by Scott Smallwood
Journal Staff Writer
This isn't school.
This is playing chess and fooling around with a guitar. This is karate, books and board games. This is cookies, 4-H and sword fights.
This is Sandra Dodd's house in Northeast Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon.
In the back yard, 8-year-old Holly Dodd, decked out in a colorful tie-dyed shirt featuring Jerry Garcia, plays with her friends. They're jumping around an old van parked behind the house, pretending to be hippies.
Her 13-year-old brother is inside the house playing video games. That's how Kirby Dodd learned to read – Nintendo Power magazine. Dozens of past issues sit on a shelf in his bedroom, boxed and carefully indexed.
This isn't school. And it's not even home-schooling.
This is unschooling.
In recent years, school reformers in Albuquerque and around the country have been pushing for more accountability, which often comes with specific educational benchmarks and standardized tests. But these parents, the unschoolers who meet at Dodd's house each week, have rejected those ideas.
Instead, they say, they simply live life with their children, learning along the way.
Although some in the Albuquerque group may not be aware of it, Dodd is a minor celebrity in the world of unschooling.
She writes an unschooling column in a national home-schooling magazine, she moderates a number of Internet forums on the topic, and she has been an occasional speaker at conferences around the nation.
A native of Espanola, Dodd went to the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s and then returned home, teaching in a junior high school for six years.
"I figure that's as much as they expect of any marine," she said.
Her popularity may be the result of her charisma, quick wit or perhaps just her ability to speak bluntly. Whether or in person or on the Internet, where she spends a few hours each day, Dodd doesn't shy away from speaking her mind.
Posted by SandraDodd@ aol.com Feb 2, 2000:Many people who call themselves unschoolers subscribe to different definitions of the word. The bottom line is this: Learning and education are important, unschoolers, say, but school and its many trappings— periods, courses, grades, tests and subjects – aren't.
"I want to see what is normal for humans without being rounded up and sent off in groups of 30 to lock up facilities with only people their own age.
"My children have not been to school at all. They lack much of the socialization school kids have (meaning they're not at all good at being horribly mean and sneaky). They lack the idea that kids older than they are dangerous or sources of illegal things, or that younger kids are automatically stupid and sources of change to steal.
"My children have curiosity and joy and compassion. I will not trade that for all the worksheets in the state. My children have never 'gotten an F' and they've never gotten an A. They like learning because they like it."
Learning is natural, they say, and children can learn the same way adults do: by reading, doing and asking questions.
That means they might learn arithmetic from Pokemon cards and fractions from baking cookies. They might learn to read so they can play a new board game or write e-mail to friends.
These parents don't fill out a lesson plan or buy an off-the-shelf curriculum.
"I couldn't plan it and say next week we'll talk about metallurgy," Dodd said of her daughter's unschooling. Instead, topics are addressed when they seem relevant. "We'll talk about magnets when she asks why the magnet doesn't stick to something," Dodd said.
Is all of this legal?
Sure—for the most part, anyway. In New Mexico, state law says home-schoolers must notify the local school district of their intent to teach their children at home, maintain records of attendance and immunizations, provide instruction by someone with at least a high school diploma and administer achievement test to children in the same grades the public schools do.
Many of the unschooling parents, however, don't notify the school district and some aren't interested in giving their children standardized tests.
"It doesn't tell me something I don't already know," Heidi Roibal, an unschooling mother in the Albuquerque group, said of such tests. "It doesn't tell me about their potential. It's just a measure for some bureaucrat and I'm not into it."
Posted by SandraDodd@ aol.com:The unschoolers look to the future just as much as anyone, but they don't see it in quite the same terms.
"In school kids will get an I in reading because they circled all the pictures which have a name starting monkey. They will get an A in reading because they can recite a one-page thins which fifteen kids have read (or recited from memory) just moments before them. They will get As for copying text from a book or a poster or another paper onto their own piece of paper.
"Whoopdee Do – that's not reading. That's playing, minus all the fun which playing COULD involve.
"Playing with words in the car, playing with plastic refrigerator letters, finding the initial letter of their names on signs and boxes, rhyming, all KINDS of short, sweet little games are one-on-one golden versions of the worksheet assembly line 'be quiet' versions that go on in school, but for the sake of the dubious, those children have worksheets with letter grades on them at the end of the week, and unschooled kids have no such physical proof."
"We're raising them to think that there's more to life than a job," Nancy Martinez said.
Her 14-year-old son Brett is quick to pull adults' legs when they ask what he wants to do.
Trying to control his laughter, he said, "I want to be an assistant manager at McDonald's."
"Society has its ups and downs and it jerks you around," said Nancy Martinez's husband, Dave. "Who can deal with that the best? The ones who are happy and well-adjusted."
But what about college?
"I hate that question," Dodd said. "People say, 'Oh, but I want my kids to go to college.' Yeah, unlike me. I just want my kids to dumpster-dive forever."
Dodd and the other parents are confident that their children are learning what they need to know and will be able to pass high-school equivalency exams, take classes at community colleges if they want and enroll in universities when the time comes.
One of Martinez's sons recently passed the high-school equivalency exam and is interest in becoming a veterinarian someday. For now, he still stops by Sandia High School, visiting with his girlfriend at lunch.
Whatever the long-term plans are, Dodd has some advice for those considering home-schooling or even the more radical step of unschooling:
"Don't rush. This is a hard but crucial piece of advice. Rush to take him out of school but don't rush to replace it with anything. Bring your child home, don't bring school home. You don't even have to bring their terminology and judgments home. You can start from scratch, brush off the labels, and find your son where he is. Forget school. Move to life."