ORONO, Maine — On a recent Wednesday morning, Aimee Gerbi’s home in Orono was filled with the sounds of a rambunctious crowd of children ages 4 to 14 doing art projects, making garlicky guacamole and playing an energetic game of zombie tag.
It wasn’t school vacation, or a snow day. Instead, the kids are all “unschoolers,” whose parents strongly believe in child-focused learning. They are not enrolled in traditional schools and they do not follow traditional curriculums, as other types of homeschooled students may do. Instead, these kids are encouraged to learn through creative play, to grow through their experiences and to follow their interests.
“The idea is that we all inherently have interests and passions,” Sara Yasner of Clifton, the 44-year-old mother of three unschooled children, said. “It seems that in school there’s so much about the social aspect and fitting in. With unschooling, it really is about what their interests are.”
The term unschooling was first coined in the 1970s by teacher and school reformer John Holt, who felt that schooling was not the same as education. Although unschooling can seem like a fringe educational philosophy that is not always widely understood, a passionate and vocal contingent of area families who are actively unschooling their children were happy to talk both about their experiences with it and how they got there in the first place. Unschooling has some things in common with homeschooling, but it’s certainly not identical, according to three local moms who are choosing to unschool their children. Homeschooled children often have a parent or other adult teach them subjects with the help of curriculum or lesson plans. But dividing the world into separate subjects like math, reading and science does not make sense to people like Gerbi, a 42-year-old mother of four and a former Bangor High School science teacher.
“From eight to 18, your life is divided into subjects. It takes a long time as an adult to see the world just isn’t divided up like that,” she said. “We’re not doing this because we hate public education. The world is full of tools, and as unschoolers, we help our children find the ones they need…if you surround your child with the world and with opportunities, I don’t think it’s possible to not learn.”
Education, not school
In Maine, state law decrees that kids must attend school between the ages of 7 and 17, although they can leave at 15 with parent or school board permission. Among other subjects, they are required to study English, math, science, social studies, Maine studies and health. But they are excused from attending school if their home instruction program meets certain requirements, including a statement of reassurance that parents will submit an annual assessment of the child’s progress.
Melanie Kollman, 46, of Bangor, has unschooled all four of her children, although her eldest son, 18-year-old Reggie Kollman, decided to start attending public school in the 8th grade and is now a senior at Bangor High School. She said that she never intended to even homeschool her kids but that when she registered Reggie for kindergarten, the principal talked about how students would be monitored for their reading fluency that first year of school. Those who weren’t fluent in reading would be pulled out by Christmas and “remediated,” Kollman recalled, and she didn’t like the sound of that very much. She decided to wait a year to enroll him in public school, and during that year met other homeschool families. Unschooling evolved from that naturally, she said.
“I didn’t want that role as teacher. I’m a mother, no matter what. The dynamic of teacher was not going to work for us,” she said, adding that the learning seemed to just happen during the activities they did. “There was learning through play, from field trips and playgroups … I was always a good student. I got good grades and test scores. But I was always fairly unhappy and anxious. What things did I really remember learning in childhood? It was experiences with my family and within my neighborhood.”
Gerbi said that she started out doing “school at home” with her eldest child, 13-year-old Erin Gerbi. Aimee Gerbi was the teacher and Erin was the student, but the traditional dynamic didn’t really work for them, the mom recalled.
“I kept fighting with my child, and I decided at no point was the fighting worth it,” Aimee Gerbi said. “We tried several curriculums, and she just wasn’t that interested in it. She wanted to play. She wanted to create.”
So they tried something different, and Erin thrived, her mom said. She is now a nationally competitive sabre fencer who takes her sport seriously, spending one week a month in Massachusetts training at a special fencing center. But she’s also a bright, lively teenager who is interested in early childhood education and volunteers at the Stillwater Montessori School in Old Town.
When Erin was asked what she thinks about her education, she practically bubbled over.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I like that I have the freedom to learn what I want to learn, and not what someone tells me to learn. I’m really happy. And if I wake up one morning and decide that school is the path I want to take, I can do that, too.”
But her enthusiastic words can sound strange and even a little disconcerting when heard by people who are more attuned to a traditional form of education. How do unschooled children learn topics that are important, but not necessarily personally interesting to them, such as as math, science or history? Or even, say, reading?
“I think the thing that is most difficult for people to wrap their heads around on the unschooling concept is that things don’t happen on the same timeline that they do in formal schooling,” Kollman said. “We can be much more relaxed about it. Some kids learn to read on their own when they’re very young, three or four years old, and some kids don’t until they’re much older. We keep it free from pressure.”
Unschooling, she said, is a mindset.
“It’s about trusting this individual will develop on their own timeline and their own way,” she said. “It really is a leap of faith. You have to believe that and give them all the tools.”
For example, although her children did not formally learn math when they were being unschooled, they do learn a lot of mathematical concepts naturally, she said. One daughter figured out multiplication because she wanted to know how many weeks she would have to save her allowance in order to purchase a particular thing she wanted.
“She didn’t know to call it multiplication, but she figured it out,” Kollman said.
Path from unschool to school not always smooth
But the transition from unschooling to traditional school is not always without its pitfalls, according to Kollman. When her eldest son, Reggie, started going to public school, he got chewed out by the teacher one day after failing to ask permission to go to the bathroom.
“That was mystifying to him,” Kollman said.
Seamus Mahoney, 14, Yasner’s son, is a well-spoken teenager with the upright posture and demeanor that comes naturally to a person with a black belt in karate, which he has. Even so, he describes himself as an introvert, and said the outdoor education class he’s attending at Brewer High School this year — one of his first experiences being in a traditional school — is “really nerve-racking.”
“I started homeschooling halfway through kindergarten, and I literally don’t know how school works,” he said. “It’s strange. I’ve never really done that stuff before, like writing papers.”
Instead, in an ordinary unschooling day, Seamus works on his fitness regimen, watches his four-year-old sister and takes care of the family’s chickens in addition to doing free courses through Khan Academy, an online resource. But that’s not all he does.
“Truthfully, I spend a lot of time playing video games and watching YouTube,” he said.
And that’s okay with his mom.
“I think it’s a fallacy that any path can be proven to work. As adults, we know what we want to do and we go after it. They may be interested in different things than we are,” Yasner said. “I have no doubt that if they want specific skills, they’ll get them.”
Kollman said that her nine-year-old son, Henry, lately has been learning a little about zoology because he is interested in the animal species that live on earth and have not yet been discovered by humans. Together, she and Henry have been researching recently discovered species.
“It’s what’s sparking his interest,” she said.
She and the other moms are aware that there are many preconceived ideas about unschooling. There’s the idea that in unschooling families, children are spoiled. Or that unschooled children won’t be able to compete in the real world. Or that unschooling is akin to “unparenting.” Needless to say, they don’t agree.
“I think there’s an expectation in our mindset that you’re done schooling at 18, or 22, or 24,” Kollman said. “But really, you can learn whatever you want, whenever you want. What’s the end date?”
Aimee Gerbi agreed.
“What they’re getting is the ability to think things through and problem solve, and live in the world,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Mahoney.