Homeschooling and unschooling. A look at the alternatives in Santa Cruz
School isn’t for everyone. Some critics even say that mass schooling makes kids dumber and less creative, less confident and less capable of thinking for themselves. Today in the United States, about 56 million children attend compulsory schools while the trend in learning outside of schools is growing as more families decide to avoid the socialization of control that’s a hallmark of “public education.” If “regular” schools are symbolized by a regimented system of bells and rules, the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling and unschooling might be characterized by this maxim: trust that children learn everywhere, all the time.
In Santa Cruz County, about 39,000 kids go to “real” schools and 838 kids are at alternative schools and “programs of choice.” (2010-2011, California Department of Education.) Local programs include Alternative Family Education (AFE) and Charter 25 in San Lorenzo Valley. While homeschooling has been embraced for years by conservative Christian families, more and more families of different backgrounds are experimenting with self-designed ways to meet their children’s needs. In the United States, about 1.5 million children choose to homeschool, with about 150,000 of those engaging in child-led learning, or unschooling. (National Center for Educational Studies.)
I spent most of sixth grade at an alternative school and experienced a brilliant period of freedom and self-learning. On my first day, I was offered this query, “What would you enjoy doing?” It was the first time I’d been asked this at school. After the initial shock wore off I decided; “Play football.” I spent my first weeks there catching passes and getting tackled in the mud. I loved school, finally.
With a relaxed sense of choice and curiosity I discovered intrinsic motivation to learn and create; I began playing the piano in the lunchroom for hours each day, developing my own style of improvising. I also established a school newspaper, with other kids joining as “reporters.” I used the school’s ditto machine to run off copies. I also began writing scripts and making short films. Music, journalism and video are still my favorite mediums of expression. I wonder how it would be if self-directed learning was supported by more adults and grounded in choice for everyone?
Alternatives in Santa Cruz: Homeschooling and Unschooling
“What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them …” —John Holt (“Teach Your Own”)
Santa Cruz families have dozens of alternatives to mass schooling including OASIS Independent Studies, Monarch Elementary, Costanoa High and Ark Independent Studies. Each family can evolve their homeschooling style to meet the present needs of their kids, often including a fluidity of moving between schools and homeschooling. While some families are “schooling at home,” others strive for learning that’s totally free from coercion.
Alternative Family Education is an independent home study program affiliated with the Santa Cruz City School District now celebrating its 20th year. Nancy Aylsworth helped to found AFE and five years later became a consultant teacher. “It was time for my son to go to kindergarten,” recalls Aylsworth. “I visited every private school and the best public kindergartens. I felt like I could do a better job. A group of parents went to the Santa Cruz City Schools superintendent and said, ‘We want to homeschool. We’d rather be closer to home and connecting in our community.’” Families met in parks, homes and at Louden Nelson Community Center. Today AFE is a cluster of buildings with multiple classrooms, a resource center, lending libraries and six consultant teachers.
Eleven-year-old Isabel Mouton began homeschooling after preschool. “One of the cool things about AFE,” she says, “is that it’s more mixed in ages than a public school. I hang out with people older and younger than me, talking and learning.” Kristin and Claudette are Isabelle’s mothers and share responsibility for helping her learn different material. “Claudette tends to be math mom and I tend to be science and social studies. We split reading,” explains Kristin.
Emmitt Duggan, 18, attended public and charter schools in Santa Cruz until a couple of years ago. “Halfway through 11th grade I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I was stressed out,” he says. “I had a friend who was at AFE. They let you design your own curriculum. I thought, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this?’ I didn’t like school; the classroom environment and homework. With homeschooling I could sit in my backyard and do my work or sit at my desk as I choose. I felt more like an adult.”
Deschooling: Return to Passionate Learning
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” —Albert Einstein
Many children who transition from mass schools to homeschooling experience a period of adjustment, a sort of decompression. Aylsworth has seen it many times; “If they’ve been in a school for any number of years, they have the need to recover from a traumatic experience. We call that deschooling. It’s temporary. Maybe for some time you only read books that you love. It’s a time to recover and find your passion again.”
Maleah, a 12-year-old homeschooler at AFE remembers, “When I first started to homeschool I slept in a lot because I was exhausted. I was used to waking up at six in the morning to go to school.”
If deschooling is a healing from school trauma, what’s the source of the trauma? Education reformists point to crowded classrooms, social cliques and overwhelmed teachers lacking resources and support. Other critics have excavated the military/industrial roots of coercion that mark the very design of modern schools. (See War on Kids, directed by Cevin Soling) When U.S. compulsory schooling began in Massachusetts in 1852, about 80 percent of the population resisted and some children were forced to schools at gunpoint. (See “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto.) Deschooling also refers to the philosophy of removing schools from society to cultivate learning and democratic participation. (See “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich.)
Ronald Glass, associate professor in the Education Department at UC Santa Cruz, explains the history of forced schooling; “In the latter quarter of the 19th century, public school district superintendents and academics at leading universities designed the school system that has persisted in its basic structure. This system drew upon the standardized production model and efficiencies of factories, the precision time consciousness of the railroads, and the hierarchical authority structure of the army to construct an institution that could take in a diverse population and put out a rationally ranked and sorted population that fit neatly into the economic, social, and ideological orders.”
Given this structure, it’s no wonder that compassionate and idealistic teachers have difficulty contributing to learning in their classrooms. In fact, learning seems peripheral to the school model.
“The system of public schooling is designed to deposit knowledge, values, and modes of social relationships into the minds and bodies of obedient pupils, who consume and regurgitate what is put in front of them in order to receive rewards,” continues Glass. “It’s not a surprise that the habitual behaviors formed in such a system of schooling reinforce conformity and passivity, which are precisely not the modes of thought and behavior that make a participatory democratic society most vibrant.”
Unschooling—We Don’t Need No Education
“The truth is that schools don’t teach anything except how to obey orders.” —John Taylor Gatto (“Dumbing Us Down”)
Sit down. Don’t speak unless you’re told to. Finish your work in an amount of time chosen by “the teacher.” Don’t share answers. Read and memorize; there’ll be a test tomorrow. Don’t forget your homework. When the bell rings go to another class and start over. Sound like fun? The state institution of school is accepted by most as a practical necessity; to read books, write emails and balance your checkbook you’re looking at a minimum sentence of 12 years. But local homeschoolers are trailblazing new paths of self-designed learning and their numbers are growing.
Susan and Albert Morin are self-described “unschoolers” who’ve been in San Lorenzo Valley’s Charter 25 for 15 years, using it as a support system for classes, teachers and resources for their three children. “My experience is that when you let kids choose what they’re interested in, and
support that learning, they will take it on like no kidding,” says Susan.
Alec Morin, 19, has never received grades and his reading and math were self-taught. “He’s a happy, open-minded, uncluttered, free-thinking child. And he’s a professional dancer,” says his mother. Alec received “Bs” during his first semester at Cabrillo College. The Morin’s other kids, Tylan, 18, and Sierra, 14, also taught themselves to read and do math.
Self Learning—Know Thyself
“Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning … but most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school …” —Ivan Illich (“Deschooling Society”)
Walking, speaking, drawing, singing and riding a bike are usually learned by children outside of schools. Very often reading, writing and math are also learned from parents, other children or adults with skills to share. According to John Taylor Gatto and other school critics, most people can learn skills like reading and writing in 100 hours. Many stories of local unschoolers confirm this, often using the phrase self-teaching, referring to learning that is guided by free choice with a foundation in self-trust.
Jade Loftus homeschools her 12-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, through AFE. “The kids had the idea of picking their own history topics,” she explains. “Cheyenne did one on Victorian times and wanted to have a tea party.” Cheyenne elaborates: “I said, ‘Here’s some topics from the Victorian era to use as current events at our tea party. Juju, you get daily life. Maleah you get diseases [laughter].’ Then the next day we’re all dressed up in our fancy outfits and had tea. I was told later that it was a really creative idea.” Cheyenne’s friend Sophie adds, “I think it’s better than just reading from a textbook. I actually like history now.”
Cheyenne adds, “A really cool thing about homeschooling is we can have our schooling when we want to.” She seems to relish her sense of choice: “Tomorrow after science class, I have softball practice. It’s not, ‘Get on your PE uniform and run around the field.’ It’s, ‘We’re going to play catch and have batting practice!’ It’s awesome.” Juju, also 12, enjoys the flexible schedule of homeschooling and says that most mornings she gets up early to go surfing and later gets help with math and other projects.
“Unschooling is child-led learning; you watch what your child is asking for and ready for and you’re there to support their learning,” says Suki Wessling, a Santa Cruz writer and homeschool parent of two children, ages 8 and 12 (blog.sukiwessling.com).
Socialization vs. Socializing: Getting Clear on the Difference
“Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.” —John Taylor Gatto (“Dumbing Us Down”)
“What about socialization?” is the most common question asked of homeschoolers. Wessling points out the difference between socializing and socialization: The first refers to community and group dynamics while socialization is what unschoolers want to avoid; the coercion of reward and punishment, the control of bells and rules, the abstracting of information and the rote learning and evaluation of testing, to name a few aspects. Among the homeschoolers I spoke with, all were enjoying abundant self-designed socializing.
“We laugh about the word ‘home’ being in homeschooling because so many of us really would love to be home more often,” laughs Wessling. “We’re out doing stuff and our kids are interacting with people.”
“Socialization is the reason I started homeschooling,” Wessling elaborates. “When you’re homeschooling you can choose the social situations that challenge your child, that don’t cause your child to go through painful experiences that so many of us remember from childhood. I remember a teacher mocking me in front of my class. If my kids never have that experience it’s fine with me.” Wessling teaches computer programming to homeschoolers and notes, “Homeschooling is not just for the kids. It’s a transformative experience for parents.”
Josh, 13, has been homeschooling since the beginning of 2011. “The common mistake is that people think homeschooling is just kids at home,” he says. “They think we don’t interact. But socially (AFE) is amazing.”
Sarah Wilson, a self-described “eclectic homeschooler,” says that people laugh when she tells them her kids are in school every day of the year. “They think I’m saying I’m a taskmaster,” she explains. “What I’m really saying is that my kids are learning all the time.” Wilson’s eldest son was reading and able to add, subtract and multiply at the age of 4. (See Wilson’s writings at homeschoolreview.blogspot.com.)
By escaping the socialization of obedience, Wilson’s children have cultivated something of an inner-authority. “My boys don’t automatically defer to adults, which is off-putting for some who expect kids to treat adults as authority figures,” she says. “My boys are learning that all human beings deserve respect.” Wessling mirrors this sentiment: “Our kids might not always seem like normal kids because they don’t conform. Lining up, being in a straight line and doing exactly what they’re told is really not their forte. But that’s not a natural human activity.”
Homeschoolers utilize a myriad web of resources like parks, public libraries, museums, farms, concerts, free classes, theatres, community events, skill sharing, resource centers and the Internet. Wessling confesses, “I cannot imagine homeschooling without the Internet.” She highly recommends the online Khan Academy and says that homeschooling is doable on a shoestring budget by sharing skills and resources.
Another concern about homeschooling is that kids won’t be prepared for college or “real life.” Aylsworth disagrees. “A lot of Ivy League colleges have homeschool applications on their websites,” she says. “We often use a portfolio-based application. Colleges often welcome homeschoolers because they’re self-motivated and mature.”
Freedom, Creativity & Community
“The purpose of giving our kids freedom is twofold. First, it allows them to fully develop their particular interests and thus enjoy their lives and minds … And second, it helps them to develop their inner guidance systems …” —Grace Llewellyn (“Guerilla Learning”)
Homeschooling and unschooling are based in a sense of trust that children want to learn and are naturally drawn to explore and create. “Homeschooling is all about choice and freedom,” says Wessling. “Homeschoolers tend to be the sort of parents if their kid said, ‘Can I climb to the top of that tree?’ They don’t say, ‘That’s dangerous. Don’t do it.’ They say, ‘Do you think it would be safe for you to do that?’
“I look at what my kids are attracted to and what my kids need,” Wessling adds. “I then say, ‘How can I create the environment in which they can both follow their passions and work on skills that they need to work on?’”
Homeschooling and unschooling share common ground with grassroots efforts to re-localize and re-democratize society; from growing food and organizing community safety to skill-sharing and designing sustainable transportation. These healthy self-designed systems are blossoming around us. “Homeschooling is not a world for people who like to know the rules and like everything to progress from A to Z,” says Wessling. “You are never going to find the homeschooling family that represents homeschooling. It’s not possible. We all have different approaches.”
John Malkin is a local writer, musician and host of The Great Leap Forward on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and freakradio.org. He is author of “Sounds of Freedom” (Parallax Press, 2005) and he and his wife Alison are parents of Bodhi, now almost 4 years young.
left to right Tylan Sierra and Alec
Isabel and Kriste Masters
Cheyenne with books
Photo credits: Kelly Vaillancourt and Kena Parker