In September, Staples will overflow with eager youngsters eyeing the star-shaped post-its, flanked by frenzied parents, frantically checking the school supply list.
But for Leo Nacinovich, age 3, Number 2 pencils and Marble notebooks have little to do with education. Many parents in the New York area, such as Leo’s mother Amy Bay, opt to guide their children’s learning outside a classroom, by home schooling them.
Bay and her husband Wade Nacinovich both have vocational backgrounds in public education. When Bay became a parent, she thought the family would be aligned with “progressive schools.” But conversations with friends convinced them that home schooling was the best choice for Leo. “We felt excited about the possibility of learning alongside our son and the ability to tailor his education to his needs,” Bay wrote in an email.
Bay said she declined mainstream schooling because she was turned off by the volume of standardized testing in public schools and the unbalanced student-teacher relationship. “When I worked in the schools I was always uncomfortable with the role of teacher as someone who was expected to dole out punishment or rewards for everything from academic progress to discipline,” she wrote. “It seemed to me that there was not a lot of trust in the students within the system,” she added.
Bay said that she is specifically “unschooling” Leo, a “child-led” at-home education with no curriculum—Leo’s interests guide the academic agenda. “We go to the park, we go to museums, he plays with his trains and blocks and toys, we read a lot of books … we tend to our garden in our backyard, we cook real food, we cook pretend food, we meet friends, we ride the subway around…” Bay wrote. “We don’t actually believe in benchmarks, nor do we believe that there are certain subjects that are more important than other subjects. We believe that living life provides so many opportunities for learning all kinds of things,” she added.
Although home schooling is not the most popular option in New York, there are many support groups, such as New York City Home Educator’s Alliance. The organization supplies information to parents and organizes events for home-schooled children, compensating for the lack of social interface that students have with peers every day.
But Bay said socialization in schools alone is artificial. “I believe that socialization is really about developing a comfort level with people of all ages, so in this way, the socialization in schools is really limiting. At the moment, Leo has friends who are his age and friends who are older and younger. His oldest friend is a woman in her 80’s who lives across the street from us,” she wrote.
Bay said she sees herself as a “facilitator” of Leo’s education, not an instructor. She added that down the line, if Leo is interested in something Ms. Bay doesn’t know much about, she would consider hiring an instructor.
As a facilitator, Ms. Bay encountered surprises in her son’s learning methods along the way. I set about to ‘teach’ Leo how to make art and assumed that he would love making art because children love making art. But there were times when Leo would lose interest in a drawing and ask me to make letters and numbers for him on his paper…He would insist and often lose interest all together, so I reluctantly started to make the letters and numbers for him…At a certain point he wouldn’t even pick up a pencil, he just wanted me to show him how to form the letters and numbers. It became clear to me, then, that he was learning the alphabet and numbers by watching me write them. He quickly learned the alphabet and numbers this way when he was a little over two years old.”
Although it may be logistically difficult, veering from a standardized curriculum has obvious advantages. According to a Rudner study, the average home-schooled 8th grader performs four grade levels above the national average. The median per-child cost of home schooling is $450. Bay suggested decreasing the emphasis on benchmarks and standardized testing to incorporate unschooling methods into public schools, giving all children a taste of the unique and individualized approach.
In form of the educational style of unschooling, Bay said she and Wade would never perform formal assessments. “We spend most of our time together so it is clear when he knows something. For example, when he learned to walk, we knew he could walk because we saw him walking…we try to resist the urge to test his knowledge or quiz him on things. Part of this comes from a belief in ‘process’ rather than ‘results.’”
Home schooling may not be the option for everyone, but Bay said she is confident that every parent is properly equipped to delve into the rich world of following their child’s educational whims. “All you really need is a desire to be with your child(ren), to be willing to support their interests, and be open to an educational path that might not follow the traditional ideas of content and subject mastery and that may lead you into areas you never expected.”#