Justine Henning

Jack’s friend Dan, another home schooler, arrives at 10:30 Tuesday morning and the six of us leave for soccer. Home-schooling soccer is something to see. This a far cry from the gym classes at my own elementary school. Today, the lanky teen-age boys organize the younger kids into teams. It’s a low-key game, with people’s official positions and, for the youngest children, even teams only loosely maintained. The more athletically skilled kids do dominate the ball, but everyone gets at least a piece of the action. Thirteen-year-old Jack’s a goalie at one point while a 5- or 6-year-old boy guards the opposing goal. Ten-year-old Clio, and Rachel, who’s just a year and a half younger, participate eagerly, as do a number of other girls.

Someone kicks the ball hard through the air and it contacts the upper half of John’s face. He falls to the ground, in tears, and my maternal instincts take over. Rushing onto the field, I carry him out from the huddle, mostly made up of his siblings, which surrounds him. I rub his back, examine his face, and then take him to wash his face. “No thanks,” he says, as I head into the women’s room. “I know where the men’s room is.” Blushing a bit as I realize that kids care about this kind of thing by kindergarten, I walk him to the men’s room and wait outside.

When we return, we sit down next to a woman nursing a 7-week-old baby. He’s huge, so we compare weights of our children. Then she asks where mine are. I explain that unlike the other adults in the room, I am not the parent of the kids I brought but, and my voice gets lower here, their teacher. I hesitate before I divulge this information at soccer, where “unschooling” is in vogue. When I told one mom how much I enjoy my current job, since it gives me so much curricular independence, she added, “And you actually get to teach something this way,” implying that none at all of that went on when I taught middle-school English and social studies or ever does … in any conventional school.

Each time I do go to soccer, at least one parent approaches me, somewhat nervously, and asks for details of my job. How did the kids’ parents find me? How did they figure out what to pay me? How does the schedule work? Then we explore tutoring possibilities. Today someone asks whether I know a teacher who speaks Japanese fluently and might tutor her children. She also wonders whether someone I know might be able to work with them on “literature,” by which she means reading and writing (they’re 2 and 6). Others have told me that they are unschooling their kids but wonder whether they shouldn’t teach math more traditionally. Everyone takes my phone number. But no one’s called so far. I’m safe enough to approach, in that setting, but still represent an educational culture they’ve collectively rejected. And while the schooling I give my students takes place in their home, because the kids do not direct it themselves, it is a far cry from unschooling.

My understanding of unschooling is this: One stocks one’s home with all kinds of exciting, informative educational materials. A microscope on the shelf, all kinds of books on all sorts of subjects, computer programs, games, etc. Then one turns one’s children loose, leaving them free to pursue their own interests as those arise. Unschoolers don’t blink when their kids learn to read at age 8, and they assume that “our children will learn basic math facts and computation skills through their everyday activities.” Not surprisingly, my copy of Mary Griffith’s guide The Unschooling Handbook includes a chapter called “TV or Not TV (and Other Questions of Technology).” It’s easy to imagine Jack filling his days with militaristic computer games for months on end if he had the option. But the idea that parents (and teachers!) should devote more time, energy, and resources toward helping children discover and pursue their own interests is an important one and I try to keep it in mind at work and at home.