My oldest daughter just turned 18 last month and is in her final week of her very first semester as a Game Art and Design Major at our local art college. I will never forget that first day after college orientation when she came home absolutely glowing saying that she knew when lunch rolled around and everyone pulled out their sketchbooks that she had finally found her tribe. She belonged. Over the past few months I have watched in amazement as my formerly unschooled daughter navigated being in classes, having homework and learning to be a student all over again for the first time in many many years. She had to get herself up in the mornings and drive herself to class, complete assignments and take tests and manage her time And she has thrived.
It wasn't always this way.
My oldest daughter spent her years in school from kindergarten until middle school feeling misunderstood, unchallenged and like she really did not belong. She had begged to homeschool for quite some time but we had 4 kids, I owned a coaching business and my husband worked full time outside of the home. I just didn't see how that would work. How would I get her to do her work? Would we get along? Spending long hours in charge of my daughters education when our days were already filled with so much conflict and strife just didn't sound like my idea of fun. I couldn't even get her to complete her homework or take a shower with ease - how could I possibly teach her? So I said no. That is one of my biggest regrets.
To our credit, my husband and I really did our best to advocate for her. We consistently requested meetings with the teachers and principal, visited therapists, did our best at home to stimulate her and read countless books on giftedness. But for a child who was considered bright, unmotivated and underachieving the message we consistently heard was that unless she was falling behind there was really nothing the school could do. A kid who could easily ace the test was not a priority despite the fact that she consistently didn't complete assignments and was slipping through the cracks.
In the end we would try 3 schools in 3 years. Public, Private and Gifted. We tried them all and all of them failed her. Failed us. We felt overwhelmed, isolated and heartbroken.
So finally in the middle of 7th grade despite our best efforts to find a school to meet her needs and in spite of our doing our very best to advocate for her, our daughter was emotionally a mess- angry, defiant, and incredibly depressed and literally failing every class. No amount of bribery, coercion or manipulation could get her to do the work. In desperation to save our daughter we decided enough was enough and pulled her out of school. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing but we knew that we could not continue to put our child through even one more day of this misery.
Making the decision to homeschool 6 years ago would prove to be the single best decision we had made as parents and would change the course of our children's lives forever. In that moment we would come to realize that as parents we had handed over our responsibility in educating our children to society and had become powerless victims in the process. We watched our kids suffer for years and stood by feeling powerless as if we had no choice in the matter. By choosing to homeschool we were taking back ownership over our family and choosing our child's health and happiness as our ultimate goal - not test scores and grades or even fitting in with the mainstream. It was an amazing feeling of freedom that I still cannot put into words.
So began our journey towards unschooling.
In the beginning we spent many hours discussing what our homeschool family would look like. We talked about what education meant to us and what lessons we ultimately wanted to send our kids off into the world with. It was a time of complete liberation. For our oldest it was as if a giant weight was lifted off of her shoulders and for the first time in so long she seemed happy.
In the end I would come to realize that I had different goals for each of my children and for her it was internal motivation. She has spent so many years trying to fit into a system that did not fit her and to take our home and do the same thing just didn't seem right. I had a deep knowing that freedom to learn and explore life on her own terms and in her own way was what was needed here.
In those early days of homeschooling she spent countless hours playing video games and watching tv. She stayed in her room most of the day and slept past noon. It was so hard for me to let go of control but I did my best to give her time to find her way and always I kept the mantra- INTERNAL MOTIVATION. What good would it do for me to turn home into school only to have her go out into the world eventually and not have a fire in her belly to pursue her dreams? I had to have faith and trust the process but for this TYPE A mom with an advanced degree who had done well in traditional school- it was not easy.
I read the book "Teenage Liberation Handbook" by Grace Llewelyn and the works of John Holt. I devoured "Free to Learn" by Peter Gray and read so many blog articles that I have lost count. I listened to the podcasts at www.unschoolingsupport.com and slowly the words of those homeschool pioneers who walked the path ahead of me - my heart and mind began to open up.
As I was learning and growing it seemed only logical to bring all of my children home and we spent those next 2 years building a homeschool community and rebuilding our relationships at home with each other. It was a beautiful and treasured time. In my deepest self, I felt confident and inspired.
As high school loomed we began to discuss what that would look like. In truth, it was scary and overwhelming at first!! I thought I knew what I was doing but this, this was different. Luckily, those feelings didn't last long and I remembered my mantra- internal motivation was the goal.
My oldest entertained the thought of going back to school for high school but it became clear for us that that would just mean more of the same she had already experienced during her years in school. At this point we had a taste of what was possible and we just wanted so much more for her than a traditional high school could have provided.
We looked at homeschooling high school as a collaboration where she was in the drivers seat and we were here to help facilitate. So began long hours of discussion and uncovering possibilities. She knew that she wanted to go to college and that she wanted a full 4 year university experience so my previous assumptions that she would graduate early and go to community college first went out the window.
Ultimately she decided that she would continue to unschool high school by combining some traditional classes to meet specific college application requirements along with lots of freedom to learn what she wanted to learn and in the way she wanted to learn it for subjects that were easier to learn in a more flexible way. All of this was always her own choice . Always. For her high school was a rich and rewarding experience and full of freedom and self directed learning.
While friends around us would share heartbreaking stories of how their highschoolers were incredibly stressed, sleep deprived and struggling with mental health issues as a result of school - we would privately count our blessings that our children would not have to experience that. When we felt uncertainty or fear- and we did at times - we would just look at our peaceful, content, and curiously engaged children and know we were on the right path.
I know how valuable it is to read real life stories of those with older homeschooled teens so I wanted to share what this actually looked like in our everyday life. The beauty in high schooling in this way is that it is going to look completely different for every single person. For high school my oldest kept records of every class she took online (Coursera, Sign Language for example) or in person (we occasionally hired teachers for things she could not easily learn on her own and was interested in (Biology Lab, Creative Writing, Digital Art, Piano for example), or purchased curriculum when needed (Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry for example) and she detailed every book she read or movie she watched- these lists were massive!! , field trips taken ( hundreds!!) or trips both local and abroad that contributed to her learning in a deep and rewarding way.
I want to mention that she was the one who kept these records - not me - and that I did not check assignments or track her progress in anyway. I felt that if I forced her to sit down and turn in assignments that sort of defeated the entire point of this whole thing which was internal motivation and freedom to learn . We would talk often about how things were going and she would share if she was feeling stuck or needing additional support through a mentor or tutor but for the most part she did her own thing.
Ultimately, I wanted her to have complete autonomy and to help to build independence over those last years with her at home. Unschooling high school can mean different things to different people and I am sure there are some who would say that using curriculum is not unschooling but I disagree. For us unschooling means not doing school at home and really complete freedom to learn in whatever way you wish to learn even if that is occasionally a class or textbook. It meant a wonderful open and loving relationship with a teenage highschooler who never had the need to rebel because there was nothing to rebel against. It meant respect and openness.
As I look now at my daughter who is thriving with great grades and a passion for her art that amazes me daily, I feel so much gratitude that I was able to gift her those years at home and look forward to the future with hopeful anticipation of what is to come.
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