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You Have to Trust that the Child will Learn

Eighteen-year-old Abby Stewart got word this month that she won early admission to elite Princeton University, even though she has never set foot in a high school classroom. She also wrapped up a huge challenge - dancing the Snow Queen role in "The Nutcracker Suite" at the Athenaeum Theatre - largely because she has never set foot in a high school classroom.

Five years ago, frustrated with the pace and depth of a Chicago Public School gifted program, Abby withdrew from eighth grade and entered uncharted territory - a branch of home schooling often called "unschooling." Under this ultimate form of "child-directed" learning, Abby used no set curriculum. She called her own hours, worked at her own pace and, most important, followed her own interests - without taking tests or receiving grades. Some days, she'd wake up, grab a bowl of cereal and go back to bed with a book.

Since then, she has amassed a six-page reading list ranging from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species to Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Calculus to 16 Shakespearean plays. "I do exactly what feels right to me," says Abby. "If I want to just read literature for three weeks or three months, that's perfectly fine with my family."

The flexibility of unschooling made it easier for Abby to take ballet classes six days a week, resulting in the shopping bag full of Pointe shoes in the corner of her Hyde Park bedroom and her recent role in Ballet Chicago's Studio Company production of "The Nutcracker Suite."

Abby also volunteers three days a week at the Field Museum, where she reduces animal carcasses to bones. Her first day at work, she was given a pair of gloves and a scalpel and directed to the remains of a Siberian tiger.

"Compared to a kid in high school with worms and frogs, it's pretty heady stuff," said her dad, Dana Stewart, a sleep researcher at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

Delight-driven learning

By some counts, Abby is part of a growing movement, at least in the Chicago area. Federal officials estimate that about 1.1 million students nationwide were homeschooled in 2003, up a hefty 30 percent from four years earlier.

Although numbers on unschooling are more difficult to come by, since 1999, at least five unschooling online support groups have sprung up in Illinois, four of them concentrated in the six-county Chicago area, said Melissa Bradford, founder of Many Rivers Unschooling, serving mostly DuPage and Will counties. "It's definitely growing. Look at our group," said Winifred Haun, a choreographer and dancer who co-founded Northside Unschoolers of Chicago in 2001 with some half-dozen families. Last year, membership hit 100.

Unschooling is rooted in the ideas of education reformer John Holt, who said children are innately curious and will learn what they need to know when they need to know it. That doesn't mean unschoolers won't ever take conventional classes. Art enthusiasts may take art classes. Teens who want to go to college may take community college classes first.

Unschoolers figure out what they want to do in life and then learn what they need to get there. Advocates say they absorb material better by learning it when they need it. One unschooling Web site calls the approach "delight-driven learning." Author Pat Farenga, a student of Holt's, calls it "the natural way to learn." "This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work," Farenga writes in Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Unschooling.

One Northside Unschoolers mom was seeking an alternative to the test emphasis and heavy homework in her public school. Other unschooling parents may want to avoid labels schools put on especially active kids or late readers. "The hardest thing for most people ... is that you have to trust that the child will learn," said Mary Griffith, author of The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom. "For those of us who had late readers, it was really hard. A lot of unschooled kids don't learn to read when they are 6. Sometimes waiting until they are 7, 8 or 9 is quite common," said Griffith. "But once they learn to read, they read anything and everything."

Noodling around

The tools of unschooling in the early years are scattered across a third-floor playroom of Winifred Haun's turn-of-the-century Oak Park home. Dice and board games help daughters Athena, 10; Iris, 5, and Selene, 2, learn math -and social skills. Pads of paper, pencils and markers are there for writing and drawing. Books are omnipresent.

This "unschooling" morning, Iris and Athena have completed math problems they asked their dad, Stephen Parke, a Harvard grad and physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, to create. "Iris was interested in 1 plus 1 is 2," Haun says, so Parke's worksheet expands the idea all the way up to 50 plus 50. Athena's problems amount to early algebra. Selene plays on a futon as Iris works with her mom on sewing and Athena announces "I need to practice my writing."

Athena has seen what she's missing - and doesn't miss it. "I've been to school for a day. It was fun, but I like it here better. In school, they just sat there while the teacher talked," Athena says.

Athena knows some question whether homeschoolers will develop the proper social skills away from a classroom full of kids their age. "I say homeschoolers do get social skills," Athena says. "I go to choir where there's one other kid who's home schooled. And I go to a homeschooling group where there are kids of all ages. And I have Girl Scouts and ballet."

Haun said some days her kids "just noodle around, but they are investing in days when they produce more." Besides, she said, "You can teach your kid in 90 minutes a day what it takes the school six hours. ... The other 4½ hours are, 'Stand up. Sit up. Let's go to the bathroom. Let's take attendance. ...' "If my daughter needs to know ... how to find her friend's name in the phone book, I can take five minutes and explain to her about alphabetizing," Haun said. "I don't have to test her. I know when she can look up the name on her own."

In their teenage years, said Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, unschooling kids can study biology with a textbook, in a community college or with software. Or they can befriend a doctor and brainstorm on books to read or projects to do. Or they can volunteer to work in a veterinarian's office. "The sky is the limit," Llewellyn said.

The college question

Abby's dad and mom, a hospice social worker, gave their three children a taste of school (all won admission to gifted programs), and eventually let them decide if they wanted to stay there. All three wound up pretty much unschoolers, with the oldest graduating from Dartmouth in June. Abby wanted to go to college, too, and plunged into subjects she'd need to get there.

To prepare for the SAT college admission tests, she bought some test prep books and took some old subject matter tests. She posted knockout scores: an overall SAT of 2,350 out of 2,400. To pad out her track record, she also took the SAT world history, literature and U.S. history tests, scoring 800, 790 and 780, respectively, on an 800-point scale.

Not all unschoolers or homeschoolers have Abby's scores, but on another popular college admission test, the ACT, test-takers who identified themselves as homeschoolers have scored a notch above the national average for the last decade. This year, they averaged 22.4 on a 36-point scale compared with a national average of 21.2.

Before Abby got the news last week that she had won early admission to Princeton, she had researched applying to seven other colleges and found them "pretty forgiving" about her lack of a traditional grade-point average. At Harvard University, admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis said, unschoolers without transcripts can submit college admission scores, and then "tell us what they have done in the way of academic preparation for college, and we'll take it from there."

Some may wonder if unschoolers can adjust to the structure of college life. After the regimen of ballet classes, Abby doesn't expect problems. Unschooler Sam Dickey, 23, an Oak Park native now attending Beloit College after four years at a community college, said he has no difficulty making it to classes. He found he performs well on deadline and is a "very good writer" despite never having written a research paper before college.

But just like traditional schoolers, not all unschoolers want college. Jan Hunt, an unschooling counselor who operates the Natural Child Project web site, said her unschooled son didn't go to college. He started a computer consulting company instead. "He continually beats us at Trivial Pursuit. He's an incredible editor," said Hunt. "He can do any math problem in his head. I have the proof in the pudding right here."

Not for everyone

Yet even advocates caution that unschooling is not for everyone. "It's just kind of a scary way of doing things. Not many people are willing to go out on that limb," said Dorothy Werner, founder of Home Oriented Unique Schooling Experience, an Illinois homeschooling support group. "You have to trust that children want to learn. You can't believe that children must be forced to learn," Werner said. "Parents who need to be in control ... would have a hard time. If you want your child to be learning the same factoids as the child next door, unschooling is not for you."

Homeschooling researcher Michael Apple, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is "wary of the hype." He wonders what unschoolers are really learning about people of other races, religions and cultures. "There is no public accountability," Apple said. Counters unschooling author Farenga: "Who is going to be the commissar of correct thought?"

William Schubert, professor of curriculum studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, homeschooled his daughter using a few unschooling ideas. He says unschooling can be positive, but requires time, resources and "dialogue with ... well-educated people." "We don't know that children are innately curious. The question is open," Schubert said. Some unschoolers "may not get any further than eating candy bars." Unschooling may be easier for parents with the time and resources, Farenga agrees, but "everyone can find that within their own little sphere."

"I'm not trying to make this sound like it's easy," Farenga said, "but it's not easy if your child is failing or hurting in school, either."

Abby and others insist every child has a passion waiting to be ignited. "Every person has something they absolutely adore and would like to do for the rest of their life," Abby said. "If you can pinpoint that, and have your kids run with it, you'd be amazed how excited your kids can be about learning."

© Chicago Sun-Times. Originally published December 24, 2006. Reprinted with permission.