The Boston homeschooling community packed the Regent Theater in Arlington, MA on Monday night for the premiere of Class Dismissed, a documentary film about the options families have if their children dislike or don’t thrive in conventional schools (here are some photos from the evening).
When the movie started, I got what I expected: talking heads with opinions about schooland education (I’m one of those talking heads), but soon I got something very different: a compelling story focused on one family’s decision to homeschool their two, elementary-school age girls. The filmmakers, Dustin Woodard and Jeremy Stuart, both homeschooling dads, follow a family in Los Angeles whose children attend one of the best schools in the district. However, the school’s bureaucracy, rigid routines, arbitrary, insensitive disciplining, and relentless focus on testing and paperwork have turned the girls off not just to school but to learning in general, and their parents are aware and saddened by this.
First, they work with the school but things don’t really change, so they decide to homeschool. Here is where the movie becomes even more interesting, because this family, like most who start homeschooling in reaction to problems their children are having in school, have not thought about how homeschooling will work in depth. They are just seeking some way to help their girls now, and homeschooling seems like a reasonable answer, and they plunge in. They start by duplicating school at home (many of the experienced homeschoolers laughed and nodded as the mom in the film gamely attempts to keep the girls interested in French lessons), and soon they realize they need to do something different. The mom, Rachel, is an articulate and thoughtful woman and her willingness to keep trying things with her girls, and her real frustrations and struggles as many of these efforts fall flat, help the audience share the family’s emotional ride. Her ex-husband and second husband are also wary about jumping into homeschooling, but they share Rachel’s concerns about how their daughters are losing interest, motivation, and curiosity about the world.
One of the many strengths of this film is how it shows the diverse options to attending school that exist right now for families. The family tries school at home, gets advice from homeschooling counselors and parents, explores Classical Curriculum, enrolls in a charter-school home study program, tries unschooling . . . while the filmmakers also provide a larger context to the family’s journey, describing various learning centers, alternatives to college, homeschooling co-operatives, and independent schools that adapt to homeschoolers’ needs. Interviews with homeschoolers from different states and different educational philosophies provide a smorgasbord of positive rejoinders to the common questions homeschoolers often get: What about socialization? What about academics and college? What makes you think you can teach your own child if you’re not teacher? These are all valid questions—though their repetition exhausts experienced homeschoolers—and the movie addresses them in a serious, non-polemical manner.
The film’s director, Jeremy Stuart, said during the question and answer segment after the show that he hoped homeschoolers could now simply hand the movie to people who ask, “But what about socialization?” A teenager in the film offers a great answer to that question, too, though simply seeing all the footage of homeschoolers playing, talking, and working in multiage settings spoke more than any words about socialization.
The emotional weight of the film is strongest whenever it turns to the family’s homeschooling odyssey. They dither and doubt as they homeschool, as we all do at some point, but they press on until they find a new, more confident place for each of them to flourish. I don’t want to give away more of the narrative, so I do hope you’ll catch a screening or purchase a screening package of Class Dismissed to see what happens.
For new homeschoolers and those who are just curious about the topic, I think this is a great introduction since it touches on so many of the issues that make homeschooling seem impossible to the general public: financial matters that constrict homeschooling; divorced parents agreeing about homeschooling; how too much togetherness can cause conflict for parents and children; finding friends and support for how you want to homeschool; why and how unschooling works. Some issues, such as single-parent homeschooling, are just mentioned but they are at least raised; nonetheless, I don’t think you can view this movie with someone without getting into a good conversation about any one of those topics.
Class Dismissed also makes visible two important things that I find people don’t really understand unless they actually homeschool: 1) One doesn’t become a homeschooler or an unschooler simply by enrolling in a program; both require you to shift your assumptions about what school is for and make adjustments accordingly. Like the family in the film, some of these adjustments take a lot of time and patience to work. 2) This movie demonstrates the resourcefulness that ordinary people can successfully employ when they fend for themselves outside the compulsory school system (or, in the case of the filmmakers, outside the movie distribution system). The energy, ease, and creativity seen in all sorts of learning situations in the film is often in stark contrast to the images of students struggling through worksheets in conventional classrooms.
On a personal note, the atmosphere at the theater was quite convivial; some old-time homeschoolers and their families came, and it was tremendous seeing and speaking with old friends. We reminisced about the many hours we and our children spent in the Regent Theater in our younger years, mounting plays with our homeschooling theater group, the Puddlejump Players. Reconnecting with so many friends was wonderful, and seeing this movie with them made it an extra-special night.
Visit the Class Dismissed website to see if a screening is coming near you. The documentary will also be available on DVD and by download at a later date.
Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends.