Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Dispatch from Planet Unschooling

My friend's daughter just turned four.  She does cute four-year-old things, which my friend sometimes posts about on Facebook.  In among the happy comments that followed one such posting was the one that always seems to come, the one advising my friend to enjoy her daughter now, because "when she's 14 you'll wish she lived on another planet."

People, let me tell you something.  My daughter is 14.  And there are times when I wished both of us lived on another planet.  As in, together.  As in, far, far away from everyone who thinks teens are by nature a subspecies from hell.

And guess what.  There are times when, in a manner of speaking, we do.

Last week, for instance.  In the mountains of East Tennessee, thirty-three unschooling teens, a half-dozen counselors, a handful of parent-volunteers, and the awesome Laura and Scotty Bowman, director and camp chef, all gathered for the first ever East Tennessee Unschooled Summer Camp at Buffalo Mountain outside of Johnson City.

It was our own private Jupiter.  Or moon thereof.  An unschooler's moon.

Now, I knew this was going to be a different sort of camp than the one I attended when I was fourteen.  The one with the bland meals in the big mess hall, and Reveille at sunrise, and mandatory Vespers on Wednesday, and forced bonhomie, and too-bad-for-you-if-you-don't-like-hotdogs, and adult staff hovering everywhere, keeping the rabble campers in line.

And I was right.  This camp was nothing like that.

First of all, there were only a few rules.  Like, no food in the cabins, morning and evening check-ins, hiking partners for hikes, quiet hours after 11 p.m.

But no lights-out-by-whenever, so night owls were free to stay up as late as they liked, as long as they got up for morning check-in.  And instead of Reveille blaring over the camp loudspeakers at dawn, those who needed help waking up were serenaded at their cabin door by counselors singing Bohemian Rhapsody.  And they were free to return to bed after check-in.  Take that, Camp Arthur G. Hough.

There was a schedule of activities listed daily on a whiteboard.  They were led by the counselors, by the campers, and by Laura. They were all optional. You could go to a few, or all of them, or none of them.  But they were all so intriguing, how could you not go?  And so the lodge was full of kids taking part in discussions of the Myers-Briggs personality types, of college, of long-distance friendships, of relationships with siblings.  They met up for hikes to the waterfall, and kayaking, and swimming, and the zipline. They showed up for a couples-dancing workshop, a belly-dancing workshop, a zine-making workshop, and a two-hour soapstone carving workshop that ended up lasting two days as everyone kept going back to do one more.

And then there was the spontaneous stuff, like the ever-morphing games of Werewolf that grew to encompass nearly the entire camp. And the music jams, the walks along the creek, the late-night conversations in the lodge.

There was good food, much of it locally sourced, almost all of it made from scratch. Muffins from recipes, not from boxes. Lasagne noodles rolled out on a pasta machine.  Fresh vegetables.  Meals were served at set times, but there was always a big bowl of fruit and chips and granola bars on the counter, and shelves in the kitchen where campers could stash their own snacks for between-meal noshes. The kitchen never closed, and there was a late-night staffer whose job was to stay up until the last camper wandered off to bed.

Parent volunteers had rooms in a building down the way a bit, nearby but not exactly central to the main area, so we could stay out of the way if we wanted to and still remain accessible if our kids needed us, or needed a cool place to hang out or sleep, since our rooms were air-conditioned and theirs weren't.  A couple kids took advantage of that option, and nobody shamed them, or suggested they toughen up, or accused the parents of mollycoddling.  The kids were hot, the rooms were cool, sleep was needed.  Needs were met.  Would that the whole world could work so well.

It was an amazingly functional week.  People got along, did what they wanted, hung out, tried new things, helped in the kitchen, acted silly, wandered the trails, made music, talked to one another about important stuff and everyday stuff and important everyday stuff.

And when I say "people" I mean all of us.  The kids, the counselors, the parents, the staff, everyone.  With each other.

That's the gift of unschooling.

I will say with complete confidence that not one of the parents at that camp wishes our kids were on another planet.  Not one.  Is it because our teens are exceptional?  Well, sure they're exceptional.  They're unschooled.  Which means all of the schooly stuff that comes between kids and their parents, between kids and their passions, all that stuff that gets in the way of kids figuring out how to relate honestly with one another, how to respect themselves and others, and how to respond to the needs of their bodies and their minds and their imaginations, all of that stuff that gets mediated by school and by the institutionalized thinking that supports the schooling paradigm, is absent. It isn't even a part of the atmosphere.

In the words of fellow unschooler Sara McGrath, unschooling "gets schooling out of the way so various unique, dynamic personal, creative ways of growing up, living, participating and contributing to communities can develop."  Places like ETUSC are the result of what happens when you do just that: get school out of the way, out of your life, out of your kids' lives, out of your mode of comprehending the world and your own place in it.

You have a whole new world.

And a most excellent planet.  Or moon.  Either way.


  1. Most excellent! Either way, I am there! And I was there!

  2. peggy, once again you've brought me to tears with your amazing observations that felt like you pulled them right out of my heart and mind. thank you so much for writing this. for being there. for joining me on this most excellent planet!!

  3. <3 Looking forward to this or something similar when my Little is a teen.

  4. This is so lovely! I was sooo bummed to miss this, but the flanking weekends we had (have) standing annual events - big ones, ones we look forward to all year - so it wasn't in the cards for us. I hope my kids can attend sometime as I know it will be an amazing experience!

  5. @piscesgrrl, I know exactly what you mean. Standing annual events over Memorial Day weekend keep us from going to Life is Good, and every year it almost kills me.

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  7. How much does religion come into play at the camp? It sounds ideal, but I'm leery of its "outreach ministry" status.

  8. @Adesa, ETUSC is a secular camp. The location is at Buffalo Mountain, which is a Methodist retreat center, but the camp is run by an independent business that rents the site for a week and has nothing to do with any of Buffalo Mountain's "outreach" stuff.

    Here's how the directors put it on the website:

    "ETUSC is a non-denominational, non-religious camp. We strive to honor each person's religious beliefs or lack thereof. We welcome campers of all races, ethnic backgrounds, genders,religious beliefs, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, political affiliations, and physical capabilities."

  9. This brought tears to my eyes too, remembering how awesome the camp was and how much my kids loved it. So glad La posted a link to this...don't know how I missed it before!

    Trevor (Mr. late-night staffer) and my two who-are-still-teens had a most amazing time and still talk about camp. I've most thoroughly enjoyed all of their teen years....that whole "just you wait" thing never happened. :)

  10. Love this and just shared on Facebook! :>


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