When did you unschool?
Where did you "graduate"?
Describe your childhood education (through age 12).
I was homeschooled under the unschooling method basically 0-18.
Very early on we did some classes of sorts with another homeschooling family in the area, and we continued to do field trips or semi-organized group activities maybe once a week well into my teens.
My mom did spelling practice with me and my older brother, and we would sometimes do flash cards while eating lunch, but mostly it was independent “here are textbooks; you should read them” and I did so on my own schedule.
Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.
We sometimes hung out with the kids in our neighborhood, and would regularly (~weekly) visit other homeschoolers in the area either to hang out or go on field trips. I participated in an organized soccer group one year. Mostly I was interacting with people within ~3 years of my own age.
Who made the decision to unschool you?
I believe my mom was both the driving force behind choosing homeschooling and was probably the one who read about and chose unschooling. Prior to having kids, my mom briefly attended grad school to become a teacher, and has described the curriculum as teaching you how to take a bunch of kids, all at different levels and none of who want to be there and making them sit quietly for hours on end, and relatively little about pedagogy. I suspect that experience was a central motivator.
Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).
I don’t think it changed much after age ten, so the previous answer pretty much carries on through to graduation. Still unschooled, now without things like the spelling practice sessions I mentioned. I was given textbooks and, as I understood it, was supposed to read them.
I actually think my interpretation at the time of “I’m supposed to read this book; I’m supposed to do all the math problems in this textbook” was inaccurate, and the actual expectation was closer to “learn math; this book will be useful to that end.” I got “behind” on the math and ended up mostly just learning the bits and pieces from being on the internet as someone somewhat interested in math, but not willing to do the work to really learn it.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I think this avoidance of “formal” math education was marginally okay with my parents–they wanted me to actually learn what the textbooks would teach me, but didn’t pressure me about it for the most part. So, neither I nor they imposed structure; I, however, imposed a belief that there was supposed to be some structure.
Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.
There were still group field trips/gatherings every week or so. At age eleven we moved to an area where there were effectively no neighbors, but shortly thereafter we got internet access, and once we got web access a couple years later (age 14?) I started talking to people online. [When Luca was 14, internet access was still restricted to dial-up modems. ED].
There was also a state-wide homeschooling group which had 2-3 week-long gatherings each year. I believe these got as large as 70 families.
Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.
I primarily hung out with people close to my own age, and almost exclusively other homeschoolers in the area. We definitely didn’t concern ourselves with specifics of being in one grade above/below, but as a thirteen-year-old I probably didn’t spend much time with people over 16 or under 10.
As mentioned above, we got web access around age 14, and I started hanging out in chat rooms and online forums right around then. I interacted with lots of other people, of various ages.
Concerning work, I did do some babysitting in my late teens, but that’s about it.
Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?
Yes, I was legally a high school graduate when I started college in 2000, though I didn’t actually get a physical diploma until I needed one for Americorps at age 26. (The program asked for a high school diploma as proof of high school graduation, so my dad printed one up and he and my mom signed it. For what it’s worth, my dad is great at many things, but it appears that graphic design is not one of them.)
During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?
I spent a lot of time online, and did some programming (starting with QBasic at age 11). I knew from roughly age 14 onward I wanted to do either web dev or programming in general, though I didn’t put in the work to actually get really good at it.
I did a bit of short non-fiction or persuasive writing for various Wikipedia-like websites. Though it’s worth noting that “non-fiction” in many cases means “encyclopedic entries about Star Trek.”
How did you make the decision to go to college?
I never thought of it as a decision.
I do remember my parents and extended family talking about college funds when I was young. My aunt (I think) commented “and of course, there’s the possibility one of them won’t want to go to college”. My dad said “Sure! Trade schools, apprenticeships…” while at the same time my grandfather deadpanned “They will be drawn and quartered.”
My older brother did consider a self-directed approach to college, but discovered that the only way you could do that in NC was as a divinity school, so he went to the nearby university. I simply followed on that path.
What did you study?
I studied Computer Science and Philosophy.
What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?
There were no major issues with transitioning, though this is likely partly because I was able to still live at home, and my brother was still there, just a few years ahead of me.
I had some knowledge gaps, specifically in math. I spent as much time studying/doing homework for my first college math course as I did on the other four courses combined. But as a result, I did well, and once that semester was done, though, I was up to speed.
Oh, also my handwriting is terrible, and was even worse before college. This was a minor disadvantage, especially on essay tests. (I had no laptop, so I was taking thorough notes in longhand.)
Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?
I only applied to one college, and I did well enough on the SAT that there was no problem. Also, we told them I got a 4.0 in high school (Class Rank: first out of one). I helped my dad write my transcript.
I suspect that if I’d taken one or two structured math courses in my late teens, I could have done much better on the math portion of the SAT, and gotten into a better university if I’d wanted, but I didn’t even bother applying to any other schools, so there’s not a lot of basis for me to evaluate this.
Unschooling educated me well enough to get into and be successful in college. I probably would have done fine if I’d gone to public school, too, though the public schools in my area were pretty bad.
Did you feel pressure to attend college? Did that pressure come from within your family or from outside of your family?
I already mentioned my grandfather’s comment, so this might not sound true, but, no, I don’t think I ever felt any pressure towards it. It was just the logical next step, in my opinion. Also, it was a lot easier and took much less initiative than finding a job.
Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.
I did some babysitting in and after high school.
After college I did a bit of IT work for a local law firm, but nothing regular. After not having a full-time job for a while, I eventually applied to several Americorps programs and ended up moving to Austin TX to do trailwork and habitat restoration.
The organization that ran that program also ran a charter high school, so after two years of cutting down trees, I got a temporary position as a high school bureaucrat/front desk guy/anything else needing doing guy, which became a permanent position as a high school beautocrat/still all the other things.
Among other things “high school bureaucrat”, eventually included co-leading the bike program, being the district registrar, running the cafeteria…
Finally, a friend told me there was an opening for support engineer at the startup where he worked–mostly tech support with a tiny bit of development. That, over four years, has progressed to mostly engineering work.
What is your current job?
I’m a software engineer at the aforementioned startup.
Why did you choose your current job?
I had always wanted to do software engineering, and just got sidetracked by other fun jobs popping up. I enjoyed working at the high school, but the organization/role had shifted to be less fun (the bike program, for one, was gone).
All my jobs have been fun and interesting, but software engineering is the first of my jobs that I actually chose because it’s what I wanted to do. The Americorps program I joined was simply the first one that said I was in (I applied to ten), and the others were someone saying “Hey, you want a job?” and me saying “Well, I don’t want to have to go look for a job, so yes.”
It does turn out that being a software engineer pays better than working an education non-profit, but I would’ve taken a pay cut to do this.
Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?
Yes, probably both.
What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?
I don’t think I have any advice that generalized to all such people. For teenagers, it would be to seek/create/ask for structure when it’ll help (e.g. take a math class at a community college), and don’t assume it never will. For other people it might be to embrace the lack of structure.
I think the thing people mostly worry about is not socializing with people your own age, but while I think it’s useful to socialize, the “your own age” part is probably unnecessary. Do socialize with people who will treat you as a full-fledged human regardless of your age. (I think the internet makes this a lot easier.)
Published: July 2019