Ummm…. we’re HOMEschoolers. Can my kids come to your unschooling camp?

People ask me that.

Simply: YES.

Complicatedly: below.

We diverge, but we converge.

We’ve always had a wide swath of educational philosophies represented at camp. Our people organize their lives every which way – from “I wake up and decide what I feel like doing that day” to “I’m in community college and five months from now I’ll have an Associates’ Degree, after which I intend to transfer to a four-year college.” (Also in the mix: designing and building a tiny house; making a collection of all the elements in the periodic table and an accompanying series of youtube videos; dedicating most waking hours to guitar practice; following a rigorous self-designed academic college-prep program; some days getting lost in books and other days getting lost in video games.)

But at camp, you don’t typically know these things about individuals unless you ask.  Campers come together more around specific interests than around homeschooling/unschooling methodologies.  Some of the strongest magnets, recently: Magic the Gathering; Settlers of Catan; songwriting; various forms of musical collaboration; yoga; foosball; chess; ultimate frisbee; Dr. Who; discussions about privilege, gender, race, etc.; photography; art of many kinds. There’s also lots of excitement and coalescence around the meta-activity of sharing one’s own interests and learning about others’ interests, i.e. “workshops” and informal conversations. There’s rarely the sense that anybody has an axe to grind or wants to convert others to a particular educational ideology. Occasionally this is something an individual is passionate about, but as with all passions at NBTSC, the soapbox offered is merely the opportunity to offer a workshop, which others will attend if they choose.

As for staff, many viewpoints are represented, but one thing I love about most of these folks is that they’re way more interested in questions than answers.

Camp is short, and we don’t use our precious time to officially proselytize about anything.

We offer a camp, not a lengthy residency intended to reprogram habits or routines. As a one- or two-week event, I believe NBTSC is just the right length to offer an intense and inspiring experience without necessarily turning a life upside down. Sometimes a life is just begging to be turned upside down, so there is that, but ~ if you’ve already got a good flow happening at home, I believe the NBTSC experience is going to reinforce and revitalize that rather than unravel it.

NBTSC’s executive director doesn’t give a rat’s booty about rigid categories.  

While I’m fascinated by the different ways that families engage the what-to-do-instead-of-school question, I rarely judge. Moreover, while there are certainly some dogmatic thinkers out there, when I’ve witnessed (or read about) the details of actual families’ lives I’ve rarely detected a hard line between “unschooling” and “homeschooling.” Although I am only one of the dozen-or-two adults staffing a session of camp (and in fact, I’m no longer even present at every single session), it is my perspective as executive director that most influences  what we do, how we interact with campers, what our policies are, and how much we talk (directly, as a group), about unschooling. (Which is not a whole lot, and when we do it’s not to assert that there’s one right way to define it.)

I got interested in unschooling in the late eighties. And at first, I did buy the firm distinction some folks made even back then between “homeschooling” and “unschooling.” In my mind the first was not only Bad but also Boring. (If you’re going to stoop to do “school,” why not just do it with all the other kids in the usual publicly-funded-building-complete-with-gymnastics-equipment, I thought snidely to myself.) The second, with its guiding lights of freedom, self-determination, and openness to the world’s abundance ~ that was clearly the side to be on. Pretty quickly,  real live unschoolers (and homeschoolers) disabused me of this simplistic binary sorting. It was super-common, I soon learned, for families – and individuals within families – to travel back and forth on this spectrum. Probably the norm rather than the exception. Still…. I was young and naive and I liked to see the world the way I liked to see it, so I mostly noticed the migration from “home” to “un.” I observed that many families began a fairly “school-like” approach, and then gradually – as they spent lots of time so closely engaged with their children – began to see how naturally these children learned when simply given time and space for exploration,  and would then back off on the tightly structured approach. And yes, this happens. A lot. Within the homeschooling movement, it always has.

What was also true then, and remains true now, is that a parent may begin with an almost fundamentalist zeal about “unschooling” (by which they may mean something like “never being at all authoritative or directive with my kid about learning anything, especially anything that might be considered academic,” as well as “never introducing any kind of workbook, textbook, or formal curriculum,” or at least not unless specifically requested by a child who was fully aware of other options). And that same parent may then find to their surprise that the child’s temperament, or the nature of the relationship between them, is actually better suited to something that might be at least partially described as “homeschooling.” And this might be Exactly the Right Approach for this family, or this specific kid in the family, or for this family this year. This kind of evolution, also,  has long been part of the homeschooling movement.

Wait, you probably knew all that already.

My point here is just that, don’t worry, I know it too, and I have not the slightest interest in trying to get anybody to change something that’s already working; nor would I presume that I’m in a position to know what’s right for your family. In fact, just to offer you a gentle laugh at my own expense, I’ll share that this year I’m finding myself surfing that unglamorous-sounding “un” to “home” wave. My six-and-a-half-year-old has almost an exact-reverse set of skills compared to me at that age.  His ability to communicate, make friends, empathize, and keep track of people’s lives is mind-boggling (me, I was a shy and rather socially clueless kid). And whereas I was reading and calculating way above grade-level, in those departments he’s a little behind by school standards.  He gets satisfaction from working incrementally and intentionally on basic skills like reading and math computation, but not by himself he doesn’t.  (At that age I rolled my eyes at sequential, focused “three Rs” type work, but I seized every opportunity to burrow into a solitary corner, devouring books by the dozen.) Turns out he’s happier and calmer now that we’re sitting down together daily for an hour or two of tutoring and focused practice. For piano and math we even have – gasp – a curriculum! (Piano Safari and Singapore Math, in case you’re wondering.) He’s not the only one who’s enjoying this: I’m loving the simplicity of relying on an ordered progression – which lots of other people have worked hard to refine – from which we can spontaneously diverge (colored wooden blocks and symmetry, yay!) and then return to, with no floundering about required on my part.  (Don’t worry, he doesn’t do worksheets all day – the lucky bean gets to spend many long hours playing indoors and out with his unschooling friends; he pursues his fascination with vehicles in a multitude of ways – if you ever meet him he’ll likely ask what you drive and interrogate you regarding what you like about it; we both revel in copious, relaxed read-aloud time; not of course that these things comprise the whole of his “learning.”)

It goes the other way too. In our family, I’ve never seriously considered taking up “radical unschooling” (in which a child may choose everything from how to spend her portion of the family’s grocery budget to how much TV to ingest, as well as, of course, what if anything to deliberately focus on or “learn” and how to do that).  I’ve never wished that my parents had tried that approach with me (whereas I’ve spent plenty hours retroactively fantasizing about what I would have done as a teenage unschooler, free to design my own academic projects, free to go backpacking for a whole week in September, free to succumb to all the books that tempted me).  And  just as I  was once biased against using formal curricula, I was also once disturbed that some parents didn’t even require their kids to brush their teeth. I remain pro-toothbrushing (and I limit screen time and junk food at our house) but I know lots of radically-unschooled teenagers and they seem better than fine to me.  (I also had the pleasure of meeting RU proponent Dayna Martin in the flesh. She positively radiates warm, abundant energy, and it’s easy to imagine that with attention like hers shining on you, it’d be impossible not to bloom and grow.)

All that to say: I was an opinionated 26-year-old. That’s when I wrote The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and although I researched maniacally, my arguments were largely inspired by my own temperament and self-knowledge – who I imagined I could have been as a teenage unschooler.  I am a much less opinionated 50-year-old mother, and I am highly unlikely to judge your family’s choices or methodology.

Obviously, there are ways to group pedagogies other than by this linear reduction to homeschooling vs. unschooling, but when I say (or write) “unschooling,” not a few people assume I’m down on homeschooling. Now you know.

We’re all in this together, is how I see it. I look at each home- and-or unschooling family as an opportunity for me to know life’s rich possibilities a little more deeply.

So YES, you are welcome. I hope you’ll join our feast.

~Grace Llewellyn, November 20, 2014