The Unschooling School

Pioneered by education reformer John Holt, unschooling has grown from a niche phenomenon to garnering attention from mainstream media like the Washington Post and The Guardian. The basic concept is simple: don't send your kids to school, and instead, let them do what they want. It looks something like this description from the Christian Science Monitor:

On a late Monday morning in this rural New Hampshire town, Dayna and Joe Martin’s four children are all home. Devin, age 16, is hammering a piece of steel in the blacksmith forge he and his parents built out of a storage shed in the backyard. Tiffany, 14, is twirling on a hoverboard, deftly avoiding the kaleidoscope-painted cabinets in the old farmhouse’s living room. Ivy, 10, and Orion, 7, are sitting next to each other using the family’s two computers, clicking through an intense session of Minecraft.  

It looks a lot like school vacation, or a weekend. But it’s not. This, for the Martin kids, is school. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s their version of “unschooling,” an educational theory that suggests children should follow their own interests, without the imposition of school or even any alternative educational curriculum, because this is the best way for them to learn and grow.

Adults unschooled as children report that:

  • "they benefited from having had the time and freedom to discover and pursue their personal interests, giving them a head start on figuring out their career preferences and developing expertise in relevant areas"
  • "the experience enabled them to develop as highly self-motivated, self-directed individuals"
  • they appreciated "having a broader range of learning opportunities; a richer, age-mixed social life; and a relatively seamless transition to adult life."

Unschooling and Sudbury schooling have a lot in common. Like unschooling, a Sudbury education gives children the freedom to explore their interests and learn in the ways that work for them, free from the forced march of tests, bells, and grades. Staff at Tallgrass and other Sudbury schools support students' natural curiosity and motivations, much like unschooling parents do. And graduates of Sudbury schools use similar language as unschoolers do to describe their experiences--and, as adults, report similar high levels of satisfaction with their childhood education.

The major difference between unschooling and a Sudbury education is the role of family versus peers. Many unschooling families are part of homeschool groups, Scouts, sports, and other activities, but geography and scheduling, it can make it difficult for children to have as much peer interaction as they want. At a Sudbury school like Tallgrass, students are part of a wider community every day -- a community that learns and plays together, spends time working through conflicts, and makes decisions democratically.

For families who believe in unschooling but don’t have the flexibility to homeschool or want a more social environment, a Sudbury school can be the perfect solution.

For more information about unschooling, check out the list of resources compiled by Peter Gray.

For more information about enrollment at Tallgrass, visit our enrollment page or contact us.

Staffing Opportunity at Tallgrass Sudbury School

Tallgrass Sudbury School, located in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago, is a democratic K-12 school community where students are free to pursue their interests at their own pace and in their own way. Tallgrass is seeking a staff member to start part-time and potentially transition to full-time as we grow. An integral part of Tallgrass is School Meeting, a body made up of students and staff, which makes all schoolwide decisions. The students and staff have an equal vote in all matters of school governance, including making school rules, approving expenditures, and even staff hiring.

 In a typical week as a staff member at Tallgrass, you might:

  • engage with students, staff, and the greater community
  • respond to inquiries about enrollment or from potential visitors
  • work with committees that include staff, students, and parents to make decisions collaboratively
  • write or revise policies or rule changes and propose them to school meeting
  • talk to parents about questions and issues
  • teach classes in response to student requests
  • act as the staff member on the Judicial Committee
  • be an active participant in School Meeting
  • be part of a dynamic community dedicated to living out its democratic principles

 Required Qualifications:

  • Belief in the natural impulse of children (and adults!) to strive for personal growth; commitment to one’s own personal growth.
  • Excellent communication and literacy skills, including expressing thought in writing and interacting effectively with children and adults from a wide variety of backgrounds.
  • Be an interested, interesting, engaged, and passionate person.
  • Strong self-management skills, including high levels of initiative and ability to authentically and effectively prioritize.
  • Ability to maintain confidentiality of student and family data.
  • Pass required background checks before beginning employment.
  • Ability to solve problems creatively with limited resources.
  • Ability to trust in the school’s democratic School Meeting and peer-based judicial system to adequately resolve rule infractions.

You will join a team of two full-time paid staff as well as regular volunteers, and will have a wide variety of responsibilities. Tallgrass hopes to grow our small community significantly in the near future, and the ideal candidate will be willing and able to act as one of the leaders in this effort. While you do not need to have marketing experience, a willingness to gain skills in this area and to think flexibly and creatively about how we can promote our school are essential. Our school is open 9:00 to 4:00 Monday through Friday, with some hours outside of school hours expected for meetings and administrative or marketing work.

Staff members should be able to act as models of responsibility, resourcefulness, initiative, and good conflict resolution, and be willing to listen to and accept feedback. Staff are expected to work within the Sudbury model.

Please submit a letter of interest and resume to info@tallgrasssudbury.org or, if you have additional questions, contact us either by email or by phone at 708.777.1037.  The application period will close on April 13. 

If Kids Could Vote

A student at Tallgrass asked me recently, “If you could do anything to change the direction our country is going in, what would you do?” As a school, we don’t take political positions, but the contentious election has naturally been on people’s minds.

I said, “I would let people under 18 vote.”

Our school ballot box, used for staff and clerkship elections.

Our school ballot box, used for staff and clerkship elections.

I said that if your goal is to create social change, letting young people have a real voice would be the best way to make it happen more quickly. Studies show that attitudes about issues like race and LGBT rights split clearly along generational lines, with younger people more and more in favor of equality for everyone.

We talked through the pros and cons: Should you have to prove yourself competent to vote? What about adults who aren’t well-informed—they don’t have to prove themselves. What if parents tried to influence their kids’ votes?

In the 1960s, political pressure lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, since 18-year-olds were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam, yet had no voice in choosing the leaders of the country. Fifty years later, that same issue is on the minds of some Tallgrass teenagers, who are worried about being forced to fight in a possible war started by people that they never would have voted into office. (NB: At least one student thought Hillary Clinton would have been equally bad if not worse.) They were angry that they couldn’t vote in this election, even though they will have to live with—and be personally affected by—the results.

Could we lower the voting age again? Should we? Takoma Park, Maryland, lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16 in 2013, and in some other cities those 16 and up can vote in school board elections.

The chair of our school aesthetics and use committee (right) consults with an interior designer about changes to the school. 

The chair of our school aesthetics and use committee (right) consults with an interior designer about changes to the school. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone at the national level is seriously considering lowering the voting age. But at Tallgrass and other Sudbury schools, kids CAN vote—and they vote on real issues, with their votes equal to those of adults. When we’re talking to people about our school, we often point out that the kids far outnumber us—only four adults are eligible to vote at school meeting, versus about 20 students. Students vote on everything from field trips, to the budget, to who the staff should be. As in the real world, not everyone chooses to vote on every issue. But when they do vote, they take their votes seriously, weighing the issues to the best of their ability.

We say that kids are equal here—and we mean it.