Episode 91: Unschooling Teens — My Experience and Advice (with Julie Polanco)

I think unschooling high school sounds like an amazing thing, even though I never did it. But Julie Polanco of JulieNaturally.com is a pro at unschooling teens, and she has graduated two of her four children with this method. In this episode she shares her experiences, her thoughts, and her advice about how to go about it.

I gotta say that this episode is going to be helpful for ANYONE homeschooling high school, whether unschooling or not. Julie has great ideas for alternative ways to get high school credits, and also she's very worth listening to for her veteran homeschool mom outlook.


Julie Polanco shares her experience and gives her best advice about unschooling teens. Great for ANY homeschool mom to gain wisdom and ideas!

This episode is sponsored by Save Your Sanity While Homeschooling High School.

Save Your Sanity is one of my books, and it relates really well to what Julie talks about in this episode.

It's all about finding out what really is required and also what's not necessary, and then setting yourself up with reasonable expectations about how this homeschooling high school thing can and should go down for your family. In fact, the very first chapter is called What You Don't Need To Do! There are also chapters about searching for colleges and what to look for, how to get your teen going on independent learning or maintaining that, also a great chapter towards the end on maintaining that relationship with your teen.

You can read Save Your Sanity at any time and be encouraged by it. It's very applicable any time of the year just to help your mindset be one where you are not feeling burdened. Click here for more information: Save Your Sanity While Homeschooling High School: Practical Principles for a Firm Foundation.

Episode 91: My Experience and Advice for Unschooling Teens – by Julie Polanco

You can also listen at these outlets/apps — be sure to follow and leave a review!

Related Resources:


The Crunchy Christian Podcast

4 Keys to Unschooling High School

5 Keys to Homeschooling Special Needs in High School

Episode 84: Showing Respect to Your Teen

Episode 61: How to Involve Your Teen in Planning High School

Episode 58: Getting your homeschooled teen a job


Ann Karako: Hi, this is Ann Karako, and you are listening to Episode 91 of the It's Not That Hard to Homeschool High School podcast.


Ann: Welcome to another episode of It's Not That Hard to Homeschool High School, the podcast for real people so that you can confidently, competently, and, yes, even contentedly provide the high school education that is best for your teen and your family. I'm your host, Ann Karako, from notthathardtohomeschool.com.


Ann: Hi, everyone, and welcome, y'all. I am so pleased to share this podcast episode with you. It's a guest podcaster that we have today. Her name is Julie Polanco. She blogs at julienaturally.com. She's also the host of the Crunchy Christian Podcast, which is on the Ultimate Radio Show network. She's got lots of things going on. You may have seen her all over the place. She's written a couple of books. She's been a guest writer on my blog, notthathardtohomeschool.com, and she's homeschooled her four special-needs kids.

Today's episode is about unschooling high school and how that worked for their family, her experiences, the things that they did. Super helpful for anyone actually, but especially if you're thinking about unschooling or you want more ideas. To be honest, these ideas would work for any type of homeschooling method as some alternative ways to get some high school credits. Then at the end, she gives three really, really great tips for homeschooling high school.

She says that they're about unschooling teens. I say they're about any kind of homeschooling. [laughs] Again, whether you unschool or not, I think this episode is going to be a great listen. It's going to be encouraging as you hear from another veteran homeschool mom about what they did, what worked for them, how she feels about it, all that good stuff. [chuckles] Listen up and I will join you again at the end.


Julie Polanco: Hi there. I'm going to tell you a little bit about my unschooling journey with my four kids over the past 20 years. I'm going to give you some tips at the end. As I said, four kids. I have two that are still in high school. One is a sophomore this year and one is a senior, although my senior is doing junior college full-time for her senior year. I don't know if you really count that as high school or not. Technically, it's still her senior year, but whatever. My other kids are aged 24 and 21, so they've been out for a while.

What we've done in our unschooling high school adventure is a variety of things. We have utilized a lot of our community resources. I really do promote that because of some of the tips I'll share later with regards to unschooling teens and homeschooling high school. Teens at this age, they often need a reason why they're supposed to do the textbook, why they're supposed to do pretty much anything that they're being told to do in high school.

In fact, one of the things that I recommend and that we did is that I took out the state requirements for high school. We live in a state where it's pretty flexible. The state does not ask us to do any sort of reporting or anything like that. No state tests or anything. Not even for high school, but it is helpful even in that situation to look at what the state requires for their public schools. Then I also took a look at what the local private schools were required of their graduates so that I could have a basis of comparison.

What does a standard transcript look like? Then I talked with my teens about, “Well, this is what a typical high school student is asked to do. This is what the public school students that you know are being asked to do. How do you propose that we meet these goals, that we meet these requirements? What are your goals for your high school years?” Because some teens, they're not all going on to college. If they're not going on to college, what are they going to need their transcript for?

If they're not going on to college, maybe you have more room for flexibility and creativity. Even if they are going on to college, there is still room for creativity in how you meet those requirements. Everything doesn't have to be a structured online class or a textbook in order to count for high school credit. I will point out that two of my kids, the two that are still in high school, they actually like having the structure of a live class. They really don't do as well with self-paced-type things. They like to have a teacher in front of them teaching.

It's very different from my older two, which absolutely hated that. [chuckles] One of the things that is a luxury of homeschooling is that we can meet our kids where they're at and give them the optimal learning environment. Even though in high school if they are going to go on to a college environment, we do have to take into account that, well, they have to be ready to be able to sit in a classroom and be taught by a teacher.

Everything is not always going to be in their favorite learning style. They do need to get used to that, but what are their goals? Are they planning to go into the military? Are they planning to enroll in a vocational school? Are they going to take a gap year and just work at a local service job in food service or retail? Are they going to apprentice with somebody? What are their goals post-high school? Because that really is going to have a big influence on what they're doing in their high school curriculum.

That was something that we did, is we did take a look at that. We ended up doing a lot of community-based things, especially with my older two. Even with my now senior student, and we'll see what happens with my last one, sometimes things change a little bit when you're down to just one because mom gets kind of tired, I'll just say. Sometimes it's a very different experience, especially there's no younger siblings to play with or to be doing things with anymore, so it is a different experience.

At any rate, the older ones did a lot of things in the summertime that are not offered during the rest of the school year because, of course, they're designed for all high school students, not just homeschooling students. We live near Chicago. My oldest son, who is my second child, he did a STEM program at the planetarium one summer just for an example where he got to do some game design.

He learned some game design from some of the professionals there, but he also learned some of the ins and outs of how you create a story, how you create the characters, how you create a game that is more sustainable and fun for others to play, and then they had a showcase. He got to learn and do. He really was a learn-and-do kind of kid. That was awesome for him because it was very relevant to an interest he had, but he got to learn the technical skills too, and that was a very intensive program.

It didn't count for a full credit, but it did count for some credit. He did that type of thing a couple of summers in a row. That was a half a credit altogether because about a half a credit is about 60 to 70 hours of actual work. Six hours a day, five days a week. That's a quarter of a credit, right? Couple of weeks of that and you have a half a credit in just a summer class. It was really awesome for him because that was how he learned best. Very immersive, very hands-on. He got to see the fruits of his labors right away.

It was very applicable. He also did some work at the Museum of Science and Industry in their fab lab, which is basically a maker space where you get to learn how to do 3D modeling. You have to use special software in that and use a 3D printer and produce things. That was a great experience for him too. Those things taken together, we were able to create a half-credit technology program for him. That counted for high school. That's just an example of some of the things that we did that involved community study.


Sponsorship Announcement:

Ann: I'm going to hop in for just a half-a-mo here and say that this episode is sponsored by Save Your Sanity While Homeschooling High School. That's one of my books. I think it applies here as we listen to Julie talk about unschooling. She obviously has done her research so that she knows what is required and what isn't required. She's making decisions with her family about what they're going to do. That's what Save Your Sanity is all about.

It's all about finding out what really is required and also what's not necessary, and then setting yourself up with reasonable expectations about how this homeschooling high school thing can and should go down for your family. In fact, the very first chapter is called What You Don't Need To Do, [chuckles] and that might be something you need to hear. There are also chapters about searching for colleges and what to look for, how to get your teen going on independent learning or maintaining that, also a great chapter towards the end on maintaining that relationship with your teen, which is something that Julie is going to talk about in a little bit here.

I'm just going to throw this out there as something that you can read at any time and be encouraged by. Very applicable any time of the year just to help your mindset be one where you are not feeling burdened [chuckles] and you are saving your sanity. You can find Save Your Sanity at my website under the Shop tab on the top menu. That's at notthathardtohomeschool.com. You can also find it on Amazon. All righty, let's get back to hear more of what Julie has to say.


Julie: We've also done local internship types of programs. My oldest daughter, my oldest, [chuckles] she did an intensive internship with a local veterinarian so that she could get a really up-close and hands-on view of what a veterinarian does. She witnessed a surgery on a cat. She got to care for the cats. She just loved cats and she thought that she might like to work with cats as a vet. That whole experience showed her that maybe she really didn't have the stomach for that.

That was a very good learning experience for her because it allowed her to get the career hands-on experience and see that, “Wow, maybe this really isn't for me.” That was helpful in showing her what was her bent, what did she really want to do. My younger daughter, the one who is a senior now, she has spent several summers in a row working with Child Evangelism Fellowship with their team training program, their team leadership training program.

Actually, there's been two summers where she's done some leadership training but in different settings. This past summer, she's actually an intern with CEF, and so she got to use her organizational administrative-type skills and her deep knowledge of the program to help them make it better for their students that were coming in. That was a great experience for her that gave her some inside experience where she could use that for high school also as leadership training.

The other leadership training program she did was called STEM Academy and it was sponsored by an energy company that sponsors it just for girls. The awesome thing about that was that even though you had to apply and it was competitive and it was just for girls, there was no cost. She got a lot of really nice gifts out of that, I will say. She learned a lot about STEM careers. She was immersed in that, in the energy program there.

She got to hear from experts and professionals. She found that she really doesn't want to do a STEM career, but she benefited a lot from the experience. The other thing that we've done a lot of is just projects, hands-on projects. Let's see if you can start a YouTube channel. Do you know how to do video editing for that? How about participating in the NaNoWriMo? The novel writers' month in November where you write a whole book in one month.

That's a very challenging project that a kid who loves to write might really enjoy doing. Writing a 50,000-word book or more, whatever the challenges that you set for yourself, that's quite a feat to do in one month. It's quite a feat for any student to do even if they're taking an entire year to do it. That should definitely count for credit as long as they're actually writing a story and not just sitting down and typing nonsense every day for several hours. We didn't do that for everything. Some stuff, you just got to do it.

Fulfilling the math credits is really difficult to do without just sitting down and doing math. It just is. History. You just read history most of the time. Sometimes we would do reenactments, go to reenactments, or watch documentaries. You really just have to do the work. The three things that I'm going to share with you that were really important tips for keeping it real for these students that I've had and being successful in helping them navigate through that time and maintaining a relationship, which was very important to me.

It didn't matter to me if they graduated with all kinds of wonderful credits and got into the most prestigious college if they never wanted to speak to me again. I do know people that that has happened to, where they really pushed their teen to do things that the teen absolutely hated. Really, there was a lot of friction. The teen, they went off to college and they never wanted to speak to their parents again.

Even now, five years later, they do not have a relationship. I don't think that any credits are worth ruining your relationship with your team because knowledge can be learned at any age. I don't know. I've learned things a lot faster about 5 or 10 years after high school than I did when I was in high school. You probably have had the same experience too. The three tips that really helped a lot were, number one, respect.

That's what I was just talking about a little bit, is respecting them as individuals with their own goals and dreams, their own ideas about how to get there, and respecting them enough that you are willing to collaborate with them rather than try to threaten or force them. The second thing is relevance. That's what I was talking about with all of those hands-on experiences and museum experiences that some of my kids have had, is that it was very relevant.

They got to explore some of their career goals. They got to explore some of the career fields that they were interested in. Some of them discovered that they really loved it and wanted to do it some more. Some of them discovered that, “Maybe I really don't want to do that.” All of that is really valuable so that, later on, they don't make mistakes in pursuing something that they thought they'd like. Then after they've already invested several years of college, they discover that they don't really like, and then it's difficult to change gears.

Then the third thing is responsibility. That is helping your child to take responsibility for their own education. Even if you are not an unschooler and you have been driving the boat most of the time, they need to take ownership of their own journey. It's their life. It's their educational journey. They need to take ownership of that because you're not always going to be there.

Things have changed so dramatically in such a short period of time. There are so many new careers popping up all the time that weren't around when I went to college. Probably same for you. Understanding that and that they have a much better pulse on those things sometimes. Sometimes not. They're not always thinking about those things, but they do very often have a better pulse on what are the new and upcoming things. What are the trends? What is needed?

What kinds of new opportunities are out there than maybe we do? When we do come across new opportunities, showing them respect and talking them about it almost as an adult as you would an adult, as your friend, even though we're the parent is just invaluable, because then they understand that we hear them. We are listening. It's not just the words, but we're listening to what they're saying to us.

We are trying to genuinely be on their side and help them to accomplish their dreams and goals. The last thing that I'll leave you with is just that what your kid may decide they're going to do now and they may be a complete goofball and just all they want to do is sleep half the day. That's not their destiny. They will figure it out. They will. They will change and grow and mature. 18 is not their destiny.

That's not their future. If they totally bomb and mess it up, do not despair. It will all work out. I hope that blesses you today. I hope that you have some encouragement and you've come away with some good tips and some strategies that will help you in your journey. You could touch base with me in the notes there and find some more great tips. I wish you the best. God bless.


Ann: Wasn't that amazing? Don't you feel like you just made a new friend? I love it when she talked about how things are different with the younger child than they were with the older ones. I don't know how many of you can relate to that, but I sure can. When she said, “I'm just tired,” I was like, “Oh yes, baby, I know exactly how that feels.” I just thoroughly enjoyed another view of this journey that we're all on and how we can make it our own. It doesn't have to be that hard, right?

So many things that she was talking about sparked some ideas in me about resources that I have on my website. Like when she talked about respecting your kids; I've got another podcast episode about that. And I'll just share some links on the show notes to this episode, which as you know, you go to notthathardtohomeschool.com, click on Podcast in the top menu. Look for this episode, Episode 91, and scroll down. You will see all the related links. Also, there will be a transcript there if you like to read. That will show up within 24 to 48 hours after the publication of the podcast.

Let's see. Is there anything else I need to say? [chuckles] Not much. I'll be back in December, on the first Friday of December with my last installment in the Care and Feeding of Homeschooled Teens series. Then, yes, we're going to have an episode at the end of December as well. Then in January, I'm open for suggestions, y'all. If you've got topics for me, email me, annieandeverything@gmail.com, and send me what you want to hear about on the podcast in 2023. Thanks so much for being here. I'll see you next time.

It's Not That Hard to Homeschool

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