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Janelle Brandon, Special to The Forum, Published August 20 2012

Local parents advocate for ‘unschooling’ method of learning

FARGO - In 2005, two months before her second child was born, Jill Christianson was laid off from her job at Microsoft in Fargo.

She opted not to apply for another job at Microsoft. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband, Jeremy, became part owners of what is now Great Northern Bicycle Co. As time went on, Jill Christianson realized her layoff from Microsoft was a blessing in disguise because she didn’t like being away from her children during the day.

At that time, her son, Ollie, was preschool age, and family and peers were beginning to ask questions about school. Christianson thought it silly to have a 3-year-old in a structured school setting.

She began researching educational options for her children and floated the idea of home schooling – and the concept of “unschooling” – past her husband. That year, the couple shared memories about their elementary, high school and college years and how those years prepared them for what they are doing today.

“My memories of school aren’t altogether significant. I was a bright kid, which meant I spent a lot of time waiting for others to catch up,” she said.

“Now I’m a doula and midwife’s assistant, which are things I really enjoy doing,” she said. “Even through Jeremy got a degree in graphic design from the (University of Minnesota), he works on bikes every day – something he’s always loved to do.”

Unschooling Defined

Unschooling is home education with the child taking the primary responsibility instead of a parent. The parents’ role is to act as facilitator of the child’s self-learning and help the child procure additional resources to learn more about the subject areas that interest him or her greatly.

The main difference between traditional homeschooling and unschooling is the lack of curriculum. Unschoolers don’t follow a curriculum based on age or grade, and all traditional subject areas – such as reading, writing, math, science, social science, physical education – aren’t necessarily covered in depth by the parent and child.

Early on in her research about home education, Christianson stumbled upon the term unschooling and John Holt, the late author and educator who first brought the term unschooling to the mainstream in 1964 with his explosive book, “How Children Fail,” and the follow-up book three years later, “How Children Learn.”

In an interview in 1980 with Mothering Magazine Holt said, “The human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we need to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

Holt didn’t see homeschooling as the answer to what’s wrong with schools, but said home is a good base for exploration and learning.

“Basically, we trust that our children will learn – eventually,” says Christianson. “My son Ollie taught himself to read when he was 4 with Dr. Seuss’ ABCs and starfall.com but didn’t write his name until he was 7. My daughter Mamie is expressing an interest in reading just now at age 7.”

A typical unschool day in the Christianson household may include reading books, playing games, playing outside, running errands, going on bike rides, going to the library, Ollie playing LEGOs and drawing and art for Mamie.

When they go to the store, the kids bring their own money and buy something small as a way of learning math concepts, Christianson said.

“We talk about the clock to learn time,” she adds.

“When Ollie was 6, he couldn’t get enough of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This covers food science, home economics, health, math and culture studies.”

Christianson enjoys watching her children’s interests grow and evolve. She notes how often learning occurs without conscious realization of it.

Ollie recently became obsessed with American presidents after receiving a pack of flashcards with each of the presidents on them. First he organized them by the year they died. Then he became interested in how the presidents died so he found a book called, “How They Croaked,” which detailed how celebrities and presidents spent their last moments. From there, he became interested in diseases so he read the book, “Oh, Yuck!”

“Ollie once told me, ‘Did you know that Mozart vomited and then died two hours later?’ ” Christianson said with a laugh.

But the choice to unschool her children hasn’t been an easy sell for family and friends who are at times skeptical.

Unschooling Critics

“The biggest concern I hear about unschooling in particular is that there will be holes in my kids learning,” Christianson said. “Everyone has holes in their learning. My high school history classes never got past the 1950s. I would consider that a pretty big hole!”

Christianson adds that just because something was learned once doesn’t mean it’s retained. The No. 1 issue that most parents and kids have trouble with in home education is the social growth element.

Steve Carlson is an adjunct professor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes and Wadena. He’s also a retired high school social studies teacher who taught for 35 years. Carlson says riding the bus, interacting on the playground, sharing and taking turns in the classroom are all important elements of becoming a well-rounded individual.

“If a student isn’t doing well in class, can’t be held accountable and can’t manage their time, they don’t get to play or be involved,” Carlson said. “That scenario holds for real life. It’s incentive to do well in all areas and the school setting teaches that.”

However, Carlson agrees that it is much easier to teach a student who has an interest in a subject. But that isn’t to say students shouldn’t learn about subjects in which they’re uninterested, he said.

North Dakota law requires home-educated children take standardized tests in fourth, sixth, eighth and 10th grades. The test results must be reported to the school district in which the home-educated child resides. If the test results fall in the bottom 30 percent, they’re required to take remedial courses until their skills improve.

It’s also compulsory that children between the ages of 7 and 16 receive an education that mimics public school general subject areas.

Minnesota law dictates that home educated children take standardized tests, as in North Dakota, but results don’t been to be reported.

Unschooling: A Family Tradition

In 1998, Ashley Aus’ family moved to Pelican Rapids, Minn., from the Fargo-Moorhead area. After the move, her mother, a certified special education teacher, decided to homeschool Aus and her sister.

“Initially our homeschool education was very traditional, but gradually my mother recognized our days flowed more smoothly when we were given plenty of opportunity to pursue our individual interests,” says Aus, who now lives in Fargo with her husband and two children.

“I taught myself HTML and CSS because I enjoyed the creative outlet that learning graphic design gave me, and I needed to find a way to share my artwork,” she said.

Aus and her sister enjoyed making weekly trips to Alexandria to snowboard and needed income to purchase lift tickets and gas for the car. Their mother came up with the idea to start a family-run housekeeping business and put Aus in charge of designing and producing advertising materials.

Aus made magnetic signage for their vehicle, nametags for uniforms, labels for envelopes and posters. The sisters were also involved in the process of creating and registering an LLC and tax preparation for the business.

“I’m 28 today and use all of these skills in operating the home-based web-development business my husband and I own,” she said.

When Aus and her husband discussed schooling options for their children, ages 5 and 7, the decision to unschool came gradually and naturally with her own experience serving as a deciding factor.

“The more we trusted our children’s innate desires to learn, the more the knowledge they were gaining seemed to stick,” she said.

When Aus and her husband observe their children struggling with a concept, they come up with creative ways to help them improve their skills. For example, Aus’ son was never content sitting to draw or color. Aus was concerned this would affect his penmanship down the road. So, to entice him to work on his pen grip and dexterity, she printed off mazes, connect-the-dots, and would have him design race tracks on the driveway with chalk.

“I found that making these activities competitive in some way made them enjoyable to him,” Aus said. “Then he discovered that he liked drawing comic books, and he wanted to work on writing his letters so he could fill in speech bubbles.”

The Aus family comes across critics of their choice to unschool. They also struggle to find balance with running their home-based web-development business and adventuring and learning with their children.

“We’ve found that the best way to put people at ease is to have them spend time with our children,” she said. “It’s obvious in spending time with them that my son and daughter are on par with or beyond the education of their peers. Their math skills are amazing and they have huge vocabularies.”

Another indicator of her children’s confidence can be seen in their interaction with adults and their approach to adventure.

“We spent a month in Key West, Fla., in May, and my son was out snorkeling with us when the rest of the adults on the tour felt the waves were too rough,” Aus said. “My daughter writes wildly creative stories. All in all, I consider their can-do attitudes and their adventurous approaches to life’s obstacles their greatest achievements.”

The family loves the connections they’ve made through unschooling. They’ve found that when they are enthusiastic about something, the children follow suit. Unschooling inspires all four of them to be ever exploring and learning.

“It keeps us young, engaged, and makes us feel alive.”


Janelle Brandon is a freelance writer who lives in Moorhead. Readers can reach her at shesays@forumcomm.com