Unschooling in action

Before starting this site we put out a call for unschoolers to share their stories. Below are real-world examples of how unschooling works in people’s lives every day.

Liam T. (19) - Philadelphia

Unschooling cultivated a curiosity in me that has manifested itself in many ways throughout my life. For instance: playing hockey for eight years and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things NHL-related after watching a game when I was nine; Reading the works of Milton Friedman, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes after deciding I wanted to study economics; Grooming a love for 60’s and 70’s rock and soul music after listening to Led Zeppelin II when I was 13; Learning all the acceptable two-letter words (there are currently 96 of them) merely because I enjoyed a couple games of scrabble; Traveling around the US, Australia and Europe by myself because I wanted to see the world. All of these examples, I believe, lend credence to the idea of unschooling as a viable source of education in our society.

I’ve been unschooled my whole life. Unschooling has always given me the freedom and confidence to become the person I know I’m capable of becoming.

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Idzie D. (19) - Montreal, Quebec

When I first left kindergarten, my mother provided me with a reading program. But, it was, rather unsurprisingly, pretty boring, and no one had any problems when I decided I was no longer interested in doing it. I could sound out words to some extent, but I don’t think I could really *read* at that point, and had absolutely no interest in doing so for several years.

I don’t remember precisely what age I was when I started to read, although I do remember feeling mildly embarrassed in Brownies (for kids ages 7 and 8) when I couldn’t read. I also remember (or at least I think I remember-a lot of these memories are rather cloudy) my mother calmly assuring some other mothers that I would read when I was ready to.

And, sure enough, she was right! When I was something like age eight or nine, my mother was reading the first Harry Potter book aloud to my sister and I. But, well, she had things to do other than read, and if she read too long, her voice would get hoarse. So, being quite frustrated at how slow a process this was, and really wanting to know what happened next, I picked it up and began to read.

I’m now (and have been for years) not only an avid reader but also a writer. I have a blog that I love, and that has led to many great connections and opportunities. I’ve had a book review column that ran for over a year in a homeschooling magazine; I have an online column; I’ve started publishing ‘zines online; and have an article coming out in an online magazine this summer. I also plan to start writing my first ever book this fall, which is both an exciting and scary project! This all comes from growing up with the freedom to pursue what I was truly passionate about, and there’s never a day that goes by where I don’t feel so incredibly thankful to my parents for giving me that freedom!

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Ben, 15, New York

Because I unschool, I have had a huge array of experiences, all of which I’ve chosen myself. To list a few things from the last school year:

  • I’ve continued studies of algebra and geometry, taken up calculus and physics with a tutor, studied Earth Science, and I’ve read about human history from the dawn of man through the dawn of Islam.
  • I’ve read over sixty books, whose topics include leadership, fascism, business, survival, teenagers, children, parenting, health, magic, wars, and many others.
  • I’ve dabbled in computer programming using a language called Python, and experimented with the Linux operating system.
  • In the arts, I’ve appeared in a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing. As an extension of the writing class I’ve been in since the fall, some of my friends and I are self publishing regular volumes of our writing and visual art. I also have continued piano lessons and commenced guitar lessons, and picked up music theory along the way.
  • I’ve participated in an eight week Early Philosophy class taught by a college professor.
  • I’ve traveled to India, Sri Lanka, Ohio, Vermont, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Oregon. I’m improving my Spanish with fluent and native speakers, sometimes via video chat. I stay informed on the goings on in the world through conversations, newspapers, and online news sources.
  • I play travel soccer, do parkour, and run.

I love to read, have close friends, and am very pleased with my choices for education.

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Molly N., 17, Portland

Unschooling Career

I am a dictionary definition unschooler. My parents started unschooling me only a few months into preschool. I am an unschooler, and I also have a college education. Unschooling gave me a view of education that allowed me to feel passionate and independent in my learning.

I have always made a point of trying new things. I have volunteered in a number of ways, including being a peer sexuality educator and serving on several committees for a youth resource center . Throughout my life I have also studied many forms of dance, performed in theatre, been involved with 4H, and I have ridden, occasionally shown, and trained horses for the past 10 years.

At age 15 I began working on Portland Community College’s main stage theatre arts productions as stage crew. I took classes in scenic and lighting design, and over 2 years worked on 7 main stage productions in titles ranging from Box Office, to Crew Chief, to Light Board Operator. I was hired as a basic technician to work when the facilities are rented to outside clients. In the Fall of 2009 I took on the role of Stage Manager - which meant being in charge of the facilities, roughly 35 student cast and crew, and calling all lights, sound, and set changes. I was nominated to attend the regional American College Theatre Festival and was flown with several classmates to Reno, NV to present my work.

After receiving my Associate’s last summer, I have spent the year crewing on student productions and also working part time as technician on rentals. I started out as a Light Board Operator, and tonight I stage managed my first ballet. I have been also been offered work at two professional theatres in Portland. Unschooling has given me a phenomenal head start in my life, career, and my education.

College Career

College was a decision, just like other aspects of my education. Of course, it posed its challenges. At times it was very difficult, but it was also a very rewarding experience. I was able to choose classes that interested me, as well as make my own schedule so I could continue to have an enriching life outside of school. I found that, despite being unfamiliar with such a structured learning environment, I had a strong motivation and was very interested in and excelled in my classes.

Despite my early decision on a career and college major, I took a variety of classes to get a feel for the world around me. I have studied English, physics, astronomy, psychology, sociology, design, photography, biology, and art history… Just to name a few. I currently have over 100 college credits, a varied and well-rounded general education that I know will assist me as I pursue classes in my chosen major, which is theatre arts.

This Fall I will begin attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, OR to complete my BA in Theatre Arts. After that? I will go where my passions take me, and I will never, ever, stop learning.

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Nola A., 15, West Alabama

I’ve been home/unschooling in Alabama for about 10 years, along with a brother 2 years my senior, and my parents. I’m here to say that freedom is fun, worthwhile, and did not turn me into a weirdo. I am probably not what you would call ‘gifted’. I am gifted only with freedom, trust, and a steady supply of food.

This freedom has led to many interests for me. I am fond of cooking, food, and nutrition, so I try to spend lots of time in the kitchen, cooking and doing the inevitable cleanup work. It’s great fun! I love trying food from other cultures and understanding how they make it, so I learn a lot about other cultures through food.

Also, I enjoy drawing and painting. I especially appreciate the comic medium because of the freedoms of expression that just aren’t there in movies and novels. I have learned a lot about Japanese culture through my love of manga. And speaking of reading, books have always been a big part of my life— I learned to read at quite a young age and I even volunteered at a nearby library last summer.

One really cool thing that we do as an unschooling family is that we are part of an organization known as Servas, which essentially is promoting world peace by staying in other people’s homes and actually getting to know them and their way of life. We haven’t yet traveled this way (we own an RV, and have seen much of the country by road tripping together), but we are hosts. Every now and then a traveler sends us an email or something asking to come stay with us. With this system we’ve met people from other parts of America, Belgium, France, Australia, New Zealand, and other places.

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Cameron P-T., 18, Crescent City, CA

Learning Math

Learning math as an unschooler was pretty easy. I didn’t start learning math until I was sixteen, when I wanted to take the SAT. Since the SAT requires much higher levels of math than just multiplication (which was all I had picked up so far, just by living), I decided some intensive study was in order. It took me about 6 months to get to Algebra II, at which point I stopped, on the grounds that although using math is quite fun, learning it is quite boring and headache inducing. I am now 18 (as of September 2009), and I plan to resume my math studies this fall/winter, so that I can take a math class at the community college in the spring.

One thing really sticks out at me from my math learning experience. I learned the same amount of math in six months that kids in school take many years to learn. I didn’t spend all day studying either. In fact, I only spent a couple hours a day, two to three days a week learning math, plus one study session with my parents or a tutor per week. I’m better than many people I know at understanding math, but I am no genius. I certainly can’t solve problems with lightening quick speed, and often count on my fingers, yet I really didn’t find it all that hard to learn what I did, at the speed I did. Not learning math in school has saved me years of my life, which I have been able to spend on much more important things. Yet, by sometime next year, I’ll probably have a higher math education than most high school graduates, and I’ll have spent less than two years working on it.

On socialization

Many people think, or perhaps just assume, that unschoolers are hermit like societal outcasts with few friends, and very little social life. This is entirely untrue. Throughout most of my life, I have had a great many friends, and managed to spend a lot of time with them. When I was a child, my parents took me to ‘park days’ with other homeschooled and unschooled kids, and I met several other life-long friends playing soccer, and getting to know my neighbors. I was pretty outgoing and friendly as a kid, I knew a bunch of people. Now, as an adult, most of my friends are old friends from my childhood town, and a bunch of really awesome people from Not Back To School Camp. I get most of my “social life” such as it is, by traveling across the west coast, which I do often because I volunteer with drug and alcohol prevention organizations, and by keeping in touch with old friends online and over the phone.

Even if none of the other benefits of unschooling existed, I would still choose to be an unschooler just to meet these amazing people who have helped shape who I am today.

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Laura E., 24, Pennsylvania

Getting into college

For both homeschoolers and unschoolers, getting into college is surprisingly easy. Though we often have to jump through an extra hoop or two, these hoops are usually just to make sure we are of the same caliber as their current homeschooled students. The general trend is that students who were educated at home and in the world score higher on SATs, are more curious and motivated to learn, and get along well with others—and admissions officers know this. I was admitted to four out of five schools that I applied to (including Mt. Holyoke College), and the one that I was not admitted to had an unusually high pool of applicants that year, and had to cut many students like myself that they otherwise would have admitted. It is rare, though not unheard of, that colleges discriminate against unschoolers.

Surviving college

I’m going to say it right now: College was hard—but not academically. It was hard because I had to learn according to someone else’s time schedule. It was hard because my peers were mostly immature teenagers who weren’t in college to learn, but rather because their parents were paying their tuition (I made some very dear friends at school who did not fit this profile and who are credited with helping me survive college, but those friends aside I was always happy to go to work or involve myself in the outside community where I could be with non-college folk). And it was especially hard not living in the real world, where writing essays came before volunteering, and where attending class came before travel (not that I didn’t skip half a week to take an early spring break tour around Europe). It is these things—and I think most alternatively-educated college students/graduates would agree—that are that hardest parts about going to college.

Academically, surviving college was not as hard—and I attended a well-respected institution in the academic society. I had to work hard for my 3.8 GPA, but I managed it because I knew how to motivate myself, and the years I’d spent writing fiction and fan fiction (and starting high school-level English classes in 7th grade, for the fun of it) meant that I didn’t have to struggle as much as most to crank out those weekly six- to eight-page essays. In short, I knew how to apply myself and I knew how to build and adapt new skills to make my academic life easier. Even though I graduated with College and Departmental Honors and Phi Beta Kappa, I would not say I am particularly intellectual (especially not compared to one of my best friends, who graduated from the same college with College Honors and is currently attending Princeton Theological Seminary; she was homeschooled also, by the way); I just knew my learning style well enough to translate the professor’s teaching method into my own language, and to know exactly how long a certain assignment would take me to complete. Unschooling gave me all the tools I needed to transition from a life of little academic work to intense and overwhelming academic work with relatively little pain (aside from that first year when I was in a constant state of resistance and bitter complaining—but I got over it).

Now, I look on my college years with fondness and gratitude, but I look ahead with excitement and freedom once again in hand.

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