Monday, August 08, 2011


I am a part-time cloth diaperer, I compost, I heat my home with a pellet stove and I mow my lawn with a reel mower. I am part of the growing group of parents who are trying to teach our children how to create less of a carbon footprint, consume less and respect the earth more. I am actually in a mom’s group called “Mindful Parenting,” in which members discuss where they got the latest natural wood toy or how little TV they let their children watch.

One trend common among these types of families is homeschooling. Many of my very close friends here in Connecticut are homeschooling their children, not for religious reasons, but because they don’t want their children in the public schools, cannot afford to send them to private school, or simple think they can do a better job of educating their children than the community at large. The most common way to homeschool among these parents is a method called “unschooling,” which has no curriculum and allows the child to learn as they go through life, choosing what interests them at different times. Here is a typical day at the home of my friend Renee's house, who homeschools her son Bobby:

They wake up and have breakfast. Bobby (Renee's 4 year old son) watches some cartoons. They attend a playgroup. They have lunch. Bobby asks why worms shrivel up and die on the pavement. Renee segues into a 30 minute “Well, let’s learn about worms” segment in which they look things up on the internet or in books and go looking for worms outside. Bobby gets bored and starts playing basketball. They play in the yard until dinnertime. They have dinner then play with John, who is home from work and then it’s bedtime.

You’re probably thinking, “not too shabby for a 4 year old” and it’s not. He learned about worms. That’s awesome. But what happens when he is 11 years old and wants to learn about other things? What happens when he doesn’t think his mom is cool and doesn’t want to listen to her and she doesn’t know how to teach advanced algebra anyway? Her answer might be something like, “Who uses advanced algebra?” In the same breath she will say something like, “If he is really interested in it as a teenager then he can attend a community college class to learn about it.”


I believe that children need structure. One of the by products of unschooling is that children learn that they can do whatever they want whenever they want. Children guiding their own education is like an untrained German Shepherd guiding a blind person. They may stumble across many interesting things to learn, but they will lack a general knowledge base that our society has deemed important.

The biggest reason people give to not homeschool is that the children are not “socialized.” My friends have a field day gunning down this concern. However, I think it is a legitimate one. Yes, my friends take their children to the museum and parks and dance classes. However, the friends that their children play with are the ones the mother chooses. Our playgroup of friends is made up entirely of middle class white families. If the children were at school they would have a classroom full of ethnic, poor, rich, disabled, smart, and not-so-smart children at their disposal and no hovering mother to help guide their decisions. These children have no sense of independence from their mothers and the mothers have no sense of independence from their children, which seems to be what the mothers want, but in turn limits the children. Who among them is going to become a brilliant geneticist or even discover their passion when all they really know is what their mother has presented them? Who among them will discover the love of Shakespeare or Mozart or the French language or biochemistry if they are not first forced to discover it? I am a firm believer in the old adage “You can’t break the rules until you learn them first.” These children seem to be given cart blanche as far as their education goes. They are breaking all the rules before they learn them and most often, they don’t even know the rules exist. What if your child doesn’t like to read? I do not like to read. I would have read maybe three books my entire high school career if I had not been forced to read in my English classes. Instead I read Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Twain, Bronte, Atwood - so many amazing authors that I now appreciate and even like and I am a better person for it.

I understand that parents want their children to love learning, but this is just not the reality for most people. For many people it takes seeing others passionate about a subject to inspire them to want to learn more. It takes teachers and teachers open doors.

Perhaps I am against unschooling because I come from a family of amazing teachers. Or perhaps it’s because I have a very stubborn daughter who sasses me but acts like an angel at school. Teachers can get Evelyn to do many things I cannot. All I know is that unschooling is like gambling on our children’s futures. It’s an experiment. These children will either end up becoming successful performance artists, plumbers (which wouldn’t be bad) or will end up living with their parents for the rest of their lives floating around and doing whatever they want. I wonder if, as adults, they will say "I believe in un-working."

The whole thing just goes against my fundamental views of what education is, what it can offer a child and my role in it as an educator. I’d like to end this with a list of the 10 most inspiring teachers I had up through high school. These are people whose passion for their subject matter made me briefly think I might want to go into their field. They presented options to me I would never have thought possible had I been homeschooled (sorry Mom). And I would never have met them if not for school. (Interestingly, I now realize none of these teachers taught my two favorite subjects – math and music.)

Ms. Thayer-Bacon (elementary)

Ms. Taylor (science)

Mrs. Turner (English/history)

Mr. Williamson (English)

Herr Livingston (German)

Mrs. Cates (history)

Mrs. Hermanson (history)

Mr. Roswell (history)

Mrs. Guerra (P.E.)

Mrs. Kelly-Gillen (Biology)

Ten amazing people who made all the bad teachers I had over the years worth it.

Despite the fact that overpopulation has made many of us want to segregate and seek out our own "kind" to the exclusion of others who think differently, I think it is important for us to force ourselves to be around society at large, and school is a perfect microcosm of our world in which our children can grow and learn. Children need to be among a community of intellectuals who inspire them. They need to be led by adults who are not their mother. They need the freedom to discover passions. They need school.