I learned about unschooling from Linda and Dan Jacobs, my sister and her husband. I knew they home schooled their twins, Ryan and Austin, 11. When they moved back to Houston from California last year, I noticed the kids read a lot but had no curriculum. They stayed up late and got up when they wanted to. When she and Dan explained they were unschoolers, I thought, "Uh-oh, living on the West Coast turned my sister into a nut."
It sounded pretty radical. But Ryan and Austin appear to be thriving. They read far more than some of their much older cousins, and about more difficult subjects. Sometimes Linda has to tell them to STEP AWAY FROM THE BOOK! As a former kid who slept with a flashlight to read under the covers, I have to say they're on the right track.
When the twins were born, Linda assumed she would resume her career in marketing to afford the best education money could buy. In Denver, when the boys were 3, she finagled them into a pre-kindergarten that fed into an exclusive private school.
On the first day, Austin went in with an astronomy book. But when he asked the teacher when they were going to study astronomy, she looked puzzled and said, "I think you study that in college." Linda says Austin grabbed his brother by the hand and told the teacher, "Thank you very much, but we're going home to study astronomy."
In a quandary, Linda started reading books by John Holt and other home-schooling authors and adopted what seemed to work for her twins.
When the boys were 6, she read them a book on the cave art of Lascaux. "They loved it," Linda says. It started the boys' fascination with history. "We went from there to the Hittites and the Sumerians and the Macedonians." From ancient history they got into military history, their current obsession.
Linda has no idea when the boys learned to read. "It was a struggle for me not to be upset that they weren't reading at age 7," Linda says. They refused to look at beginning readers, but the summer they turned 8, the boys started picking up books on their own. "They said it just made sense one day," Linda says.
The boys won't touch the award-winning books supposedly suited for their age. They like adult books, the longer and more complex the better. Their most recent books: All Quiet on the Western Front and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Because history is global, they can see relationships," Linda says. "They love strategy and connections. They have learned about the world based on their reading."
A few years ago, the boys took a reading test. "They wanted to know where they were," Linda says. "They look at their friends in school and wonder internally whether they measure up." Graded by mail, the test showed they were reading at the level of college sophomores.
Linda and Dan feel their job as unschoolers is that of guides. What are the boys missing out on? Can they use a board game or outing to feed into one of their interests? She took them to a book signing where they got to talk to Mario Livio, author of The Golden Ratio, about Fibonacci numbers. They do math by shopping for groceries or figuring out the area of a room. They play Elemento, a board game based on the periodic table.
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"My job is to put things in their path in a way that can be engaging," Linda says. "You have to be ahead and think of opportunities for them. We do read the 'great books,' but if they aren't interested in one, I'll go get the tape and we'll listen in the car." Also in the car: tapes from The Teaching Company on great battles of the ancient world, the theory of evolution and comparative religion. Right now they are listening to From Yao to Mao: 5,000 Years of Chinese History.
Since the Jacobses moved to Houston they've been involved with a homeschoolers' theater group. Last spring Austin and Ryan danced and sang in a musical based on Alice in Wonderland, playing a variety of characters. The twins had no stage fright, no difficulty learning their lines, and lots of enthusiasm. They stopped the show as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
The boys are now members of the Houston Children's Chorus, the 4-H and a speech and debate club. After one twin was recently elected secretary of the 4-H club, both decided they'd better learn how to take notes. (Though able typists, it took them a few minutes to write their names.) But they were soon composing stories in longhand.
Unschooling is a full-time job for Linda. "It's so much more exciting than a career," she says. "I truly believe it's what I was meant to do." --Glenna Whitley