4 Keys to Unschooling High School Successfully

Note: Guest writer Julie Polanco of JulieNaturally.com is a veteran homeschool mom, and in this article she shares from her experience unschooling high school — which I have never done, so I'm thrilled to have her contribution here!

As homeschooling increases in popularity, more and more people are considering unschooling as an option, even unschooling high school.

What is unschooling, you might ask? Unschooling is an educational philosophy first coined by the late John Holt, a teacher and proponent of education reform in the 1970’s and 80’s. In short, unschooling means casting off “school” and allowing a child to learn what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, and for reasons that make sense to him. In practice, parents often do put some limits in place, but generally, children are given a lot of educational freedom.

This might work well for the elementary years when recordkeeping might be easier and there is greater flexibility. But what about unschooling high school? What about credits and transcripts and college admissions? Well, let’s dig into how unschooling high school might just be the best choice for you and your teen.

Interested in unschooling high school? Don't be afraid - these four key mindsets will set you up for success!

Successfully Unschooling High School Requires Four Key Mindsets.

As a 20-year homeschooling veteran who has successfully graduated two students and currently has two in high school, I have learned many lessons. These are lessons that my children taught me as we practiced an unschooling approach to much of their education.

Before I get into the main things I want to share, let me just say that it is paramount that your relationship with your child always comes first. Most people can learn academic topics at any age, but a damaged relationship might never be repaired. And, sometimes teens are still not developmentally ready for something (i.e. Algebra) that five years later becomes very easy to master.

I have met many sad parents who pushed their teens in high school so they could get into college. But their children won’t speak to them and after a year away, they drop out of college anyway. Very sad. Don’t let that happen to you!

Related: Episode 91 – Unschooling Teens: My Experience and Advice

1) When unschooling high school, be flexible and collaborate.

First, to successfully unschool high school, you need to be flexible and have an attitude of collaboration with your teen. Talk with them about your state’s requirements and what you personally feel needs to be part of their high school journey. Listen to their ideas about meeting those requirements and talk about their goals.

After all, there are many ways to meet those requirements. And, if your state allows you to determine your own high school graduation requirements, you have even more latitude. The important thing to remember here is to listen and make a plan together. It’s not unschooling if you are giving them your plan.

2) Think creatively about credits and courses.

Next, to successfully unschool high school, you will need to change your mindset about credits and courses for that all-important transcript. As I mentioned above, there are many ways to meet requirements.

In the How to Unschool Masterclass, I talk about alternatives to textbooks and online classes. You can create booklists, project portfolios, internships, discussion groups, take advantage of local museum or university camp intensives, and so much more.

Or, a teen can write a novella instead of doing the high school language arts curriculum; research, plan and participate in historical reenactments instead of the history textbook; conduct field research instead of the usual biology curriculum, et cetera. These are just a few ideas to fulfill course requirements to get your own creative juices flowing.

Just keep in mind that a high school credit generally follows the Carnegie unit model, which is one credit equals approximately 120-150 hours of in-class time. However, many students finish a textbook in far less time and that is still counted as one credit! For example, my son completed the entire Algebra textbook in four months instead of the usual nine. So, keep that in mind. A teen shouldn’t be penalized for working more quickly than usual.

Related: Clearing Confusion about High School Credits

3) Make it relevant whenever possible.

Related to the above point, you aren’t really unschooling high school if the work isn’t relevant. So, you’ve talked with him about his goals and ideas for fulfilling state requirements. Then, you’ve brainstormed with him about creative ways to do those courses that might look very different from traditional textbooks and online lectures. Now you’re ready for the next step.

Relevance is a key factor in motivating teens. Once you’ve done the work with him, he needs to take the reins so that his “courses” meet his goals. They need to be relevant to him. Your role becomes one of accountability partner, organizer and facilitator, coach and resource person. You also need to teach him how to record his process, project, or learning activities for the state and for creating transcripts.

4) College is not the goal in unschooling high school. Life prep is.

The last mindset shift is to think carefully about college. Many very valid alternatives to college exist that earn a good living. In addition, many paths lead to college, not just the awesome, college prep transcript that looks a lot like everyone else’s.

I invite you to consider your reasons for wanting your child to go to college and whether that’s what he wants. Unschooling high school can still prepare your teen for college and may, in fact, prepare him better than the typical high school course of study. But setting yourself free from the bondage of college prep will allow you to open your mind to all the possibilities life has to offer.

Remember, there is no one right way to do school, even high school!

These four key mindsets will not only pave the way for successfully unschooling high school, they will also strengthen the bond you have with your teen. Enjoy the journey!

Julie Polanco

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