Unschooled

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Cameron Chase, 13, has never been to school. He has never shown up for a state-mandated multiple-choice test, never bubbled in answers, never awaited results to find out where he stands in relation to others his age.

He has never sat in September homeroom. He has never felt first-day butterflies while scoping out fellow students, wondering whether any will become friends. He has never taken math or history from a certified teacher. He has little interest in attending a traditional academic college, and his parents have no desire to change that.

Cameron is home-schooled. This is hardly remarkable. As of 2012, over 1.6 million school-age children don’t attend school in the United States, and in the last decade, the number of children whose parents take on the responsibility of formal schooling has risen by nearly 100,000 each year.

The home-schooling movement has come a long way since the 1970s, when the practice was rare and largely confined to rural areas. This began to change with the rise of anti-school-system advocates like John Holt, founder of the magazine Growing Without Schooling, and John Taylor Gatto. Shortly after he was named New York state’s 1991 Teacher of the Year, Gatto announced his retirement with a letter to The Wall Street Journal announcing that he’d rather seek a job where he wouldn’t “have to hurt kids to make a living.”

By the 1990s, tens of thousands of parents — with political leanings ranging from hippie to libertarian — were coming to believe that traditional schools robbed children of agency and kept them from pursuing their passions. Home-schooling newsletters began to circulate. Around the same time, a new technology called the Internet suddenly made it possible for people with unusual missions to find and learn from one another.

These days, the Web’s reach in the home-schooling world extends beyond just blogs and discussion boards (though I found plenty of both in my research on Connecticut home schooling, including the mysterious Yahoo group “Pagan Homeschoolers of CT”).

The recent explosion of online educational resources — massive open online courses, Wikipedia, Kahn Academy, iTunes U — has sparked a rise in families preaching a once-uncommon philosophy on the home-school “spectrum”: children are best off when when they teach themselves. They should be mostly free from parental interference, trading their textbooks for TED talks, museum trips, and internships. In an elegant refutation of everything they hope to help their kids escape, parents call this practice “unschooling.”

Cameron’s mother, Ginnie Chase, leans heavily in this direction. Her son’s education doesn’t follow a tight schedule, and the routines he follows are largely of his own devising. The unschooling approach serves him well, as it has his older siblings. Abbie, 25, who studied theater at Smith after learning math just in time for the SATs, has helped resettle refugees at the International Institute of Connecticut. Dennis, 23, plays guitar in a rock band, works with emotionally disturbed teenagers in Massachusetts, and holds a Hampshire College diploma. Cameron is young, but already his goals are clear: he perks up whenever the Yale  School of Music comes up in conversation.

“They have one of the best graduate programs in music,” he informs me. Cameron is one of the best 13-year-old violinists in the state of Connecticut. However, he’s not the very best and plans accordingly, with foresight unusual for his age. “I wouldn’t want to go to Julliard,” he says. “All the attention goes toward the top students. I don’t know if I’d really get taught.”

Cameron’s atypical education has left him with great sophistication in certain fields, though at other moments he’s clearly a young teenager. Our conversation bounces from his sister’s laughable attempts to race him on Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road to his love for Shostakovich; from the Halo-inspired novel on his living-room table to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

I didn’t get to that book until my senior year in high school. Cameron tackled it last year. He had help — a volunteer instructor at New Haven’s newest haven for unschoolers, Beacon Learning, an out-of-the-box nonprofit that stands at the forefront of a movement working to redefine American education.

 

Elisabeth Kennedy and the Catherines (last names Shannon and Fisher) were fed up. All three had tried home-schooling their children. They’d also all experienced the standard education system. Fisher had worked in it as a teacher. They liked the students and the teachers (Kennedy’s husband teaches math at East Rock Magnet School), but had a strong distaste for the way schools were run. They saw students with diverse abilities and interests being lumped together by age group and forced to study the same subjects at the same times. They noticed that the natural love of learning that all children share began to wilt once those children entered formal schooling.

“So 15 months ago,” Elizabeth says, “we found ourselves sitting around a table, not knowing what to do about it.”

Eventually, the trio began thinking about how they might structure their own ideal educational system, drawing on experiences in and out of what most of us think of as “school.” They spoke with the team at North Star, a program in Massachusetts that serves as a refuge for teens who have quit high school and need a place to learn on their own. They read Grace Llewelyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook, a forceful manifesto that dares teens to take control of their own education. Finally, they rented a building on Whalley Avenue (right across from Stop and Shop) and founded Beacon. It would be a place for home-schoolers to loosen up, unschoolers to formalize their learning, and college journalists like me to look on with awe, wishing they’d had the opportunity to take classes in a place as cool as this one.

When I visit, a long day of summer session has just come to an end. Beacon is spacious, and its huge windows let in natural sunlight. One side room features a variety of anatomical models. Another is filled with Legos and art supplies. In a corner, two couches face one another, a place for Beacon “members” (they don’t call them “students”) who feel like interacting. Another corner has two couches facing walls — ideal for lone readers who prefer not to be bothered. Nearby bookshelves contain enough material to last a student years: thrillers, encyclopedias, world history, most of the novels I treasured in high school, and half a dozen copies of The Teenage Liberation Handbook.

The layout, intended to provide space for group and solo projects alike, reminds me of preschool — the last time most kids leave school at 3:30 p.m. without homework weighing down their backpacks. Some Beacon classes have assignments, but none give grades, and of course, classes are optional in the first place. Cameron has taken American history, biology, Shakespeare, and something called “Exploit the Library 101.”

“What was that last one about?” I ask him.

“Whatever I wanted,” he replies. “I took the class with Matt [Earls, who works at Middletown’s Russell Library and volunteers at Beacon], and he asked me what I didn’t know and wanted to know more about. I said the Middle East. So we talked about the Middle East.” Other topics followed.

For less than the price of a local Catholic school, Beacon members can access a private tutor with knowledge in any subject a library covers. This is the sort of thing rich families in Victorian England paid huge sums for, as it was an oft-preferred alternative to boarding school.

The more hours I spend getting to know Beacon, the more I wonder whether this new home-school hub and other centers with the same model might represent the future of nontraditional American schooling.

 

In the course of my research, I asked half a dozen mothers what comments they most often heard from non-homeschool parents. One remark dominated the responses: “I could never do that!”

Sometimes, these words are spoken with respect, even awe, for the super-parents who take on what is essentially a full-time job but receive no salary or benefits. Other times, working parents who don’t home-school their kids complain that home-schoolers — the so-called “lucky ones” who get to stay home all day — simply live in a different world inaccessible to kids in families that rely on two full-time incomes.

Elizabeth Cruz protests the assumption that all home-school kids come from families with a stay-at-home parent. She works full time. So does her husband. But her 13-year-old son, Jorge, left the difficult social environment of his middle school in October 2012 and has no plans to return.

For months, Cruz sent her son a daily homework email before she left for work: science, social studies, math, vocabulary, and an “I love you!” with four or five exclamation points. But the lack of structure was stressful for both of them, and Jorge soon began to feel overwhelmed. Around this time, they attended a Beacon Learning open house. Cruz met a few unschoolers from North Star, and was blown away by their confidence. Soon, her son became one of Beacon’s first members.

Jorge took to the center like a fish to water. In school, he’d been picked on by other children and often felt miserable in class. At Beacon, he made friends, took Elisabeth Kennedy’s creative writing class, developed his computer animation skills with Catherine Fisher, and went on “walking history lessons” with Catherine Shannon — exploring New Haven on foot with the help of a podcast recorded by a Yale history professor.

“He’s an old soul,” his mother tells me. “He seems to do better being surrounded by adults and older kids,” both of which Beacon provides. And the center’s philosophy has rubbed off on Elizabeth. She no longer presses Jorge to stay up late finishing work with her (“that’s silly — we can do pre-algebra on a Sunday morning if we want!”). She’s helping Jorge find a place to spend time volunteering this year as a break from academics, and they work together to create learning plans for him.

This year, Jorge will plan much of his own learning. “I’m going to back off and calm down,” says Cruz, relieved to catch a break and glad that her son has found a space for self-development. “I think learning begins when you take charge yourself.”

 

“Self-Direction 101” is included in Beacon’s course listing for fall 2013 with the following description: “This class will focus on how to be the best self-directed learner you can be, covering everything from what it means to be self-directed in your education, to staying motivated and organized, to tapping into your interests.  Participants will learn how to keep a portfolio and turn the experience into a transcript. Class will culminate with developing your own idea into an independent study project.”

Beacon seeks to strike a balance between unstructured learning and guidance for older students who need to track and present a record of their education. The center pitches itself as the ideal alternative to the tight restrictions of traditional schooling and the fearsome prospect of learning from a world of endless, unfiltered information. For parents, the center’s adult volunteers provide enough collective experience to make a common home-schooling nightmare — children having to learn something their parents forgot several decades ago — into a thing of the past.

Sure, kids without a school lose access to official transcripts and academic records, but the portfolios they keep at Beacon will take much of the sting out of applying to college. Most North Star teens make it to a four-year college with no trouble, finding some of the same freedom in liberal schools like Brown, Reed, and Hampshire. (It turns out that informal learning looks great on paper.) Offering nearly 50 classes and a pair of “do not disturb” sofas, Beacon promises to cater to young people of every educational stripe, from those who function well in a semitraditional environment to those who can serve as their own best teachers. At Beacon, it seems impossible to slip through the cracks.

 

This isn’t to say the “unschooling center” model is perfect. In fact, its flaws are serious enough that they threaten to limit the practical reach of institutions like Beacon.

Unsurprisingly, funding is the first. Beacon is need-blind, but partly as a result, it runs on a shoestring. Elisabeth and the Catherines are volunteers, as are the rest of the teachers. “We’d love to start paying everyone,” Fisher said, “starting with ourselves! Sadly, that’s still a ways off.” To stay in the black, the center will have to recruit more students, but recruiting can be tricky.

Catherine Gobron, program director at North Star, has dealt with similar problems. While parents and teachers flock to volunteer, students (and the tuition they provide) are harder to come by. “If we could attract students like we attract staff,” Gobron said, “our financial troubles would be over.” If these issues still persist at North Star after 17 years, can newer centers with the same model have any realistic hope of growing themselves into sustainability? Attracting students is especially hard because home-school learning centers, by definition, market themselves to parents already skeptical of strangers’ ability to teach their children.

Transportation is also a problem. Beacon is the only example of North Star’s unschooling model in the state of Connecticut. Parents who enroll their children have to drive them or carpool. If they have no car, they might be out of luck. Even if Beacon could afford a bus, the logistics of bringing students in from six different towns are hellish to imagine.

Logistical kinks aside, one bigger question bugged me while I was writing this article: what about kids who are not very self-directed? Beacon’s classes tend to be advanced, and though a tiny member-to-volunteer ratio makes individual instruction a legitimate possibility, the center is geared towards those who already read on or above grade level and arrive eager to learn. A six-year-old would be out of place. So might a dyslexic student. Or a kid who has served time in the juvenile justice system, and upon returning, has trouble readjusting to school. Public schools’ struggles are largely due to the fact that they must be prepared to teach every child who comes to them. It’s clear that the North Star model will require serious updating before it becomes capable of handling the full spectrum of ages and abilities.

There are thousands of Camerons out there. Most of them are in regular school. Some will learn to adjust to the schedule, the social structure, and the relative lack of freedom. The unlucky ones who can’t adjust will have a tough time for 12 years between kindergarten and college.

Most don’t have parents like Ginnie and Tucker Chase — parents with the will and the means to spend much of their time at home trying to improve a system that many parents don’t think twice about. Perhaps they will be helped by unschooling centers like Beacon, or by the home-school co-ops that offer a less formal alternative, or by other future developments in the growing movement to ensure that kids can learn in an environment suited to their diversity and their self-reliance.

Kids like Cameron are the shining success stories of the unschooling movement. Though Cameron didn’t learn to read until he was nine, his favorite book at 13 is “Ender’s Game” — it’s well above an eighth-grade reading level and was my own favorite book when I was 13. Cameron easily caught up to most of the kids who had a three-year head start on him. More importantly, he learned on his own time and in his own way (according to his mother, he essentially taught himself).

Then again, Cameron has never taken a single class in a traditional school. Maybe he’d like it. Maybe the school orchestra would take the place of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra, and maybe the eighth-grade math teacher would do an even better job than Cameron’s sister, who now handles much of his math curriculum.

But it’s a moot point, at least for Cameron. He has everything he needs at Beacon: a volunteer who plays violin duets with him, attentive tutors in other subjects he’s interested in, and most importantly, an environment that teaches him how to teach himself. He may outgrow the place in time — many North Star teens return to high school for extracurriculars or leave the center early to attend college — but when he does decide to move on, he’ll have a host of mentors helping him proceed.

It may seem ironic that unschoolers feel at home in a building full of teachers with a class schedule written on a wall-mounted blackboard. But considering that history’s first “schools” consisted of a few youths clustered at the feet of a worldly tutor, debating at a natural pace in an untimed lesson, it’s easy to see Beacon as a return to form. The oldest educational tradition in the books is back, and it looks like it’s here to stay.

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