Teens find `self-initiated learning' gives them great lessons in life


September 10, 2001|By Kimbra Cutlip | Kimbra Cutlip,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FOR MOST STUDENTS, early September is a time to get to know a new teacher, pick up textbooks and find out whom you'll be sitting next to for the rest of the school year. But 16-year-old Jenny Luczak is thinking about taking a trip to Maine and completing a class in shiatsu massage.

That's because the Annapolis girl and her 14-year-old brother, Jared, are being schooled under the principles of "self-initiated learning."

Their father, Dan Luczak, says the idea behind this alternative approach to education is simple.

"Basically, if you quit messing with them, kids will learn what they need to learn to be useful, productive, happy people in the world," he says.

His job, he says, is to help them pursue their interests. For the Luczaks, that has meant a mix of home schooling and a unique private school.

For home schooling, many people might assume the Luczaks sit around the kitchen table, poring over lesson plans and study guides. While that scene may play out in some home-schooling families, the Luczaks have chosen to pull lessons from life's experiences and to follow their children's interests.

For example, a home-schooled neighbor once took to collecting coins left behind in vending machines, pay phones and arcade games. Although her parents weren't thrilled about her habit, she had amassed $50 at one point. So, a group of home-schoolers invited her to speak as a "guest lecturer" and coordinate a field trip to teach them her tricks.

Someone accustomed to traditional education might measure her accomplishments by saying she gained public speaking experience, math skills and group leadership skills. But Luczak points instead to the life skills she gained when something that made her different from other children was turned into a positive experience.

In self-initiated learning, even the most routine moments in life can become an opportunity for teaching.

When Jared was 10, he - like many children - seemed fixated on playing video games. But he made a deal with his father. Dad watched while Jared read aloud the pop-ups on screen. Then, at each level, Jared calculated his score and his father quizzed him on possible alternative outcomes.

At the end of the game, Jared related the details of the session to his father as if telling a story. In the end, his father found he enjoyed watching his son play.

"It was fascinating," he says.

Jenny is learning to support herself. She's works as a manager at a local coffee bar and pays her own phone and transportation bills, but she feels she has more work to do.

"Getting a job is part of it," she says, "But there are a lot of other elements, too. There are emotional and mental steps to being able to support yourself and be a well-functioning human being."

She feels her unconventional schooling - in which she decided what she would accomplish and learned to motivate herself - has helped her define what it's going to take to become a self-sufficient woman.

While kids with her educational background are not the norm, they are not as rare as they used to be. According to the Maryland State Department of Education, there were 8,000 home-schooled children in the state seven years ago. By 1999, there were 17,000. Many of them use traditional education methods, but many home-schoolers employ some level of self-initiated learning.

Maryland offers three ways to meet the legal requirements for home schooling. You can join an umbrella organization that offers guidance, support and, sometimes, a curriculum package. You can enroll in a satellite program, similar to a correspondence course through a private school. Or, you can home-school on your own, and submit samples of student work to the State Board of Education for review.

The Luczaks have home-schooled under an umbrella organization, but this year the children enrolled in Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro. Opened in 1998, Fairhaven is a private school built on the "Sudbury model" that dispenses with a curriculum in favor of self-directed learning. Students of all ages work with staff in a democratic process to govern the school and set their own goals throughout the year.

There are no "teachers." The adult staff lends its expertise to discussions that sometimes lead to student-directed projects or formal classes. That's how Jared plans to pursue his interests in math, history and language. He's going to spend the first few weeks getting a feel for the staff and his fellow students, and then maybe get a class going there.

Jenny wants to organize that trip to Maine for herself and other students to visit another Sudbury model school. She'll have to develop and deliver a convincing proposal to her peers and to school staff to win their votes. A "yes" may not be the same as a passing grade, but at Fairhaven, as in life, a winning proposal can sometimes go a lot further than an A.

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