An article on Sunday about unschooling, a form of home schooling that rejects not only the schoolhouse but also other aspects of conventional education like curriculums and textbooks, referred incorrectly to an author and advocate of unschooling. The author, Pat Farenga, is a man.

NY Times


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