Alternative Learning 

We don’t agree on much in my family, but we can always come to a consensus on this much: school sucks.
We don’t agree on much in my family, but we can always come to a consensus on this much: school sucks. We hate the hours upon hours of homework, the endless cycle of extracurricular activities and especially (OK, this is just me) the crossing guard who waves and smiles at everyone but me each morning, no matter what I do to get her attention. It’s enough to make me want to keep the kids at home for good, but then I’d have to home school them. And everyone knows home schooling families are weird. Flowered-dress-wearing, backyard-grown food-eating, snake-handling weird. Just ask my 16-year-old. “What comes to mind when I say ‘home schooler’?” I asked her on the way home from school yesterday. “Nerd,” she replied without hesitation. I rest my case. Luckily, one other option is available: unschooling. Unschooled kids have no lesson plans, no tests, no nothing. It’s up to the child to decide when, how and even if he wants to learn. The whole thing sounds like one of Ralphie’s Christmas Story fantasies, but education experts say there are as many as 200,000 unschoolers in the U.S., including plenty of families right here in Middle Tennessee. As one unschooling mom online put it, “My youngest is always quick to tell people that we [unschool] and then when they ask what she does, she always tells them, ‘We don’t do anything, we just play all the time.’ ” I knew then I’d found an educational model that would work for my whole family. “Tomorrow, I’m unschooling you,” I announced to the girls soon afterward. “What does that mean?” my 13-year-old asked. “I have no idea,” I replied breezily. “But for starters, it means you have no bedtime tonight.” That was enough to keep the girls happy. So happy, in fact, that I suspect 13 stayed up all night long, because she spent most of her unschooling experience sleeping. Looking at the video game-strewn floor that morning, I figured that she must’ve learned a lot about hand-eye coordination during her late-night lesson. And perhaps her choice of Contra: Shattered Soldier indicated a military career in her future. Satisfied by her learning progress, I let her snooze. Meanwhile, my 16-year-old was up by 9. She answered a few messages on MySpace (Language Arts), then danced with our toddler while blasting The Killers on the stereo (Phys Ed, Music Appreciation, Early Childhood Education). After wrapping it up with several rounds of computer Solitaire (Math, Online Gaming), I thought I’d try and add American History to the mix. “Let’s watch Mommie Dearest,” I suggested. “OK,” she said enthusiastically. Since 16 wants to be a movie star, I figured the film would serve as a first-rate primer in Hollywood bitchery. And if all else failed, at least she’d be able to say “No more wire hangers!” to her own kids some day with the proper inflection. After the movie ended, our unschooling experience came to an abrupt halt when 16 informed me she had a soccer practice she couldn’t miss. On the way there, I asked how she had liked being unschooled. “I could never do it,” she said. “How do kids learn anything? And what about a social life?” “What?” I asked, stung. “I’m not enough?” Her pained expression told me more than I really needed to know. When I returned home, 13 was finally awake. We quickly decided to go to Starbucks for some reading time. “Middlesex,” I said authoritatively, showing her the thick book I had selected. “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. What are you bringing?” “Uh, this,” she replied, holding up a paperback. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Hmm. “Well, you’re in charge of your education now, and I’m sure you know what’s best,” I said uncertainly. On to Starbucks we went. Afterward, 13 wanted to rent a movie, so we went to the video store. She chose Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which I paid for without comment. But the moment we got home, I went straight to my laptop and looked up the movie online. Two roommates set out to get stoned and eat White Castle hamburgers, I read. So much for child-directed learning. “The child knows what’s best? Ha! We came this close to raising a pothead.” I shook the DVD angrily and shoved it into the deepest recesses of my purse. I would take the movie back and try to convince the clerks that I had thought I was renting Harold and Maude. It could happen to anyone, right? At that moment, I knew that unschooling and I were through. Citing irreconcilable differences, we would go our separate ways and resolve never to meet again. You win, Pedro Garcia. You win.

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