On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in April, 14 children and five mothers wind their way down stone steps and around budding trees, blue woodland phlox and yellow wood poppies to the cedar gazebo at Lichterman Nature Center in Memphis, Tennessee.
They meet here monthly on the third Tuesday — a free admission day — to listen to stories told by alternating moms and to observe the changing seasons. The outing is planned for young children but today includes two teens.
Two-year-old Zoe squeals her delight at riding on the shoulders of one of them, Loren, 14. From the gazebo, a few of the bigger boys wander off to explore trails while the others settle noisily on the wood floor.
Then all listen intently as Lynn Carroll-Rivera, mother of three of the children, leads songs about spring, teaches a finger game and then tells a story about a caterpillar-turned-butterfly who searches for friends.
Ravi, age five, claps his approval for everything. Next it’s snack time, and as the families share the food they’ve brought before hiking to the lake, Carroll-Rivera nurses her youngest, 19-month-old Evan.
In many ways today’s outing is school as usual – or "unschool" as usual — for these Tennessee families. They’re using free local resources, learning from nature, sharing their talents, linking age groups, providing loosely structured activities and giving children choices.
They are members of the Unschoolers of Memphis, a support group that welcomes home schoolers of any religion, race, ethnic background or sexual orientation. They and about 20 other families come together in large and small groups, sometimes several times a week, to learn together.
Although the five mothers with the group today are White, their children have a range of skin tones. Mary Jo Karimnia’s husband is from Iran and Lynn Carroll-Rivera’s is from Colombia; Diana Schmied and her husband adopted two biracial daughters, now teens, who are African American and White; and Amelia Tummalapalli and her husband adopted their three small children from India.
Among the 25 families who participate actively in the Unschoolers and another 10 who participate occasionally are European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos of Christian, Muslim and Pagan faiths. Over the years, Jewish, Mormon and Seventh-Day Adventist families have also belonged.
Co-founder Karimnia says the group’s diversity gives the children an ideal situation for learning about other cultures through everyday experiences rather than structured lessons.
"They’re used to the different things families do," she says. "Like when my kids spend the night at Raul’s house, they have Colombian breakfasts. You don’t have to set up artificial things. You really have the fiesta; you really celebrate the Persian New Year, because someone in your group really does this."
A Movement Within a Movement
The Unschoolers of Memphis are part of a recent phenomenon in education — the huge growth in numbers of parents who are now directing their children’s learning themselves.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education released a report showing that at least 850,000 children were home schooled in 1999, the most recent year studied. Many experts believe the number is well over a million today.
That’s almost triple the estimated 300,000 children learning at home in the early 1990s. It’s 56 times the estimated 15,000 children home schooled in the 1970s, some "underground" to avoid legal challenges, as the movement began to grow. Today home schooling is legal, with varying restrictions, in every state.
Home schoolers choose teaching methods that span a spectrum from "school-at-home" to "unschooling." In the former, often the starting point for new home schoolers, parents teach their children in much the same way that a classroom teacher would.
In the latter, inspired by author-activist John Holt, parents encourage their children to learn at their own pace through real-life experiences and through investigations of their interests and pursuit of their goals, usually aided far more by library books than by standard textbooks.
While a small percentage of school educators home school their own children, others are concerned that home schooling is draining money and involved parents from public schools. And many people who value the interactions of the school experience wonder if the million-plus homeschooled children will grow up with narrow perspectives on life, shaped solely by their parents, and little understanding of people different from themselves.
Unschoolers of Memphis point out that inclusive support groups like theirs can give families more opportunities to build close friendships with people of different ages, cultures, races and religious beliefs than they would have in most schools.
But elsewhere in Memphis and around the country, homeschool groups often have the reputation of being exclusive, at least in terms of religious beliefs. Many new home schoolers in the 1980s and ’90s were conservative Christians who objected to secular aspects of the public schools and wanted religion to be a part of their children’s education.
Not surprisingly, they started or joined homeschool support groups for families who held similar religious beliefs. Some of the groups require that members sign a statement of faith.
Other factors can limit the diversity within support groups, even those that strive to be inclusive. One is that, although home schoolers are becoming more racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, the vast majority are still middle-class and White.
Further, many racial and religious groups who are relatively new to home schooling, such as African Americans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, are forming their own support groups.
Former kindergarten teacher Pam DeMato has found a way around that limitation: join two groups. She and her husband are Catholic, so they joined a Catholic group that Pam likes for its curriculum support.
But she also brings her sons to science classes and bowling outings with the Unschoolers of Memphis because she likes the group’s diversity. "Here my kids can see that everyone does not look like them and act exactly like them," she says.
Mary Jo Karimnia has advice for families who want their support group to be more diverse than it is. "Just keep telling people that you’re an inclusive group till you become one," she says, smiling.
Karimnia and her colleague Margaret Meyer would rather be called facilitators than leaders of the Unschoolers of Memphis, which they co-founded eight years ago. At the time, says Karimnia, there was plenty of support available to home schoolers through the Christian-based Memphis Home Education Association (MHEA).
But because the two women differed from MHEA in religious beliefs and also favored a more relaxed approach to curriculum than MHEA seemed to, they decided to start their own group.
"We do have religious people in our group," Karimnia says. "But some of us are not religious, and some are religious in a different way. We didn’t want religion to be the issue. For us, home schooling is the issue."
An Inclusive Statement of Purpose
The group chose its name with reservations, knowing that some participants would not consider themselves unschoolers. They decided to keep their organization simple and not charge membership fees.
They would hold monthly meetings at a local library, open to all, to discuss issues related to home schooling. And they would operate as a cooperative, in which all members would organize activities or classes in which they and others could participate.
Over the years these have included a variety of holiday and festival celebrations; art, drama and music classes offered by members or their acquaintances; book clubs and discussion groups; classes at a local museum, botanical garden and nature center; family camping weekends; organized sports, weekly skating and monthly bowling.
At the first meeting, the group formulated what they considered a strong statement of purpose: "Our purpose is to provide a network of support for all families involved in home education, regardless of race, religion or philosophy of home schooling."
That served them well until two years ago, when a female couple decided to home school their two children. They started attending Unschoolers’ meetings and participating with their children in activities.
They developed a Web site for the group and started a Campfire scouting troop. About four months after they got involved with the Unschoolers, they asked Karimnia and Meyer to add sexual orientation to the "regardless of" phrase.
"In part," says Michelle Cooper, who has since moved to Pennsylvania with her family, "we asked because we recognized that if other gays and lesbians — not just parents, but teenagers as well — saw that in the statement, they would know they would have a safe place there."
A place, she adds, that too often schools fail to provide.
No one in the group objected to the family’s participation, Karimnia says, but some parents did have concerns about taking such a public position on the issue. The statement would be posted prominently on the group’s Web site and literature.
That might stimulate more opposition from relatives and in-laws who were already critical of their home schooling, some parents thought. The two facilitators listened to comments for and against the change, discussed it themselves and made a decision.
"We decided it was just the right thing to do," Karimnia says. "We put it in and we’re very happy about it."
Some people in the group probably were not comfortable with the idea of homosexuality before, she adds. "But when everyone else was so accepting, they went along with it. I do think we exert peer pressure in that sense."
"An Integral Part of Life"
Over the years, only a few fathers among the Unschoolers of Memphis have been their children’s main teachers. Some mothers have stayed home full-time to teach their children; others have worked part-time, often at home.
Some critics of home schooling believe that it reinforces the idea that a woman belongs at home and puts a burden on daughters to choose the same path.
Diana Schmied, an adoption attorney and longtime participant in the Unschoolers, doesn’t think so. After she and her husband, Wade Morgan, adopted Rhiann, now 16, and Loren, 14, Schmied continued to work full-time, balancing a private law practice with her adoption cases.
The girls went to a day care program and attended both Montessori and public schools. But Schmied and Morgan were dissatisfied with what they considered developmentally inappropriate assignments, such as spelling lists and book reports, in the early grades of the public school.
By the time biological daughters Hannah, 8, and Cree, 4, were born, Schmied had established a national reputation as an adoption attorney and knew she could cut back her private practice and still get adoption cases. She did so and began home schooling.
Morgan, a city planner who works downtown, kept the girls at his office on days when she went downtown to court. Sometimes she took them to court with her.
"My children have seen my work and their father’s work," Schmied says. "They’ve been downtown and seen a variety of people who work in the courthouse. Most judges in Memphis today are Black and many are women. By being out in the world, my children are more aware of the different options.
"On the other hand," she says, "when they have children, if they want to stay home and focus on them, I think that’s good, too. I became a young adult in the 1970s and was very much into feminism. My understanding of it was that people should have choices. I don’t buy the idea that being a lawyer and going to work is more important than staying home and raising your children."
The Unschoolers point out, too, that learning at home is never bounded by a nine-to-three schedule, that it goes on before parents leave home for work and after they return. "It’s an integral part of life," says Karimnia.
Omid Karimnia, husband to Mary Jo and father of Max, 13; Alex, 9; and Rosy, 4, cherishes his role as a home schooling father. "Being from Iran, I consider my first and foremost responsibility toward my family is that of a financial provider," he says.
"But also, I consider myself an available model. I can work with my children and provide them with answers, resources, materials, good guidelines. I want them to know that I don’t have all the answers, that nobody has all the answers, that we are all learning at different stages."
Most of the Unschoolers intend to teach their children through high school. They say that if their children want to go to school at some point, they can choose to do so. Some children have cycled in and out of school over the years; others have returned to school and stayed there.
Right now, the children and teens seem happy to be learning at home. Rhiann Morgan, 16, likes being able to work at her own pace and choose subjects she wants to study — this year, the ethnic groups of Africa.
Rhiann also likes not having to decide daily whether to sit at the Black tables or the White tables, as her friends at school do. "I’m mixed, and I have friends of both races," she says. "With home schooling, I meet somebody and we can be friends. There’s no ‘You are Black and I can’t see you,’ or ‘You’re mixed’ or whatever."
Laura Meyer is working her way through an algebra textbook this year in preparation for college, and studying horses, which she loves. She rides almost daily and participates in course studies related to horses. Right now she is studying the anatomy of horses with a veterinarian.
Without a hint of self-consciousness, Laura says, "I really like being home with my mom." If she has kids, though, she doesn’t know if she will home school them.
"It depends on what happens and the kinds of kids I have," she says. "I’ll be open to it if they want it." As facilitators, Karimnia and Meyer have tried to control what Karimnia calls "school-bashing" at meetings.
That can be difficult if parents in attendance have recently decided to home school out of anger over a school situation. "When you’re angry about things and looking for support, that’s what you talk about," Karimnia says. "But we don’t want new people coming in thinking that we hate school. I think school is fine. And if school is right for you, that’s what you should do."
She can’t seem to stop herself, though, from articulating reason after reason why home schooling works so well for her family and others in the group. The families spend more time together, and parents have more opportunities to model good behavior, including tolerance.
The children feel more comfortable around adults. The children form close, long-term relationships with one another and with other parents in the group. Sensitive children don’t get picked on.
That reason draws Karimnia’s characteristic laugh. "It’s not that our children are always perfectly nice to each other," she says. "We try to leave them to their own devices so they learn how to work out relationships. But if there’s an unfair situation, if a child is going to be hurt either physically or mentally, that’s an issue where a parent needs to step in. And we’re able to do that because we’re there."