Unschooled: How One Kid Is Grateful He Stayed Home

Originally published on June 6, 2011 6:30 pm

With summer on the horizon, many teens are looking forward to a break from school and tests. But for Sam Fuller of Albany, Calif., not much is going to change. Fuller is part of a rare minority of home-schoolers who call themselves "unschooled" — a more unstructured, self-directed form of home schooling. There are about 2 million registered home-schoolers in the U.S., a number that grows by about 10 percent a year. Sam's family can keep Sam and his brother home by registering their house as a private school.

I didn't have a reason to read until I was 10, so I didn't. Eventually, when I did learn, it wasn't because of a book, test, a teacher — or even because I was embarrassed I didn't know how. I learned to read because of a card game I wanted to play called Magic the Gathering.

In order to play this new and exciting game, I had to be able to read about the different characters on the cards. I'm 16 now and I learn what I want to learn, when I want to learn it, and not always in the conventional ways. My mom had the idea to unschool me when she was a teacher, and I was a baby.

"I thought, here I have a 4-month-old baby and well, this is fine, how he's learning now," says my mom, Pam Tellew. "I don't really see any reason that that has to change."

Unschooling is like home schooling, except entirely self-directed, with lots of support from my parents. When I got my first allowance of $2.50 a week, I remember calculating how long I'd have to save up to buy my next toy. Everything I've ever learned has been for a practical purpose or because I was interested, never for a test or because someone made me.

My 12-year-old brother, Nicky, has also been unschooled his whole life. He's pretty shy; he likes reading fantasy books and watching South Park. Before last year, he wasn't comfortable with groups of kids.

My mom will occasionally suggest activities, like going to the botanical garden, but Nicky will usually shoot them down with an immediate "no." He's bored a lot because he's in between interests, and yet he's nervous about trying new things.

I had a similar problem when I was his age. It's part of growing up unschooled. We don't have as much pressure from school and friends telling us what to like, so it's our responsibility to figure out how to spend our time.

My grandpa Glenn Fuller is one of the people in my family who had concerns about unschooling. "I didn't think it was a good idea," he says. "One of the reasons I was worried is that I was afraid your education might be a little spotty. The other thing is the social aspect of the thing. For example, you couldn't take part in team sports."

Not having a social life is a big misconception about unschoolers. In our world, the idea that we are shut-ins who barely see the light of day is kind of a joke. Unschooled kids have their own networks and conferences. We go on camping trips and we hang out with friends whenever we want.

And the truth is, my grandpa's right; my education is spotty. Up until a year ago, I could barely spell. It was my own fault, because I was reluctant to take on the daunting task. Most parents would have intervened in this situation, but my mom says there's a cost to that.

"When you force someone to do something, especially when they're a child and there's an imbalance and a power relationship anyway, they lose part of their will and their confidence that they know what's right for them," she says. "And I think that's a pretty high cost for being a good speller."

A few months ago my mom bought a book and we started working on my spelling. And I've also enrolled in my first community college class, with the plan of transferring my credits to a four-year college.

And although I acknowledge that school does work for some people, I'm incredibly grateful my parents decided to unschool me.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Youth Radio brings us his story.

SAM FULLER: Oh. Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FULLER: In order to play this new and exciting game, I had to read about the different characters on the cards. I'm 16 now. I learn what I want to learn, when I want to learn it, and not always in the conventional ways. My mom had the idea to unschool me when she was a teacher and I was a baby.

BLOCK: And I thought, oh, here I have a 4-month-old baby and, well, you know, this is fine, the way he's learning now. This is really the ideal school. He's learning exactly what he needs to, when he needs to learn it, with plenty of support in a loving environment. I don't really see any reason that that has to change.

FULLER: What do you do all day?

NICKY: Well, it depends. Kind of bored, usually.

FULLER: What would you like to be doing?

NICKY: Well, I usually wish I had a new book to read or like, a TV series to watch or something.

FULLER: My grandpa is one of the people in my family who had concerns about unschooling.

BLOCK: I didn't think it was a good idea. One of the reasons that I was worried was that I was afraid your education might be a little spotty. The other thing is the social aspect of the thing. For example, you couldn't take part in team sports.

FULLER: And the truth is, my grandpa is right. My education is spotty. Up until a year ago, I could barely spell. It was my own fault because I was reluctant to take on the daunting task. Most parents would have intervened in this situation.

BLOCK: But then, I think there's a cost to that.

FULLER: My mom again.

BLOCK: When you force somebody to do something, especially when they're a child, and there's an imbalance in a power relationship anyway, they lose part of their will and their confidence that they know what's right for them. And I think that's a pretty high cost for being a good speller.

FULLER: For NPR News, I'm Sam Fuller.

BLOCK: Sam's story comes to us from Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.