Tag Archives: alternatives to school

Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling

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.

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The Adventures of an Unschooler on the Virtual High Seas

One of the best features of the educational path that is becoming known as “unschooling” is the opportunity for “deep learning”, that is, delving into something of great interest with all your mind, heart and soul, to whatever extent your inspiration and/or need takes you, instead of being told it is now time to learn something else. Even more so than her pursuit of learning the French language (see my post “The Unschool Pursuit of French”), our daughter found the opportunity to deep learn when she got involved in an Internet-based role-playing game community over the course of several years.

Starting in the fall of 2003 at age 14, in the midst of ninth grade (what would turn out to be her last year of school), her older brother Eric turned our daughter Emma on to a “massively multi-player online role-playing game” (or MMORPG) called “Never Winter Nights” which was his favorite among several such games that he had played. This is one of those games where you create a character and the avatar (representation) of that character which you then navigate through the various environs of a fantasy world, along with or encountering other avatars controlled by other people logged into and playing the game. You communicate with other players by typing, and little dialog bubbles appear above your avatar’s head.

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Unschooling Instead of High Schooling

Lisa Stroyan commented on my “School Decision Makers… Revisited” post that she has a son who was in public school through fifth grade, but is now homeschooling, and moving toward the more unschooling end of the homeschooling spectrum. As an initial suggestion, I think she should check out www.unschooling.com, for some information and provocative thoughts on that educational path.

Lisa said she was also interested in my own experience with my kids’ homeschool/unschool journey during their teen (normally high school) years, maybe how or whether an unschooled kid learns traditional academic subjects like algebra. So here goes…

Eric’s Story

Our Son Eric, Age 17

We pulled our son Eric out of school in February 2000 at age 14 because it had become clear that he hated going to school, and had basically become allergic to the conventional instructional academic environment. (See my earlier post on “Thoughts on Emily & Middle School Issues”). We had been considering doing it for a while, and my partner Sally (Eric’s mom) had done some research on homeschooling on the Internet. Sally and I had an initial strategy to attempt to guide our son in a homeschooling strategy including the four conventional academic subjects – English, social studies, science and math. Eric, as it turns out, had other ideas. Continue reading →