School’s Out Forever

It’s a Monday morning and Mitchell Norton is getting antsy.

After working on a fractions sheet for nearly an hour, 12-year-old Mitchell is ready to switch subjects. During reading time, he listens as his mother reads aloud from the 1967 book36 Children while he doodles in the margins of his spelling notebook. Less than three minutes into the reading, Mitchell’s drooping eyes snap open as he announces, “OK, that’s enough.”

He stands up and leaves the navy blue couch where his mother is seated, the concluding words of the sentence trapped inside her closed lips, soon to be swallowed and forgotten. She closes the book and follows her son into the kitchen. “All right, what’s next?”

Mitchell Norton skipped school today. And yesterday. And the day before. In fact, he’s skipped school every day for the past six years. But don’t call the truant officer just yet: he’s allowed.

There aren’t any special rules for Mitchell and his older brother, Brett, 16. Actually, there aren’t many rules at all. The Nortons’ center of learning is in their home, but they aren’t home-schooled.

They’re unschooled.

Unschooling falls under the broader category of home schooling, which is the general term for educating children outside the traditional classroom.

On one end of the home-schooling spectrum, parents serve as instructors and use a defined curriculum and a designated school-day length. Tests are administered and graded by the child’s parent, the margins filled with encouraging smiley faces drawn in red pen for correct answers.

Unschooling is on the other end of the spectrum. Mitchell and Brett stay home during typical “school days” and learn without any formal instruction. They have the primary say in choosing what they will learn and which topics they will avoid, though their mother does exercise some discretion. Mitchell might spend five minutes on an exercise from his Sequential Spelling workbook or seven hours learning about the “humongous-eyed” Tarsier monkeys. Because Mitchell chooses which subjects he will pursue, he didn’t fully embrace reading until he was 10 years old.

It’s every child’s dream: staying home each day and calling the shots.

What’s up for debate is the notion that preteens are capable of developing an individualized curriculum that is adequate to prepare them for the future.

Like traditional education, the effects of unschooling aren’t proven until the process is complete and the student moves on to college or a career. People schooled in traditional environments might judge whether unschoolers were adequately prepared by the conventional standards of test grades, job performance and salaries. But perhaps the real test is not if unschoolers can fit into mainstream society, but if the mainstream can benefit from the unschoolers’ notion that maintaining the lifelong joy of learning is the most important lesson of all.

A Self-Led Journey
As soon as Mitchell leaves the couch to grab an apple in the kitchen, it’s clear who’s in charge. Unschooling is more of an attitude than a method, one that encourages the pursuit of the child’s interests.

Suzanne, Mitchell’s petite mother with a slight air of nervous energy, isn’t sold on the term “unschooling.” As she contemplates an alternative word, her gaze shifts toward the ceiling.

“Unschooling just indicates what you don’t do,” she explains after following Mitchell into the kitchen. “I tried to think of a different word that actually indicates what we do. Some people say ‘life learners.’ ”

Mitchell interrupts her, “That sounds dumb.”

She flashes a tight smile. “Mitchell,” she warns. “Mostly it’s just life. We learn from whatever comes up.”

The Nortons’ educational journey began seven years ago, when Brett found himself unchallenged in his fourth-grade class. He didn’t like the structure of school. When he understood a concept, he had to wait for his classmates to catch on before he could move forward. His parents looked into private schools for more personalized attention but determined that Suzanne could replicate the programs best suited to their children’s needs in their home.

One summer day after Brett’s fourth-grade year, she asked the boys a question that changed the structure of their days, and their lives, in the years to come: “What do you guys think about staying home?”

From the get-go, Suzanne never determined a curriculum for her sons. She asserted her role in their education by observing their interests. For Brett, it meant diving into books; for Mitchell, it meant drawing pictures and building miniature cities from Legos.

Life guides the Nortons’ education, but this is not a tour; the journey is self-led. Life leads the Norton family out the green door of their one-story home in Ashland, past the gas station, the post office and the veterinary clinic onto U.S. 63.

It then takes them into Columbia, where Brett learns through volunteering at radio station KOPN-FM. While he helps broadcast news to mid-Missouri, his mother and brother practice speaking English with Sunny and Anna, two Korean women who are their language partners in a program through the Literacy Action Corps of Columbia.

Sometimes the path leads Suzanne inside herself, to feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty about whether the process is working. These turns of life are the most unnerving as no concrete factors such as test scores or evaluations can affirm that the children are succeeding. Unschooling takes trust. Parents must believe that all children have an innate desire to learn and that their necessary life skills will develop over time.

Suzanne has struggled with how far to take the philosophy, especially when Mitchell rejected reading. She has debated letting her kids have free reign through radical unschooling, where parents are more companions than mentors.

“I just can’t be a radical unschooler,” Suzanne says. “Some people might say that the kids know what’s best for them, but I’m still a parent.”

While flipping his sandy, shoulder-length hair away from his face, Brett reinforces her approach. “If you let me do that, I’d probably sit on the computer or read the whole time,” he says.

“For a while, I thought I’d let him do that and he’d get bored,” Suzanne says.

“Nope,” Brett says as a smirk spreads across his angular face.

Even in unschooling, mother knows best.

The Carlow family

The Notes Of Social Harmony
Asher Carlow’s journey began in Ohio, when he asked to be home-schooled while waiting for the bus to his second-grade class. His cousins were home-schooled, and like Brett Norton in Ashland, Asher was bored in school. Although their son qualified for the gifted program at his Ohio school, Asher’s parents — Suzanne and Jared — wanted something more than enriched group schooling for their children. Although he doesn’t remember it now, Asher’s request set the precedent for the six Carlow boys, who range in age from 13 years to 8 months.

The couple initially planned to home-school their boys in middle school. The Carlows see middle school as prime time for bullying and negative interactions with peers; they believe children don’t learn much valuable material in school at that age. Asher’s request moved up the family’s timetable to a full-blown commitment to home schooling.

When the Carlows moved to Missouri four years ago, Suzanne decided to stay at home with the boys while Jared supported the family with his job as a Web development manager at MidwayUSA. Despite his parents’ prior misgivings about middle school, Asher, now 13, developed a desire to interact with his peers on a more regular basis. He enrolled in morning band class three days a week at an elementary school in rural Callaway County to practice his trumpet in a group setting.

“Schools in Ohio, in my understanding, were not open to home-schooled students participating in any of their programs,” Suzanne Carlow says. “We are quite committed to home schooling, so when we moved here we didn’t think much about the area schools. Once we heard how welcoming schools here were to home-schooled kids, we’ve considered the group or specialized opportunities like band, maybe chemistry in the future.”

Asher is usually the first one to class. To get him to school on time, Suzanne must strap all six freckle-faced boys into car seats and seatbelts. They then drive 20 minutes down gravel roads from their bright blue ranch house near Fulton. While Asher goes into the school for the 45-minute class, Suzanne and his brothers wait in the parking lot.

She planned on entertaining them by giving them books to read, but time has proven that letting them run around the school’s parking lot or play with their stuffed animals keeps them happiest.

Asher hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet and looks even smaller as he sits alone in the band classroom while the other students complete morning homeroom routines and listen to announcements over the public address system. When it comes time to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Asher turns to the flag mounted on a file cabinet, places his hand over his heart and recites the words, his singular oath ringing sincere in the otherwise empty room. To him, even the most routine and mundane parts of traditional school have meaning.

As other students enter the room for class, Asher doesn’t speak with any of them. He sits quietly, reading over his sheet music. During class, he is the most attentive, hanging on every word the teacher says as the 13 other band members chuckle and rustle the pages of their music. Asher’s peer interaction is limited to the shaky notes that erupt from his trumpet and mix with his classmates’ pitches in a beginner’s harmony.

The Carlows try to ensure their sons can pursue their interests. The boys interact with peers through recreational basketball leagues, Cub Scouts and various physical activities ranging from gymnastics to fencing. But their primary social interaction comes from contact with one another.

The Carlow home is an educational environment devoid of many distractions, with restricted computer use and a television that hasn’t been used since the Olympics ended. The children live without “cheap thrills” such as violent video games and suggestive movies, as dictated by their parents.

While smoothing the polka dot apron she’s wearing over jeans, Suzanne Carlow reflects on a time when she felt left out as a child because her parents prevented her from watching Looney Tunes. She doesn’t think her children are deprived.

“I think they realize that it might not be the end-all-be-all if they aren’t able to converse with their peers about silly things,” she says.

Although Asher is quiet in school, he’s an outspoken leader at home ― one who pitches baseballs to his brothers as they play outside and who makes rolls for dinner after he has completed his share of morning chores. He’s a socially adept guide where it counts — in the eyes of his younger brothers.

Laying Down The Law
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education outlines on its website the number of hours, subjects and dates for home-schoolers to follow, but does not obligate home-schoolers to submit proof of compliance to the department. The state does require parents keep records as evidence that a child is receiving regular instruction.

Missouri law requires home-school parents to maintain records such as a plan book, diary or other written record indicating subjects taught and activities engaged in; a portfolio of samples of the child’s academic work; and a record of evaluations of the child’s academic progress. Parents must offer home-schooled children at least 1,000 hours of instruction each school year. At least 600 of those hours should be in reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies and science, or academic courses related to these areas and consistent with the child’s age and ability. At least 400 of the core 600 hours of instruction must occur at the regular home-school location.

Unschoolers must find creative ways to meet these requirements and still maintain their educational philosophies.

The Nortons keep portfolios that include everything from a photo of Mitchell climbing a tree as proof of natural science and physical education hours to a University Concert Series ticket to document music appreciation hours. These records are the compilations of the growth of young minds filled with the traces of algebra problems or half-formed haikus.

An estimated 40,000 students are home-schooled in Missouri, but as far as the state knows, these children do not exist. Home-schooled students in Missouri are not required to register with the state or take standardized tests, as are mandated in other states nationwide. Their names are left off rosters, never to be mispronounced by the teacher on the first day of class or called out for teams in gym class.

Unschooling advocates in mid-Missouri appreciate the freedom they have statewide in regard to their children’s education. Suzanne Norton grew up in Pittsfield, Ill., which she says was devoid of diversity. Now, the family’s proximity to Columbia gives them access to several colleges that embrace many types of learners, no matter which methods they choose.

The language program with the Korean women is just one of the opportunities the Nortons take advantage of in the education of their sons. They explore engineering and math fairs at the University of Missouri (which Mitchell likes for the candy), take field trips around the area with the Columbia Homeschooling Resource Group and attend Saturday Morning Science lectures at MU. All of these opportunities, the Nortons believe, allow the boys to learn by doing, and to learn and grow outside the home.

No Professional Consensus
Unschoolers are a minority of alternative education methods, which means not much is known about their practices. Five of the 11 school psychologists in the Columbia Public Schools say they are not familiar with unschooling and cannot speak to its long-term effects. Three faculty heads of different departments in the University of Missouri College of Education also say they are unfamiliar with unschooling.

But the general practice of home schooling is growing, which implies that unschooling is too. In 2007, there were 1.5 million home-schooled students nationwide, which was an increase from 850,000 in 1999, a 1.2 percent jump in school-aged children.

Roy Fox, a professor in the MU College of Education, says the increase in home schooling is due to religious fundamentalism, increased marketing to factors of life that were formerly private, and advances in technology that make personalized education more accessible.

Educators differ in their opinions on home schooling. The coordinator of psychological services for Columbia Public Schools, Molly Stebbins, says school is invaluable to the development of citizenship. She says children learn to appreciate diversity when they spend significant amounts of time around others who are different, adding that the diversity offered during organized, self-chosen activities that home-schoolers partake in might be more limited.

Teresa VanDover coordinated with home-schooling families during her 11 years as the principal of Columbia’s Shepard Boulevard Elementary School. The home-schooled students she encountered didn’t have social difficulties because they knew their peers from their neighborhoods or from community activities such as swimming lessons. She is supportive of parents who make the decision to home-school. For her, the significance is whether students are able to process information and acquire adequate skills in reading, writing and math for whatever form of education they pursue.

Although she supports home schooling, VanDover isn’t convinced about unschooling because, she says, education that doesn’t evaluate based on benchmarks isn’t realistic. But like unschoolers, she believes that not every skill needs to accomplished by a certain grade level for absolute success.

Ultimately, VanDover says, it takes an involved parent to embed learning. Many unschoolers would argue that although they don’t mandate a curriculum, parents are involved in the choices their children make regarding their education. They live in worlds they’ve rid of distractions to ensure that learning occurs constantly.

Because their practices remain largely underground, unschoolers say the problem is that misconceptions come when people are uninformed about their motives and practices.

Sitting Down For Beliefs
If you put Stephan Dorman in a lineup of other 10-year-olds, you probably wouldn’t be able to identify him as “the unschooler.” A basic paper profile wouldn’t give him away, either.

He’s never won a spelling bee and his family isn’t radically religious. He takes an art class on Thursday afternoons, plays soccer in the Columbia Recreational League and practices Spanish in a class from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. on Monday afternoons. His brown Mohawk haircut distinguishes him from other 10-year-old boys, but his enthusiasm for video games proves that he isn’t so different from his peers after all.

Because Stephan works from workbooks and takes home-schooling classes during the day, it might appear that he is not truly unschooled. His approach is more structured, and now that his sister, Adele, has been back in public school for more than a year, Stephan’s ultimate educational journey will lead him into the traditional classroom for the first time.

He plans to enroll in public school in three years as an eighth-grader so he can adjust before high school. Adele, 15, is currently in ninth grade. After six years of unschooling, she decided to attend school to learn more about science in a structured setting; she didn’t think her mother could adequately provide her with the resources for everything she wanted to learn. Public schools also offer more scholarships for students who continue on to college, and Adele wants access to these awards to help finance her higher education.

The transition wasn’t easy. The high school world, as seen through Adele’s black, square-framed glasses, is full of sociable kids who can be rude. These high schoolers cut in the lunch line and embrace a clique structure where she doesn’t fit.

She isn’t discouraged. In fact, she sits down for what she believes.

Adele caused a small controversy by deciding not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. In her unschooling days, her mother, Stephanie, who has a master’s degree in education and policy analysis from the University of Missouri, exposed her to many types of religions with different gods, not just one religion that emphasizes a nation under a singular god.

Her classmates couldn’t understand why she chose to sit, but Adele, speaking with maturity beyond her years, describes herself as a “third- and fourth-chance type of person.” After she patiently explained her reasoning, several students chose to sit during the pledge.

Adele counts this as a personal success and feels satisfied that these students gained cultural maturity. While tugging at her fuzzy, knit green sweater, Adele admits she still feels uncomfortable in school most of the time. Although the social component has put her out of her element, she believes her purpose is bigger than fitting into the social structure.

“I’d like to see the change continue,” she says. “The atmosphere could be better and I think I’m one of the people who can make that happen.”

Take Out The Trash And Learn Something
Most unschooling families rely on a single income, usually brought in by the father, so the mother can stay home while the children learn. Every penny is put to use. Families buy instructional books from garage sales, hand down clothes between siblings and eat meals at home. The children are often aware of the financial situation.

In the Carlow household, family council is in session on Sunday afternoons, provided they are able to carve out the time. The entire family meets to discuss the budgeting process. The monthly budget categories include food, everyday items, and “education and school” — books and “scholarship” for specific classes that interest the boys. But with six children, there isn’t always enough money, and Suzanne says the boys volunteer to forgo activities because they are too expensive.

She recalls a time when they had $100 left in the food budget, about one quarter of the usual amount, with three weeks left in the month. She and the boys figured they had about $35 per week to spend on food. They made menus and grocery lists, and then divided their shopping between Sam’s Club and Aldi.

After the purchases from Sam’s Club, they had $28 left to spend. Their Aldi total was $27.83. The close call was celebrated with excited squeals from the boys and celebratory high-fives, but Suzanne admits the family couldn’t eat like that every week.

Money isn’t the only issue. An illness that requires a lot of attention can also derail plans. In a break between building with Legos, 10-year-old Jack Carlow fell off his bike and lacerated his spleen. When he returned from the hospital five days later, the home environment was different. Suzanne stopped pushing her sons to do schoolwork, instead having the older ones do schoolwork in the morning and the others do chores around the house.

Suzanne sees value in encouraging her sons to work together on housework. When her third-youngest son, Gunnar, sits on the couch with his arms crossed and refuses to take out the kitchen trash, Suzanne asks him, “Gunnar, are you ready to help? Is this the kind of team you want to be on? One where people get grumpy and complain?”

Without a word, 6-year-old Gunnar gets up with a huff, the sounds of his stomping feet echoing as he marches toward the trash. Lessons about life and teamwork come from these little moments, even if they are subdued by the smell of baby Hugo’s diapers in the trash.

Can This Really Work?
Jennifer Kimball would have graduated with a perfect grade point average if her secondary “school” had measured grades. She continued her education at the University of Missouri, where she maintained a 4.0 cumulative GPA during her four years. She was the only Truman Scholar from Missouri in 2008, a national scholarship given to about 60 college juniors nationwide who show outstanding promise in public service each year. She was a member of Mizzou ’39, a designation for outstanding seniors based on academics, leadership and service, and was tapped into two secret societies: Mortarboard and LSV.

Jennifer Kimball is proof that unschooling can work.

Growing up, Kimball loved writing and acting out fairytales with her siblings. By the time she got to college, she had written five novels but never a formal academic paper, though she quickly figured it out. She says that because of the intense focus on one subject and the variety of specialized topics students learn about, college is a natural step from unschooling.

Had she not been unschooled, Kimball isn’t sure she would be where she is now, in Washington, D.C., at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking. The considerable amount of volunteer work Kimball did while she was unschooled continued while she was in college. Although she showed promise in science, technology, engineering and math fields, she found that her greatest joy came from volunteering at the MU Women’s Center, where she developed her passion for fighting against human trafficking.

Without unschooling, Kimball thinks she would have defined her life by academic achievements. She even deferred her acceptance to Yale’s Law School to work as the National Operations Coordinator for the Human Trafficking hotline in Washington. “What unschooling gave me was the courage to feel like pursuing your passions is completely fine,” she says.

Suzanne Carlow also knows that, in the end, graduating with a 4.0 GPA is not what will define a person’s life, but she believes that unschooling will set her children up for the most success. To her, education is about becoming a good judge of character and the world, about becoming a person who is able to relate to others and use knowledge to change the world.

Making her sons realize this at their young ages is a challenge, but they have evident respect for the sole female figure in their everyday lives.

“I feel like I’m always walking a line,” she says. “There’s a balance between the freedom to let them learn what they want and then teaching them self-discipline and priorities. But isn’t that all adults all the time? Between how much we want to be lazy and do work?”

Often, children schooled in traditional establishments complain about doing homework. They sit at kitchen tables for hours while surrounded by stacks of textbooks and worksheets. Unschooled children are charged with the task of constantly motivating themselves to learn.

And while students in traditional school systems get the summer months off, most unschoolers continue their routines year-round.

Freed from the burdens of busy work, they are obligated only to determine what’s best for themselves and their futures.

That can be a lot to ask of a 5-year-old. Aside from the occasional doubt, parents of unschoolers trust the process. They are energized by the success stories of others, such as Kimball, and fueled by little moments of reassurance, such as when Stephan Dorman spontaneously announced on a family road trip this past summer that he was ready to learn to read on his own.

Many parents worry about unschooling their children because they don’t know everything about all of the subjects their children will encounter. Suzanne Norton admits that she still has doubts.

Her battle is every parent’s battle. She has the desire to do what’s best for her sons and questions whether the choices she makes on their behalf are the right ones. But she has faith. She embraces blank spaces on her calendar. She doesn’t know everything, but she does know how to treasure each day with her adolescent children. She knows joy.

And for today, that’s enough.