Saturday, November 20, 2010

Educating Innovatively WITHOUT School

Editor’s note: This is the first in what I hope will be future guest posts by Kate Mende-Fridkis. Kate shares with innovative educators the perspective of a student who never attended a traditional K-12 setting. As she shares in her blog on the topic, she liked it.

We had “group,” which met every week or so—not for French lessons, but for random fun. The kids from group, local homeschoolers of different ages, went ice skating in the winter. We were the only ones on the rink, except for a foul-tempered skate guard with a bristling mustache. We went to parks in the summer. We built a raft out of recycling buckets and plywood and floated on the pond. We were not cool. Some of us ate processed cheese. No one had very much money.

The New York Times Style Magazine piece about trendy Brooklyn homeschoolers, School’s In, both did and didn’t remind me of my own pre-college education. My family called it unschooling, because we didn’t have any classes. My mother leaned a little more in the direction of the Brooklynites described in the article. She liked Kale. We weren’t allowed to watch television, and she grew a giant garden in the yard. But my best friend Emily, also homeschooled, ate sugary cereal and was allowed to watch TV. When I slept over her house, I was mesmerized by her depraved, thrilling lifestyle. Her Barbies had really big breasts. Mine weren’t really Barbies, and they were proportioned like real women.

Of course we ran into the Christian homeschoolers. They were always trying to save me. They always told me that until I stopped being so Jewish, I would go to hell. It was clear to me from a very young age that I couldn’t possibly represent “the movement.” The homeschooling movement, I mean. It was too diverse. But I tried. I was extra friendly to the adults who wanted to ask me lots of questions about whether or not I was learning anything, and whether or not I had any social skills at all.

The Brooklyn homeschoolers sound a little like my family and some of the homeschoolers I knew growing up. They emphasize art. My family did that. We emphasized music, mostly. But they also, ironically, remind me of the Waldorf schools, which they are apparently supposed to contrast with. The reporter describes the children’s fashionable outfits. They sport progressive first names like “Fiona” and “Theo.” They are in a class. Not a big class. But a class. With a paid teacher. My unschooling senses prickle. Paid?! A teacher?! When I was twelve or so, I liked to make fun of the Waldorf kids. By then we’d moved to the Princeton area, and Emily had gone to the Waldorf school down the street for what would turn out to be a brief stint. I said, “Now it’s time for our bread baking class! And after that we’re all going to draw a rose!” I thought this was hilarious. Silly hippies.

Even now (I’m twenty-four), people ask me what my days were like, as an unschooler. What did I do? How did I learn? And the truth is—I’m not exactly sure. Because they were almost never the same. There were some textbooks along the way. Maybe two. I was supposed to complete a certain amount of lessons a week from them. I did a lot of them on Fridays, when I remembered. I remember reading all the time. And writing all the time. And painting. And playing music. I did these things because I loved them. I loved them in a way that I sometimes think people have forgotten they can be loved by children and young adults. Because these activities weren’t school, or work, or homework, or a requirement. They were me. And when you love something enough to do it constantly, it will always lead to other things, and you will always get better at it. It sounds so simple. People want more of an answer. They want to know who my tutors were. What kind of education my mother had. Neither of my parents went to college. They started a business together as teenagers.

Both of my parents are very, very smart. They are both good at networking. They are both creative. But most importantly, in terms of my education, they both somehow were able to agree that I would turn out fine, even if I never sat in a classroom. They somehow trusted that children will always learn, as long as they are encouraged.

The Brooklyn homeschoolers’ world, as described, sounds so delicate to me. Which is funny, because people have always imagined my world to be constructed out of fragile materials and a rare brand of naive idealism. This is a narrative about homeschooling that people repeat. It’s not “real.” It’s sort of a fantasy. It’s not gritty and down to earth and diverse. Maybe this is always at least partly true, but, just as in a traditional school setting, it also just depends a lot on who is doing the homeschooling, or the unschooling.

Kate Fridkis blogs at Unschooled and is an editor at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. She recently received a Master's in Religion from Columbia University and is the lay cantor at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in central New Jersey.


  1. Wanting to take part in the learning process described here: music, art, exploration, absorption, is what led me to drop out of the classroom regimen twice in my high school career. I can honestly say that I learned far more out of school than I did in any classroom or all my classrooms combined.

    Despite what the law says, school is not for everyone. I suspect that school is not the best learning environment for many of my middle school students but the only alternative for them, the streets, is no better and likely considerably more dangerous.

    I was able to do what I did because I grew up in a middle class book-filled home in Manhattan, not a high-poverty neighborhood in the Bronx. It is ironic that at the same time my students face inequity of opportunity in school they face more extreme inequities of opportunities for learning outside of it.

    The question should not be whether schooling or unschooling is better, but how we can assure that all children have the opportunity to learn in the ways that most benefit them.

  2. @Deven Black (@spedteacher), As I think about this method and your comment, what comes to mind is what, if we provided an option for students that didn't require "school." What is the dollars followed the student and parents could decide the option they wanted for their kids. Then what if teachers could teach groups of kids, but not in a school, but rather an "unschool" funded by the dollars that followed the kids.

    These teachers could be licensed even and work in clusters/groups and be learning directors but provide a type of life more in alignment with what parents feel is best for kids depending on their talents, passions or interests.

    Just a thought...and a learning opportunity I certainly would have preferred to that which I experienced...bleh.

  3. Thanks for this and thanks to Deven for pointing me here. Great points all around, especially that there is no ONE way to learn.

    As the parent of two unschoolers (10 and almost 12 years old) in an art-focused family, I particularly enjoyed Kate's post. For something similar, see "Astra Taylor on the Unschooled Life".

  4. @Robertogreco
    Hooray for art-focused families! Sometimes I felt out of place, even in the homeschooling/unschooling community, because so many other families focused on math and science. So it seemed like we were even more radical, in a way. And thanks for the awesome link.