As a young mother, Peggy was introduced to the writings of John Holt and his term “unschooling”. What followed was a life devoted to exploring and implementing natural learning. While guiding her own children, she empowered others to break out of traditional education and let their children lead them.
Peggy’s Professional Life Begins in Japan
Peggy’s passion for education took off when, right after graduating from Principia College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish, she was hired to teach English as a Second Language for a company in Tokyo, Japan. She loved the creativity involved in working with small groups of students to help them improve their language skills. It inspired her and her Japanese husband to open an English school in Tokyo and create their own learning system based on individual and group activities. Peggy wrote and produced the materials, including doing the voice recording. This led to her work recording English materials for a publishing company, teaching ESL on national radio and TV, and contributing to a column in a magazine that targeted English learners in Japan.
Peggy’s Teaching Interest
Evolves from English to
After seven years of living and working in Tokyo, Peggy accepted offers to teach ESL part-time at the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona and later at the University of Toledo in Ohio. While in Ohio, Karen arrived and so, during Peggy’s short stints away from Karen, a close friend took care of her. This friend had three daughters of her own, the oldest being 6. One day, Peggy remembers, this child asked her mother to teach her at home because she didn’t want to continue going to school. So the mom, who was a certified teacher, spent hours at the library researching the option. Back then, there was no internet! She found out that the compulsory attendance laws of Ohio did not outlaw homeschooling. She also stumbled upon some books by John Holt.
Peggy continues, ” I became intrigued with what my friend was doing with her children and asked her how I could learn more. She told me to read everything written by John Holt. As I started reading books such as ‘Teach Your Own”, I kept thinking, ‘Of course! I’ve always known that. It makes perfect sense.’
No School for Karen
By the time Karen was three years old, Peggy knew that Karen would not be going to pre-school. When her sister, Stacey, was born, it made so much sense to have Karen home instead of off at school for all or part of the day. The two sisters grew up playing together and then welcomed another sister, Rachel. Now all three girls could play together, learn from and with each other and fully participate in family activities instead of going off in different directions for most of each day.
As the three girls would appear in public during the day, Peggy would be questioned about why they weren’t in school.
She says, “I grew from fearfully trying to dodge the question to confidently engaging the questioner and explaining the unschooling philosophy to them. It was fun to see how people would respond!”
While in Ohio, Peggy teamed up with another mom and co-founded a homeschool support group called “Home Education League of Parents” (HELP). She wrote articles for the monthly newsletter, organized activities for homeschooling families and published a calendar of activities. HELP sponsored a public event in 1990 featuring John Taylor Gatto, who had just won the New York State Teacher of the Year award and, at the same time, resigned his teaching position and wrote an editorial in the New York Times, condemning public education.
From School-at-Home to Unschooling
When Karen was six years old, she and her mom started to do school at home because Karen was curious about school and really wanted to get on the big yellow school bus.
Peggy remembers, “We did some math and reading each morning so she could have a similar experience to her peers. After two weeks of this routine, I could see her tiring of it and asked her how she felt about it. She said she didn’t want to do school anymore. Then I asked her what she wanted to do and our unschooling journey took off. We never looked back!”
Each September, Peggy would ask her daughters what they wanted to do and learn that year.
“They made their lists” she says, “and then we would set about researching the opportunities. Karen loved horses and took riding lessons when we lived in Ohio. When we moved to Colorado, she was nine and wanted to start lessons up again. I told her to research the local stables and instructors and let me know what she could find out. I handed her a telephone book and showed her how to use the Yellow pages. About a week later, she had narrowed her list to a few instructors, so she called them and we went to visit.”
Peggy felt it was important not to do the work for the children. They needed to show their interest in pursuing something by actively engaging in making it happen. They also needed to be accountable for their decisions. If they wanted to take piano lessons, for example, they needed to practice without being reminded every day. If they stopped practicing, the funding would be removed!
Peggy is often asked, “How can I be sure my kids are really learning?”
“One thing I did,” Peggy remembers, “was to keep a calendar of our activities, lists of books we read, trips we took, etc. When Karen was 6, I decided to make a portfolio to show what her first grade looked like. I put in a page for each subject area: English, Social Studies, Math, etc. Then I wrote the activities that could go in each category. When I was done, I was totally impressed! There was no doubt in my mind that Karen learned more that year than she could have learned if she were in school. That is the first and only time I ever did a project like that. If you are having doubts, just grab a notebook and follow your kids around for awhile, noting what they are doing. Or make a one-year portfolio for yourself. You will never doubt again!”
The days and years continued to be filled with activities that the girls wished to pursue. There was no homework, no tests and no grades. Karen took her first test to qualify for her ham radio license and she aced it. There was no need to have years of practice to one day at age 14 take a test.
Peggy Starts a School
When Peggy’s family moved to Colorado in 1993, Peggy researched the laws for homeschooling and decided to start a support group. She called it West River Unschoolers. Again, she published a monthly newsletter and organized activities. She checked the laws for opening a school and, to her delight, they did not require a physical building (as was the case in Ohio). So she told the families in the support group that she was starting a school and they could enroll. That was how West River Academy got started.
Karen’s Teen Years
Karen loved horses so she spent more and more time at the stable with her horse. First it was riding lessons and then it was working to pay for boarding her horse. She would come home from the barn and, for relaxation, she would immerse herself in reading all kinds of books. She also enjoyed writing in journals and playing the piano.
Karen’s childhood years in gymnastics and horseback riding prepared her for her next passion: swing dancing. She danced at a small club and then she and a few friends opened up their own club.
One day she asked, “How do we handle the money part?”
That led to her learning from practical experience how to rent a facility, set admission fees, publicize the events, hire DJs and musicians and pay expenses.
During her teen years, Karen was asked if she was interested in going to school. She was so involved in her own time-consuming activities that her response was, “I don’t have time!” By now, she was immersed in working with horses, playing piano, dancing, reading, journaling and working part-time jobs.
Karen graduated from West River Academy in 2002. She received her diploma and a 4-year transcript.
From Life Experience to Course Names
How did she get a transcript after a life of unschooling?
Peggy replies, “She pored over her years of journals, translating real life learning into courses, credits and grades. Her dance club experience for example, translated into courses such as Introduction to Business, Applied Math and Bookkeeping. Her horseback riding was Physical Education and Equine Studies. Her journaling and reading of literature was English. Her reading of Isaac Asimov’s books dealing with science fact and fiction became Cosmology and Physics for the Layman, for example. ”
How did she learn subjects like Algebra?
“Well,” Peggy recounts, “When she decided to take the ACT college entrance exam, we hired a tutor to teach her high school math. After 4 months, she was ready and she did fine on the test. She was motivated to learn high school math quickly, because she knew that she needed to do well on the college placement test, so she wouldn’t have to pay college tuition for high school level math courses. While in college, she successfully completed mathematics courses through Calculus.
Karen’s College and Career
At age 19, Karen started to work for an investment company. In 2006 she moved to Denver, CO and started attending Red Rocks Community College while still working full-time at the investment company. During the next 5 years, she worked the full-time job and took college classes. She got her Associate degree in Business Management from Red Rocks Community College and then went on to finish her 4-year degree at an online college, DeVry University. She graduated in 2011 magna cum laude from DeVry University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Technical Management, with a specialization in Project Management.
In 2014, Karen married her husband, Brian, in Hawaii. The newlyweds embarked on a three month journey through Asia. It became clear to Karen, that her passion was not in finance but in education.
Karen’s passion for education and her desire to raise her children in the way she was raised led her to leave the corporate world and join West River Academy. Since 2015, Karen has been working as Assistant Director.
Stacey’s Unschooling Journey
Karen’s younger sisters, however, did choose to experience school during some of their childhood. Both Stacey and Rachel attended a part-time alternative school program offered by the school district to homeschoolers. Stacey spent her days involved in group and individual lessons, such as piano, tennis, dance and Spanish. She enjoyed playing in tennis tournaments and she also got paid to play the piano in local shows and in retirement homes.
As a teen, Stacey traveled to Costa Rica and Australia, and also volunteered at a school in Kenya, teaching the children simple piano skills on the keyboard. She took some courses at the local high school and participated in the drama club, acting and working on the set. She also played piano in the high school jazz band.
She joined the swing dance club started by her older sister, participating in choreographing and performing swing dances with her sister at local Galas and other events. She was usually working a part-time job and, as she got older, she transitioned from a student to an adult employee and continued living in her hometown.
After gaining experience in customer relations, Stacey joined the West River Academy team in January of 2017 as Administrative Director.
The Possibilities of “Unschooling”
– Rachel’s Journey
As a young child, Rachel enjoyed individual and group lessons such as piano, horseback riding, karate, rock-climbing, dance, Japanese language and Spanish language. At seven years old, she attended a home options program for homeschoolers a few days a week, where she learned to work on group projects and give presentations. Every summer throughout her childhood, she attended an adventure camp, where she learned to white-water raft, peak mountains, ride horses, and be a team leader. She chose to go to a boarding school, where she experienced the opposite of “home” school. Her life there consisted of core classes, as well as basketball, volleyball, and cross-country. She decided to move back home and attend the local public high school.
To Rachel, “unschooling” meant having the freedom to have all kinds of learning opportunities. She went through homeschool, alternative school, boarding school, and public school, by the time she was fifteen she said she was ready for something new.
“What do you want to do next year?” Peggy asked.
“I want to travel! I want to learn new languages and experience the cultures,” was Rachel’s reply.
Rachel visited countries on 6 continents, picking up some Japanese, Swahili, French and Spanish along the way.
After her year of travel, she had discovered some new passions, such as cuisine and fashion design. So, she took classes to develop new skills at a local community college and then graduated from West River Academy in 2010.
After graduation, she continued taking classes at the college and she worked at a local art gallery, where she gained business, merchandising and customer service experience.
In 2012, Rachel was accepted by the University of Hawaii. She graduated in May of 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications, a Minor in Agriculture, and a Certificate in Communications, a Minor in Agriculture, and a Certificate in Beekeeping.
After college graduation, Rachel moved to the island of Kaua’i to be with her fiance and start a new chapter. She immediately started a corporate job, and was promoted quickly through the management program. However, with the artistic and diverse background that she has, she soon found that the corporate ladder wasn’t the highest priority for her.
Like her sisters, Rachel has come full circle. She appreciates the freedom she was given to pursue a vast array of learning opportunities and sees her future as a West River Academy team member supporting others’ educational journeys.
As of August 2017, Rachel started as the Creative Director with West River Academy.
To Be Continued…
As our story continues to unfold, we will add more to this page!
We hope you enjoyed learning about our personal and professional lives and will feel like you are joining our worldwide family when you enroll in West River Academy!
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