This week, I chatted with Madison Kanna, software developer and founder of Coding Book Club. Madison is a nineties kid from Sacramento. She grew up riding horses and conducting at-home science experiments with her two sisters and educator parents: her father, who teaches history, and her mother, the founder of multiple homeschooling startups including homeschool.life.
Throughout the nineties, the Kannas practiced unschooling, a style of homeschooling that allows kids' interests to dictate what they learn. For Madison, homeschooling involved a three-month maritime archeology expedition, a lot of skateboarding, and learning to code through a games platform called Neopets.
Madison has thought a lot about the ways homeschooling has set her up for success and draws clear lines from her childhood learning experiences to the way she works today. We chatted about some common question marks for current homeschooling and unschooling families: the transition from unschooling to more structured learning, spending time in public high school, and how her parents ensured a safe online experience for her and her sisters. You can find her thoughts on all things homeschool in the interview below.
A: Okay, to start: Why did your parents find homeschooling compelling?
M: My parents decided to homeschool us before I was born.
Years ago, my dad’s school district gave teachers the day off to explore other types of schools and learning options. My dad, ever the researcher, didn’t just visit alternative and private schools as fellow teachers did—he arranged to visit a homeschooling coop. This was over twenty-six years ago, so there weren’t many families homeschooling in the area, but he was very impressed with the homeschooled kids—how they engaged with him and the other adults in the room, their passion for learning, and the close connection they appeared to have with their parents. He came home and shared his experience with my mom.
At first, my mom thought that homeschooling was for families that lived in remote places, those looking for only religious-based education, or “hippies.” But she let those initial stereotypes go and picked up Homeschooling for Excellence — a book that brought homeschooling into mainstream media. She read it in one day and decided she and my dad were going to homeschool my older sister and me (when I was born).
A: What were some of your fondest learning memories?
M: My mom partnered with Robert Ballard, the scientist who found the Titanic. Her website was the official homeschooling resource for his science expedition and curriculum. We went on two expeditions with him—one was to the Channel Islands in California, the other was the volcanoes in Hawaii.
Even though we were technically there for my mom to interview Robert Ballard, he invited us to work with him directly, as kid explorers. He really walked us through what it's like to be a scientist on an expedition. There were no tests or grades. Instead, I kept a journal of everything.
My sister and I were featured along with Dr. Ballard on the cover of Lifelong Learning, a very popular homeschooling magazine at the time.
A: Wow, that's incredible –– what did accountability and progress look like?
M: We did a few different things. Each day, we’d put up a new blog article on what we learned that day on the expedition. For the expedition to Hawaii, there was a unit study that was provided by the JASON Project, Robert Ballard’s company. My parents worked with me to go through the unit study together.
A: Okay, back to interest-led learning. What were some of the other early interests that led your learning early on?
M: I did a ton of horseback riding. Skateboarding was a weird obsession for a couple of years. I played soccer and softball and trained in Kung Fu.
My old Neopets profile also says I was interested in crime—I was super interested in crime novels around that age, and I loved writing science fiction with my English tutor. I wanted to become some sort of writer as a kid.
A: How did you transition to more structured learning?
M: I don't remember a time when I thought, “Oh, now I have to follow a curriculum or a structured learning plan.” I was never forced to do anything that I didn't like or want to do. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an amazing English tutor who was actually a professor at Stanford. She did follow a curriculum, but I was allowed to pick the books out of the curriculum. I picked Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, which are still my favorite books. We would read them in the park, and I'd write essays. I got feedback based on my understanding of the material.
I also had a good math tutor. He tested my math knowledge and determined where I had gaps and we’d focus on those areas. It was structured learning, but still individualized.
A: Having agency over pacing is so valuable—and uncommon.
M: Yes it is. I also had the agency to decide I wanted to try high school. When I was seventeen, after jumping through a lot of hoops, I was able to attend a public high school for the last part of my senior year.
When I did attend school, I noticed that if a student didn’t understand something, they still had to have to move along with the class. For instance, if you don't fully understand Algebra I, you still have to move to Algebra II. I think this sets up a student to fail. With my math tutor, we could deep dive into something. Or if I said, "This is a really interesting area of math and I want to explore it," we could choose to stay there.
A: Is it pretty common to have a tutor?
M: Other homeschooling families we knew also had tutors. We weren’t wealthy, but my parents prioritized education. We also belonged to a distance learning charter school that paid for some tutoring.
My mom liked finding people with subject-area expertise. I remember she hired a local artist to teach us oil painting. We would go to a local park that had a big pond and paint the landscape.
I mentioned my obsession with skateboarding. I was convinced I was going to be a professional skateboarder. Of course, my mom found a skateboarding pro and hired him to teach me. I remember her working on her large flip phone while I learned skateboarding tricks and tactics at the skatepark.
My parents were always helping me uncover my interests and then they’d find resources to help me pursue that interest—to go all in. Even if it meant they had to schedule calls or work remotely at a skatepark.
To this day, I believe how they inspired me and encouraged me has had a lasting impact on how I work and my ability to go deeper into areas I’m trying to master. I have a strong sense of curiosity about life and my parents taught me to value those feelings.
A: Besides tutoring, how did your parents encourage you to pursue curiosity?
M: When I had an initial interest in something, they would start off by buying books on it or set me up in the right section of the library. Or, they’d sign me up for an online course. My mom’s goal was to find great resources to get me to explore and find out where my new interest would take me. Horseback riding was another interest I was passionate about for a while. If I wanted to do that every day, she would do her best to help me get to lessons as often as possible. I didn't have to wait to do it once a week.
A: This is amazing – what eventually prompted you to go to high school in-person?
M: I was seventeen, I realized that I lived completely differently than most American kids. I wondered what attending school was like and how I'd do. Neighborhood friends told me that high school would prepare me for the real world.
I enrolled in my neighborhood's public high school, where some of my close neighbor friends were students. I was able to get into the Honors Program and took AP classes, which were very difficult.
But I learned that attending high school doesn’t prepare you for “real life.” It was an artificial place, unlike the real world I learned and grew up in every day as a homeschooler. As much fun as it was, I'm really grateful that I didn't have to do that for a long time.
A: Did you struggle with that transition to testing? From what it sounds like, AP courses weren't what you optimized for when homeschooling.
M: Yes. I struggled as I started because I was so not used to it but I was a self-directed learner and I chose to be in high school, so I worked hard and studied like crazy.
A: Did you apply to college straight out of high school?
M: No, I decided to attend a Community College and then transferred after a year to a state school and I was there for just a few months. In total, I went to college for a year and a half and dropped out at 20.
A: What led you to drop out?
M: I love talking about dropping out of college. I believe I wasn’t learning any real-world skills in college. It was also expensive and it seemed like most of the other students were less focused on learning than getting a piece of paper so they could get a job.
I decided that I could drop out and start to learn valuable skills and start my career. Why wait? I knew I’d continue to learn on my own and would gain a lot of experience while working. Now, besides my coding job, I run a free coding community to help others learn outside of traditional colleges. People can learn so much more than they think they can outside of traditional school. There's a lot of potential in people learning to code with others in online communities.
I love boot camps and resources like Primer, where people are finding better ways to help kids do project-based learning and build real-world skills.
If colleges become more project-based, like Primer, then I believe it would have more value. Growing up, I did so many projects: we built our own rockets and did tons of science projects. I was always tinkering on something. Project-based learning is difficult to achieve in a classroom setting.
M: I'm a web developer at a cybersecurity company and have been working as a developer for the past three years. After leaving college, I worked at a disability center, I continued to run the public speaking club I had joined as a college student, and I signed with a modeling agency and got to travel. I eventually took a free Intro to Computer Science class on Udacity. We learned how to use HTML, CSS, and Python to build our own search engines. I was lucky that I was able to just spend the next year and a half going deep in that area and teach myself how to become a developer.
I've also been helping my mom with homeschool.life. The first project is an e-book she wrote called The Homeschool Survival Guide for Parents Who Never Wanted to Homeschool to help parents who’ve been forced into remote schooling with their kids because of the COVID.
A: How did your mom homeschool you and your sisters while running a startup?
M: Great question—she's definitely a superwoman. She blended things well, such as when we cooked together, we considered that part of our homeschooling for the day. We talked about the lessons we could learn from simple things like that, and we turned routine household activities into projects. She didn’t separate life from learning.
She also tried to incorporate us into a lot of her business. Her project with Robert Ballard was an example of that. We interviewed him and attended the expedition. So it was work for her, but also an amazing learning experience for us.
Another time, she was working with Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote Rich Dad, Poor Dad, so she had the whole family playing his financial board game. She also spoke at a conference with him, and my sisters and I spoke on stage with her about what we were learning from the game. We know we were fortunate for these opportunities, but my mom also worked very hard and was creative to orchestrate it all.
We also had “Field Trip Fridays.” Often the field trip was a trip to Borders. She’d bring her laptop and work while we read books and explored for hours.
I remember we could buy any book we wanted. (Again, they prioritized education.) I think because our family read together, loved bookstores, and I was never forced to read anything, reading is one of my favorite things to do.
A: There's a certain amount of trust in letting your kids loose to find and do what they want to pursue. What if you didn't succeed in your interests? Can you talk about your experiences with academic failure as a kid?
M: Yeah, it was very trusting, but my parents were always nearby and very involved. I'm sure that if I had grabbed a really inappropriate book, my mom would have stepped in, but it never came to that. That trust set the tone for the activity, though. I could read anything—I remember reading a lot of R. L. Stine. I wasn't reading the classical books that schools would have had me reading at the time. I did read the classics later on, but it was up to me.
My parents did a good job of emphasizing that education is self-directed. If you want to learn something, you have to take it into your own hands. That served me really well, even when learning how to code.
As for failure, I'm not sure if I had that many homeschool failures. My math and English tutors never gave me grades. Instead of grades or failing, we would stay on subjects until I understood them.
So it is hard to think of failures when nothing felt like a failure, which I really appreciate now. Adult members of my Coding Book Club often say things like, "I got a C when I took a computer science class, so I can't be a developer," or "I got a bad grade in math, so I'm not a math or code person." They were told that they were probably not going to be good at it later on, so they believed that.
A: A lot of parents have hesitation around online platforms, for safety reasons, but you've written about how important it was to have access to a computer early on. How did your parents shape your computer time?
M: We shared a kids’ computer when we were younger and it was in the dining room so everyone could see what we were doing. My parents also made sure that computers were used exclusively in public spaces until I was eleven or twelve. It was in the early days of the Internet so online resources were not a centerpiece of our learning for several years. My parents used a parental control browser extension and bookmarked sites for us to use like Neopets.
A: In your writing about Neopets, you mention developing and evolving your identity through an online profile. You also write a lot about homeschooling as self-directed learning. How did homeschooling help you actively develop your sense of self?
M: That's a really good question. My sense of self was created by my experiences of always loving to learn, read, write, and being an explorer of sorts. Trying new things and again having the time to go deep into a subject or activity if I wanted to master it. That’s all homeschooling, or better said, the way my parents raised me.