Unschooled in Nebraska: Students say goodbye to curriculum and tests

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July 23, 2012 - 7:00pm

Would you know what I meant if I told you there were "unschoolers" among us?

Turns out, some unschoolers themselves wouldn't be sure, either.

"My kids don't even know what unschooling is," said Suzy Landreth, a Lincoln mother of eight. "I said, You know, that reporter's coming tomorrow... she's going to talk about unschooling,' and he's like What's that?'"


Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO News

The Landreth children work on a "spit ball" science project.


Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO News

Eight-year-old David Landreth loves Legos and enjoys building and constructing "contraptions." He's part of a Lego club.

Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO News

Keira Landreth's crafts are sold on Etsy.

Suzy Landreth's children are unschooled. But before I showed up at their Lincoln home, most of them didn't know it.

"Because to them, we're just living our life, you know?" Landreth said.

The Landreths are a smaller minority within the minority of home-schooling families. At its most basic comparison, unschooled and home-schooled children both learn outside of a traditional classroom, but taking one look at the Landreth's cramped and overflowing activities calendar, you'd see very little time for sit-down lessons at home. Soccer, theater, anime and Lego clubs are scribbled on each day of the week.

Laughing, Landreth acknowledged, "We're gone all the time."

It's the outside world that is their classroom. Our interview, she told me, was only possible because the home-school soccer club practice happened to be cancelled that day.

Jessica Freeman is also a Lincoln unschooling parent, to three young children.

"It's a lot easier to talk about what (unschooling) isn't," she said. "So, it isn't school at home. It isn't workbooks, it isn't going and picking out the curriculum, because there's thousands of curriculums out there (and) you could spend just years researching what you want to teach and how you want to teach it."

Freeman said she will find some texts and curriculums that interest her at book sales and bring them to her children. However, she doesn't pore over theories and lesson plans.

It's when you remove the lesson plans, tests and curriculums, Freeman said, that meaningful learning can begin.

"So, unschooling just takes it all way," Freeman said. "It makes it so much easier because you just live your life, and as things come up you just learn from them, you kind of strew things around so there's always something going on, you're always doing something."

Freeman's children, ages 4, 6, and 9, have never stepped foot into a classroom. Freeman is not against the idea of public education - it's the current structure of standardized education that she thinks is flawed. She said after red tape, rules, bureaucrats, lunch, recess and disruptive kids, there's little time for significant education. She said children are natural learners: in their own time, their curiosity will lead them to things like reading, math and other subjects.

But unschooling generally meets a heavily skeptical audience, and other unschooling families around the country have been subject to intense media scrutiny. In an ABC "Good Morning America" segment from April 19, 2010, the host and reporter are not shy about their distaste for the method.

"Now I have to admit I have a bias in this and I think this - it sounds crazy," host George Stephanopoulos tells reporter Juju Chang.

"They tend to be well-meaning parents, absolutely," Chang responds. "But it looks and feels a lot like playing hooky, to be honest."

Chang asked the family whether their philosophy of unschooling children is detrimental to future adulthood.

"Isn't it the job of the parent to teach the child to do things that they don't want to do?" she asked.

"They will do what they need to do whether or not they enjoy it," the father responded. "Because they see the purpose in it."

Chang pressed, "Do you ever worry, though, by raising your kids so far out of the mainstream, that they will be handicapped in some way?"

He responded, "The way they learn, you know, growing up, is different than what most other people do. But in all other aspects, they're living in the mainstream."

These are questions not unfamiliar to Landreth and her 22-year-old son Michael. Many people, they said, don't believe unschoolers are ready for the real world.

"Well, how are they going to learn about real life if they don't go to school and be around people that are mean to them?" said a sarcastic Landreth. Her son chimed in, "How do you learn about real life in school? While they're in school, in the system that's built specifically for them, we're out everywhere else!"

Critics also wonder whether the Landreth children would be able to adapt to rules of the workplace, an assertion Landreth and her 19-year-old daughter, Keira, said they find condescending.

"So how are you going to get a job if you don't get up at 8 o'clock and be at school every day? How will you ever learn to have a job?" Keira joined in, mimicking concerned critics, "How will you ever remember to wear your lanyard in your job if you don't wear your lanyard at school?"

Meanwhile, unschooling may be getting closer to the mainstream. Tomorrow, when our series Unschooled In Nebraska continues, we'll look at how unschooling philosophy is finding its way into both public and private education, and we'll speak with one major Omaha educator who says the conventional methods of education simply aren't working anymore.



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