I found a copy of Grace Llewellyn’s book The Teenage Liberation Handbook at a thrift store when my older children were in the fifth and seventh grades. Not teenagers, but I saw it coming.
That book was a sea change for me.
It’s all about unschooling — a guide for teenagers in how to unschool themselves. There’s advice there about how to talk your parents into letting you drop out of school. It celebrates the idea of child-led learning. The whole concept felt so anarchist to me in the late 1990s.
I’ve been fascinated with unschooling ever since.
Unschooling is informal education, not ruled by curriculums and rules. The parent’s job is to provide resources, like access to people, places, and things that feed curiosity and learning about the things that are important to their kid.
Neither of my older kids ever wanted to just stop going to school. But my mind shift to the idea that school is not compulsory in our family was profound.
Both of them, for different reasons, unschooled through most of eighth grade.
My son, who has autism, started going to school at the start of the year and unschooling after winter break in high school. Eventually he moved to an adult high school where he could work at his own pace away from masses of other teenagers, and he graduated on time.
Both of those kids are in their mid-20s now. My daughter is on the verge of finishing graduate school. My son is working and has his own apartment and is a fierce autodidact.
Their little sister, Ruby, is fifteen and in the ninth grade. She is not an unschooling type kid. She’s highly social. She learns well in the way that schools teach. But just like it was for her sister and brother before her, school is not compulsory for her.
She’s perfectly capable to knowing when she needs a day off. If she doesn’t want to go to school on any particular day, she only needs to let me know and have a plan for what she’ll do instead.
Last week she took a day off because she felt like she really needed to get her bedroom clean and between school, homework, basketball practice, and fitting in some time with her friends between all that, she hadn’t had time to do it.
She took a week and a half off school to travel to Mexico with her sister, her grandpa, her uncle, and me in November. The decision to do that was hers. It meant playing on the junior varsity basketball team, because she missed the first two games of the season.
But overall, she likes school and is engaged in it. She’s never wanted to stop going for more than a day, expect to take a trip. But this past Friday her school announced for that it’s closing for at least two weeks.
Because the state of Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency, there won’t be a need to make up the days. She wasn’t sent home with work to do. There’s no online requirement (or even option.) Just — no school for two weeks, and possibly longer if the Coronavirus requires it.
Because Ruby’s grandparents (my husband’s parents) live with us, and they are both in their mid-70s and not in good health, we are quarantining ourselves. That means that Ruby won’t be spending this school break hanging out with her friends or practicing basketball (or soccer), or working at her Sunday job at her aunt’s roller rink.
So. Unschooling it is.
Here’s what that looks like for my kid. It might look totally different for yours.
Ruby is genuinely excited to have time to work on art. She’s a talented artist, but so busy that she doesn’t have a lot of time to just get lost in drawing. I anticipate that she’ll spend hours working on projects she’s put off.
Yesterday she painted a leather box I bought at a thrift store months ago. And she decided that she’s going to draw a different kind of flower every day for the next two weeks.
Ruby’s a kinetic kind of kid. She’s never been a big reader, mostly because she’d much rather be doing something more physically active. As a result, nearly everything that she’s ever read has been assigned to her. That’s a major bummer.
Over the next two weeks she’s going to read a book. Any book she wants. Her choice. When I asked her what book she wanted to read, she brought up one that’s a novelization of one of her favorite video games.
And that’s okay. The goal here is for her to see that reading is fun and not only a school assignment.
Ruby loves to bake. She loves to make complicated, intricate treats that combine the math and science of baking with her artistic nature.
This is one of those things that has fallen to the wayside as she’s gotten more busy with school and sports. She’ll have time for it in the next couple of weeks.
I also think that I’ll encourage her to try cooking. Maybe we’ll pull out some cookbooks and find a recipe she’d like to make for everyone.
Ruby’s taking Spanish in school. Our trip to Mexico made her even more interested in learning the language. Spending some time on Duolingo — an app that offers language lessons — is on her agenda for this break.
My family has a group on Duolingo, so she can connect with her grandpa, sister, and aunt and uncles while she learns.
Learning Something New
I’m making a real attempt to manage Coronavirus anxiety by luxuriating in the opportunity to just have my daughter around for a couple of weeks without the constant pull to activities.
I think it will be a lot of fun to learn something with her while we self-quarantine. Some fun thing. I ordered the supplies to make wrap bracelets last night.
I’ve also been caught up in this personal project about developing a personal style and Ruby — the artist that she is — is interested in what I’m learning. So we have a plan to purge her closet and organize her clothes while she’s home.
How to Make an Unschooling Plan for Your Kids
If you find yourself with kids who are forced into an unschooling situation for the next few weeks (at least), you might decide to just buy a curriculum and school at home.
But maybe you want to experiment for a few weeks with letting your kids lead the way with education. My advice is to think about the things that are important to your child and also, maybe a little more low-key, the places where there might be a gap.
Ruby has been upset for months that she has no time to draw, so providing her with the space and resources to immerse herself in art makes sense. We ordered some new markers yesterday and she made a list of all of the projects she wants to do.
She also loves baking and is interested in learning how to cook. Both are things that in more normal times, she just doesn’t have the space for.
What does your kid really love? If you’re not sure, ask. Really try to keep yourself from deciding preemptively that the answer is sleeping in or playing video games or Snapchat.
Make sure that they have the resources they need to dig into that thing, whatever it is.
Reading is something that’s a minor gap for her. She’s a good reader, but she’s never pleasure read. At all, ever. Encouraging her to pick a book that’s exactly what she wants to read, with no one assigning it to her, is something that I hope will start to close that gap.
Is there a gap where your kid struggles, academically? How can you use this break to start to bridge that gap? I highly recommend making the solution as child-led and non-schoolish as you can.
Remember that learning is everywhere. It doesn’t require a harsh task-master. It doesn’t require worksheets and assignments. Give your kid the space to do it and they’ll find ways to keep learning, even without school.
I can’t recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook highly enough. It’s an eye-opener.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.