On Monday morning, as most children rouse themselves for yet another week of school, Zach Powers, age 9, and his brothers Colby, 7, and Isaac, 5, have a different plan. Unlike their peers, their day's agenda includes a stroll down to the river, a visit with their neighbor and a trip to the library. No schoolbooks or worksheets included. No, the Powers boys aren't playing hooky. They're part of a nationwide homeschool movement called "unschooling," whose adherents believe that children learn best by simply living, unencumbered by imposed curriculums. So, when Becky Power's boys feels like spending the day helping their neighbor with his organ-repair business, she is happy to let them do it. She knows it's all a part of their education.
Five years ago, after extensive reading and a bit of soul-searching, the Powers family, of Sauk City, began homeschooling their children. Becky was concerned about power struggles that she saw occurring with traditional homeschooling, where growing pressure and coaxing from parents were required to get children to comply. Instead, she gravitated towards unschooling, a movement inspired in the 1970s by the work of disillusioned educator and author John Caldwell Holt. Holt suggested parents pull their children out of school, discard textbooks and let the kids take charge of their own learning. Knowledge is then acquired experientially, through child-directed activities, question-asking, and observations of the world.
Holt's followers argue that self-motivated education fosters a child's natural love of learning, independence, self-confidence and a deeper understanding of the world. Many of the fundamental ideologies of unschooling mirror other educational movements, such as Montessori's principle of self-motivated, free choice within the classroom, Reggio Emilia's "negotiated curriculum" and Summerhill School's notion of child-guided learning and self-governing. However, unlike unschooling, most of these movements still depend on institutionalized structure and goal-oriented lessons.
There is little data on the pervasiveness of the unschool movement. Jenina Mella, a volunteer for the homeschool activist group Wisconsin Parents Association (WPA), estimates that about 10% of Madison's homeschool population follow unschool principles. The parents of unschooled children tend to be traditionally educated and often hold college-level degrees. Many are politically conscious, valuing the importance of both social freedoms and civil liberties. Because homeschooling requires one parent to stay at home, these families usually live on tight budgets, thus many opt for a simplified lifestyle.
Although the Internet is alive with message boards guiding these families, unschooling remains hard to define. One faction, calling themselves "radical unschoolers," allow for absolute freedom when it comes to their children's education. Some even permit unlimited television and videogames, believing that any form of restriction or coercion is detrimental to a child's spirit. Radical unschool mother Mary Gold argues in her 2002 article "Give a Kid a Nintendo" that her son developed reading skills from unlimited videogame playing as he scoured game manuals and math skills as he saved money for new Nintendo cartridges.
Most unschool families like to set some limits, finding a balance among their daily activities. Modest structure is important and most maintain regular mealtimes, have the kids do chores, and participate in clubs and sports teams. Some parents will include daily math and writing worksheets; however these are often optional and generally deemphasized.
The efforts of the WPA have helped to insure that Wisconsin laws support unschool families' relaxed structure. Currently, Wisconsin does not require any specific coursework, tests or progress reports; however, parents are asked to cover six basic areas: language arts, reading, math, science, social studies and health. Along with this, the Department of Public Instruction requires 875 instructional hours a year. According to unschool parents, they are able to reach these requirements without difficulty, arguing that their children are learning all of the time -- even while at play.
Since there is no curriculum, unschool parents do not "teach" in the traditional sense. Instead they become active observers, carefully following their children's curiosity, interjecting ideas and concepts when they feel it's appropriate. Parents help to create a setting that encourages learning, keeping such tools as microscopes, writing paper and plenty of books on hand for when the child expresses a curiosity.
Mella stresses the importance of being available for her own son, answering questions as they arise: "If people were to peek in my window and listen to what we're doing, answering questions is about 90% of it." She also believes her job as a role model has been important for her son. "One of the main ways you [create an enriched environment] is by being an interesting, proactive person yourself. It doesn't mean your kids do exactly what you do. It just means they observe you as a model."
Many of these parents stress that unschooling is not "unparenting" -- despite the absence of academic structure, unschool parents are highly involved in their children's lives, helping them to learn society's rules and succeed in the context of our culture.
Critics worry that unschooled children will not learn the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic. This tends not to concern unschool parents -- they believe their children will pick up the basics from their surroundings. Math skills can be acquired through real-life problems. One near-east-side mom explains, "As soon as you translate things into money or pizza, they learn really well." Math becomes a game that the children engage in because they enjoy the challenge. As kids become older, if they express an interest in advanced math, they can seek ways to learn it, including classes provided by the homeschool community, tutors or university courses.
Some unschooled children quickly pick up reading and writing on their own, while others find it more difficult. When Zach Powers had difficulty, his parents tried different tactics, including software programs and reading games. "The more we tried to encourage, support and push," says his mother, "the more he said, 'forget it, I'm not reading to you.' When we were able to back off from it, he was able to own his success, more than if he was taught by an outside person." Late readers aren't unusual in unschooling crowds. Rather then forcing children to practice, unschool parents stand back and wait for the child to show interest on the theory that children will ask questions about letters and words when they're ready.
Often curiosity leads unschool kids into the community, giving them an opportunity to interact with different people and environments. One west-Madison 12-year-old, Luke, is passionate about fly-fishing. This pursuit has led him to meet other fishermen and discover books on entomology and limnology. To encourage deeper learning, parents teach research skills, assist with project plans and help organize volunteer jobs.
Less emphasis is placed on intellectual development and more is placed on emotional growth. Jenina Mella of the WPA wants her child to be "a happy and emotionally whole person." Mella is confident that by teaching her son self-reliance and fostering his curiosity, he'll be happy at whatever he pursues. "We're all socialized to think if were not training him for the SAT by the time he's 3, he's not going to get into college and he's going to be a failure." Most unschoolers keep college as an option for their children, but don't feel it is necessary to succeed.
Like many of their homeschooled peers, the Powers boys are pleased with their set-up, enjoying the freedom to be curious and explore. Zach, whose current passions include drawing and Pokémon, hopes to become a cartoonist. His brother Colby, perhaps motivated by his neighbor's collection of exotic pets, hopes to work with animals. All three boys express an interest in college, but sending her kids off to a university is not Becky Power's main objective: "Our goal is to foster a love of learning, support it and try to make it as strong as it can be for their whole lives."
Wisconsin Parents Association
Large resource site
I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.
It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders " 10 boys and six girls " enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.
Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.
Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.
Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.
Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.
Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.
This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.
In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.
In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.
It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.
Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.
Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is famous for all sorts of things. Malls are packed with folks exchanging those holiday sweaters that don't fit just right. It's the week those same folks pledge to never again eat another frosted sugar cookie or candy cane (hence the sweater issues). It's also the week the media saturates the public with dozens of "Best of Year" lists.
This will not (although it could) be a treatise on the value of "alone time" for a healthy marriage, though. Nor will it be an ode to how nice it was for me to have a few days off from lunch-packing, carpool-driving and homework-nagging.
For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.
If I had my druthers, I'd sit out the entire shopping week that follows Thanksgiving. Black Friday, for starters, has corrupted the fine art of bargain shopping and turned it into a gladiator sport. There is no percentage off that is worth losing sleep, or even worse an eye, over. Especially if you have kids in tow.
When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
Many of the pop-culture seasonal touchpoints of my youth are completely lost on my kids. You see, while I may have memorized every word to both the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser's songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, I'm pretty sure the only Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special my kids have ever seen has been Rudolph.
I am so thrilled that the United Way is sponsoring a Teen Gift Drive this holiday season. Sure, teen "wants" often aren't as fun to shop for as precious baby dolls and sweet Lego sets. But middle and high school kids still "need" to feel valued and loved during this time of year. And helping a family in need to provide this for their child is a wonderful way to get in the spirit.