What it’s like to homeschool an 11th grader

This is a guest post from Anna Keller. She has written here before about taking her son out of school, and then putting him back in. This is her third post.

I guess technically my son is an 11th grader. It’s a big year for most students—the year that counts the most for college applications when kids choose rigorous courses—often including AP and honors, get serious about extra curricular activities, and ramp up the community service. Many start heavy test prep.

And for my son’s 11th grade? We are deeply entrenched and committed to unschooling. So, does the label “11th grade” even count for anything? I have no idea. At this point we are way, way, way off the beaten path.

Today I sit in the corner of a house watching my son and his friends make a music video. This is no small production. The entire 4 minute video is done in 3 shots, with a steadicam and other specialized equipment that I can’t even wrap my head around. Someone is handling makeup, with a producer coordinating a complex 13-hour schedule, shot list, craft service, continuity and prop management. There are real props—lots of them—and rented costumes that tell everyone to bring their A game. There are 5 actors and a dancer.

The video is for a song on an album he wrote last summer, about the time our unschooling journey really began. He sang and played all the instruments himself, released the EP on streaming sites, and has worked with a band playing live venues since then. The project was the start of him running and managing his own life, with his dad and me as supporting characters.

The video he is shooting today is pretty typical of one of his self-directed projects. He’s done all the work, pulled together everything he needs, coordinated all the people to help him, and is running the show. We haven’t lifted a finger; our sole role is to provide his sounding board when he wants advice.

Past projects have included pulling together a music event with 4 local bands in a local coffee shop. He hoped to get 40 people, ended up turning people away when the headcount hit 150. He made over $1,000 that night between selling merchandise and charging at the door. He got it done with an assembled crew of volunteers (including many adults he has come to know through his unschooling adventures). My husband played roadie, helping with the gear, and I ran around making sure kids under 18 were behaving themselves. Other than that—we didn’t help at all. All the start-up funding, promotion, design, communication, scheduling, stage design, sourcing and managing the other bands—everything—he did himself.

If it sounds like I am bragging, please know that I’m only writing about it now because I want to tell people how much kids can do on their own, with no help, when you give them the space to pursue what they care about.

Most people think they know what it is like to foster independence in their kids. They are wrong. When I talk to parents about what my son does independently, they don’t believe me. Like, they actually don’t believe me. They look to shoot holes in all his supposed self-motivation asking tricky questions about this and that, trying to find some level of hidden parental involvement. Or parents rattle off all the ways they are helping their kids (running their schedules, communicating with teachers and the like, catching them when they fall, helping with school projects, setting up their community service) and I know to just keep my mouth shut about my own son.

The support my husband and give our son can be pretty clearly defined:

Money. When he wants to pursue a project, he pulls together an estimated budget, determines how much of his own money he can allocate (will get to that in a moment), and then asks us for the balance. Assuming the project is well thought out and the budget is reasonable, we always give him the green light. We aren’t paying for private school, or other extracurricular activities, so we feel at peace with supporting his endeavors financially.

Feedback—but only when he asks. He asks for our opinion a lot—texting and calling us through the day to bounce ideas off of us.

Help—but only when he asks. He’ll ask his dad to debug some code in a website he’s trying to launch, or to research some equipment with him that he is saving up for, so he can make an informed purchase.  He’ll ask me to proofread an email he’s sending to a music producer. Once in awhile he asks me how he should position something, or ask if I know where the best costume/prop/goodwill/vintage/whatever store is.  That is usually the extent of help he requests.

Supervision. Many of his self-directed projects need some level of adult supervision. The music event needed adults. He had enlisted a bunch of other adult volunteers, but he asked his dad to be the roadie and he asked me to make sure no one got into trouble.

Transporation, food, shelter, insurance, phone. He drives one of our cars, and we shuttle kids around to and from his projects as the back-up driver when his car gets full. We make sure he is fed. We pay his insurance and gas. And pay his phone bill. Other than that, he gets a small allowance each month to use as his spending money. We frequently dock his allowance if he forgets his responsibilities—like when he works all day on a project and doesn’t clean it up when he is done. There is reprimand when gentle reminders aren’t working, and consequences when needed.

Love, time and attention— lots of it. We’re with him a lot. He likes to hang out with us. He says his dad is his best friend, and he means it.

I am often shocked at how much adult interaction his day requires and how he navigates it all without hesitation. Booking a gig directly with the owner of the venue? All him—I rarely know their names. All the volunteers for the shows (made up of teachers, co-workers and the like)? He coordinates it all directly with them. The costume shop lady he has on speed dial? Don’t know her. The test prep, art, math and history teachers? He does all the scheduling directly with them. There are plenty adults in his life and he is working directly with them.

There is very rarely a lazy day, or an unscheduled block of time. And when he needs something done, he just does it.

College? He has a list of very specific schools that appeal to him and says he wants to go. We’ll take him on a tour of 3 schools next week. We hired an independent college counselor who has experience working with homeschooled and unschoolers like him.

I am so grateful to have not spent the past few years fighting a battle we weren’t going to win. I am so glad to have a strong, close relationship with my son and I am grateful for his committed presence in our family. I know, with certainty, if we had pushed him to stay in school it would have been at the sacrifice of strong family bonds and peace in the house.

I know this is a very rosy summary. One day, I will write to you about the downsides to unschooling someone who is almost 18 years old—the invasion of every nook and cranny of our house to accommodate his projects, the times he blows the budget on his projects, the presumptuousness that can creep in if we aren’t vigilant,  the incredible tolerance and patience needed. But for today, as I watch this video shoot happening, I just want to focus on the positive.



33 replies
  1. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Sounds awesome! Can I ask where I can listen to his music? Or see the video when it is up?

    Would love to hear more about the downsides and the college visits.

  2. Donna
    Donna says:

    I have three boys on the same path. They are 8 (twins) and 10, and they’re all little entrepreneurs so I don’t worry about their futures at all. I would love to know more about how to make college an option for them in case they want it.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        When my oldest was 7 and 8 she would sell her artwork. Now 9, she is learning to make pet t-shirts and wants to sell them online. A fellow commenter here, and personal friend, has a daughter who has done a few entrepreneurial activities. I don’t think anyone is saying they are making tons of money, it’s more the spirit of entrepreneurship.

    • Anna Keller
      Anna Keller says:

      I am certain there will be a college that’s right for your boys, no matter their path. It’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria and competition surrounding college, but once I pulled myself out of that, I could see that there are a wide variety of schools that open non-traditional schoolers with very open arms!

  3. Emily
    Emily says:

    Beautiful post! I would love to know more about how to make college an option, too. Specifically, I am concerned about scoring high enough on standardized tests to gain college admission.

    My husband is currently in medical school and will be taking the Step 1 soon. I’m just concerned about how to prepare our son for all of the testing he might need to complete in life, depending on his own goals, if we are homeschooling and not taking all of the tests his peers will be taking in school. When it comes time for the SAT/ACT, will he be ready?

    I know of one child in first grade whose parents already have him in tutoring for some standardized test he will be taking soon in school (I don’t know which test this is). Instead of playing sports or just having downtime in the afternoon, this child studies. Will my child be able to compete with him on standardized tests? This is what creates anxiety in me sometimes. Would love to know how you have handled this.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      The test obsession that rules our public schools is one of the worst things to happen to children. It’s like pulling up a carrot repeatedly to see how it’s growing. All the time testing, all the time cramming, all the time worrying, is time taken away from learning. There is no reason a happy, enthusiastic homeschooled kid shouldn’t score higher on tests, not lower.

      There is nothing particularly unusual or devious on these tests. There is reading. Well, does your son read? Do you talk with him about what he is reading? There is math. Do you do math with your son, and talk about every idea? That was enough for my son.

      My son’s math curriculum was a couple hours a week at the kitchen table with me. His English curriculum was reading whatever he felt like, and nothing he didn’t, for five years.

      He took the practice test in the book, we talked a bit about the topics and the mechanics (e.g. yes, you can look at the questions first and then read the text). And then he got very high scores on the ISEE, his first test ever.

      My advice is to get a test book if it worries you, explain why to your son, and see if you can work on it together. Don’t spend too much time on it unless he thinks it’s fun. Use your time with him pursuing the things he enjoys and cares about. Happiness is the best way to maximize learning.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Just to see what the big obsession is with standardized testing I ordered some for my kids to take at home. We are unschoolers, not even traditional homeschoolers, and they scored superior in every category.

      Bostonian is right, just let it happen organically. The most I had to do was teach the kids how to fill in a bubble. No clue at all why people need to hire tutors to take tests if this is all stuff they are learning in school through rote anyway!

      More than likely, what is happening with your friend is that there is some insane parenting competition going on as far as whose kid gets the highest scores. I prefer to not engage with those people, for obvious reasons.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I suspect there is some kind of vicious cycle going on: kids do worse on tests; parents and teachers take away more things they like and make them spend more time doing test prep; kids get unhappier and more cynical and learn less; repeat.

        And yeah, the culture of parental competition by proxy is a nice one not to be part of.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      I have to say, I am at work a little late today and took a break to read some comments, this comment made my blood pressure shoot up just reading it. Hopefully things are not that anxiety ridden over-all for Emily.

      What I have noticed with some kids that go to school, all their eggs are in the ‘school basket’. They are pressured from school adults and at-home adults to do well, and if they don’t, extra-curricular opportunities for learning are taken away. This puts added pressure to do well in school, because the kid isn’t getting any mental stimulation from any place else.

      It is a false idea however, some kids are not ever going to do well in school, no matter how much they are forced to ‘focus’ on that one area. But by not being allowed to entertain other activities, they have put all the eggs in the school basket, making failure in that arena that much more of a risk. If they fail there, they have no other eggs to fall back on.

    • Rayne of Terror
      Rayne of Terror says:

      I listen to the Getting In podcast and its college admission experts say there are over 800 colleges and universities which do not require the SAT or ACT. That’s a pretty good pool to choose from.

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      If you want to make college an option, there is always community college. Affordable and any entrance exams that are required (if any) are very easy. I didn’t take any exams to enroll in my first classes. I just signed up.

      Otherwise, I agree with the others that all of the prep you need you are probably doing.

    • Lenore
      Lenore says:

      If you need to prepare for standardized tests so early you’ll likely struggle forever. Honestly nothing before high school matters anyway. The anxiety is called competitiveness. It’s understandable but you have to balance supporting kids with their desires and levels of competence.

  4. Anna Keller
    Anna Keller says:

    The comments about testing are making my heart race. I know how stressful this is. We are lucky that my son tests fairly well (not great but good enough). His last year of complete traditional education was 7th grade, yet he scored above national averages, and well above averages for the schools he wants to go to, for his SAT. We are lucky. (Note, he scores well on standardized tests but he used to get Ds and Fs in all his classes.). The good news is that colleges are relying on standardized testing less and less. Many schools are making them optional. I say- if your kid is stressed about the ACT or SAT and/or your kid doesn’t test well, the move on. Find a school that doesn’t care about those tests.

    • Emily
      Emily says:

      Thank you all for your suggestions regarding standardized testing.
      I didn’t mean to make anyone’s heart race or raise blood pressure.

      My son is only 3, so we aren’t doing any type of test prep at all right now for him. My husband is just swamped with standardized testing these days, and then I hear from friends about what other children are doing in first grade, and it makes my heart race and is on my mind more than it otherwise would be. I had no idea some people start so young with tutors for standardized tests.

      My husband isn’t particularly good at standardized tests, and it is something I do have *some* concern about for the future. I have been an average tester in the past. Your comments and your experiences help a lot.

      Please don’t have anxiety for us – yet.

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I think this post makes a great read together with Anna’s previous posts. I wish I had read them in order.

    The sequence shows how it is sometimes hard to figure out what you need. It’s not a one-and-done thing. But with love, flexibility, and perseverance, you can change your plans multiple times and learn something new each time. I like the narrative of homeschooling not as a decision that fixes everything, but as a journey. It’s a jagged path that tends toward progress.

    My son has been homeschooled since first grade, and next year he’s going back to school in seventh grade. It’s his choice, his idea, and he’s very happy about it. It’s nice to imagine that the next line could be “and he lived happily ever after,” but it might not be.

    So congratulations, Anna, for keeping your perspective. Your household sounds like a wonderful place.

    • Anna Keller
      Anna Keller says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, and for reading. It is absolutely an evolution and I think coming from a place of acceptance and yes is what has worked for our family! I feel very lucky to be helping create this experience with my son and supporting his passions.

  6. Amy G
    Amy G says:

    This post is timely and needed. I have a rising 9th grader who has been homeschooling for 5 years. Each year has become more and more unschooled as her life is the performing arts and theater. We live in an area where achievement and the mania that accompanies it is at a fever pitch. We are freaky exception among our DD’s peers, which are mostly public school students. Our local homeschool community is mostly kids attending homeschool charters (which I view as at-home public schooling) and DD has yet to connect with a single kid in those programs. We were too “schooly” for our local unschooler group’s litmus test (we use math curriculum!). People can be so nuts…. So she swims alone in her pond. Lately we have been bombarded with challenges to our (lack of ) method and how we think we can possibly teach her high school level academics or prepare her for SAT/ACT prep and the like. Her version of high school is completely arts-based and her goal is to open up her own performing arts-related business by her sophomore year. Her attitude toward traditional book learning has always been “I’ll learn it when I need to”. It’s doubtful she will take standardized ANYTHING (AP exams, SAT, etc) during her high school year. She knows there are back doors and alternative paths to most things, but it’s always reassuring to read posts like these that make us feel like what we’re doing is OK. Thanks, Anna.

    • anna keller
      anna keller says:

      She sounds so much like my son! It’s remarkable that you are giving her the space to make her way—love it!

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      curious where your daughters friends are coming from. Not homeschool group bc you didn’t fit in and not unschool group for same reason so where? I ask bc our hs coops are very schooly but my daughter is an extrovert and wants to be among peers so it’s tricky.

  7. Joe Weeder
    Joe Weeder says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I have 2 very young unschoolers and I am always curious as to what it would look like as they reach their teens.

    Good insight. Your son seems like an original, cool guy.

    • anna keller
      anna keller says:

      Thank you Joe! It’s exciting to watch them enter the later stages of “school years” and see how far they can grow under their own direction! And, he is pretty cool. I seriously don’t know where he gets it!

  8. Nita
    Nita says:

    I personally can’t wrap my head around ‘unschooling’ in subjects like Math, Writing, Reading, Language Arts, but there are various ways to teach those subjects. I believe when a parent leaves the education completely up to their kid – not insisting or providing education in at least the ‘core’ subject areas, it’s like they have given up. Discipline is taught so that we have self discipline to focus on the things we want in our lives. In the real world, we don’t always get to learn, absorb information, or share it in our on ways. Being able to decipher a lecture to pull out the important parts, allows us to be able to sit in a meeting, involve in a conversation on matters we may not like – but we have learned the art of pulling valid information out of. As for my kids, they complain about learning, have their moments, but over time, and with persistence, this working parent has taught them the art of learning by taking what they need from the information I present them. They have to freedom to direct some of the focus of our learning, but by goodness they will know how to read, write, do math, speak and listen – not because they decide to do, but because as their parent I have taught them to.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Nita, I think I can help you wrap your head around unschooling in the three Rs. It’s what I have done for five years with my son, and the results have been excellent.

      He reads anything he wants to, and nothing he doesn’t. He writes essays, letters, reviews, and blog posts when the need or desire comes up. His reading has been mostly non-fiction, with the exception of books for book clubs he participates in. I have never told him he had to read anything, or write anything. I don’t even tell him _that_ he has to read anything, or write anything.

      I choose his bedtime reading (yes, he’s a man-sized 11 year old, but I still read to him every night). Following my mother’s advice, I read to him things I like to read. That means that I have read him classical literature since he was five (I am now slogging through what seems an excess of Waterloo in Les Miserables). He loved Don Quixote as much as I do, Melville, Dickens… but these texts are not what he would choose to engage with during the day.

      The thing that may be hard to understand is that this approach is not neglecting his education. It’s allowing him to pursue his education in the way that most motivates him, because the benefits of that are enormous. I’m not the center of his education, he is. He’s the one who does the work of his education, I’m just his coach. Part of my job is just getting out of his way.

      The reason I let him direct his attention isn’t that I have _given_up_ on him. I do so because I believe it’s the best way for him to learn. By allowing him to direct his education, we preserve his curiosity and his enthusiasm, and we build his character.

      It turns out that the things that fascinate him are not the same things that fascinated me at his age. Instead of wanting nothing more than to curl up with some science fiction or some poetry between the stacks, as I did at eleven, he wants to research all he can about cellular mechanisms in cancer, or different types of radiation and their effect on mutation. Next to the minecraft wikia on his toolbar is a link to the Drosophila proteome.

      How does his reading ability compare with that of his peers at the end of five years with no English classes and no required reading? When he took the ISEE in the fall, his scores were tops, ninth stanine. That might be what gravitating towards college-level reading material instead of YA fiction does for you (I find it amusing that I like YA fiction much more than does my YA).

      How is his writing? His writing is fine; he writes quickly and easily, and expresses himself well. This spring, he and two friends earned an award in a national scientific proposal competition, although they are two years younger than the other competitors.

      These are not destinations he could have reached by following my map. I would not have planned a curriculum that took him to these places; he only could have reached them through his own interest. And he wouldn’t have had time to follow his own interest if he was always working on my curriculum.

      Math has been very easy for us, as well. He understands how important math is to his chosen path, how it is progressive and demands constant practice, and he happily schedules a few hours for it every week.

      We’ve never done classes per se; he sits down, does a few problems, and then when he’s done I check his work and we talk about them. This lassez-faire approach has led to him being a couple of years ahead in math, earning excellent test scores, and, more importantly, still enjoying math.

      The examples I gave show shorter-term effects of letting him take the driver’s seat. Longer-term effects include him developing a vision, at 11, of what he wants to do with his life. A child who has to spend the day jumping through hoops someone else determined will not develop the same perspective.

      • Anna
        Anna says:

        If I left my homeschooling 11 year old to his own devices he would eat enough candy to rot his teeth and play fps video games all day. He wouldn’t write anything, do math or go outdoors. Lucky for you that you have a child that is suited to unschooling.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Great post Bostonian. Your experiences (and others who comment on this blog) who chronicle their unschooling success make me happy to see how well it can work. My favorite sentences from your post – “By allowing him to direct his education, we preserve his curiosity and his enthusiasm, and we build his character.”, “I would not have planned a curriculum that took him to these places; he only could have reached them through his own interest.”, and “A child who has to spend the day jumping through hoops someone else determined will not develop the same perspective.”. I wish the best to your son in his adventure back to school. I think it’s one he has to take. I don’t think he left school on his own terms when he was younger. Now he wants to go back and prove to himself and perhaps others that he can excel at school. Who knows the future of his experience this Fall at school but he will do his education on his own terms and learn a few more life lessons in the process.

      • anna keller
        anna keller says:

        Bostonian, Bravo—better articulated than I could have, thank you. I definitely haven’t given up – or anything close to it. We spend a ton of time with our son, supporting his passions and his interests. He loves to read and discuss Plato, he is a fantastic writer (the best part of his SAT score was his essay), he manages (sometimes very complex) P&Ls for his self-directed projects. He’s building a robot for part of one of his college applications. There’s math, science, literature and writing in our lives daily, as a natural outgrowth of his music, marketing and film interests.

  9. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Preparing for college isn’t this unsolvable mystery. It is pretty attainable for the majority of homeschoolers. I think a greater challenge than preparing for college is figuring out what is important for the teenaged high-schooler, what fascinates them? Once they figure out what they like, they can find the path they need to get there.

  10. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    just FYI when most people bring up the number of the 800 or so colleges that don’t require SAT scores they don’t mention that those are mostly private schools where the tuition is much higher then state schools.

  11. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    I would not look down on all people with poor English skills. At least they can speak more than one language. Not a lot of people can say that. Also they might be highly proficient in math and science and will pick up a language in a short time. But this is not the point of this discussion. Organized learning environment is almost always better.

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