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.
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 the 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 babysitting 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 homeschooling. 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.
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.
In 2005 I created An Unschooling Life, a blog detailing our unschooling experience after adopting our three children. Over time, An Unschooling Life became a hub for unschooling support and advice. The blog has been featured in print and digital media and was home to the popular Unschooling Carnival (later known as Unschooling Voices). I’m in the process of updating and moving all the posts to this blog where they will be housed under the An Unschooling Life section. This post was originally published on March 1, 2008.