The following sermon is adapted from one presented to Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church on August 17, 1997 .:

Unschooling Sermon
by Joyce Dowling

This is the first time, to my knowledge, the subject of homeschooling has been approached in the pulpit here at Davies. When I started thinking about what am I actually going to talk about, I thought about the many questions that I have heard & all the great information in the many articles and books I have read. Too much for the time I have today. So I'm going to concentrate on the definition of Unschooling, what some of the experts have to say about the public school system vs. homeschooling (you can also look at the back of the order-of-service for some good quotes), and my personal experience with my children's education both in public school and at home. Then I will talk about the importance of a congregation having this information, and open it up for questions and comments.

Well, there is no definition for Unschooling in the three dictionaries I checked, but there were over 500 pages on the world wide web using that word. My definition of Unschooling is a learning process outside of and different from traditional schooling. This process has two important steps: first, to rid yourself of the traditional concepts of education, such as sitting at a desk most of the day with a particular schedule and standardized tests, and next, to substitute child-lead learning with or without the use of curriculum as a choice of the child, since children have different learning styles and interests.

John Dewey is one of the founders of the public school system, and I won't go into the whole history of the public school system or the debate about the need for reforms, but in the beginning Dewey had a lab school that was very un-like the public school system of today. He believed in child-centered education. He believed that modern society was damaging the individual and that schools were needed to nurture and repair them. He wrote: "We shall find great difficulty in encouraging freedom, independence, and initiative in every sphere of social life, while perpetuating in the school dependence upon external authority. The forces of the social life, are already encroaching upon the school institutions which we have inherited from the past, so that many of its mainstays are crumbling. Unless the outcome is to be chaotic, we must take hold of the organic, positive principle involved in democracy, and put that in entire possession of the spirit and work of the school." And this was in 1902! He further stated: "Copartnership of these three motives -- of affection, of social growth, and of scientific inquiry -- must prove nearly irresistible as anything human when they are once united. And above all else, recognition of the spiritual basis of democracy, the efficacy and the responsibility of freed intelligence, is necessary to secure this union."

Later in the '60's , an educator, John Holt, also supported the public school system. He said: "It soon became clear to me that children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them, and very energetic, resourceful, and competent in exploring it, finding out about it, and mastering it....Why not then make schools into places in which children would be allowed, encouraged, and (if and when they asked) helped to explore and make sense of the world around them..." After efforts to reform the system were thwarted, he said: "No doubt to teach one's own children...takes special qualities. But these are qualities that many people have, or with a little help, can get." He became what is considered the father of Unschooling as we know it today.

Today there is a champion for school reform and a supporter of homeschooling, John Taylor Gatto, who is an award-winning teacher. He taught school in both rich and poor neighborhoods of New York City for 20 some years. He writes about this experience, saying that in each of those situations he taught seven lessons: Confusion (from the teaching of un-related ideas, disconnected facts, as they switch from math to English to social studies at the ring of a bell), Class Position (through a system of rigorous testing and numbering and classification of children, which is pretty successful in keeping kids put in the lower class from moving up), Indifference (saying: "I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation....But when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station."), Emotional Dependency (with a system of rewards and punishments, saying: "individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgments come thick and fast....Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in pockets of children angry, depressed, or happy about things outside my ken; rights in such matters cannot be recognized by schoolteachers, only privileges that can be withdrawn, hostages to good behavior."), Intellectual Dependency (dependent on the teacher to tell them what to study), Provisional Self-Esteem (dependent on expert opinion to tell them if they're "good" or "smart"), and the seventh is that One Can't Hide (he says: "I teach students they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time....Students are encouraged to tattle on each other....I assign a type of extended school called "homework" [and] I [even] encourage parents to file reports about their own child's waywardness."). He also reports that teachers, too, are a victim of the system. He became so dis-enchanted with it that he said: "I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior."

So why don't I want to stick with the system and fight for reform? I personally believe in having a public school system and am willing to do my part to help in school reform, but, as a recently retired teacher and member of Davies congregation said to me, you can support the school system but you don't have to sacrifice your children to it.

Actually, I am new to homeschooling. My children are both teenagers, Trevor is 14 and Maia is 18 and just graduated as a homeschooler. But they both spent most of their childhood in the public school system.

I've been a follower of Maria Montessori's philosophy of education - to continue the love of learning by allowing them some choices and freedom in their educational process to explore and learn from their own curiosity. Montessori school is actually very structured but in a different way from traditional education. So my children both started off at a young age in Montessori school. I started Maia there at age 4, because I had done all I knew how to do at home to keep the sparks of learning going and start her on the path to reading, but she wanted to learn more than I felt I could teach her. After two years in private school with extra efforts and expense in providing transportation so I could work to earn enough money for it all, we decided we couldn't afford it any more and we instead invested in a mortgage. Maia was an eager learner at age 6 and already knew cursive writing and multiplication. After two years in the neighborhood school, she was complaining of not wanting to go to school at all and her grades had plummeted. Luckily, the magnet schools started at that time since she had a lot of interest in the arts, we enrolled her in the Creative and Performing Arts Magnet. We feel she did very well in this setting with the very best of art teachers.

We didn't notice any real problems until she reached high school, though she tells us now that things changed for the worse starting in middle school. The stress to achieve in the academic subjects was increased, there was less integration of the arts into the academic areas, children started behaving more cruelly (artists stood out with non-conforming attire and hair styles and were sometimes pushed into lockers), and she claims the security guards were also out to get the artists in the school. Even though she liked the arts program, she didn't want to be in that overall environment. We struggled with her for quite a while to stick with it and do what we had done and graduate from this system. But after trying the neighborhood highschool, she decided she couldn't take it, saying "school is bull..." :-) and you know the rest... and finally suggested to us that she homeschool. We were glad to have her interested in any kind of schooling at that point, so we agreed.

By this time she really didn't need much to graduate. It was late spring in her junior year when she started. Mostly she needed English. We enrolled in The Learning Community, what's considered an "umbrella group", though we could have reported to the county ourselves by keeping a portfolio of her work and presenting it to them; she would then have had to take a GED to graduate. The most important part of her experience was that she started with the belief that she could live her life as an adult with no continuing education and just take any job that makes good money - like a secretarial position. (Not that there's anything wrong with being a secretary, but even a well-paid secretary needs certain skills and not everyone is cut out to do that kind of work.) She tried a few different jobs, including receptionist and sales, as many of you are aware. But after caring for a friend's grandmother, she found that she really likes to work with people and is good at it. She then sought a job at a nursing home. And now that she's worked there for a little while, has decided that she wants to be a physical therapist and go to college. Through TLC she was able to get transcripts, a diploma, and even a graduation ceremony, which took place in June at the Annapolis Unitarian Universalist church. It's amazing how our kids can change so much in such a short period of time. Maia went from being a "difficult teenager" to a young adult in what seems like only a matter of months.

Trevor is the one I'm staying home with now to support in his efforts to homeschool himself. (This is a tough job, supporting but not teaching. I have this urge to want to do more but have to hold myself back. I understand that that's also often the experience of a Montessori teacher.) Any way, Trevor started in the public Montessori magnet and did very well there. He did have an independent nature of not wanting to do the repetitious practices, though, and particularly wasn't interested in assigned homework, which isn't usually given in the private Montessori school. Teachers told us when he was younger that even when he seemed not to pay attention, he could demonstrate that he knew the work, so the repetitions may not be necessary at that level, but they were sure he would need them as he got older. The pressure to conform increased with his excellorating grades, but he continued to resist homework. In the seventh grade, he was doing very well, on the honor roll and recommended to take the SAT to qualify for a special program with John Hopkins due to his high math scores. But he would bring a report home for each subject every Fri., which the teacher expected him to return, signed by us on Mon. This was to prepare him for the competitive traditional classes that he would be taking in high school. The tension was high to get him to conform to these rules, but he was determined to do things his own way. Zeros were added to each subject in which no report was returned. Since Trevor was learning a lot at home on the computer, through reading, educational television, and conversations with adults, I thought he was wasting a lot of time at school which no longer even resembled the Montessori method.

Maria Montessori said, "My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual." Which is my vision as well.

We weren't concerned about the socialization issue that is so often cited as a reason not to take kids out of school, because he hadn't been invited to any of his classmates homes or invited them to ours in a couple years. His friends were mostly at church and from past friendships in our home day care.

So what do we do? How do we unschool? I am not what is sometimes considered a "total unschooler". I don't leave everything totally up to Trevor without any structure or goals whatsoever. Trevor has a choice of many different resources, but we have agreed on a minimum amount to achieve each week and a reward if he does a certain amount more than that. Our children have learned from us well, since as models we have taught that when we don't have things we "have" to do, we do what we want to do, which usually means relaxing and watching TV, playing games, and visiting with friends. We are more motivated when we have deadlines and mandates, so we do use them in our homeschooling. (Not that we believe this is right for everyone.) But, ideally, we want him to be motivated by his own interests and life goals.

Luckily, Trevor had already set goals for himself. He wants to go to college and major in computers. So we looked at the college literature in the library to see what they require and developed a plan based on that goal. Since Trevor's majoring in computers, he spends a lot of time on the computer (he's been learning different computer languages and creating his own computer games, besides using software to study academic subjects), but we'll be going on field trips, doing science experiments, taking karate lessons, and several other things. It's an adventure we'll take as it comes.

For those of you who need to have statistics to judge the possibilities for success, here is what the researchers say: Home-educated children fall in the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized tests (the national average is the 50th percentile.) A researcher also studied the "self-concept" of children to learn about the socialization issue and found that about half of the 224 homeschoolers examined scored at or above the 91st percentile on the Piers-Harris global scale, which seeks to measure the "central core of personality" according to John Wesley Taylor. Taylor concluded that "insofar as the self-concept is a reflector of socialization, it would appear that few home-schooling children are socially deprived."

I also believe that the idea that you have to be educated in a certain way can also lead to the idea that you have to live out your adult life in a certain way and that happiness and choices aren't a meaningful part of life. Many seem to believe that the meaning of life (piggybacking on last week's service) is to go to school, to get a job, to work and support your family. That leads to people "stuck" in jobs with the goal of getting to retirement and then not knowing what to do with themselves once they're retired. (I see that that doesn't seem to be a problem with people here, though, so somehow you've learned to make choices for yourself and keep yourself quite busy. But remember that we're an exception as a group of choosers, everyone here came by choice with no ultimate consequences for not attending, unlike many others in our society who seem to be stuck in the passive role carved out by traditional education and prefer to be followers, not seeking out new ideas.)

So how does this involve the church community? Well, there are several reasons and ways. As a new homeschooler I've taken this opportunity to help create a support network, for myself and others like me. I started an email list, based on a group that was already in existence, Homeschooling Unitarian Universalists, Humanists, and those on other roads less travelled, for which the acronym is HUUH?. In less than a month it had over 100 subscribers. One of the first conversations was about the intolerance UU's have experienced in their own churches about homeschooling. I believe intolerance comes from ignorance, so this gives me the opportunity to help overcome that problem.

This is also a good opportunity, as you can see from the insert in your order-of-service, for me to create a learning network. This is not just for homeschoolers. Anyone can participate in this. As was pointed out in our music this morning, we are all teachers and learners. Would you or your children like to learn from others in our church? Do you have some skill or knowledge you'd like to share? I would suggest that this would be just a one-hour commitment and state when you would be available to offer it and what it is. Some suggestions would be how to do something that you're good at (gardening, wood work, photography, and so on); telling a story about a special part of history you lived through, with photographs and souvenirs and other items you've saved from those days; or a tour of your place of work with demonstrations and information about your career and what you need to know to do your work, and I'm sure you'll think of other things, but please remember to include visuals and hands-on experiences.

If you have something that will take significantly longer than an hour or a great effort, you may want to offer it at our church talent auction. We once bought a trip for Trevor with a couple who took him fossil hunting on the beach; he brought home several fossils and probably some more knowledge about the history of the area. I also got a break from my son for almost a whole day, at a time before he was so independent. This was worth the funds that were also a donation to the church. So think about what and if you'd like to offer something or learn something by participating in the learning network. Please place the completed forms in the box on the table in the lounge where we also have books on homeschooling on display and a bibliography hand-out.

Now I'll open it up to your questions and comments.

CLOSING WORDS: Go your ways, knowing not the answers to all things, yet seeking always the answer to one more than you know. - John W. Brigham

Scientists & Educators Speak on Education

 "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."-Mark Twain
"It is a miracle that curiousity survives formal education."-Albert Einstein
"My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school." - Margaret Mead
"Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is." - Issac Asimov
"You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help him find it within himself." - Galileo
"..the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself." - John Dewey
"...children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them...much more eager to learn, and much better at learning than most of us adults." - John Holt
"I dropped the idea that I was an expert, whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself." - John Taylor Gatto
"An education that suppresses the true nature of the child is an education that leads to the development of anomalies." - Maria Montessori