Homeschooling: It Began With John Holt; a Personal Story

Way back in the late 70s, I got married, and my thoughts turned to the education of my future children. I read John Holt and A.S. Neill (of Summerhill fame) and The Continuum Concept. I wasn’t satisfied with my education even though I had aced AP Calculus and AP Chemistry. I thought we could do even better.

My then-wife and I had long discussions. She had a degree in education; I had dropped out of college in order to go to work to support my family; it was hard for her to consider that I was on to something, especially in her field of education.

I broached the idea of unschooling, and her mind simply could not grasp it; her entire life had been carefully managed. She had to have rules, and lots of them. She didn’t think unschooling or home-schooling were even possible; all she could imagine was lots of paperwork and planning. I, on the other hand, had always been an autodidact, and could not imagine any other way to learn effectively.

My folks were radical liberals, by the standards of the day. Not hippies – that would be my generation – but they didn’t care about our long hair; they had a fairly hands-off approach to a lot of things – and without realizing it, they were “strewing” information all the time. I was one of eight siblings, four of whom would be categorized as “special needs.” That would include me, with my severe hearing loss. My folks, against contrary advice, “mainstreamed” me in a regular school. They had to put up with flak from people who thought I was “retarded.” (Some things never change – I see unschoolers and home-schoolers still getting flak today.)

So, our eldest was admitted to a gifted first grade class in a nice suburban neighborhood with a teacher whom the local parents thought highly of.

Two weeks later, our son came home and asked “What is 5-7?” Took me about five or ten minutes to explain negative numbers, a number line, use it as a tool to explain how to reliably add and subtract both negative and positive magnitudes. My wife’s mind was blown away. Where was my textbook? Where was my lesson plan? How could I advance his instruction without a formal goal and blah blah blah?

I just winged it. Why? Well, that’s how I was raised. My dad worked several jobs to feed eight children. My mother had lots of things to do – she couldn’t drop everything and call a teacher, and so forth. So she was in the habit of thinking about our questions, and winging it. I figured that was how everybody did it.

We pulled our son out. I asked my wife to promise one thing: I’d teach math my way. She could do whatever she wanted with history, penmanship, blah blah. Math was my turf. And I unschooled it. I simply used math in my everyday life. The kids would emulate what I was doing. Sometimes they’d ask a question, or I’d pose a question, and we’d have a conversation. I never cared about “grade levels.” If I had a whim to chat about binary arithmetic, we’d do it. Kids were 10 and 12 at that time, and we were riding a public bus, and the passengers were sort of curious about our little math wizards, who were doing binary arithmetic mentally.

Eventually, the wife and I divorced, she sent them to high school, and every math teacher told me that the kids’ math intuition was stunning. It never bothered my kids if a teacher introduced a new idea which they hadn’t heard yet; they simply extrapolated from what they already knew, and hit the accelerator.

Now, my daughter has seven children. I think she tried formal “home schooling” for a while, then realized how much work it entails – and how much it slows down her children. The more children she has, the less she “manages” them, and the more rapidly they learn. They come to her with questions. Like my mother, she just wings it. Sometimes she consults with me or somebody else; child #1 and #3 are very into math and computer programming, and they can sometimes make one’s head spin. The oldest isn’t even a teen yet.

Whenever I visit, it’s a little chaotic. Five conversations going on at once. The kids are often coaching each other – a 3 year old teaching the sounds of letters to an 18 month old; a six year old teaching a 4 year old how to use “ten’s complement’s” to simplify the addition of 8+5, and so forth. I’ve learned to listen and participate in the same fashion – pick up a thread, quickly interject an idea, and just roll with the flow.

I’m an old geezer and still unschooling. I learn every time I visit. The kids wade through huge stacks of books and videos and whatnot.

I have, I think, three main ideas. One, don’t waste their time; don’t make them redo stuff which they’ve already mastered. Two, listen carefully; learn from them. Three, stop while you are all having fun.

For instance, once they get on their feet with reading, let them have lots and lots and lots of time to just read whatever they want, as much as they want. There is no need to micromanage. This alone will probably result in their reading hundreds of hours per year, far more than their peers in the schools. If they’re consulting videos to learn things, the same thing; they’re both effective ways to learn. When they’re learning for their reasons, they’ll amaze you. Be patient. Let things flower in their own time.

2 thoughts on “Homeschooling: It Began With John Holt; a Personal Story”

  1. I’m so very happy to have fallen into your website! I’ve spent the last nine years homeschooling and went through the various stages leading to my complete conversion to “unschooling”. I call it organic learning.

    I’m loving it. I have been able to observe my children and see the truth of GWS principles unfold. As my children revel in the magic of childhood I become more and more sad each time I pass a school yard of -this is how I now feel- caged children. Caged literally and proverbially.

    Anyway, I just had to thank you for using your time to share your story so that families like mine can gain reassurance and, AND! what a great source for eloquent articles discussing topics that are dear to my heart. May I have your permission to share your articles on my own blog?

    W/a Smile, Tiana


    1. Thank you for your kind note. I love the phrase “organic learning.” I believe that learning is perfectly natural and organic; an essential part of who we are. Yes, I would be delighted if you share my little pieces. Glad to be appreciated in some corner of the Internet. Cheers!


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