Lehla Eldridge and her husband Anthony Rogers are pointing a laptop out of their second-story bedroom window. Below them, a cinematic Italian olive orchard stretches into the distance. “This is a kind of typical Umbrian landscape,” Anthony says.
I’m amazed by what they’re showing me on Skype. Not only is this the beautiful view from their home, it’s the beautiful view from their children’s classroom as well.
“I think most of the people around here know that we’re the English family who have three children,” Lehla says. “But I don’t know if they know they go to school or don’t go to school.”
Whether or not the local Italians know about Anthony and Lehla’s approach to schooling their kids, you can expect they would be quite intrigued. “The Italian schooling system is very rote-learning driven,” says Anthony, “it’s very structured.” Anthony and Lehla’s approach… is not.
Lehla and Anthony are English, but they’ve been “unschooling” their three children, Amari (11), Olive (11), and Jahli (9) in Italy since 2012. Lehla says her family’s approach is similar to self-directed learning, where “if kids want and need to learn, they learn.”
There’s no “typical” school day for the kids, Lehla says. But generally, they start their day by gathering for breakfast, before the kids all decide what they want to do. Sometimes they’ll do projects, read, go on Khan Academy, or check Big Questions on School in the Cloud. “They choose how they run their day,” says Lehla, “I follow them.”
Prior to engaging with this learning approach, Lehla says there seemed to be a “general unease and closing down of the kids’ spirits, energy levels, and enjoyment in life every time they were in a school setting.” So, she and Anthony explored ways they could school the kids instead.
After visits to some self-directed learning schools that proved to be too expensive, and another stint at an Italian school that closed after about six months there, Lehla and Anthony decided to let their kids learn at home. “Yes, it can be challenging,” Lehla says, “but it is also inspiring to watch our kids unfold into who they are.”
As part of their “unschooling” approach, Lehla and Anthony’s children will form their own self-organised learning environments (SOLEs) to answer Big Questions from School in the Cloud. Sometimes their children will be inspired to answer the questions by writing, making films, taking photographs, drawing, or dressing up.
“The best SOLE moment we have had without a shadow of a doubt,” says Lehla, “was when we hooked up with another SOLE on Twitter.” The SOLE on the other end was a classroom in New Jersey.
Lehla and Anthony’s kids asked questions back and forth with the class. One question was about the Underground Railroad. Lehla says learning about Harriet Tubman’s work to abolish slavery inspired deep learning in her children — so much so that they decided to create and record a puppet show about Tubman’s efforts. “I found it very inspiring and moving,” Lehla says, “It was a beautiful portrayal of a harrowing story.”
While her children are answering Big Questions, Lehla will in turn ask them to the School in the Cloud community as well.
Her most recent question “Do identical twins think the same thoughts?” was featured as part of the Big Question Challenge.
Lehla says her question about twins was meant to open up other questions, even if it didn’t have an answer. Plus, she has first-hand experience with the subject, because her two daughters are identical twins.
“I was interested to ask them whether they thought they thought the same thoughts,” she says. “Often, I think they do, and I can almost hear them thinking.”
Lehla and Anthony invited their daughters to join our chat, to give their thoughts on the question. They agreed: “Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.”
Anthony and Lehla are nearly three years into “unschooling” their kids. So far, everyone seems quite happy with the experience. “When kids learn on their own, but have good guides around them,” says Lehla, “I think the learning takes on a whole new dimension, as respect is given back to the kid and ultimately faith that children can be self-directed learners.” Anthony adds, “It is a respect for the fact that children are born wanting to learn.”
You can learn more about the Eldridge-Rogers family’s “unschooling” experience, and the olive orchard they live on, at unschoolingthekids.com.