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Article of Interest - Home Schooling

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'Unschoolers' Can Learn - or Not
Daniel Scarpinato, Arizona Daily Star, November 11, 2005
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As most schoolchildren are sitting down for their morning classes, Taylor Gavin is just rolling out of bed. "Sometimes I get up at 8, sometimes not until 9 or 10. It just depends," the talkative 11-year-old says.

Each day is different for Taylor and his 10-year-old sister, Karina. Activities range from video games at their East Side home to dance lessons to museum and national park visits.

The Gavins are "unschoolers," a small branch of home-schoolers with parents who reject the structured and authoritative nature of today's education system. Some call it "discovery learning" because of its laissez faire attitude.

Unschoolers defy the trendiest new styles of learning. Their methodology - or lack thereof - is a slap in the face of school accountability measures. In a post-No Child Left Behind Act world, federal education spending is up, standardized testing is a required part of the classroom and the word "rigor" is experiencing a renaissance in education circles.

Unschoolers don't take tests and don't typically have homework. There are no single-file lines of boys and girls, no cafeteria lunches or crashing lockers. But it's the lack of any kind of concrete lesson plan that makes unschooling far different from normal home schooling.

Unschoolers learn what they want, when they want, how they want. And that could mean learning nothing at all.

It's a concept that's totally legal in Arizona, though it's not without critics. Some say unschooling is irresponsible and question whether it allows for healthy child development.

But advocates maintain that the usual ways of learning aren't the only way of learning. Socialization doesn't have to happen in classrooms. And letting kids chart their own course, they say, will give them more choices and provide more of a challenge.

"I think when kids have the idea that their learning is up to them, they'll do interesting things with their time," said Tucsonan Debbie Gubernick, who has four children who have been unschooled, including a son who's now a junior at the University of Arizona.

"Most kids are waiting for life to start happening."

Steady numbers

General home schooling surged in the past five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, increasing nearly 30 percent from 1999 to 2003. That's about 2.2 percent of U.S. school-age children.

Unschooling has remained a small but steady part of it.

Estimates of the number of unschoolers in Southern Arizona vary and could be as high as 50 families, though no organized unschoolers group exists in the Tucson area. Unschoolers make up about 10 percent of the entire home-school population, said Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates, a consulting company founded by John Holt, the author who coined the term "unschoolers."

The term and original movement came about in the late 1970s with the book "Instead of Education." Holt adopted the name "unschooling" from the popular 7-Up "Uncola" advertising campaign of the time.

"The beauty of unschooling is you're learning in real life," Farenga said. "Unschoolers have a very strong sense of how the world works because they've lived in it."

Many other home-schoolers stay away from public schools because of religious values or because they don't feel school curriculum is competitive. But unschoolers rarely incorporate religion and generally oppose barriers that stand in the way of kids enjoying life.

For example, what if a child wants to spend the day watching soap operas? That's fine under certain circumstances, parent Gubernick says.

"I think it's important for teenagers to do absolutely nothing sometimes."

And it's still possible for unschoolers - or any other homeschooler - to attend college, since an SAT score - not a high school diploma - is enough to get into many universities.

Parental rights

Home-schoolers, such as Karyn Parisi, co-president of Tucson's Southeast Side chapter of Christian Home Educators, are quick to distance themselves from unschoolers.

"Our philosophy is totally different," Parisi said. "We're not rebelling against education. We just want to have more control and more say over what our children learn, which often times is tougher than what you would find in public schools."

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teacher lobbying group, also is skeptical.

"Parents have the right to make decisions that are right for their children. In a home-school environment, it's up to them to set the structure," he said. "If unschooling is where the child's will is the child's way, there will be some hard lessons when they grow up."

And while Wright doesn't doubt that parents can provide socialization at home, he said it might be harder to accomplish in a home environment, especially without a structured home-school plan.

Still, unschooling is perfectly legal in Arizona, says Kim Fields, program coordinator for the Pima County School Superintendent's office. Home-schoolers need to file an affidavit with the county to remove children from school, she said. The same process applies to unschoolers.

The affidavit requires they be taught reading, grammar, math and social studies, but there's "no rule they have to be taught a certain way," she said.

Arizona's home-schooling laws are among the most liberal in the nation, Fields said. Parents aren't required to provide any proof their kids are learning. There are a bit more than 3,000 home-schooling affidavits in Pima County, Fields said.


Taylor's and Karina's mother, Eileen Gavin, became interested in unschooling when she first had her children. She tried out a private school for a few months, then decided to give unschooling a shot. She admits she isn't an absolutist, and she sometimes steers her kids toward certain subjects.

She isn't sure yet if her children's interest in self-discovery will carry into the teen years. But, for now, Taylor and Karina seem to be doing just fine.

There are no signs these children have problems socializing or are behind the curve. They have lots of friends in their neighborhood, answer questions about their daily lives with excitement and show almost no signs of insecurities.

And just what do they do all day? There's a lot of reading. Taylor learned the countries of the world by setting up Pokemon characters on a map. And Karina worked on math by figuring out how she'd spend the $340 million Powerball jackpot.

"I like it much better than when I was in school," Taylor said.


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