Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling

July 1st, 2011 at 19:51

This is a particularly long piece, but I think it captures the essence of what “unschooling” can be during what would conventionally be ones high school years. It chronicles highlights of the educational journeys of my two kids (Eric now 25 and his sister Emma now 21) who made the decision (with their parents’ consent) not to go to high school, which facilitated their own self-initiated “deep learning” projects done instead.

To set the context for their unschooling experience, we pulled Eric out of school in February 2000 a month after his 14th birthday because it had become clear that he hated going to school and, being a total autodidact, had a profound incompatibility with the conventional instructional academic environment. The previous year we had hired an educational specialist who had worked with him for several month trying unsuccessfully to help him develop study skills and get past his determination not to to do any home work he considered “boring and pointless”. Earlier in the current year, he had gotten everyone’s attention by writing “Fuck math!” as his only answer on the State of California standard math test given to all eighth-graders in the state. That expletive, a culmination of sorts, of years of becoming more and more math-phobic under the tutelage of “drill and kill” math teachers. With his single scrawled answer on the many-question scantron test form, we could tell from subsequent meetings and other discussions with the school staff, that they were reframing Eric as a problem kid, a frame he too seemed to be internalizing.

Since the beginning of the school year, Eric’s mom had done a fair amount of research on the Internet on alternative schools and even the possibility of homeschooling. The few really alternative schools in our area were hugely expensive private schools beyond our means. Even if we could have afforded such a school, Eric was such an “autodidact” (self-learner) and so burnt out we weren’t confident any school environment would work for him. So against conventional wisdom and the advice of friends and even some family members, we finally made our anguished decision to pull him out and figure out how to educate him at home. Though his mom and I both had jobs, we had some flexibility in our schedules, and my mom was now living in our guest house, so there generally was an adult around, but Eric would have to pursue his curriculum mostly on his own.

By the time our daughter Emma completed eighth grade at a small alternative charter school, her brother Eric was already in his fourth year of unschooling, and mom and dad were comfortable enough to offer her at least three choices. She could leave school like her brother, go to a small alternative high school run by the same crew that had launched and ran her middle school, or she could choose “door number 3”, which was the large public “digital arts” magnet school not to far from our home.

Emma chose to attend the large public high school. She and her brother were already into the online role-playing games (that I will discuss in more detail shortly) and she also was very interested in art, so the “digital arts” focus of the magnet school (which the brochures said included computer game design) piqued her interest. Also she was hoping for a vibrant social scene with her fellow students in a big high school, like she had seen on TV in Nickelodeon’s shows “Daria”, “Doug” and “Degrassi”, all set in conventional high school environments full of the kind of intense human drama she had tasted in her online role-playing games, if not in her real life to date.

But after her first year at the school she told her mom and I that she definitely did not want to go back. The school had implemented short passing time between classes and very short lunch and nutrition breaks so there was little or no time for that social interaction and drama between kids she had been hoping for. She felt that much of the school day was wasted on bureaucratic logistics and that most of her teachers were obsessed with grades and tests and trying to keep students from failing rather than really creating a compelling learning environment. And rather than integrating digital arts into all the classes and curriculum, there was one mandatory elective class (oxymoron?… not in public schools), a digital-arts survey art class where you learned more about art than actually learn the digital tools and producing art.

Dad’s Attempt at a Curriculum

When Eric left school, I was actually excited at the challenge of building a curriculum that included the four standard academic areas – English, social studies, science and math – but would be of more interest to Eric than the curriculum at school. I was not yet comprehending fully what a true autodidact our son was!

For English, I suggested great sci-fi books for him to read. They were all ones I had read, so we could have discussions about the story, characters, and underlying issues of the human condition they addressed. For social studies, since he had an interest in 20th Century history, I looked for historical movies to rent (like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Schindler’s List”) and scanned the TV listings for applicable History Channel shows. Again, since I was pretty knowledgeable and interested in history, we could have great discussions about the themes and great historical characters. For science and math, which I was not so into myself and not as inspired; I bought him a couple of those computer programs that claimed to cover all of high school math and science.

Deep Learning 1 – Deprogramming & Finding One’s Agency

Well… getting Eric out of the school environment did not change the fact that he wanted to learn what he was interested in, not what the State of California or his very cleaver and “esteemed parent” (as he sometimes addresses us when he had bad news to deliver) thought he should and even might like to learn. Eric basically holed up in his room all day on his computer, playing computer games. Though I could occasionally coax him out to watch an epic movie, it was what many adults think that kids are intrinsically motivated to do if not pushed into more worthwhile school work, lessons and other activities programmed for them. And now here was our kid, left to his own devices, doing just that, day in and day out. I tried at first to think up rewards for doing some math and science work, but he would always choose to grudgingly forfeit even the best reward, and suffer any indignity to be able to make his own choices and do what he wanted. It did not take too long before I felt that I was just substituting myself for his former school trying to coax, coerce and cajole him to learn things not of his choice.

Luckily, Sally’s Internet research had described how kids transitioning from schooling to unschooling sometimes need a year or more to decompress from a difficult school experience and “deprogram”.

Eric got to a point, somewhere in that transitional year, where he was complaining to us that he was bored, which initially scared us that maybe we had made a big mistake, and inspired us to again try to suggest “curriculum” for him, which he again resisted. But now I see it as an important threshold, when he realized that he was ultimately responsible for his path forward. There was no longer any external authority (either school or parents) for him to resist. It was just him, faced with making his own choices. Four years later his sister chose to unschool (without her parents’ suggesting curriculum this time) and went through a similar transitional phase until she reached that point of boredom and realized she would really be charting her own course. Much of what they both chose to do was not what their mom and I might have anticipated nor knew even existed until they discovered it.

Deep Learning 2 – Online Community Development & Governance

In 2001 Eric (age 15) and Emma (12) got into a game called “Dark Ages”. This game (developed actually in Korea), like others of its ilk, involved paying $5 or $10 a month (as part of their allowance) to join a virtual world shared by people – youth and adults – around the world.

“Dark Ages” was a fantasy role-playing game, based loosely on “Dungeons and Dragons”, where players created a character (often several) that was either a warrior, priest, rogue, wizard or monk. Each character was represented by an “avatar” (a representation of ones self) that the player designed – with choices of physical build, hair, clothing, head gear, etc. – to represent their character “in game” (as Eric and Emma referred to the virtual on-screen world). You used your mouse or computer keys to move your character about the landscape and communicated with other human-controlled avatars by typing in your words that would appear above your avatar in-game as a text bubble. The agreed protocol “in game” was to “speak” (write) in character in a sort of faux language syntax of the middle ages.

The most basic concrete goal of the game was to “level up” your character. This was done mostly by fighting and killing dangerous critters (like Giant Mantises) or evil creatures (such as Bone Dragons) controlled by the computer application itself. Characters would band together in hunting parties (ideally balanced teams including various character types) and travel to the more dicey environs of the game world – magical forests or deep dungeons – to track down and share the point values for killing high value creatures. As your character went up in levels it could learn and acquire more abilities, including new advanced fighting skills for a warrior, new spells for a wizard, or new stealth techniques for a rogue.

For more abstract kids, like Eric & Emma, killing critters got boring fairly quickly. What really engaged their imagination were all the other aspects of this virtual world, including…

1. Virtual towns with streets lined with buildings, residences and more public venues like court houses, taverns, stores and temples

2. Governance structures for those towns including players volunteering for roles as Burgess, judge and police captain, playing an actual role in managing the human players in the game world by setting policies, holding trials or enforcing laws

3. Guilds with guild halls and regular in-game meetings

4, Religions (though not the real world ones) with their own deities, rituals and places of worship

Eric focused a lot of his time developing his own “theater guild”. In a truly outside-the-box idea, he convinced the system operators (who built the virtual world and managed the game play) to build a theater in one of the towns. Then he wrote a play and recruited other people in the game to use their avatars to perform the play on this virtual stage. With plenty of advanced publicity there were other avatars in attendance as Eric the director and his cast performed their play, text bubbles and all.

Deep Learning 3 – Cross Country Train Trip

In contrast to the virtual world of Caenyr, in 2002 at age 16, his mom and I agreed that Eric would accompany his 78 year old grandma Jane (my mom, with worsening dementia) on a train trip from Los Angeles across the country to visit her other son (my brother) Peter and his family in Cleveland Ohio, her brother (my uncle) John and sister-in-law Ruth in Binghamton New York, and her godson Tom and his family on Long Island.

Since neither my partner Sally nor I or any other adult was available to accompany her at this point in time, we thought to send her grandson Eric as her travel partner and young chaperon. It was an interesting duo, with each contributing certain capabilities and status to the paring. He was intelligent, caring, understanding of his grandma’s situation, and judged by us capable of negotiating the trip. But he was a minor and in the official judgment of the world they were traversing, not capable of taking the trip on his own, without special provisions. She was, in the official view of Amtrak and anyone they encountered along the way, his accompanying adult, even though he in fact, given her dementia, was the more responsible party.

Their journey was executed by Eric without any significant hitches, and he really relished his role and rose to the occasion, sounding so relaxed, responsible and in control on our regular phone conversations. He successfully negotiated the train changing in Chicago to the Cleveland train. After spending several days in Cleveland they again boarded the “Capitol Limited” to Syracuse New York where my Uncle John and Aunt Ruth picked them up and drove them back to Binghamton for several days stay before returning them to Syracuse for the next leg of their journey to New York City and several more days with Jane’s godson Tom and family on Long Island. The Binghamton leg of the odyssey was highlighted by a car trip to Jane and John’s childhood home of Watkins Glen and a memorable walk down the gorgeous glen itself, a rushing stream tumbling over rocks and through tree shaded grottos traversed by a foot path which was a sort of thousand-step staircase. The New York City leg featured Tom taking Eric, without his grandma who stayed with Tom’s mom (her dear friend), to see Eric’s first (and only to date) Broadway musical, “Les Miserable”.

The return journey took grandson and grandma from New York City back to Cleveland for a two day respite with Uncle Peter and family again, followed by the train back to Chicago, the big train change there, and the return journey to Los Angeles, where Sally and I excitedly and gratefully picked up our two intact travelers. Eric came back more self-assured and ready to embark on new adventures without us or his grandma that would further push the envelope of his own liberty and agency to chart his own course.

Deep Learning 4 – Camps & Cons

Also in 2001, both Emma and Eric got involved in the Unitarian-Universalist regional youth community. U-U older youth, at least in my experience, are an amazing bunch of kids who have a very active youth organization set up by the denomination, that is basically run by the youth through an elected Board and a small group of adult advisors.

The kids in the organization programmed and ran yearly week-long summer and winter high school age youth camps at the a camp (deBenneville Pines) up in the local mountains that was owned by the denomination. The youth Board would select a youth “Dean” who, supported by an adult advisor, would take on the job of recruiting a youth staff for the camp and leading the effort to develop all the workshops, worships, dances, talent shows, hikes, “raps” (discussions), and other camp events. Besides the Dean, the camp was staffed with other youth performing the roles of chaplains, workshop/event coordinators, registrars, and “Touch Group” (small groups to better weave the participants into the larger community) leaders.

In a similar vein, the youth would schedule and run three to five weekend conferences throughout the year throughout the district, which in our case included Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. These events were also completely planned and staffed by youth, including all the logistical considerations like food.

Both Emma and Eric became very involved in this group, including in various leadership roles, developing many friends and organizational skills along the way. It was a community where, at least as far as I could see, individual uniqueness was celebrated instead of conformity.

At age 17, Eric conceived, organized and led a weekend conference. He came up with a sort of theater of the absurd concept for the event that involved him and all the fellow conference “staff” he had recruited dressing up in bizarre costumes and making somewhat off the wall appearances and pronouncements throughout the weekend event, while in fact managing the event with all their collective abilities. Normally these weekend events had very basic food, purchased and prepared by the kids themselves, which often involved simple fare like cereal and spaghetti. Eric recruited one of his friends that was a gourmet cook, got attendees to pay a little more than the typical $20 for the weekend, and prepared a real gourmet meal including handmade gnocchi with a nice marinara sauce for one of the evening meals. I was not in attendance, but as far as I heard from Eric and his fellow attendees, the event was a great success and very memorable one as well.

At age 16, Emma got elected to the Secretary position on the YRUU Board and also was a “Co-Dean” (co-leader) of that summer’s week-long camp. The next year she successfully ran for the Board President position, including some serious political finesse convincing a past Board President, two years her elder, not to run against her. For a shy kid this was a great developmental leap and gave her a huge shot of self esteem, which is such a precious commodity for older youth, particularly young women.

From their U-U experiences such as these I’ve shared, both our kids have become comfortable with organizing groups, planning events and generally playing collaborative and leadership roles among their peers. Navigating a path forward within this small but challenging community, amidst the strong ethical context of Unitarian-Universalism, has really helped both Emma and Eric develop a strong ethical sense of direction, and the activist skills to make good things happen.

Deep Learning 5 – Character & Narrative Development

With their appetite whet by “Dark Ages” they soon got involved even deeper in another Internet multi-player fantasy role-playing game called “Neverwinter Nights”. Eric collaborated with other game participants to develop their own game world, “Caenyr” that they built (terrain, roads, structures, towns and all) and governed. In the Caenyr world, both Emma and Eric really got into the character role-play and over-arching story aspects of the game. The online community developing and playing the game peaked at around 100 active and semi-active participants, mostly in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Big enough to expose each participant to a diversity of other people and opinions, but still small enough to have your actions matter and be able to take an active role in shaping the story of the world. Not only was there that aspect “in game”, but there were forums (outside the in-game environment) where one could continue sharing and evolving their characters and shared stories, most often along with others in interconnected story-arc threads.

Since Emma was not in school, her schedule was completely her own, with no particular daily routine she had to follow other than one she set herself. Since some of the other key players she collaborated with lived as far away as Great Britain, Sweden, and Australia, she preferred the nighttime for playing “in game”, and daytime for writing posts on the forums. She would generally spend anywhere from 4 to 10 hours a day writing.

It was in the forums where Emma was inspired and able to do extensive writing in the voice of her characters and began to find her muse as a fiction writer. She would write long posts (in character) in forum “threads” where other players were posting in character as well. Sometimes she would spend hours writing one post alone, eager to make it well written and captivating, honing her budding craft as a writer in the process. Looking back on that time more recently, she shared with me that contributing to a good role-play forum thread was the highlight of her day back then.

Her most memorable character was a female elf from a noble family who ran away from home and all the privilege it entailed, and after struggling for many years with hardships and loss, ended up becoming the first mate on a pirate ship captained by another player (who lived in Australia). Emma spun the tale of the pirate elf for several years, “in game” and on the forums, through adventures of triumph and tragedy. Woven into her tales were such things as a secret Illuminati organization, a guild of duplicitous seamen known as “The Brotherhood”, a betrayal and subsequent blood-letting, a “complicated” relationship between her and the captain, and all that sort of grist for pulp fantasy, swashbuckling and soap opera. Day after day, Emma wrestled with the choices her character would make given the array of changing circumstances (introduced by the decisions of the other players) that confronted her buccaneer elf.

The simple wisdom on how to become a good writer is to write as much as you possibly can, and day and night Emma was in her room on the computer or talking across the world to her writing comrades (for free) using Skype. She was not thinking of it as teaching herself how to write. She was just having fun using her imagination to collaborate with others and build a grand tale. It was learning while following ones bliss. She had all the time she needed to settle into the creative writing process and develop her own style of prose, while also learning the critical skills on how to collaborate creatively with others.

As an epilogue… Finally in 2008, at age 18, after not writing much of anything for a couple years, Emma got back to her computer and over the course of eight months made a first attempt at a science-fiction novel, writing a 20,000 word draft of an unfinished story. Since then she has ditched the story, but kept the characters and the initial concept. She enrolled in a novel writing class through UCLA extension. After completing the class, she and a handful of her classmates started a writer’s group, which continues to meet regularly. Today, with the help of her comrades, Emma is pushing forward on her novel.

Deep Learning 6 – Learning the French Language

Emma took here first class in French in ninth grade in 2003, and though she left school after that, she continued with a determination to learn the language. But during her first year of unschooling she struggled with what to do to continue learning French. The most readily available option was to take French at one of the local community colleges, since high school age kids in California can take community college classes for free. But Emma, now age 15, was still perhaps a bit intimidated by taking a class with young adults, so she passed on that option for the year, focusing on her writing instead.

Starting the next fall, now 16, she enrolled in French 2 at a local community college along with her best friend Riva who was also homeschooling. She attended the twice a week class for the entire semester and did well enough on the tests to pass the class, but found the classroom setting intimidating when it came to actually speaking the language in front of the teacher and classmates. Emma has had a history of discomfort when being viewed by others when she does not feel she is at her absolute best. She felt that everyone else in the class was better with the language than she was, which made her reticent to display her lesser skill. She took the French 3 class the next term but still experienced the same limitation in this graded academic setting.

Looking for a more holistic learning environment for mastering the French language, Emma and Riva plotted to do something way outside the box. Riva’s mom had found out about a program called WOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), that matched up volunteers with organic farmers around the world that would give those volunteers free room and board in exchange for doing farm work. Riva and Emma decided to sign up to work on a farm in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec for three weeks to hopefully get some French immersion experience.

Still just 16, the two young women flew by themselves to Quebec, spent the first night at a youth hostel, and then took a two hour bus ride the next day into the country, and were picked up at the bus stop by their host, Louis. They were given fairly rustic accommodations in a room in the barn converted to a makeshift bedroom, which they had to share at times during their three weeks in residence with various insect and small mammal critters. The host couple spoke French, but also English, so though Emma and Riva were seeking immersion in the former language, the couple often spoke to them in the latter to make sure they understood detailed instructions for planting and harvesting the medicinal plants, which included lemon balm, hibiscus, clover, along with vegetables that were not sold but harvested and eaten by the farmers.

Their odyssey did not move the needle forward so much on their learning conversational French as give them other memorable experiences. They helped Louis plant Stinging Nettles, which are used to make holistic medicines for treating arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, and pain. They learned the process under very adverse conditions, awkwardly planting the little spiky seedlings in muddy ground, occasionally getting stung even through heavy gloves.

They also spent a weekend watching the farm and feeding its various chickens and other small farm animals while their hosts visited friends in another city. Their travails included dealing with several big aggressive geese that had mysteriously appeared in the chicken coop, including one that was dead. Only at the end of the weekend did their returning hosts apologize for not telling them that neighbors had asked to leave the geese (including an ailing one) in the coop. It was one of those stories that was much better in the retelling than the initial living through.

So after their three weeks as newbie farmers, the two young women spent their last week in Quebec City at a youth hostel before returning to Los Angeles. They had learned some French, but had had other perhaps more compelling developmental experiences. Emma regaled her mom and I for days after her return with the various tales from their odyssey.

The next spring, now 17 and still seeking the quintessential French language learning environment, Emma and Riva found and enrolled in a French language immersion program in Montreal for a seven-week summer program (blessed with families with the resources to help them pay for this odyssey). Emma was particularly attracted to it because it was not academically oriented with tests and such, but featured four hours of language immersion with a teacher each morning and then afternoon field trips out into the community to practice language skills in the real world.

For the seven weeks they were enrolled in the program, Emma and Riva lived about a mile-and-a-half or so from the small campus in a tiny single apartment. Each morning they would walk to their morning session, which included maybe a half-dozen other students, all older than they were. A couple afternoons a week, their teachers would take them out into the surrounding neighborhood so they could speak the language in typical real-life venues like stores, museums and restaurants. Emma liked this learning environment better because the teachers treated them more like peers, and tailored their lessons to their students’ proficiency level as best they could.

Again it was a lasting experience, and this time round they learned a lot of the language. As homeschooled youths who did not have any immediate plans to go to college, it also gave them that experience of living away from home with other fellow students. Emma also had her 18th birthday there, and under Canadian law was able to drink her first legal alcohol.

The Essence of Unschooling – Self-directed Learning

Rather than being the consumers of high school academic lesson plans, developed by educational bureaucrats and delivered by teachers in formal classroom environments, our “unschooled rather than highschooled” kids sought and found compelling experiences of their own discovery and design during their adolescence. They reached age 18 with perhaps some significant gaps in their conventional academic knowledge, particularly in the areas of science and abstract math. But they also reached that age of majority with profound agency and proven ability to pursue areas of interest to them, overcoming logistical challenges as arose, reinvigorating that natural human imperative to learn by any means available and necessary.

Now both young adults, Emma and Eric have gone on to up the ante with new challenges. Eric partnered with three other friends to launch a small computer business, “Techies”, which he ran the operations for, and which he had to unfortunately lead the effort to shut down due to its ultimate failure in the grips of the Great Recession. Today he works as a video engineer and project manager for a more established small company run by a fellow entrepreneur not unlike himself, who leverages Eric’s now extensive organizational and logistical experience. Emma continues with her science-fiction writing while working several days a week at her “day job” managing a small restaurant.

From my point of view, they both continue to happily and now skillfully direct their own lives.

See a continuation of our kids’ unschooling story in my follow-up piece, “Un-college”.

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4 Responses to “Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling”

  1. Mindy webster Says:

    Tos is just what i needed to read this morning!
    My homeschooling is extreemly relaxed and my 17 and 15 year old boys are very. Behind according to PS. But they are so in love with gaming. And creati g that I seevalue and potential in allowing them to leadtheir own path. ( but I admit i do have my moments where im scared and wonder if I ruined them by not keeping up with PS)
    Ineedto re readtjos article everytime i have anxiety.

    Thank you

  2. Mindy webster Says:

    Not sure why my comment above turned out so jumbled..???

  3. Cooper Zale Says:

    Mindy… thanks for your comment, it made my week!

    It is very difficult to unhook yourself and your kids from “the matrix” of control of their development that school represents. It was very scary for us as well with both our kids! But somehow it worked out… both our kids worked out their own lives and are functioning members of adult society with jobs, circles or community and personal goals beyond just earning a paycheck.

    Not going that conventional path of formal education, including college, means they don’t have those standard credentials that some prospective employers would have a problem with, but they both understand that. What makes me particularly happy is that neither is working for “the man”, some big corporation, but for small businesses where they have relationships with the owners.

    For more about my own unschooling experiences see the following….

    My Pinterest Board: http://pinterest.com/leftyparent/the-art-of-unschooling/

    My Blog’s unschooling pages: http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/my-kids-unschooling-sagas/ and http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/my-own-unschooling-experiences/

  4. Mindy webster Says:

    Thank you for that!! Deep down this all makes so much sense!!
    I totally agree with you!
    Did you enforce any subject matter at all like math and reading? If so what level of math did you/they find sufficient ?
    I allow my kids to choose their own reading… If i suggest or push a book they resist. But if i let them choose they go crazy with it! Although my high functioning autistic son (15) hayes reading ( unless its his science encylopedia) but reads very well. I let ot be :)
    I cant thank you enough for sharing this with me!!!!
    But let me know if there was anything you enforced. My 17 yo lives for gaming and when i read our post it was as if you were describing him!!! Love it

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