Friday, May 13, 2011

Teen Takes Control of Her Own Learning and Opts Out of High School

Editor's note:  Here is the story of a teen who left school to take control of her learning.  If you're a teen or know a teen interested in opting out, check out The Teen's Guide to Opting Out of School for Success.

Co-authored by 16-year-old Leah Miller and Lisa Nielsen

In a world where it seems most every teen is in school, making the decision to opt out can be very difficult. After all, this is an age when most adolescents are trying to do what they can to fit in. Additionally, most people perceive students who leave school as “drop outs” and society has labeled them as lazy, unmotivated, not bright, etc. Students who have taken charge of their learning know this is not true, but the reality is that they will be spending a lot of time convincing others of this. 16-year-old Leah Miller is one such former student who has chosen to opt out of high school so she could acquire an education that was best was personalized to her learning goals.  To follow is her story complete with the presentation she put together to convince her parents she was making the right decision.

"As a school principal I have one job and that is to expose kids to a whole lot of different things and help them to get their light bulb to go on.”
--Barbara Slatin, Schoolwide Enrichment Model Principal (read more here)

Leah Miller - School was dimming my bright light
I am an unusual case. I hope one day, what I did will be commonplace, but with my circumstances, for now, I remain unusual. I have always been a “good student”. I got straight-A’s, I did my homework without being bribed, I actually enjoyed going to class most days.

I left school because my inner light was being slowly, but surely, being dimmed. I started dreading school and losing all my motivation for the mundane daily homework I was assigned. It was hell to put myself through the day-to-day activities that I didn’t care a whit about.

Fortunately, my mom had a great conversation with a friend that led to a discussion about unschooling--the friend had unschooled his three kids. My mom brought it up to me that night and the seed was planted. She didn’t have any agenda when she told me, but as the idea grew inside me, she saw me open like a flower in the dessert finally getting water. We talked to that family as we were deciding to leave. They have become a real support system for me. I left my high school just a few weeks after the initial conversation. My mind was made up, my heart followed and the rest is history. 

In the beginning, my dad was reluctant and unsure if it was a good decision so I made a Powerpoint presentation (which you can see below) and scheduled a meeting with my parents to help convince them. I took charge of my life and ownership of my learning and left high school right then and there. It was freeing, but also scary.

I got a lot of different reactions when I first left, and I am still dealing with the repercussions. Some of my friends and family were very supportive and they saw how much better I am doing. Quite a few of my friends still suffering through the school system were jealous. However, quite a few people dear to me were really upset by my decision. I got angry letters and anonymous hate comments on my blog

Unfortunately, I have kind of grown apart from most of my school friends. Thankfully, I had some really close friends from acting school that I still am super close with.

It was hard to deal with all of the various responses, but I feel that I have learned a lot and grown as a person from this experience. One of the questions I hear all the time is “So, what do you do all day?”. I hate this question. I know that people are just curious and they have every right to want to know more about my unconventional lifestyle. However, that question makes me curl up inside and get that dread feeling in my gut. Sometimes I feel like I am inadequate with what I am doing, but most of the time, I just know that the person asking won’t understand the way I live my life, because society hasn’t caught up with this fast-growing education revolution yet.

I live my life day by day. I take every opportunity that I can to learn from life. I believe that I am more prepared for real life now than when I was still in the sheltered school environment. I have learned how to handle myself efficiently in real-world situations. I do lots of internships with different theaters. I hope to get a job soon. Because I have so much free time during the school year, I am really interested in travel. I am going to to New York soon for over two weeks to explore and soak in the city. I know that I will learn bucketloads from that trip.

I plan to apply to Santa Monica College in the fall and take whatever classes I find interesting. After two years, it is really easy to transfer to a traditional four-year campus school. I passed the California High School Proficiency Exam, the California equivalent of a GED for minors. I am thriving as I live my life the way I want to, without having a “formal education” thrust upon me. I am confident that my path will lead to an amazing future, and I can’t wait!

Listen to Leah’s interview on with The Unplugged Mom.

Listen to internet radio with The Unplugged Mom on Blog Talk Radio

About Leah Miller
Leah Miller is a 16-year old unschooler. She left high school halfway through sophomore year, and now she enjoys her life and learns from everything around her, not in hour-long periods of enforced learning. Her passion is musical theater and she breathes it everyday. She is on a quest to find a better term than “unschooling”. Leah enjoys mismatched socks, driving with the windows open and the music blasting, and baking. She would be very content to never hear the words, “So what do you do all day?” ever again. Leah writes a blog called “said the red-head” and you can also follow her on twitter @LeahMiller28.


  1. testing comment function (sorry)

  2. I am simply amazed at Leah’s bravery in taking such an intrepid step to “take charge” of her own education. She will certainly be admired by many for ‘going against the grain’, which is something that formal educational systems do not really teach or encourage. This story rests deeply with me as many a time I have been disappointed and hurt by the educational systems that I have been a part of in the past, after not being able to pursue the subject areas that I wanted to. In the end, I have been blessed to have things work out in my favour, to the point that I am finally doing what I want to do, but it took me many years of going around in educational circles to get there.

    I empathise with Leah in relation to the criticism that she has been getting for her unpopular decision and the views that she is wasting or will be wasting her time during the day. This hits close home as my husband experienced similar objections five years ago when he decided to leave his job and go into full-time church ministry. Even persons that we thought knew my husband well, thought that he was just being a loser. Five years later, my husband is more fulfilled than he was before, has had experiences and opportunities that he has never dreamt of and never has a day where he just lazes around.

    While this ‘going against the grain’ has worked out well for both my husband and Leah, I think that there needs to be some critical factors present in order for such choices to be successful, and I think that these are critical for self-learning in particular. I’ve made a list of my thoughts:

    1. Vision – An individual who engages in self-learning (unschooling as Leah refers to it), or just about anything in life that is self-regulated, ought to have a clear picture of the desired outcome. Without the benefit of a predefined structure, a self-learner now has the benefit, but also the challenge to create a structure from scratch. Having a clear vision will be critical in determining how that structure should look.
    2. Motivation – It is critical for self-learners to be intrinsically motivated so that learning does take place even though the room is hot, the flu is coming on, or insomnia got the better part of the previous night. Procrastination and the temptation to avoid difficult challenges must be methodically axed from the life of the self-learner.
    3. Resources – In a formal learning system, it is the job of the teacher/lecturer/facilitator to bring resources and materials to the classroom. The self-learner on the other hand has to seek out a lot of this on his own. It is therefore important for him to build a collection of resources (materials, equipment, information sources, etc) that would provide abundant and relevant learning experiences.
    4. Network – One of the benefits of participating in a formal system (educational, or otherwise) is that the system automatically provides many like-minded or like-challenged peers, who can support each other in various ways. Such support is critical or success in any life challenge. It is important for the self-learner to build a network of supporters who will act as cheerleaders throughout the process. Another important aspect is building a network of subject matter experts; persons who can provide relevant information, gainful insights and resources, or who can point you to others who can themselves provide these things.

    I do wish Leah the very best and I have no doubt that she will succeed, based on what I have read about her. However, I do wish to say to persons who are thinking about following her example – approach carefully and ensure that you do the background research and preparation needed to be successful at this. Running in blindly or with the wrong motives are sure steps to quick failure.

    Thoughtfully submitted,
    Divia Lewis
    (Student of Instructional Design)

  3. Powerful and thought provoking. Congrats and all the best from a public school Supt.. Mark

  4. Way to go Lisa! I commend you for being brave enough to stand up for what you feel is right for you.
    I am aware of many students who would like to do what you did, but they are scared. As a high school teacher I often tell my students to follow their dream. Unfortunately, the education system’s focus is on the academic student. I feel much more consideration should be given to the students who are not “academic.” These students should be stared in the direction of a trade or vocational school. In most schools in my city, there is only one teacher serving a 2500-student population for students interested in pursuing motor mechanics,air-conditioning or home economics. Most students do not even stand a chance. Students are being intimidated or made to feel ashamed if they decide upon taking their GED rather than waiting to receive a high school diploma. I try to convince my students each day that there are millions of people on the college or high school dropout list who have followed their dream and are billionaires today. Threatening to send parents to jail if their children do not go to school is wrong. It is my opinion that the education system is responsible for most of the angry and disgruntled children that we have in our schools today. The children are forced to be involved in classes in which they are not interested. Good luck to you Lisa!

  5. bravo Leah.
    thank you Lisa for sharing. your ongoing exposure to alternate thinking is a much needed psa.

    Leah - we just finished a year of experimenting with a district innovation lab - where your slide 5 wouldn't even need to exist. and your slide 11 wouldn't be a stigma, but rather an adventure. we have so misused the term success. and have so lost out on the benefits of authentic failures.

    last school year, kids crafted this model to disrupt our district over the course of 4 years, so that all kids and teachers would be free to learning per choice. a people agenda. this is a final project of sorts of our year one - still in draft form: -

    Ellen Langer's quote (slide 38) was one of our biggest findings. that focus on outcomes can encourage mindlessness. even when the kids (as opposed to teachers/standards) set outcomes at the beginning of the year, that compromised the adjacent possibilities of freely self-directing learning daily. one student nailed this discovery, as he said, it's not about finding the expected, it's about making yourself - you don't just find a passion, you make it, by letting yourself follow your fancy.

    Joi Ito is a great example of all of this (slides 99-111). we think his recent appointment to direct the MIT media lab is huge. his mission, that the media lab become space for those feeling the need to drop out is our vision as well. a perpetual beta - a space to create that which doesn't exist. until that free thinking is in each individual - not just in a physical lab.
    until what you are doing Leah, is perceived of as normal. we love the example you are setting.. freeing minds and souls to just be.

  6. Check out College Without High School or the Zero Tutition Project if you are interested in continuing on this path!

  7. Hooray! Leah reminds me of my 12 year old son whose passion is drama (and mismatched socks LOL) and who is getting his first "big break" this week on a tv show :) He has been homeschooled for 6 years and will be through high school.

  8. Great story. Can the same approach be taken with college? Does what you want to do really require college? Are there other resources available to you? Food for thought.

  9. Just found you on pinterest. As a teacher, not only do I commend you, but hope that others will begin to look at education from your eyes. Simply put, the education system in our country is broke. In that, I mean to say it's outdated, is not serving our communities, and most of all is not suited for the student of today. The system is still stuck in the fifties alot of times, and serves little purpose. I hope that by creating your own education, which should be how we look at each student, you will be able to be the best in what you like to do, and you will have a fulfilled life. You go!!!!