What About Teenagers?

I've gotten several emails asking about teenaged boys and home education. I have three teenaged boys, and each of them is pursuing a unique education dictated by his needs, talents and interests. There was a time when I thought that the preceding sentence qualified me as an unschooler, but I've long since given up that term. I've found that it means different things to different people and I'm very particular about wanting my words to have the same meaning for me as my reader, so that term doesn't work. I'm going to avoid terms altogether and just tell you what the boys are doing.

Michael is in college, playing Division I soccer at a state university. He's majoring in journalism and art and he's particularly blessed by one of the most amazing Campus Ministries in the country and the friendship of a very good priest. For high school, he charted his own course of study which was heavily influenced by things that were mutually interesting to him and me. We tend to have the same gifts and the same nemeses (though he's a much more gifted artist than I'll ever be and much funnier writer). We had a grand time together with literature and writing and philosophy and theology and art. He avoided math like the plague. I followed the advice of unschooling experts and allowed him to wait until he saw a need for it. He saw that need when he recognized that he really needed SAT scores to substantiate his high school portfolio. And he has told me more than once that he wishes I'd made him plug away earlier, however distasteful, because math for him is really all about plugging his nose and getting it done. He wishes he'd had the discipline. It was really hard, nearly impossible, to cram it all in when he wanted it. He says the same thing about formal grammar study.

Otherwise, Michael was a voracious reader. He had wide interests and read deeply across curricular areas. He owns the classics in literature, history, philosophy, and theology and he's really quite intimate with them. When he applied to college, we organized all the books he'd read and narrations he'd written and found he'd nicely covered most conventional school subjects. His SAT scores were lopsided--math was average and verbal was out of the park. All the schools he applied to required a standard number and mix of typical high school courses and he worked hard his junior and senior year to make sure he had them.He was accepted everywhere he applied except for one school. That school does not consider essays, interviews, or letters of recommendation. They were uninterested in his portfolio of course descriptions, booklists and personal work samples. They only wanted to know his SAT scores, his course selection (but not in the unconventional sense) and his class rank and GPA. Clearly, not the right fit for him. During high school, he took lab sciences at the local community college for dual credit and did very well. He also took some history and art classes and did well in those, too. He learned to plan and organize his use of time and energy and to balance school demands with a heavy soccer commitment. So, college wasn't a shock when he went fulltime.  Actually, he's got enough credits to be a sophomore now and has yet to get anything less than an "A." He's happy enough, though eager to graduate and get on with his real life.

Christian is nearly sixteen. Academics have always been a challenge to him. He loves a good story--can read it it well enough and can tell it beautifully, but he'd prefer to hear it and he's most grateful for someone to take dictation when he composes. He has a litany of legitimate learning disability diagnoses and his math "thing" is excruciating. Christian has a heart of gold and he's an extraordinary teacher and coach. He' s truly got a way with children. He's enrolled with Kolbe Academy, mostly because I panicked in January and wanted to be sure that we have an official transcript for him should anyone ever question what we're doing here. One February afternoon when I was literally in tears wondering how we were going to get through high school, my counselor from Kolbe called. Divine Providence, no less. It was so nice to talk to someone who had homeschooled her own children and could refer to her seventh-grade grandchild who was a homeschooler with special needs. With Christian, I need the support of someone older, wiser, and more experienced.

Christian dislikes pencils and paper. It's hard to sit still, hard to make his hands do what his head is thinking. Hard. Hard. Hard. We make good use of discussion and Teaching Company videos. We adapt plans from Mother of Divine Grace and Kolbe; we work together constantly. He begs for structure. He doesn't want to plan his own curriculum or to have to make decisions. Instead, he wants to know what the clear expectations are and how he's going to get from here to there. He wants my reassurance that it can be done. Real Learning for Christian is all about knowing him well enough to know when to push and when to pick him up and carry him.

Patrick is thirteen and he's academically gifted. All those math problems? No problem. He's probably better at math than I am already (please don't tell him that). "School" comes easily to him. But Patrick has another gift that overshadows any academic gifts and makes his high school plan even more unique that the first two. Patrick is an extraordinary soccer player. He plays on the state and regional Olympic Development teams. He's on his way to big, big things. Patrick wants to go to Bradenton, Florida and train fulltime with the Junior National Team. It's only of passing interest to him that there is a boarding school affiliated with the training camp. He couldn't care less about school. He believes that he will kick his way to fame and fortune and be set for life before he's twenty-five. Our challenge with Patrick is to appreciate his gifts and support his quest to live his dream while still ensuring that he not close doors. Patrick doesn't understand that an injury will make him a mere mortal in the blink of an eye.

My husband and I take our responsibility to educate our children very seriously. We're not handing Patrick over to be developed morally or academically by soccer coaches far from us. We are also learning that a kid with an athletic gift that isn't being fully developed is much like the gifted child in an ordinary classroom who becomes the troublemaker. So, we struck a deal. We agreed that Patrick could begin high school work early and that once he finished a complete high school course of study, as long as he was sixteen or older and he could win a full grant, he could go train. He can accelerate himself through as quickly as he wants. While he is studying here, we will pursue every soccer opportunity we can within reason.

For Patrick and me, it was important that this deal include a third party. He needs to know I'm not the one directing what constitutes a complete high school curriculum. I need to not be the bad guy, holding him back from Bradenton by requiring him to jump through hoops. Again, Kolbe is the right choice for us (with the inclusion of several of MODG courses). It's an objective list to be completed. Patrick has no desire to direct his academic choices. None. It's the weirdest thing. All he wants is to play soccer. But we don't want him to limit himself by his ignorance. We know that the real world demands self-discipline. We also know that the academics of high school will stand him in good stead when he is navigating that world. And, mostly, we know that he's not finished with the big questions of theology and philosophy we want him to ponder. By finely tuning exactly what we think the most important things are and requiring that he be disciplined enough to study those things (though he has no apparent interest in them), we are requiring a certain maturity. If he can behave with that maturity over time and complete this task, it will go a long way towards preparing him to be on his own to pursue his dream at a young age.   He's not wise enough to see right now that a solid education in academics and a complete saturation in knowledge of the faith will be a good thing when things get bumpy later. And they will. They always do.

So there you go. Is it unschooling? I don't know, but I do know school wouldn't work for any of my teenagers, so whatever you call it, I'm grateful for the opportunity.