Lisa Cottrell-Bentley, Associated Press
School's never out for 14-year-old Zoe Bentley. Nor is it ever in.
The perky teen from Tucson, Ariz., explores what she likes, when she likes as deeply as she chooses every day of the year. As an "unschooler," Zoe is untethered from the demands of traditional, compulsory education.
That means, at the moment, she's checking out the redwoods of California with her family, tinkering with her website and looking forward to making her next video on her favorite subject, exogeology, the study of geology on other planets.
"I love seeing the history of an area," Zoe said. "Maybe a volcano erupted and grew taller over time, or wind eroded rock into sand dunes, or a meteor hit the ground and made a crater. Finding out how these and other formations formed is something I just really like."
Zoe's cheer: "Exogeology rocks!"
Unschooling has been around for several decades, but advocates say there has been an uptick as more families turn to home-schooling overall.
Reliable data is hard to come by, but estimates of children and teens home-schooled in the U.S. range from 1.5 million to 2 million. Of those, as many as one-third could be considered unschoolers like Zoe, meaning their parents are "facilitators," available with materials and other resources, rather than topdown "teachers."
There's no fixed curriculum, course schedule or attempt to mimic traditional classrooms. Unless, of course, their children ask for those things.
Zoe, for instance, wanted to know more about geology once she turned 12, so she signed up for a class at Pima Community College. "I had to take a placement test, which was the first test I'd ever taken," she said. "It was surprisingly easy."
She has since taken several other college classes, including astrobiology, algebra and chemistry. Maybe, Zoe said, "I'll earn a degree, but the important thing to me is to learn what I need to and want to know. Everything else is a bonus."
John Holt, considered the father of "unschooling," would have been proud. The fifth-grade teacher died in 1985, leaving behind books and other reflections that include his 1964 work "How Children Fail."
The book and others Holt later wrote propelled him into the spotlight as he argued that mainstream schools stymie the learning process by fostering fear and forcing children to study things they have no interest in.
Colorado unschool mom Carol Brown couldn't agree more.
"Being bored makes school miserable for a lot of kids, plus there is the element of compulsion, which completely changes any activity," the filmmaker said.
Brown and her husband unschooled their oldest daughter until she left for college and their youngest until her junior year in high school, when she chose to attend Telluride Mountain School, a small, progressive school near home.
"Unschooling parents are doing what good parents do anyway when they're on summer vacation," Brown said. "We just had more time to do it."
Like other unschoolers, Brown's girls had books and films, art supplies and building materials growing up. They visited beaches, museums and forests. "There's no one right way for every child to learn or grow up," Brown said. "Freedom is essential for that reason."
For Clark Aldrich's 16-year-old son in Connecticut, that meant raising hens for his own business selling eggs. "It's a good way to learn about animals, commerce and economics as well as inventory," Aldrich said.
Pat Farenga of Medford, Mass., unschooled his three daughters with his wife but said: "I don't see unschooling or homeschooling as the answer for everybody. It's the answer for those who choose it."
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