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Children in charge

The school day is in full swing at the Stoltenow residence in Moorhead one December morning. In his room, 17-year-old Seth sifts through hours of footage for his latest movie, "Jamie Bond," a 007 spoof featuring original music by his brother Cale...

Claire Stoltenow

The school day is in full swing at the Stoltenow residence in Moorhead one December morning.

In his room, 17-year-old Seth sifts through hours of footage for his latest movie, "Jamie Bond," a 007 spoof featuring original music by his brother Cale, 18, and his sister Faith, 13, as the protagonist. Cale studies for a final at Concordia, where he takes two classes as a high school senior.

Faith, who served gourmet breakfast burritos as a self-imposed home economics assignment this morning, hangs out with sisters Libby, 10, and Claire, 6. Graham, 15, studies math before his afternoon tae kwon do class. Kenan, 8, takes a break from the piano to whoosh down the second-floor stairs on a cardboard-and-comforter sled.

As mom Lyn puts it, "It's us going about our lives, and school is just a part of that."

Experts say more home schooling parents embrace a more relaxed, less structured take on education, defying the reign of standardized tests and the kiddy rat race. These parents often reject grades, conventional textbooks and rigid curricula; instead, they let their children's curiosities and passions steer learning.


The approach is most widely known as unschooling, though many parents prefer less easily misunderstood terms such as child-directed learning, relaxed home schooling or eclectic schooling.

Critics question if parents might be setting children up for a faltering entry into a structured workplace. Parents counter that children have an astounding capacity for finding their own way.

Kids as teachers

Lyn Stoltenow recalls thinking as soon as she found out she was pregnant with her first child, "Oh no, this poor kid will have to go to school."

As the "chubby kid with glasses who knew too much" at her Iowa school, Stoltenow was mercilessly teased. Her curiosity outpaced the school curriculum, and she was chronically bored in class.

Stoltenow, who like her husband, Charlie, has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, said she dug into the writings of John Holt, the home schooling pioneer who coined the term "unschooling" in the 1970s. She responded to the notion of letting children play a proactive role in learning.

"Sometimes, our idea of what constitutes education is so incredibly narrow," she says. "If it's not a book, and you're not taking a test, it's not learning."

The Moorhead home of Julia Baer, a mom of three teenage boys, bustles with books, musical instruments, French cartoon videos, Lego blocks, maps and globes. Once, it hosted an earthworm farm in the kitchen and butterflies under the cookbook shelf.


Says Baer, "If my children wanted to learn about the Holocaust, read 100 comic books, learn to use a telescope, make ice cream, experiment with origami, dissect a squirrel, use a sewing machine, they could - no matter what their age or grade level."

Indeed, relaxed home-schoolers reject the premise that age should determine what children know - or that a letter can capture how well they know it. Cam Leedahl, a Leonard, N.D., board member of the area home schooling network REACH, took an eclectic approach to home schooling her three grown children. Her younger son learned to read at 10. "In three months, he surpassed his age group because he was ready," she says.

Radical unschooling, the most extreme among such approaches, maintains that parents should not impose any subjects or activities on children, even if that means a ton of time spent playing video games. Most parents strike a balance between hitting some mandatory basics and giving children room to explore.

Stoltenow, for instance, expects her children to master math, read music, cover some science, learn a foreign language and take at least one public-school class. As Amy Leinen, a Twin Cities eclectic home-schooler and president of the Minnesota Homeschoolers' Alliance, puts it, "If they're interested in dinosaurs, that's great, but I'll find a way to teach them math, too."

Learning structure

When Seth Stoltenow was 7 or 8, he developed a fascination with bees. He saved up and pored over beekeeper catalogues; at 10, he bought a beehive. When he went to pick it up, he put his protective veil on wrong. The bees snuck under and bit his face and neck dozens of times. "That really hurt, but I'm not quitting," he told Lyn.

He learned a lot of biology. He also got a crash course on running a small business. He balanced proceeds from selling the honey with equipment expenses until he broke even.

These days, using a camera he bought on eBay, he makes movies with sophisticated special effects he was first inspired to try by the extras on a "Lord of the Rings" video. "When you do your own projects, you hit every problem imaginable," he says. "It's amazing what you can do if you try."


Parents say it's amazing how much children can learn by simply following their interests. They say children retain a passion for learning the rigors of the classroom can stifle. "There's so much freedom with this type of approach, it makes learning exciting, addictive - even for me," Baer says.

Experts such as Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute say unstructured approaches to home schooling are growing in popularity. Ray says the parents of 10 percent to 15 percent of today's roughly 2 million home-schooled students unschool or take a relaxed home schooling approach.

Ray says the growth of such methods shows home-schoolers are becoming more confident and feel less pressure to replicate the school model at home. But it's also a reaction to childrearing's increasing competitiveness: "Many parents have said, 'We don't want this. We don't believe in pushing our child to read at age 3, be in preschool by 4 and go to Harvard at 12.' "

It's hard to say how many area parents take a child-directed approach. Most area home schooling groups are Christian-based; unschoolers tend to bypass public school for secular reasons. North Dakota, which lists required subjects for home-schoolers and reviews mandatory achievement test results, is "a state to avoid at all costs" for relaxed home-schoolers, in Leinen's words.

Research on the effectiveness of relaxed home schooling approaches is scant at best, and vocal critics have slammed them in the national media. Their main argument: Children who experience little structure in their schooling will have a hard time transition to a structured world.

Steven Grineski, a professor at the Minnesota State University Moorhead foundations of education program, cautions unschooling won't work for everyone. He says facilitating children's pursuits of their interests calls for a lot of time, energy and skill on the part of parents. Youthful self-starters can thrive on freedom and grow to be disciplined workers who think outside the box. "Other kids might really struggle with that transition," he says.

Charles Howell, an expert in home schooling who taught at MSUM until last year, took a child-directed approach to educating his two children, Elizabeth and Nick. Howell, who teaches at Northern Illinois University, says unschoolers tend to encourage children to get involved in their communities, through volunteering, community arts and more. Elizabeth toured the state with Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, and Nick competed in science fairs - ventures that required them to show up on time and deliver.

Parents say their children are the most compelling proof that relaxed home schooling can work. When Stoltenow told her parents she planned to home-school, they worried the children would never learn to read. "But as the kids got older, the product got to speak for itself," she says. "We're very happy with the people they're growing up to be."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 Children in charge Mila Koumpilova 20080113

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