Hidden within 55-acres of green space, the Awbury Arboretum in East Germantown is now home to the Talking Stick Learning Center. The two building learning facility offers a variety of programs for home-school children ages 4 through 15 years old. Founded on the idea that learning is innate, Talking Stick Learning Center strives to help students naturally develop essential life skills. The local non-profit education initiative provides home-schoolers with an environment where they are free to explore, investigate and interact.
Home-schooling has always been a controversial topic in the education community. Although the concept of home-schooling seems revolutionary, historically, home education was a primary method for parents to teach their children. Through everyday life, children learned all the practical skills needed to survive. With the rise of compulsory education attendance laws, which required students to attend school regularly, the idea of home-schooling became a distant memory.
Today, the home-school movement is increasingly gaining support as a legitimate option for schooling. In 1999, there were approximately 850,000 students being home-schooled in the United States. A little over a decade later and there are more than 2 million home-educated students in the country, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. The continuous growth of the number of families choosing to home-school has led to the establishment of resources and networks that facilitate home-schooling.
Talking Stick Learning Center was started by Katie O’Connor in 2006. O’Connor, who has previously worked with other alternative schooling programs, established the organization on the principle of self-directed experiences. The children lead the program, while the adults are there to regulate activity. The organization maintains a group learning environment for home-schoolers to interact while actively engaging in learning activities. Open three days a week, children can participate in an array of creative programs that focus on everything from robot building to basic electrical skills.
Ashana Larsen manages the S.T.E.A.M. Maker program for the 10 to 15 year old students at the Center. On a weekly basis she directs activities involving science, technology, engineering, art and math. She considers herself a facilitator and not a teacher, only providing instruction and guidance when necessary.
“What we hope to help them with is how to learn on their own,” said Larsen enthusiastically. “If they know how to investigate things, that’s all they need and they can take it anywhere they want.”
Most parents and youth choose home-schooling for a number of different reasons. Parents might have a child that needs special attention and would perform better at home, or wish to teach their child a specific set of religious beliefs and values that is not being taught in traditional public schools. Home-schooling tailors education to fit the parent or child, allowing them to implement their own individualized curriculum.
Larsen is not just a facilitator. As a home-school parent and a former unschooler (a person who does not follow a set curriculum, but let’s life experiences lead the way), she’s maintained her faith in home-schooling and believes that it is truly beneficial to allow children to discover their own path when it comes to learning.
“It allows you to be self-directed and project oriented. Not all people have the same goals, so the same education isn’t going to work for all of them,” Larsen explained.
Zoe Gray has been attending programs at the Center for almost three years. Her long list of personal endeavors include renovating Barbie dolls and designing new wardrobes for each one, writing original music and starting a fashion portfolio full of her styling ideas and sewing projects.
“Asha really helps us,” Gray said. “She takes what we’re interested in and really helps us figure out what projects we’d like to do. At the beginning they give us some examples, like they show us new things, but then they give us the option to work on what we want to.”
Criticism of the home-school movement often includes arguments involving academic achievement and the validity of unlicensed teachers instructing education. However, studies by the National Home Education Research Institute show that home-school students score above average, typically 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests, regardless of their parents’ level of knowledge or formal education.
At Talking Stick, the students are free from formal testing and grading.
Paige Menton is a facilitator at the Center and she helps lead the Naturalist and Writing Workshop for the older children. Aside from her typical instructing duties, Menton offers 30-minute home-schooling evaluations.
“I’ve worked with this group for several years, and I would say that their problem solving and social intelligence is really quite well developed because they have the time to work through all that stuff,” Paige said. “That I feel like we’re constantly assessing, not in a kind of formal structure. We’re not all assessing them with the same criteria.”
With the homeschooling movement on the rise, home-based education may once again become a mainstream option.
– Text and images by: Imani Abdus-Saboor