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Aaron Swartz, Unschooler, is Vindicated

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

Journal Storage, JSTOR, the data base that Unschooler and Internet Activist had hacked into and “liberated” their whole library of scholarly journal articles, on Wednesday, January 13, 2013, announced that it would open its archives of 1,200 journals for the public to read for free.

But Aaron Swartz did not live to see this happen. He had committed suicide, depressed over his pending prosecution for taking the scholarly journal articles, and liberating them for the public to read. He was just 26 years old when he hung himself on January 11th this year.

While Aaron’s name may not be familiar to you, the products he worked on are very familiar. He is the creator of “RSS,” the news feed that brings you data as it is created from the sources that set it up so you can do this. You can, for example, use RSS to always receive articles in this blog as they are posted.

Aaron also co-founded Reddit, a discussion board where topics and best answers are voted on by its members, the best winding up at the top.

As an unschooler, Aaron was self-taught. He imagined a world where people could teach themselves from the very best information to be had. But that was the problem: while the internet is jam packed with opinions, most are not backed with research, including this one, scholarly papers were walled behind memberships and fees so high that only the richest could afford to get access. 10 cents a page may not sound like much, but we’re not talking indefinitely long website pages, more like typed, double-spaced paper pages, research that might be called small books. Much of this research is paid for by public grants.

Now, I’ve been asked many times to help out some student researching homeschooling, and early on I was glad to do so. I would ask to have a copy when the paper was done, but most never sent me a copy. I now ask students to first do their homework and read my site and its links first to get their answers. If I haven’t already answered their questions, then I would be glad to clarify. My reaction is not unique among homeschoolers. We’d like to see the research results, and not have them hidden buried deep in some exclusive database. Oh, and while you are at it, let’s free all research so that others who need to learn can read up, too… on any topic!

Our family, too, had a young, depressed young man kill himself back in 2010, when he was threatened with jail time. His parents pleaded to try to get help for his mental problems, but the law didn’t give a damn for the mentally depressed 21 year old. Instead the police bullied and tormented him, and not seeing any way out, he chose suicide. For both these young men, the crimes they committed were not death penalty crimes, not even life sentences, but the result was as if they were.

Here are some of the resources that provide background on this article. I may extend it later on. All I have time for today.

Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide – By John Schwartz, January 12, 2013  – At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information.

Petition to remove prosecutor in Aaron Swartz case up for White House response – Published: 14 February, 2013 – A petition to the White House requesting the removal of Aaron Swartz’s prosecutor before his death has surpassed 25,000 signatures – which means the Obama administration must reply. It comes one month after the internet activist committed suicide.

Aaron Swartz’ Weblog – Aaron Swartz is the founder of Demand Progress, which launched the campaign against the Internet censorship bills (SOPA/PIPA) and now has over a million members. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Baffler and on the Council of Advisors to The Rules.

Why Aaron Mattered – By Lauren Wales, 02/01/2013  – As I listen to the news reports about Aaron’s life, so many of them seem to miss something key to his work: the unschooler understanding that knowledge is free, yes, but it means nothing if it is not implemented and shared.

Unschooler Aaron Swartz Dies at Age 26 – By Peter Kowalke, 01/12/2013 – Aaron and I briefly collaborated in 1999 on a learning exchange that we intended to turn into a college for unschoolers. But Aaron was too young, still with a squeaky voice, and I ended up making the Grown Without Schooling documentary instead.

Anonymous Hijacks Federal Website Over Aaron Swartz Suicide – By Matthew Larotonda | ABC News Blogs – Sat, Jan 26, 2013 – The lengthy essay largely mirrors previous demands from Anonymous, but this time the group also cited the recent suicide of Reddit co-founder and activist Aaron Swartz as has having “crossed a line” for their organization. Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison on computer fraud charges.

Aaron Swartz’s Girlfriend Explains ‘Why Aaron Died’ – By Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Feb 05, 2013 – “I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions.”

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Desperately Seeking Research


On Homeschooling the Gifted Child

by Joyce Michel, Teaneck, NJ


“Anyone out there have any information on homeschooling the gifted?” This question has occurred to me repeatedly, with increasing urgency, as my daughters (now age 3 and 5) have approached school age. With every book I encounter on homeschooling, I find myself turning first to the index to look up “gifted”; in the books on gifted children, I immediately search for “homeschooling.” So far, I have discovered little.

Intensive library research has proved disappointing. The homeschooling literature makes just a few references to the ability of homeschooling to meet the needs of gifted children. The gifted literature mentions homeschooling only in passing as an extreme educational option (or as J. Smutny aptly terms it, “the ultimate pullout program”) .I have found mention of a few enticing-sounding articles — from journals too obscure to obtain. Meanwhile, in the popular media, human interest stories depict profoundly gifted children who were homeschooled with positive results. But as to actual research? Nothing.

Why No Research on Homeschooling the Gifted?

So much has been written on the separate topics of homeschooling and giftedness that the lack of research where these topics converge is surprising — initially.

Research on giftedness, however, presumably follows the same constraints as its parent fields of educational and psychological research. The issues that are researched are typically those that are readily funded, easy to obtain data in, and of great concern to much of society. On all counts, researchers of giftedness are most likely to investigate public school populations. Compare the feasibility of obtaining data on gifted children in a large uniform school system versus in numerous separate homes of homeschooling families whose methods are likely to differ remarkably from one another. The homeschooled population has therefore been ignored by researchers probably because of logistics as well as ignorance.

On the other side, why so little discussion of giftedness in the home-schooling literature? Largely because giftedness is a comparative term that is less relevant when the child is educated at home, apart from age mates. What need have homeschoolers to test, sort, and label their children as the schools do? No matter what their educational philosophy, homeschoolers typically emphasize understanding their children and meeting their educational needs as individuals — an approach that does not concern itself with how the child’s abilities or disabilities would be labeled in a school environment.

Thus Josh Shaine of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children (in NH), who spoke on giftedness at a homeschooling conference in Boston, describes homeschooling parents as reluctant to test their children and leery of educational labels such as “gifted.” Home-schoolers are, then, notably difficult to research on the topic of giftedness. In his opinion, incidentally, the identification of gifted homeschooled children would be beneficial, resulting in their needs being met more appropriately.

Further reluctance by home-schoolers to discuss giftedness — at least academic giftedness — may stem from an anti-academic attitude common to proponents of several homeschooling philosophies. With academics so heavily identified with formal schooling, it is not surprising that some critics of formal schooling find academics too bookish, too abstract, or too secular — and thus undervalue academic giftedness. For example, some homeschoolers believe that reading ability is commonly attained around age 8 or 10, and some of these parents proudly cite their children’s relatively late reading ages as if tribute to the parents’ immunity to social pressure and their commitment to the child’s natural development. Such parents may be defensive towards or disbelieving of a parent whose child began to read at, say, age three, doubting that such behavior was self-motivated and accusing the parent of “pushing.” Homeschoolers who highly value uninhibited spontaneity, practical life skills, or religious obedience may also undervalue gifted academic performance — particularly when manifested by children other than their own.

Finding Answers Between the Lines

Lacking research on homeschooling the gifted, I looked for what recommendations researchers make for educating gifted children in school. Over and over I found researchers suggesting that the school provide the gifted child with an educational environment that is:

  • individualized,
  • flexibly scheduled,
  • appropriately challenging,
  • actively supported by the parents,
  • based on life experiences, and
  • based on the child’s interests.

Suddenly it dawned on me — the researchers are (unwittingly) describing homeschooling!

In addition, researchers on giftedness repeatedly describe gifted children as able and independent learners who have little need to be “taught” in the didactic sense. They advise that many gifted children require not teachers but mentors to provide encouragement and access to resources. This is indeed reassuring to homeschooling parents who may doubt that they are “smart enough” to educate a gifted child. Indeed, supportive and helpful homeschooling parents — perhaps along with an outside tutor or mentor in the area of the child’s talent or interest — may be more appropriate for the gifted child than leaving the child’s education to professional teachers who must try to meet the diverse needs of many children at once.

I showed a list of recommendations such as the one above to a public school teacher, who declared that the recommendations sounded wonderful, but that they would be impossible to implement — at least in the overcrowded and underfunded classroom in which he taught. In contrast, not only can these recommendations be readily implemented through homeschooling, but they describe homeschooling as it is already actually practiced by many homeschoolers (of both gifted and nongifted children).

Of course every home school is unique; one cannot generalize too much, given the wide range of philosophies and methods to which homeschoolers subscribe. But certainly all the above features are more typical of homeschooling than of school, since homeschooling is usually more responsive to the child’s abilities. In fact, the recommendations above are antithetical to the classroom environment, which tends to be naturally group-oriented, rigidly scheduled, paced by age norms, and have a bureaucratically determined curriculum.

The features that researchers recommend for gifted children could arguably provide the basis of a fine education for children of any level of ability; many nongifted children would presumably benefit if their educations were more individualized, responsive, and relevant. But these recommendations are most appropriate for gifted children because gifted children (along with children with learning difficulties or unusual learning styles) are furthest from the norms upon which group education is based; in other words, gifted children have needs that are highly atypical — and therefore badly met — in the classroom.

In search of further information, I contacted Carla DeLancy, editor of HoMe Schooling (the newsletter of the homeschooling special interest group of Mensa). She responded that perhaps the prevalence in homeschooling of the features recommended for gifted education is partially responsible for the superior academic performance (as measured by standardized tests) of homeschooled children over their peers in school. This implies, intriguingly, that these characteristics of homeschooling can elicit gifted performance from a significant number of children who would not be identified as gifted in the schools.

So, although I located no research explicitly on homeschooling gifted children, I did find an answer I had sought: that indeed, homeschooling can provide an appropriate education for gifted children — in fact, homeschooling is in many ways better suited than the classroom for meeting gifted needs and fostering gifted outcomes.

Who, Me — An Expert?

Motivated by the thought that other parents were probably seeking similar information on homeschooling gifted children, I volunteered to present my findings at a parent discussion group at the Gifted Child Society in Hackensack, New Jersey. I invited my friend Sara Finkler to assist in the presentation to lend further credibility — she’s a certified teacher who is homeschooling older children, using selective acceleration to meet their gifted needs.

The discussion group, titled “Considering Homeschooling for Gifted Children,” was particularly well attended, with a spirited question-and-answer session. Photocopied handouts were eagerly snapped up. My only disappointment was that none of the parents attending seemed better informed than ourselves. To them, we were the experts.

The high level of interest in our topic was confirmed, unexpectedly, by a barrage of media attention on the topic. In quick succession, Sara Finkler’s family appeared on a story on homeschooling in the local TV news; both of her views and mine were featured in our newspaper’s parenting column (Bergen Record 11/10/96: “Letting the Gifted Learn at Home”); my family, among others, was spotlighted in an article on Jewish homeschoolers in the local Jewish weekly; and I was asked to write this article for HoMe Schooling. As Sara and I resurfaced, somewhat dazed, from our sudden immersion in the media vortex, we concluded that interest in the topic of homeschooling the gifted was high, but that no researchers on the topic had emerged.

Which brings me back to my question: “Anyone out there have any information on homeschooling the gifted?”


References and Resources

Colfax D., and Colfax, M. (1988). Homeschooling for Excellence. Warner Books. (Practical and reassuring book from parents who homeschooled several children to go on to Harvard.)

Emerick, L.J. (1992). Academic underachievement among the gifted: Students’ perceptions of factors that reverse the pattern. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 140-146.

Koopmans-Dayton J.D., & Feldhusen J.F. (1987). A Resource Guide for Parents of Gifted Preschoolers. GCT, Nov/Dec, 2-7. (See Table 3, Components of a Modified Curriculum for Gifted Children, which summarizes the recommendations of numerous researchers.)

McMillan, B.D. (1985). Home education for gifted children. GCT, Nov/Dec, 55-56. (Brief but convincing essay.)

Smutny, J.F. (1989). Your gifted child: How to recognize and develop the special talents in your child from birth to age seven. Facts On file, New York. (See pp. 106-108, “The Ultimate Pullout Program: Homeschooling.”)

Home sweet school. Time, Oct. 31, 1994, 62-63. (Emphasis on homeschooling for academic excellence.)

In a class of their own. Newsweek, Jan. 10, 1994, 58. (The benefits
of home-schooling for exceptionally gifted children depicted through the lives of three families.)

American Association for Gifted Children Newsletter, January 1996, vol. III no. 1. This special homeschooling issue includes several essays:

  • Stewart, J. Homeschooling the gifted child — try it! (One family’s experience — emphasis on academic acceleration.)
  • Blackwell, J. Home education: a growing trend. (A general overview.)
  • McIntee, S.K. Learning our way at home: an exceptional family’s trek toward appropriate education. (Home-schooling two boys, both labeled gifted and learning disabled.)
  • (The issue also includes a 4-page insert, “Books and Resource Guides for Home Schoolers,” which is available for $3. Write AAGC, 1121 W. Main St., Suite 100, Durham, NC 27701).

Note: I’m still desperately seeking further information on homeschooling the gifted. I’ve been unable to obtain:

Joyce Michel is now a Retired Home Educator and her children are grown. If you feel you need to contact her, email me and give me permission to forward your email to her. She retains copyright to this content, which was written in 1997.

From Ann Zeise: Joyce Michel gave me her permission to retain her article on this page in an email May 10, 2012. She had published it originally on her GeoCities site.

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