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Dr. Grauer's Column - How The Homeschooling Movement Became A Huge Inspiration

How The Homeschooling Movement Became A Huge Inspiration

This year, as a part of our global pandemic, our nation saw an understandable growth in homeschooling, as kids were kept off campuses for safety purposes. But there are plenty of other great reasons to stay off campuses for a great many kids. Homeschooling is trending and our nation doubled the number of homeschooling students just in the past year.

The Grauer School is rooted in many of the world’s great educational movements, but it may surprise you to learn how much of an inspiration home school has always been to us—and now more than ever. However, the reason is not that we want to be at home!

Grauer Summer School students writing in their journals during their Creative Writing camp - June 21, 2021

Humans are born with a deep curiosity and a natural drive towards discovery. And yet, so much about the human brain is poorly designed for formal instruction and the modern school layout: the lack of physical contact allowed, the segregation into homogeneous groups, the impersonal if not threatening size of schools, the summary judgement of GPAs, the teacher or state’s almost total control of the curriculum. These factors are part of a formula for chronic stress that Grauer manages largely to avoid. This stress is leading to record levels of anxiety and depression, and a great many associated problems, some visible, some not, and some ignored, across our country.

The social dynamics that drive so many large schools, also prevent authentic learning. What university must you go to? What would look good on a transcript? No wonder kids often lose their innate understanding of what education is or what it means to develop into a “whole person.” No wonder so many kids—and teachers—feel like victims while in class or in the hallways. Grauer is designed to disrupt these factors and it is also a viable alternative to staying home.

Homeschooling has quite a few distinct and fascinating forms, each with its own advantages and purposes. “Unschooling,” for instance, is a resurging movement where the teacher and school extend no curriculum! This can be seen as a reaction to the over-programming of our kids, at the other end of a spectrum. The original Grauer School was inspired by unschooling. If students showed up and did not want to learn, I would just say, “Well, then, why did you come here?” In unschooling, ultimately the student has to decide to achieve: it’s 100% intrinsic motivation.

Alternatively, today’s large schools seem to program and process students. The Grauer School has to fight hard to offer a full-day program and still not over-program and over-schedule our kids. It’s hard. Some kids feel that they are not successful unless they are stressing themselves out. (Note, psychologists are well aware that there are both productive stressors and harmful ones.) Unschooling is a great solution to this problem for many kids, and for me this is an inspiration.  

Kids can feel a loss of freedom, like they are put into boxes, if they are not moving at the exact pace of the class—yet there is nothing in learning theory that indicates we all learn at the same pace. Once we are used to the teacher telling us what to do all day long, students can lose track of their own motivations. This is why intrinsic motivation is a core value at Grauer, and we have to work on this value at least as much as any other. Throughout the pandemic, I can’t think of a single thing our faculty has discussed more than intrinsic motivation. (Well, maybe resiliency.)

Grauer 9th Grade students sharing their summer plans on the last day of school - June 10, 2021

Unschooling also normally removes the concept of earning grades. Students learn for learning’s sake, they satisfy first and foremost their own, genuine curiosities, they find their own benchmarks for success, and they are free to pursue their own curiosity. This is another inspiration for Grauer, as we attempt to shift more instruction to “formative.” Formative teaching and learning is an iterative process where the student keeps developing a piece of work rather than “summative,” where you turn something in and get it back with a fixed grade: you’re done—no more learning! In our formative learning, students can “upgrade,” if they choose and, increasingly, we encourage students to try things for “pass-fail,” so they will not be working for grades. Hey students, try it!

“Radical unschooling” is another movement in home schooling. In this scenario, students are self-directing their learning. The schedule is 100% child led, all real-life learning. This same approach has inspired many Grauer programs, from student proposals, to mastery learning levels, to Socratic seminars that focus foremost on uncovering the natural intelligence inside each student. If students are not empowered and self-directing enough, they feel like victims in school—this of course is common in our country and, like radical unschoolers, Grauer intends to be an antidote.

If given the time, resources, and encouragement, our everyday lives would invite a great many things to study—there is nothing more natural to survival than learning. Home school is concerned with “natural learning.” Often natural learning entails exploration of personal interests of the student in their own time. Grauer’s unique honors program is inspired by this knowledge of what motivates students naturally. If students want honors credit, they can always pursue something they are naturally curious about. Likewise, our graduation portfolios, core values portfolios, middle school Fridays, and expeditions all give students creative choices about what to pursue. If you are a Grauer family, you may be aware of these finely-honed programs and if you are not, feel free to inquire. 

As a practical matter, natural learning programs would not work very well in the large, public school as they do at Grauer, even though natural learning is usually more purposeful for our children. Plus, it stimulates creativity and self-motivation.

Grauer Garden leader Sally Grauer displaying the daily harvest from the school's garden - June 21, 2021

A key component of natural learning is outdoor education. The thought of our children in chairs for most of the day has always been a little painful for me. Obviously, home schoolers are not captives in any room and are free to go in and outdoors at will, just as I am most of the day. The benefits of outdoor learning are well documented, so I won’t rehash them here. But outdoor classroom development was another inspiring COVID gain. The ability for every single one of our classes at Grauer to go inside and out at will is yet another homeschool-inspired benefit I hope will always be available on our campus.

Homeschoolers do not come from some special or unusual families. According to the Harvard Homeschool project, most homeschooling parents had traditional educations but saw their own children not wanting to fit into a mold. This kind of observation has become more prevalent especially as class sizes and testing regulations change the way our kids experience traditional education. As we often like to say: “Who wants standardized kids?” Even with great teachers in that large-school model, there is not much time for the individual. Grauer agrees. We do not spend time prepping for standardized exams, and we keep classes small enough so there are no second rows. 

A lot of moms or dads provide the instruction in homeschooling. This is not unusual in the history of the world. In kind, Grauer teachers really do act quite a bit like family members, or at least genuine mentors—they are people that our students come to even if not assigned. They are thinking about your whole development, not just your performance in their class. Student-teacher relations, student engagement, and flexible learning goals are off the charts in much homeschooling and small schooling, like they are at Grauer (our students generally score around 99%ile in nationwide surveying these areas). Many teachers I know care about their students enormously, but homeschooling parents and teachers like those at Grauer have the space to express that caring—at least when we are at our best. 

Another great reason people choose to home school is to have time for travel and family excursions. Families in home schools might want flexibility that public school can’t offer. At Grauer, we understand that kids can often learn more from these experiences, and we empower families to undertake trips and independent learning opportunities. We don’t think for one minute that learning is somehow more real or more legitimate just because it happens in a classroom, in a chair. Quite the contrary. Likewise, our teachers and students spend two full weeks plus quite a few days in travel and expeditionary learning each year.

John Joseph H. '23 and Gabriel C. '23 congratulating each other on the end of the school year and beginning of summer - June 10, 2021

Millions of kids stayed home from school this year. Many families simply found their kids were happier and less negatively stressed outside of the larger schools. That was a wakeup call for some. Many parents are trying to see their real child, for who they actually are, somehow, not defined by their identify in a school. Once home, we found that some kids wanted more hands-on learning. Many kids just needed more sleep. Grauer already had a relatively late start time this school year and, as a pandemic residual, our students are now getting more, needed sleep. The pandemic and homeschool movement both empowered us to create the later start time that was research-based and that we knew all along was healthier for teens.

College readiness of the large school students is a gigantic area for misunderstanding and stress. Here is a little known fact: many unschoolers end up in college and do very well, even if they don’t have any grades to show. For some other students, the academic education is overblown as they feel they are losing the creativity and diversity or interests and talents they can be developing. I hope The Grauer School invites its graduating students and their families to keep an open mind in that regard. 

When we sacrifice our true purposes for “college readiness,” we end up with less of both. Grauer’s college placement record is nothing less than astonishing for a small school—it is true our kids get into a higher percentage of their school choices than other schools we study. But I feel strongly that their college picks are different than they would be at larger and less personalized schools.

College preparation is not a value! Compassion is a value. Motivation is a value. Purposefulness is a value. In the view of Grauer, college preparation is only one possible outcome, and a good one for many—but ONLY if it comes out of the intrinsic motivations of the child rather than the pressures that all these ranks and other people’s expectations bring about. People! There are 4000 colleges in the country! The race and the pressure to get into college is a terrible waste—not to mention that college applications are down nationwide and so there are more seats available, unless you think your whole life’s worthiness revolves around getting into an Ivy League school. Home schoolers take this perspective on faith. I urge you to, also. You’ll use your energy better!

As I mentioned, many are new to homeschooling this year. There is some worry among those who are new to it since they may need support for leaving the mainstream, for taking that leap. They naturally miss all the programs, which is an irony. We are historically used to large schools offering big programs and more programs, and many families have come to confuse lots of big programs with great education. Suddenly, the pandemic brought home for many people that programs are not the same as engagement and not equitably distributed. 

Through the pandemic and the findings of legions of home schoolers, we are finding that apps and remote learning technologies have brought many resources into small schools and homes that were formerly only in large schools. Technology through apps, artificial intelligence/biofeedback, electronic communications worldwide, YouTube, etc. makes resources available wherever you are, so small and home schooling is easier now with more resources easily available—plus you can have the intimacy, safety, and personalization humans crave.

Small and home schoolers learn that a teacher is someone you simply like learning with and that’s not the same as being assigned to 6 or 7 classes a year with teachers who you rarely get to know very well. In small schools and homes, the teacher really is the mentor. What’s more, in smaller, more personal environments, we find ourselves communicating with others across age-levels, including adults. Age mixing is an incredibly powerful, age-old way of organizing for motivated learning, largely lost in the large school. Separating students into homogeneous grades and groups causes cliques, marginalization, and social pressures.

Yet another area where home schools inspire us is curriculum. There are so many new things that can be included in much greater depth than public system standards dictate! Animal husbandry, physical and health education, emotional education. Time in nature. 

Grauer student Lana L. '24 interacting with a frog on a backpacking expedition - April 19, 2021

Homeschooling is misunderstood. Grauer was misunderstood for many years, too, but we have waged a concerted effort to demonstrate and verify our results and impacts. Public school is misunderstood widely, too: it comes with many requirements that don’t benefit many students and that tilt the scales against some kinds of minds and backgrounds. All this misunderstanding became clearer owing to almost a year and a half of global pandemic, a part of what we now know as the “COVID benefits.”

As hard as it is to find benefit in a horrific scourge that has left nearly four million lives in its wake, it is essential. The pandemic, a grim reaper, has not been pretty. I don’t know any top-notch educational leaders who are not exhausted, but I also don’t know any who have not found the benefits. Finding ways to incorporate what’s best about home schooling has had a substantial impact on The Grauer School, a COVID benefit.

If you want to find out more about home schooling, I recommend Alternative Education Resource Organization and the Harvard Home School Program. In conclusion, home schoolers are looking for an education that is real, adaptive, and relevant. They don’t mistake school attendance, i.e., just showing up, for meeting authentic and emerging needs. Home schoolers are working for real, not for grades. They have higher standards for authenticity and creativity, if you ask me. When home schoolers come to Grauer and succeed, I often feel that we have passed a critical test in providing real, purposeful education.

We have a lot to learn from homeschooling, and it starts with listening to our students really carefully, like it is no longer a given that they even have to show up—or like we are listening to them for the first time. Maybe we are.

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Grauer Summer School students writing in their journals during their Creative Writing camp - June 21, 2021

Grauer students discussing summer plans on the last day of school - June 10, 2021

Grauer Garden leader Sally Grauer displaying the daily harvest from the school's garden - June 21, 2021

Grauer students John Joseph H. '23 and Gabriel C. '23 congratulating each other on the end of the school year and beginning of summer - June 10, 2021

Grauer student Lana L. '24 interacting with a frog on a backpacking expedition - April 19, 2021

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