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:
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Sleep in and take it easy!
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
- 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
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