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A Week in the Life of an Unschooled Teen
by Jim Strickland

unschooled teen volunteers at cafeMy fourteen-year-old son Sam doesn’t go to school. The very idea of it sends chills down his spine. And, no, my wife and I don’t conduct math or geography lessons at our kitchen table. The very idea of that sends chills down my spine! So, while most of his peers are in sitting in classrooms, what exactly does Sam do all day? Is he really learning anything? And if so, what? Well, to help answer these questions, let me describe a typical week:

Monday

Sam rolls out of bed around 10:00 a.m., gets dressed and pulls his bike out of the garage. He absolutely loves his bicycle, an Italian street bike he got from Sharing Wheels, our local bike co-op. Sharing Wheels collects used bikes and provides the tools and workspace for members to refurbish them for sale, donation or their own personal use. Ron, the founder of Sharing Wheels, is a strong advocate of biking as a way to promote peace in the world – less need for oil, less need to fight over oil. Makes sense to me.

Once on his bike, Sam rides the two miles to his job at Zippy’s Java Lounge, our local coffee shop and community gathering place. His work there includes many aspects of the restaurant business – prepping and making menu items, serving customers, running delivery and shopping errands on his bike and, of course, doing dishes. Sam doesn’t get paid for his work at Zippy’s, but his mom and I have tied his allowance to an hourly rate we pay for the time he volunteers there. Sam loves working with food, he is constantly learning new things and his work at Zippy’s allows him to forge strong connections with people of all ages in our community. He will likely seek a paying job there next year.

 

Mondays are also the days that Sam gets to see his girlfriend Samara. She doesn’t live nearby, so the time they spend together has to be scheduled. My wife or I will usually pick her up at her house and then she and Sam will go on walks around town or picnic at a nearby park. (Sam does have younger siblings, so hanging around our house is not usually his preferred option!) Samara’s dad then picks her up later on his way home from work and Sam reluctantly retires to his room to write love poems and dream about next Monday.

I’m not kidding about the love poems – Sam writes a lot of poetry and stories for fun. His mom and I are constantly amazed at his creativity and talent. Where did he learn how to write? Who knows, but he does love to read and is always listening to books on CD from the library. For Sam, learning to use language effectively has been a very natural process that probably began with us reading aloud to him when he was a child, as well as the fact that his mom and I talk a lot about a wide variety of topics in our home. Kids pick up language like sponges when they are immersed in it. Sam learned to use a keyboard out of necessity when he started communicating with his friends online. When chatting or sending instant messages, you can’t communicate what you can’t type.

Tuesday

Up at 10:00 again and off to Zippy’s on his bike. On Tuesdays, however, Sam gets off work an hour early so he can have a short break before he and I go together to volunteer at our local animal shelter.

Our animal shelter has a very extensive volunteer program that is open to kids as young as thirteen. Sam and I trained together to be “canine companions,” which includes walking and training the dogs, making sure they have water and clean kennels, and working with potential adopters. This is a very rewarding experience for both of us and a great way to spend time together. Sam is learning about animal care and animal control policies and practices, as well as making valuable connections with other volunteers, staff and community members.

After the shelter, Sam likes to unwind by playing games on his Playstation 3, listening to a book on CD or texting Samara.

Wednesday

Up again at 10:00 and off to Zippy’s from 11:00 to 2:00. Sam is home by 2:30, but Wednesdays don’t allow much time for rest and relaxation until he gets his playlist completed for Raised on Metal, the weekly radio show he produces and hosts with his lifelong metalhead Aunt Jojo.

Our community is very fortunate to have its own independent public radio station, KSER 90.7 fm (www.kser.org). The station is run mostly by volunteers and provides training for community members who want to learn radio production. Sam completed this course at age thirteen and is now the youngest DJ in KSER history! The station features locally produced music shows, talk shows, interviews, commentary, poetry and storytelling, as well as syndicated programs like BBC News and Democracy NOW! It is an awesome resource and learning opportunity for our entire community.

Thursday

Zippy’s from 11:00 to 2:00 and then home to recuperate from the sleep deprivation that is the price Sam pays for having his own late-night radio show.

Friday

Zippy’s from 11:00 to 2:00, as usual, but then back there at 8:00 p.m. to help with a live music show that features local musicians until midnight. Sam usually brings home a pocketful of tips to supplement his normal allowance. He also gets a first-hand taste of the local music and arts scene in our community.

Saturday

Sleep in and take it easy!

Sunday

Up at 9:30 to go to youth group at our local Unitarian-Universalist fellowship. The UU church is very respectful of individual differences and a welcoming place for someone who may be living “outside the box.” It’s a perfect fit for Sam. He learns so much about our world, the importance of diversity and respect for others and how to engage in thoughtful discussion about important issues. This is where Sam has met most of his same-age friends, but it is also a place where he can be part of a caring, multigenerational community.

And there you have it – a typical week for our unschooled fourteen-year-old son. Please don’t think that I am holding Sam up as an extraordinary model of teenage ambition – far from it. But what Sam does have is a family that offers support, a schedule that offers time and a community that offers resources and opportunities. As it turns out, these ingredients make for a powerfully liberating concoction that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Is Sam learning anything? I’ll let you be the judge of that. Is Sam learning all the same things he would be learning in a traditional school? Of course not. Among the things he is not learning are:

  • The need to spend most of his waking hours with same-age peers inside a building that isolates him from the rich life of the larger community;
  • Dependence on professional “experts” to tell him what to learn and how and when to learn it;
  • Dependence on someone else to define “success” for him and to judge his accomplishments accordingly;
  • The need to practice conformity and uncritical submission to positional authority.

There are a few other things Sam is not learning that he may actually need to know someday, but he’ll cross those bridges when he gets to them. And of course, that is the only time you can cross a bridge – when you get to it, when you need to, when it really matters. We spend so much time trying to get kids to cross bridges long before they ever reach them that we wind up missing those that are right in front of us. As Sam will be happy to tell you, there is another way.

Jim Strickland lives in Everett, Washington with his wife and three children. He is a community-based educator in nearby Marysville where he works to promote non-coercive learning and the development of true learning communities. Jim invites response from readers who are interested in joining the conversation on integrating learning with the rest of our lives. He can be reached at livedemocracy@hotmail.com.

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