He was holding a book, “The Little Hen,” his parents hadn’t picked up before. The 8-year-old, they thought, hated reading.
He had fallen behind his classmates, and his sweet personality was bruised by their teasing. He hadn’t touched a book in months.
The sensitive little guy plopped down between his parents and read the book cover to cover.
Then he asked permission to get another.
His mom, Evie Curley, allowed herself a few tears while he was out of the room selecting a book. He came back and read for 45 minutes.
In that moment, she felt certain about the decision the couple had made for their sons.
The Greensboro family is just beginning to explore the world of unschooling, a practice that has existed in some form or another for ages.
Unschooling isn’t the absence of education. It’s the absence of schools.
Even home schools.
There is no designated time for learning, no designated location where education takes place. Unschooling families see the world as an open classroom wallpapered with everyday experiences.
Kids express an interest, ask a question or wonder out loud whether fish breathe. Parents help them find the answer and foster discussions.
But they don’t push.
Cooking dinner can become a lesson in nutrition and fractions.
A trip to the zoo is a chance to discuss ecology, biology and conservation.
Playing video games teaches problem solving and inspires questions about cause and effect.
Or it can just be time to play video games and eat Doritos.
To have fun.
To be a kid.
The idea is everyone learns differently, at their own pace, in their own time. And that knowledge is interesting, something to be savored instead of structured.
John Holt coined the term in the late 1970s and is widely considered the father of the movement.
Holt, along with proponents such as Ivan Illich and Harold Bennet, argued humans are born with an innate desire to learn and children’s interests should be nurtured rather than molded by conventional norms.
Many parents gravitate to unschooling to meet their child’s needs; others do it for ideological and religious reasons, says Michael Katz, president of the North American Philosophy of Education Society.
Faith in public schools has continued to falter since the early 1970s, he says.
Some blame vouchers.
Others resent the absence of religion in the classroom.
High-stakes tests turn off some parents.
Still others refuse to send their kids to schools where they fear little regard is shown for social, moral and emotional development.
The reasons differ for everyone.
Some academics believe a revolution in educational thought is required to restore faith in traditional schooling, but Katz doubts it will happen.
“We regulate schools not on the basis of an informed ideal of a moderately educated person but on what society will not tolerate — granting people high school diplomas in spite of their functional illiteracy,” he says. “So, we continue to regulate the hell out of literacy, and everyone suffers.”
Unschooling is a philosophy of home schooling so there isn’t a record of how many families are active unschoolers, says Rod Helder, director of the N.C. Division of Nonpublic Education.
State law requires children between the ages of 7 and 16 to attend a school — public, private or home school — that operates on a regular schedule for at least nine months annually.
In the 2006-07 school term, 2,641 Guilford County kids were registered home-schoolers, and 68,707 were registered statewide.
Home-schooled kids are graduates of nonpublic schools in the same way Dudley or Grimsley students are graduates of their schools.
As long as children are learning on a regular basis, taking an annual achievement exam and satisfying the requirements of North Carolina law, they’re free to learn in whatever way their families choose.
But what about life beyond the teen years?
How do unschoolers get into college?
What about transcripts and SAT scores?
Won’t admissions officials look at you funny as you explain life without science fairs and school buses?
It worked out pretty well for the siblings, who also have a younger brother and sister.
Sunny Taylor is a nationally recognized artist. She has been featured on National Public Radio and is a graduate student at Berkeley.
Astra Taylor is a filmmaker. She went to Brown and the University of Georgia as an undergrad before receiving her master’s degree from The New School in Manhattan.
Most colleges have admissions policies to accommodate home-schooled students. Requirements vary but can include student portfolios, interviews and achievement exams.
“I think unschooling had everything to do with what I’m doing now — it gave us a strong sense of what we want to do, and who we are,” Sunny Taylor says.
The sisters dabbled in public school — Sunny tried kindergarten and eighth grade, Astra tried fourth grade and three years of high school.
But when she packed her bags for Brown, Astra Taylor brought along the unschooling philosophy of learning.
“It’s the intensity of your focus, not the quantity,” she says, calling from California after three weeks in San Diego and Tijuana, where she’s filming a documentary with a grant from the Sundance Institute.
“I think you can be incredibly creative for 45 minutes then sit and drink a cappuccino for the next hour,” she says.
Both women say their “nutrient-rich” home life unlocked their passions. Mom is an artist; dad is a scientist and musician. Books, music and art filled the home. Eleven-year-old Astra honed in on animal rights and the environment, and produced a monthly newsletter for residents of her Georgia community.
Sunny was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits the use of her hands and legs. She started painting as a 12-year-old and holds her brush with her mouth or sometimes her toes.
The family made movies, visited farms and played host to Tibetan monks for a few months. The girls were around adults and kids of all ages and still feel they have an edge over peers intimidated by older bosses and mentors.
Not that life was all enlightened discussions and creative energy. The kids played video games, watched “The Simpsons” and generally goofed off.
And it wasn’t always easy to explain the family’s educational trajectory.
“It was more of a threatened reaction than anything,” Sunny Taylor says. “It wasn’t negative in terms of ‘You’re screwing up your kids,’ just a lack of comprehension.”
Cindy Gaddis understands that reaction. She and her husband turned to unschooling 15 years ago when it was unheard of by many. Their oldest son, now 20, led them there.
Eric is a right-brain learner. At 5, he was interested in science and history, but reading was a struggle. The couple decided public school wasn’t the place for him.
The Gaddis’ six other children have also been raised as unschoolers.
“It’s not that they’re not learning; we’re allowing them to learn in their way,” the Trinity mom says. “They find their love and have time for it.”
The kids maintain schedules as divergent as their personalities.
Eighteen-year-old Abbey is a novelist and writes six to eight hours daily. Another son plans to enter the computer industry and devotes his time to programming.
The little ones learn new educational concepts in the morning, go on play dates and do plenty to exercise their creative muscles.
Unschooling takes the children away from a society that promotes overachievement and equates success with dollars rather than happiness, she says.
“I don’t want my kids to have to ‘find themselves’ late in life,” Gaddis says. “I want them to know what they love now, and experience that joy.”
Mario, Luigi and the Princess are just as much household names as Mom and Dad.
The Curley family is still just a few months into unschooling, but they’ve already found life and learning intersect in unexpected ways.
For Father’s Day, the boys decided to make their dad a Super Mario Brothers board game.
They worked together to come up with an objective, design challenges and create the board and game pieces.
Now, the boys are determined to make their own video game. Curley is learning Flash so she can help.
“I’ve been really amazed at the progress we’ve made since we loosened up,” she says.
The flexible schedule has also given the family more time together. Curley’s husband, Sean, works in Mebane and often isn’t home until 9 p.m.
Now, the boys can stay up to see him. The other morning Curley woke up at 6:15 a.m. to hear Iain talking to his dad while he showered for work. The more time together, the better.
Is it all easy?
“When you explain unschooling to people they look at you like you’re crazy,” Curley says.
There’s not much to do about that, she says. You can try and explain unschooling, but unless you’ve watched it work, the point doesn’t quite come across.
She’s seen the boys grasp concepts, not mindlessly memorize answers.
If they’re outside after a storm, the boys ask about water vapor.
When Melvin, the family dog, kills a snake, the boys use Google to investigate the origins of the scaly reptile.
They ask about rocks and crystals. Butterflies and dinosaurs. Frogs and fractions. How cavemen started to draw and if ants sleep.
The world is there for them to discover — Mom and Dad are there to guide them through it.