Why We Left Traditional School Systems To Practice Unschooling
Words: Akilah S. Richards, as told to Anthonia Akitunde
Unschooling, or Self-Directed Education, was something this family didn’t expect to do. But, six years in, they’re not turning back.
Akilah S. Richards is an author, entrepreneur, podcast host, and advocate for Self-Directed Education. She tells us how she and her husband Kris realized traditional schools weren’t a good fit for their daughters Marley and Sage (now 13 and 11), and later discovered unschooling.
I came from a very traditional, British-Caribbean background. I grew up in Jamaica. Our colonizers were the British, and so a lot of our academic and social upbringing was centered on a very postured way of being and this idea of perfectionism.
When our mom moved to the States, we migrated later and there were definitely those same expectations. This idea that, "You've come to America now: Get a scholarship, go to college, and become something nice." Something that sounds good when your parents tell their friends that that's what their kid is.
I went down that path. I did really well academically, I just got suspended a lot for what I thought was attempting to communicate with my teacher. I had a lot of instances where I was like, "Well, I don't understand why we're doing this. This feels like busy work, can I just sit here?" I would try to negotiate constantly, and that was viewed as a problem. But I made my way through college, finished college, and declined a full scholarship to grad school because I was done with schooling.
In my twenties, I was diagnosed with severe endometriosis from fibroids. I wasn’t supposed to be able to carry to term, but we had two girls, our miracle babies. I remember when I was pregnant with Marley, I just felt like the rush of “I gotta get really accomplished really fast because now a baby is coming.”
I had become a certified paralegal well into my pregnancy with Marley. I was going to go into contract law. Kris was an ad guy. We were both just climbing, climbing, climbing.
We bought our first place, and then less than two years later we had another daughter, Sage. We bought another house in a nicer neighborhood so they could go to a nicer school, and got more vehicles. We didn't think about anything besides the path that we'd been shown.
Stopping the “Schoolishness”
Marley was labeled gifted and talented in Kindergarten. Now, because I know so much about the school system, I don't even like to use the term.
Towards the end of Kindergarten, they asked us to test her IQ. They told us what the test would entail, and we said no problem. But then they started to do a whole bunch of other tests, which we didn't know about until later when Marley got frustrated one day and told us she was sick and tired of missing recess. I was like, "Well, why would you be missing recess?"
And she said, "Because I'm always in that cold room taking tests, over and over, and over and over."
They said they wanted to figure out some sort of curriculum for her. Their recommendation was that we put her in a fourth-grade classroom for half the day, and then second grade for the other half.
That was our first clue like, Oh, yo. They're not thinking about the whole person here. They're really just trying to see, academically, how far she can go.
When we brought up those concerns they were just like "What? Don't you want to see how rigorous her academic blah blah blah?"
We were still trusting the system a little bit and researching, talking to family members who were educators as well. Still trying to figure out why we couldn't be comfortable with it. Then Sage entered school and the same thing happend to her: They did the IQ testing, said they wanted to put all these things together. Ultimately we said, "No. She can only skip one grade, and then we can figure out some other stuff."
Marley became more and more frustrated with the boxes they were putting her in. She had all these specific things that she wanted to do, and she was just so frustrated that everybody but her told her what to do with her time.
Eventually we realized we were looking the wrong way. Our focus was on how best to fit them into the system, when our focus should be on Marley and Sage. When that shifted, we started communicating with them more, and they didn't want to be in school. So that's what we did—we withdrew them from school.
Walking Down A New Path
Kris and I talked about it ad nauseum. First of all, why are we tripping? And then, wait, are we tripping? Especially coming from very traditional, British-Caribbean backgrounds, it's like, no. Of course they're not going to enjoy school. It's school!
But Kris and I both went through the gifted label stuff at school and knew what that meant, and these ideas of what we should be interested in and what we should be focused on. It just seemed to us that since the girls were "so smart" anyway, despite school and their issues with school, maybe we could just figure out what that was about.
Of course I could make them stay, or we could go to another school, or we could do all of these other things. But there was also this option to really explore what it would mean if we focused on them and learning, and not school. Worst case, if it didn't work, we could just figure something out and put them back, even though we knew that wasn't going to be the case.
I wasn't excited about it. I didn't want to homeschool, I knew other people who homeschool and I was like, "I didn't want to go to grad school! I don't want to be grown and doing all that stuff."
We put them in a virtual school, Georgia Virtual Academy. We started paying attention to the different ways the girls were already learning things that didn't have anything to do with class. It just sort of opened our minds up.
We wanted to see how much further we could dive in, and we realized we’d either have to make more money, or have less expenses. We didn't want to take other jobs since we were now going to spend more time with the girls, so we had to cut our expenses. We walked away from a whole lot of things over the course of maybe a year. We made a short-term move to Jamaica, which began our six-year digital nomad journey. The first time we did it for six weeks. And then we did it after that for six months. Almost every year we go back; it's much cheaper there.
On the emotional side, we had to walk away from the idea of building something. Like I said, we lived in our for-now dream home in the bomb neighborhood because of the schools and the space, 3/4 of an acre—all of the things that in your mind and in your family's mind it's like, “Yes, yes, you're doing it!” Untethering that was very much a process of asking myself, Do I want this? Did I ever want this?
Our focus was on how best to fit them into the system, when our focus should be on Marley and Sage.
We tried to sell the house, and that process wasn't successful. We tried to figure out how to get it rented while we traveled, and then that became cost prohibitive. So we had to figure out whether we were going to continue to struggle with that process or not, and we decided to walk away from it altogether. We sold one of our cars, and we gave another one away. We gave stuff to my momma, some stuff to his momma, and became digital nomads, spending a few months in Jamaica, and the other half in various U.S. cities.
I had left corporate maybe two years before Kris. We realized after we had our second daughter that when I quit working we were saving $200 a month because of childcare costs. It freed me up to start doing more freelance writing and blogging. My blogging turned into coaching, which did well, and my blog started getting sponsors.
Kris was working, but left corporate abruptly; his exit was not planned. He was doing a lot of freelance work anyway—we were both already engaged in entrepreneurship—so we just formalized it and started a business.
Putting A Name To A New Way Of Life
I came across Seth Godin's manifesto called "Stop Stealing Dreams." It talks about the purpose of education, this idea that we were either teaching our children to collect dots or connect them. And that school as we know it now was doing the collecting of the dots.
That just really resonated with me. I like to say that we were already unschooling before we had heard the formal term, but that sent me down the path of the history of education. If we were going to help the girls take charge of their learning, what the hell did that mean on a day-to-day basis? When they got up, what should they be doing? Should it be curriculum from 9-11?
I was still in that mindset of me needing to be the guide or the facilitator. Then I did the research, John Holt [the creator of unschooling] came up and Pat Farenga and Peter Gray, so I just went down the rabbit hole.
I shared a lot of it with Kris, and of course we were having our experiences with the girls in person as well. We noticed the things they were picking up just because they were interested in things, and we realized, Oh! So this is a thing other people know this too and lots of people are experiencing this and it's ok. We don't need books. Learning is happening everywhere.
Still, a big concern for me was "What about math?!" That's one of the typical ones that people say, and I totally get it, because I was like, Who's going to teach them math? Cuz I'm definitely not gonna do it. Kris is totally a math nerd, so he can do it, but will he? I was really concerned.
But then we realized we can just get tutors if it seems like we're in the store and they can't tell you real quick how much it costs if we get four of these and each of them is $7. If they look angsty about that, we'll get a tutor!
We had a lot of questions: What about the sciences? What about the things they don't know that they don't know? Or the things we don't know that we can't teach them? What are we going to do with the time? What about the space in between where they are now—where they're used to people telling them what to do—and where we want them to get? The space where self-governance and confident autonomy are just a natural part of how they move about?
Those are some of the things that came up, but we handled them through a lot of observation, which I know will sound like a passive thing to a lot of us, but observation helped Kris and me a lot just in recognizing that a lot of that stuff was just our own stuff. It was our own anxiety, our own fear, our own presentation parenting. You present your kids to the world, people judge based you on how your kid is... Like all of those things came up.
We definitely got some pushback from our community when we said that we’d be unschooling our girls. People basically said that we were going to make them dumb.
There was also my own personal pushback as well. When we were going back to Jamaica, we were around a lot of people who hadn't seen the girls a lot but they had just heard from grandparents how smart the girls were.
I would frantically ask them, "What's 7 x 9? Make sure you know your 7 times table." I felt like if they had that covered, we could coast for a little bit until people could see that it was fine.
But mostly, we just paid attention the girls. We really tried to focus on did they seem to be thriving, were they happy, did they feel comfortable asking questions? When we were out and about, how were they being, were they looking other people in the eye? What are they doing with their time? We just tried to keep shifting the focus back to them. The more we did that, the more we realized a lot of the stuff was just our stuff.
I didn’t really have any unschooling role models. That's one of the best things about unschooling: It's hella custom! But I love how Jada Pinkett Smith seems to understand the importance of allowing her children to be who they are, and I assume Will, too. They've unschooled, I think.
There are some families I know like Zakiyya Ismail and Ahmed Chicktay, a couple in Johannesburg, South Africa. Their oldest kid is 19, and they've been unschooling from the very beginning. I love how they move about. We got a chance to spend a lot of time with them in their home and about the city, and I was just like, "Yes!" Their children are free and just sharp and funny, and they seem to really know each other.
Living As An Unschooling Family
Recently the girls have started at an unschooling school. They're called agile learning centers, and the larger network is called agile learning network. They are fully self-directed schools: They have a particular process that they use where the children dictate how they spend their time, the classes that happen, and the fieldtrips. All of those things are based on the interests of the student body.
This is their second week there, so now our days look like dropping them off at 9 and picking them back up at 3. They can also go when they want to, and not go when they don't want to. There are no grades. If they want to move on to college, then they can put them on a path toward that too.
There are a few schools in Atlanta that offer that flexibility. But before we started the unschooling school, we would wake up at different times of day because the girls don't have a bedtime or wake up time. A part of that too is because they connect with people in different parts of the world, so their friend in Johannesburg or their friend in Tokyo or wherever won't be awake when they're awake if they had a routine bedtime.
We use [project management tool] Trello to communicate. Marley identifies as a writer among other things. If she's working on a project, she might say, "Mom, I need your editing skills on something for me, do you have 30 minutes?" And I'll say, "Yeah," and she'll put it on Trello; that way I can put it on my calendar and know that we're going to get together at that time.
Kris is a visual artist and so is Sage, so they sometimes will work on things either together or just in the same space. She likes to be where he is.
We just kind of flow through. We may have some things that are scheduled, if there's some sort of event they want to go to or if there's a class like gymnastics or dance. But really the activities are generated by the things that they're into. They almost always have projects that they're working on, them and their friends or them alone that come independent of us.
Unschooling has freed me so much. I say all the time that motherhood raised me—and when I say motherhood, I also very much mean unschooling as a big part of that.
Watching my daughters own their freedom—first reclaim it, and then own it—just seeing them be free is just so encouraging for me as an entrepreneur, as a digital nomad. As a person who often feels like I’m figuring it out as I go and really learning how to trust myself and my gifts and my process and the people around me, my daughters are helping me so much to see that.
I’m a writer first and foremost and I feel like I was doing the most with everything. I just didn’t believe that I could just really dive into my story and also help other people to dive into theirs. Now that’s what I do, and I know that unschooling was a big part of what freed me to trust that journey.
The more you start to trust and learn yourself, the more free you become and the less tethered you are to the other things that you did when you just didn’t own your freedom.