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Astra Taylor: Flimmaker talks about unschooling

Would you let your kids stay home from school and teach themselves? Astra Taylor's parents did, and she grew up to be an indie filmmaker.

Astra Taylor has a curious mind -- and a curiously educated mind.

Taylor, a young indie filmmaker selected as one of Filmmaker magazine's 25 new faces to watch in 2006, takes unconventional approaches to cultural and intellectual topics, such as taking philosophers out of their towers and into the streets. No wonder, since her education was as atypical as it comes.

Growing up in Athens, Ga., she was home-schooled until 13, or rather, as she puts it, "unschooled." Her parents allowed her and her siblings to chart their courses, pursuing what interested them and reading anything they wanted -- no curriculum, no schedule, no tests, no grades, no "musts" of any kind, except to be doing something -- an idea that would delight most kids and horrify most teachers, parents and even traditional home-schooling proponents.

The New York-based Taylor will be in Minneapolis this week to talk about her unusual method of learning as part of a Walker Art Center program on encouraging creativity in children.

While riding in a van with her parents and two siblings last week on a trip home to Georgia, she explained why -- although she stops short of claiming it's best for everyone -- she still believes in unschooling despite deciding in her teens to attend a regular high school.

Q What kind of schooling did your parents have, and how did they come to choose this route for you?

A My dad had a rigorously traditional education; my mom, who's an artist, had more of an alternative counterculture influence. Neither of them loved school and were bored a lot. My father, a university professor, had taught himself chemistry as a kid and so he knew that it was possible. Also, they were motivated by not wanting my sister, who has disabilities, to be in special ed.

Q What were your "nonschool" days like?

A We were allowed to sort of do whatever we wanted. We'd wake up late and put in a VHS of "The Simpsons" or "Anne of Green Gables," make puppets -- there was a lot of art-making -- play video games. The house was full of books and musical instruments, but not every moment was spent productively. Time was wasted. We wandered around, but also got to specialize at a young age: My sister painted, I had a magazine about animal rights and the environment. Some days I'm sure we looked like dirty brats not doing anything, but a lot of times, that's what creativity looks like. We figured out what it was to become a creative adult. Creative people spend a lot of time reading and thinking and going down blind alleys.

Q Was it legal?

A Different states have different laws. We took state-mandated tests every few years.

Q Would your parents intervene when you were doing nothing for too long?

A It was reverse psychology. My mom would say, "When you're bored, you're boring." It left a mark on me. I never say, "I'm bored." She meant that there should always be something calling you, something that catches your interest, so you're not learning to get a good grade, but because that's what it means to be a good, whole, engaged person ["or you feel guilty about it," her mother chimed in from elsewhere in the car]. That's much more intense than compulsory education.

Q Why did you decide to go to a regular high school when you were 13?

A Being the oldest child, I didn't really have any role models and was worried about integrating into the regular world.

Q Weren't you behind the others on certain subjects, like math?

A I was naturally good at math, and was taking calculus at 14. I was better at figuring things out for myself than kids who are used to teachers being the conduits of knowledge.

Q What are your siblings doing now?

A The youngest, 17, is into animal rights and crafts. She just got her high-school diploma equivalent and will apply to college. My brother is getting a degree in philosophy at the University of Georgia.

Q Do you think most children would thrive as much as your family has from unschooling?

A I think this educational possibility would be best for all children, but it's not possible. Choosing between dropping out of the system completely and a nine-hour compulsory day of classes and homework is such a dichotomy. I long for an intellectual community where it doesn't have to be so one way or the other. There are ethical problems with isolating your kids, but I wish public education wasn't so prisonlike.

Q What advice do you have for anyone wanting to try unschooling?

A Have complete trust in your child. It's actually really hard. A lot of parents micromanage. Our parents tried not to interfere with our natural progression, not that they didn't set up an interesting environment. They trusted our intuition when we were interested in things they aren't. You don't get to choose what your children are interested in.


Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: News on October 22, 2009 @ 7:41 PM

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