Jeremy Stuart’s directorial debut documentary on homeschooling called "Class Dismissed" is showing on Sunday, January 25th at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. If you are a parent, or want a fresh perspective on education, you won't want to miss this one-time showing!
Tickets are on sale now and selling fast. I am extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with Jeremy Stuart.
As a homeschooling dad seeking alternatives to the traditional school system for your own child, what made you decide on a self directed learning approach for your daughter?
My wife and I are willing try anything and be flexible with our approach to learning. This self-directed approach is really working for her and us. We are open to anything and don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves to one particular approach because things are always changing. She's ten now, and she is changing and growing and her needs are too. It's our job as parents to pay attention to that and facilitate her needs.
What was school like for you growing up?
I went to school in England, and I was a good student. But in high school everything changed. There was just one door after another being closed. I had a career counseling meeting where they asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” This is a ridiculous question for a 15 year old. At that time I was interested in music and wanted to be a professional drummer so I answered, "I want to be a rockstar." They said, “You can't be that because that's not a job. You should find something else." I told them “I’m interested in fine art." They said, “You can’t do that because you are already studying music and you can't do both. You have to do one or the other.” School was incredibly limiting, and I was discouraged and disappointed by the obstacles to everything I wanted to learn. I knew what I was passionate about, but they weren’t willing or able to make it happen. I ended up being a professional drummer traveling all over the world for ten years despite them saying it wasn't a job.
Everything I've done in my professional life as an adult has been completely self-directed. I never went to film school, I just got interested and decided I was going to learn what I needed, and I have a very successful career. If I’m interested I will go out and learn it. That experience with school turned out to be a good thing because it triggered something in me to take it upon myself to find out what I needed to do instead of having someone tell me.
Can you explain the alternative education insights this film provides and demystify what homeschooling means?
The film introduces different aspects of homeschooling and learning outside a traditional classroom. The narrative thread of the film follows a family who pull their two girls out of one of the best schools in Los Angeles to homeschool them. Along the way we talk about the process of “de-schooling,” curriculum, “unschooling,” self-directed learning, and charter school independent study programs. There’s a lot of ground covered. We also answer the typical questions that get asked about homeschooling and demystify what homeschooling is about. The general public has a lot of preconceived notions about homeschooling.
What is “de-schooling” and “un-schooling”?
De-schooling is the process of allowing kids who attend school to decompress from their schooling experience. When they’re at a school they become conditioned to being told what to do, when to do it, what to learn and how to learn it. That's the structure of a school. When you pull kids out of that system they don't know what to do with themselves at first because they've always been told what to do. It's important to give them unstructured time to undo all that conditioning, let them be themselves and pursue what they are really interested in and allow that natural inquisitiveness and self -motivation to develop. They say for every year of schooling you need a month of de-schooling to begin to figure that out. The family I followed in the film goes through this process.
Unschooling is an educational approach to life that came from John Holt in 1977. He came up with this term because the type of learning he was talking about didn't have to take place at home and it didn’t have to look like school. It’s using life as the teacher. For instance, going to the grocery store is math lesson to figure out how much things cost, rounding things up, that's a very practical real life lesson. Unschoolers use their environment and situations in life as learning tools.
What are the common questions that get asked about homeschooling?
The number one question that always gets brought up is socialization. Homeschoolers are in the real world and not in an institution with people all the same age. My daughter is participating and getting involved with people of all ages, and that’s true socialization.
Another common question is how do you know they are learning anything if they are not taking tests? As if some how testing is the measurement of how someone is learning. We're learning all the time – it's impossible not to learn.
There are also misconceptions about what homeschooling looks like. In the film, I ask people what images come to mind when I mention homeschooling. The typical answer is mom sitting around a kitchen table teaching a lesson.
Another one is how do you get into college? Another question with no real validity because colleges these days are seeking out homeschoolers because they’re still interested in learning, and colleges love that. There is a whole different application process for homeschoolers. Stanford recently had a 26% acceptance rate amongst homeschoolers versus 6% amongst standard schools.
What do you think is the problem with schools? What would have to change to make them as good as homeschooling? Can you combine the two?
The biggest problem with the institution of school is the over-testing, grading and measuring. No Child Left Behind caused devastation in the public education system. It was in place for over ten years and was a disaster. It's being gradually replaced with Common Core which is worse. The entire focus is on testing. There are tests to prepare for tests, and there is no teaching outside of what is on the test. If it's not on the tests they don't bother looking at it. The testing has to stop. Testing is pointless, it doesn't tell you much about the student and their ability to understand a subject, and it puts enormous pressure on students and teachers. Anytime you have all that pressure, learning is not taking place. I don't think you can combine or bring homeschooling approaches into public school. Schools are so entrenched in politics and big money that there is no room for change. Plus, any change in schools is so incremental and slow that it takes years for things to trickle down to the student level. I personally don’t think schools are reformable. What I'd like to see is more independent learning centers based on homeschooling and unschooling principles -- where kids are self-directed, and it's about the kids. What they want to learn is the primary focus, and testing is taken completely out of the equation. To me, the future of education needs to be organized around those principles.
Have you spoken to anyone within the institutionalized school system who has seen your movie? What do they think of your movie?
A few teachers have seen my movie but no one at any higher level. While we were making the movie, we approached the principal of the school the family was attending in Los Angeles, but no one returned our calls. To me it’s an indication that the system is broken. I wish I was able to connect with them because we need more open dialog. I’m hoping my movie will reach this group so we can have people in the schools begin to question what they’re doing, why this isn't working, and what can we do to make it better.
What are your thoughts about Common Core?
I'm not a Common Core expert but what I do know is that there are enormous amounts of politics and money behind it. There’s a lot of data being collected on every student for all kinds of reasons and that's scary in itself. The testing and standards they are trying to implement seem to be worse and more damaging than No Child Left Behind. To me, it looks like a different name for the same thing and still based on this fundamental idea that we need to be testing, measuring and grading everything all the time. There’s a lot resistance to Common Core and people are dropping out of schools because of it.
What are your thoughts on private schools?
We were just in North & South Carolina and someone told me that there is more homeschooling in those states than kids in private school which is a whole other subject. The cost of private school has gone through the roof and college especially.
College debt has surpassed credit card debt for the first time in history. I don't get into that in my film but that is a huge problem. We're saddling young people with horrific debt before they have even had a chance to do anything with their education. That has to change because it’s unsustainable. There are so many brilliant kids with great ideas, what happens to their dreams? They get crushed because they come out of college with $100K in debt. They have no choice but to start working immediately to pay it off and then it's goodbye dreams and innovation. There is another film called “Ivory Tower” which addresses this issue.
Do you think your movie will help the public's general understanding of what homeschooling is all about?
I think there are a growing number of parents realizing that school is not working for them. We want to reach people who are "homeschool curious" and want to know more. Families may be aware of alternatives and have heard of homeschooling but have misconceptions that it's only for religious people or off-the-grid anti-society hippy types. I hope my film speaks to those people and helps them realize there are options. There are as many different ways to approach homeschooling as there are people doing it. It can be truly personalized and specific to you and your child and what can be better than to customize and tailor the way your child learns.
How did you find the family in your movie?
We put out a casting call for families on our website and had over 100 families respond. Part of our criteria was that they had to have kids in school who were not doing well, and were considering alternatives. It was so interesting to read the applications as to the reasons why families were considering this. They ranged from too much homework, stress, lack of free time, constant testing, bullying and lack of family time. We chose this particular family because they met all our criteria, and they were all comfortable in front of the camera. We then followed their process for two years.
You successfully exceeded funding for this project through Kickstarter & Indigogo. Can you tell me about this grassroots effort you’ve put into the film?
It's been really incredible. I applied for many different traditional filmmaking grants and got nowhere. Luckily, because we live in the age of technology and social media is so powerful, we built a following and leveraged that to reach people who are passionate about this subject. They made it possible to make this film. Now that we are screening the film, I get to meet a lot of the people who have supported us over the last four years. I am so grateful to our supporters. Kickstarter and Indigogo are amazing vehicles for getting ideas off the ground and into the world.
How can people see the movie if they cannot make it for a screening?
The DVD will become available in the Spring of 2015, and we are also looking at ways to stream it online. We’ve also submitted it to numerous film festivals. We’re going to travel to as many screenings as we can, but in the meantime, anyone who wants to do their own screening, can purchase our DVD Screener Pack which is available on our website. It comes with the DVD, a license to screen the film, instructions on how to host a screening and a 32 page PDF homeschool resource guide full of information about online resources, books, and other things we have gathered over the course of our research.
Any further reading or websites you recommend for people interested in homeschooling?
There is so much information online, but the best thing to do is to talk to homeschool families and spend time with their kids. When you talk to homeschooled kids, you understand why this approach works. That’s how I started, and I was so impressed that I knew it was what I wanted for my daughter.
What is your daughter interested in?
She’s interested in music too. She writes her own songs, loves to perform, plays piano and sings. She does open mic nights at The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley fairly regularly, and she put out a CD when she was seven with songs she had written and sold it to family and friends. She loves writing and is working on a novel, learning to code in HTML so she can build a website. She also loves to dance. Those are her main focuses right now, and it's very exciting to watch her.
What are the resources in the Bay Area to learn more about homeschooling?
Marin Homeschoolers have partnered with Golden Gate Learning Center in San Anselmo to offer classes and information on homeschooling. Marin Homeschoolers will also host a Bay Area Homeschool Fair on May 2, 2015.