by Dondi Tondro-Smith
Photography by Paulette Phlipot
Traditional homeschooling offers a curriculum-based education outside of the public or private school environment. Traditional homeschoolers use a curriculum, complete with textbooks, teachers’ guides, tests, and worksheets.
Eclectic homeschooling combines different philosophies or styles. Parents select the materials and methods they feel best fit their children’s learning style and adjust them as necessary. Parents create a unique homeschooling atmosphere based on their children’s needs, interests, and learning style.
Unschooling, or the life learning” approach, offers a non-curriculum-based, experiential, interest-led model in which children learn what they want to know, when they are ready and willing to learn it. They’re constantly learning without being taught in the traditional sense.
Online academies are primary or secondary education programs that utilize online instructional tools. Programs can be free or fee-based, accredited or unaccredited.
Our daughter just turned three. In the near future, we’ll have to make a major decision: Should she attend a public or private institution? Will she be homeschooled or unschooled? Or, should we start looking into online academies? What will her educational journey look like? And what form of schooling will be best for her individual and academic growth?
When I first began writing this article, I was surprised by how reticent people were about publicly sharing their families’ individual educational philosophy. Having already started down the road less traveled (keeping our daughter home in lieu of starting preschool), I wasn’t the only one feeling challenged by our decision to approach education from a different angle. Anonymity became key when asking people to discuss their unique, and seemingly private, educational paths. While some of the names in this article have been omitted, their stories demonstrate the evolution of alternative education from theoretical terms into practical and effective application.
The face of education is rapidly changing. Technology and the Internet have amplified our access to information. Remote classrooms, educational video games, and Google’s instant answers to everything have forever altered how we learn. The challenge for a new generation of parents and educators is to assess our children’s holistic needs and give them adequate access to the newest tools necessary for success.
That said, how do we choose a platform of learning that’s best suited to nurturing children’s strengths and identifying unique learning challenges?
From tots to teens, various forms of education are revolutionizing a formula that suits both students and parents. This article aims to unveil the schooling options in the Tetons—both in Idaho and Wyoming—and to explore a new world of educational choices, no matter where you decide to call home.
One of the first rules for making a sound schooling decision is this: Consider all financial and parental time constraints. Not all of us are in a position to facilitate a homeschool or life-learning environment. So first, network with other parents who have children slightly older than yours, to learn what has and has not worked for them. Then, select a schooling option that won’t induce financial or familial strain.
Rule number two: Learning and schooling do not have to be linear or fixed. Children’s needs change and so do those of parents. Don’t be afraid to design your own unique educational plan, and then give yourself permission to change your mind based on how your child is responding. What works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow, and nothing is written in stone.
Rule number three: Check your state’s education laws to see what rules apply to home-based education. According to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, Idaho homeschooled students can dual enroll in a public school—offering them the ability to participate in public school programs and post-secondary programs, including nonacademic activities. A homeschooling parent must produce an annual standardized test score or portfolio that demonstrates grade-equivalent knowledge.
But, different states have their own sets of policies and criteria. Wyoming state law allows parents to send their children to school for a portion of the school year and homeschool them the rest of the time. Elementary schools (K-3) in the state must maintain a sixteen-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, with or without part-time students. And high school students are required to complete five out of seven classes in the classroom. If you comply with the individual policies, a nontraditional approach can work. When parents communicate clearly and effectively with their school district and educators, the combination of public schooling and homeschooling can be seamless.
“Homeschooling, and, in particular, unschooling, are both wonderful opportunities for parents to utilize individual resources to meet a child’s needs. It is important for parents to know they have choices,” explains Pam Shea, Teton County (Wyoming) School District superintendent. “If college is your goal [though], you still must test in,” adding that whatever program parents choose, they must know their child’s needs and communicate with educators to establish the central goal of student success.
A family in Kelly, Wyoming, that wishes to remain anonymous, has done just that. By combining public and home education with trips abroad, they’ve created their own unconventional formula for education. Their son attended Kelly Elementary School from kindergarten through fifth grade, then homeschooled for sixth and seventh grades, and is now back in public school for eighth grade. Their daughter went to public school from kindergarten through fourth grade, spent five years being homeschooled, and then started at Jackson Hole High School in 2013.
A Kelly teacher recognized the learning differences of their daughter when she was in kindergarten, sparking their alternative journey of homeschooling two children with different learning styles. When I asked their mother about her children’s public school years, she replied, “The public schools here in Jackson are like private schools in other places ... special needs are taken seriously. I am thrilled with the individual attention our daughter is getting. We are so lucky to have access to so many resources.” Currently, she adds, public education works best for both children, but homeschooling still remains an option. As the past has dictated, different forms of education have worked best at different junctures in their lives. “If you are lucky enough to homeschool, it affords you the time to know your children on a very intimate level and to identify their specific needs.”
So what does a typical homeschool day look like? “Our school day lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but we never stopped learning,” explains this Kelly mom-turned-home-educator. We would observe phenology [the seasonal study of plants, weather, and life-cycle events], journal for a half hour, and read out loud … If we looked at the pond, we would talk about the ice and fish, create a poem about the frost, then feed the chickens, talk about grammar over breakfast, and move on with our schedule. There was an hour for meals and an hour for physical activity. [Even] when we were skiing, we were still observing the world around us. We spent months on one book … we found an English curriculum that was already laid out … we used video lectures and the Khan Academy.”
Enter this popular online academy founded by hedge-fund analyst Salman Khan in 2008. His vision of a global, one-world classroom began when he started tutoring his cousins remotely via YouTube videos. It worked! His cousins were receptive and, later, so were other international students who posted enthusiastic comments about his videos.
The Khan Academy is now a nonprofit online school that provides a free education for anyone, anywhere in the world. It covers a wide range of subjects, from basic math to college-level biology. Khan Academy offers free online educational materials that support a personalized curriculum and, in the past two years, has delivered more than 330 million lessons and 1.6 billion exercise problems. Currently, Khan claims ten million users per month. Kids in Timbuktu, for instance, with an Internet connection can tutor kids in Buenos Aires and vice versa.
Not only have homeschoolers benefited from Khan, but public schools have implemented this tool as part of their curriculum. Khan collaborates with several nationwide classrooms. These pilot projects give students an opportunity to learn math, for example, at their own pace via quantifiable data the teacher accesses in real time. The teacher’s class time is freed up to interact one-on-one with students who need extra help with grasping concepts. Children can be tracked as they gain more skills, from teacher to teacher, year after year, providing measurable data for educators to better assess their comprehension. The system is designed to promote mastery before a student moves on. And anyone can access the Khan Academy site to become a student or mentor—adults and children alike.
Online academies can complement classroom learning. Amanda Johnson, a graduate of Teton High School in Driggs, enrolled in an online academy her junior year when teachers encouraged her to take online classes that weren’t offered at THS. By her senior year, most of her core classes were online, and she began to enjoy the college-like freedom of picking classes and designing her own schedule. “Some of my classes were offered at the high school, but I wanted to learn them in a different way,” Johnson says. “You still had a live teacher, but there was less distraction … and it was easier to focus. In speech class, for example, we were required to make three video-recorded speeches for the teacher to watch. Then, the audio recordings were reviewed by other students in the class.”
For Johnson, transitioning to online enrollment offered her greater flexibility to balance school, work, and play. She enjoyed the mix between her social life and online classes. “I had more time for a part-time job,” she says. The experience taught her to watch her spending and allowed her to save enough money to pay for her online education. This early responsibility helped define her professional direction. Currently, Johnson attends cosmetology school in Rexburg, Idaho, and plans on moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in special-effects makeup.
Another family in Victor, which also requested anonymity, is taking a “life-learning” or “unschooling” approach with their three young children. More than a decade ago, the mother worked with an unschooled family—an experience that sold her on this style of education. “I was twenty-three years old at the time and lived with a family in California for six months,” she says. “Their children were eleven and fourteen. What I noticed most was how authentic the kids were, how they were never pressured, and how they explored their interests in their own time frame. They were their own people; they weren’t labeled or peer pressured. They chose their friends and, consequently, had very genuine relationships.”
Unschooling has become a way of life for this family, cultivating togetherness and independent spirits. “My family is the center of our lives—not school or a schedule, with the demands they create,” the mother explains. Unschooling suits this family’s entire ethos, one which a traditional path wouldn’t satisfy. “Unschooling fits with my job of creating harmonious relationships in my house and works for the collective of our family.”
Even as parents, we are forever students in a world with a shifting intellectual paradigm. And we all aspire to expose our children to every resource and benefit possible. The future of education is uncertain, but the tools we have to educate our children—in new and exciting ways—are more inventive and accessible than ever. Whether these tools are supplemental to a public or private school classroom, or primary to a home learner, we must remember that the most important thing is education itself—one that will enable our children to reach new and unimaginable heights. -DS
Logan LaPlante, “Hackschooling Makes Me Happy,” Nevada University
Wendy Priesnitz, Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier, The Alternate Press, 2008
Alison McKee, Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, Bittersweet House, 2002
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko and Carlo Ricci, Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
Full Circle Education: farm visits, educational gardens, sustainable living workshops
Teton Botanical Gardens: farm-to-school curriculum, garden visits, volunteer opportunities
Friends of the Teton River: Water Wise community education, watershed curriculum
National Museum of Wildlife Art: Art in Action, internships