Staffer Liam Nilsen invited his friend and colleague Yusuf Ahmad to spend a day at NBTSC. Yusuf is a graduate student from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab where his research work supports learning by creating for people of all ages. He was kind enough to write a blog post sharing his experience and perspective with us, which can be found below.
Reflections on NBTSC (Not Back to School Camp):
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at NBTSC. This was only my second visit to a community that identified with the unschooling movement (the first being a visit to the Macomber Center, founded by a Sudbury Valley alum who felt that Sudbury had too many rules…), and I was curious what I would find. Curious about the demographic (class, race/ethnicity, perspectives, ages). About the culture – and structure – and how the two might interact. About this phenomenon called camp (I had never been to camp before — although now having gone, recognize I’ve been to similar ‘retreats’ in university). And about how this fit into the lives of the campers and staff who had committed to spend 10 days in the wilderness.
These reflections are obviously filtered through some of my life experiences – so for those of you who are curious about some of my biases / lenses, I’ve included some additional context at the end of the piece….
My adventures on day one
Arriving at camp, I was first struck by the scene. This was my first time out of the city in a while – and my first time without cell phone signal in the US – I think this year? So I immediately felt like I was in a different space and place. The smells, the sounds of birds, the stunning blend of lake with mountains blanketed in a forest showing hints of the onset of autumn.
After embracing Liam and Ariam (friends who had invited me to the camp), we walked through the schedule: young people start the day with breakfast (about 9), an advising group meeting (with a staff member and group of ~8 campers, check-in on how folks are doing, intentions for the day, and some group bonding), two hours of project time, break for lunch, siesta / free time, a session for workshops, more open time, dinner, and a community meeting in the evening.
After getting my bearings and chatting with a couple folks, we jumped right into project time.
Project time – Saturday.
Liam and I joined the survival skills group facilitated by Brenna. Campers were scattered around a clearing in the woods in groups of 3-4. We sat with a group of young people as they worked together to set a fire. I struggled to balance my excitement to learn with my new peers with a desire to observe the community.
I listened to Arden share his passion for survival skills as he explained how and why he was feathering a branch. And about his experiences developing and iterating on a shelter he had made at a previous camp, which he visualized with sticks. I watched as a group of young campers iterated with different methods for getting their fire going, reasoning why the fire wasn’t catching and thinking through other things they could try. Trying birch bark, stripping it into smaller pieces to increase surface area. Building a tepee of sticks above the bark. And finding different strategies for getting the tepee of sticks to stand- including changing the kinds of sticks and gathering them…
As I danced between participating in fire making and observing, I was struck by how peers interacted, how people stepped up and back, and how open-ended the activity ended up being. Groups pursued a range of strategies as Brenna trusted the campers and treated them with respect while encouraging campers in their explorations. Although she had organized the workshop, she never presented herself as an expert – but rather as a collaborator (would troubleshoot and offer suggestions) and connector (pointing to other campers who could offer help to particular challenges).
Halfway through project time, we headed up to the main cabin to join a game theory session facilitated by Christian. The campers and Christian recapped some of what they had discussed RE game theory to bring Liam and me up to speed. It felt like I was joining an intellectual discussion of a group of friends – and was quickly welcomed into the group as a full participant. Together we went through an interactive story on game theory, collectively discussing which choices to make at points where we could provide input. Although we were all huddled around a single tablet, the experience was incredibly interactive as we discussed the narrative and debated decision points.
Two hours into camp and I had already learned how to start a fire and had developed new perspectives on trust. You can imagine that I was ready to eat.
I joined the POC lunch for about two hours. Really appreciated the conversation toward the end as the group got smaller. Campers shared their experiences grappling with microaggressions. I won’t go into specific stories out of respect to everyone there, but was impressed by the nuance in the conversation – and the willingness of folks to really listen to and dig into what others were saying – as well as the courage to share deeply vulnerable experiences. The convo had the depth of those I have had with friends doing graduate work in the social sciences – minus the jargon :). I left with new questions / perspective and felt inspired by the thoughtfulness and honesty expressed by the group.
Conversation on learning / education / llk (workshop time).
The POC convo took over planning time with Liam – so we ended up winging our workshop – which consisted of mainly a few staff members and a single camper (later joined by another camper). We began with sharing intentions: what brought us to camp and to this discussion and a question that was on our minds. The opening prompts offered a lens into where people were coming from and propelled us into a thoughtful conversation about learning, community, on challenges (and opportunities) to changing our education systems, and on anarchism (liberatarian socialism) as a particular approach to decentralizing our institutions and reimagining our political economy in ways that align more strongly with some of the values of the unschooling movement…
I was frankly zapped by the time we got to dinner. Chatted with Jacob, a camper from Oregon who had gone to the Oregon session earlier this year. Had thoughtful perspective on the differences between the sessions, what he enjoys about being in this community, and on what his intentions are for this camp.
Some thoughts that are sitting with me
There is so much more I can write – but for the sake of space will jump to some general reflections from my time at NBTSC.
Writing this – I was struck most by the culture of the place (yes, culture eats strategy for breakfast…) – by the people who bring certain outlooks and ways of being into the space, but also by certain principles of the culture that enabled some of the learning I saw and experienced :
- Respect: Each person is respected as a contributor, while also recognizing that people are and can make different contributions. There seemed like a genuine interest in respecting the perspective of each person.
- Agency: the place – socially and structurally – is set up to really support one in making one’s own decisions and carving a unique path. The schedule is posted and is flexible. There are community rituals that bring people together, but also respect for an individual’s decisions… e.g. activities were often facilitated, but no one was coerced to participate.
- Structural receivers – Ethan used this line – and it clarified the experience a bit for me – while the campers come from very different unschooling communities, they were all structural receivers in this setting – they accepted a structure that had been designed, but the structure itself was quite flexible and empowering for them to take ownership of their time at the camp – and I’d argue afforded this kind of appropriation….
- Honesty: The experiences and activities are only as meaningful as the campers are willing to make them. Conversations resonate more when people are more honest and vulnerable – and felt that honesty and vulnerability were valued and encouraged in the conversations I joined.
Structure grounded in values that support authentic inquiry and expression:
All of this to say is that when I first heard about unschooling – I had assumed it to be anti-structure. What I found at NBTSC was not the absence of structure – but an experience of a different kind of structure grounded in particular values. Emphasizing that different kinds of structures and values encourage different ways of learning.
Questions I’m pondering:
- What else can we ride on a treadmill aside from a bike and milk cartons?
- How does this camp compare to the communities the campers come from? Culturally? Structurally?
- What do campers take away from their time at the camp? What memories, insights, experiences move them? And shape how they are after they leave? What feels impactful and special to them? And for the ones who will return, what brings them back?
- How might experiences differ based on background / where someone comes from? And just generally differ among campers? Are their factors that might explain / help us understand how their experiences differ?
- How would a schooled camper fit in this context? How might their participation differ? Might they impact the broader culture? And how many schooled children in this environment might it take to tip culture?
- How has the culture shifted among campers? Listening to this interview with Grace Llewellyn, it seems like the first / early cohorts were (a) “fiercely self-directed” as she puts it (b) had read her teenage liberation handbook and had opted into the unschooling movement. In contrast, sounded like many of the unschoolers at NBTSC were there as a part of choices made by their families….
- What might we learn from NBTSC – to inform work with existing public schools? And in working to reimagine / shift our broader culture / conversation around learning?
- Curious to learn more about the projects campers and staff are engaged in outside of their time at camp! Ethan’s trip to learning spaces sounds super inspiring. Margie’s work with urban design and youth participation in urban design sounds awesome. Franz Michael’s company sounds dope. Ariam is an inspiration as usual with ALL her work. Liam’s already pushed my thinking on learning design and learning communities. I’ll be visiting Christian’s collective soon. Loved participating in activities facilitated by Brenna and looking forward to checking out some of her art. And wish I had a chance to chat with the others ! And what keeps bringing folks back. And what they take away from camp (as I’m sure it is different each time and for each person…)
Wish I could have stuck around for more of camp! Mozoltov to folks who participate in Ruben’s camp mitzvah!
Some context on my background:
I went to public schools mainly in Missouri (Columbia and St. Louis). School was at moments a job (I went to school to earn grades and a path to a better life…), at other moments a social context (for meeting friends), where I met collaborators with whom I engaged in projects outside of school (this particularly happened with the debate team), and where I learned things and discovered interests (a teacher in high school sparked an interest in chemistry by encouraging me to run experiments after school and intern in a university lab). While I had fun at points and learned things, I often yearned for something more.
I had hoped university would be different. And while many of my science and engineering classes were incredibly dry (lecture, pset, exam, rinse, repeat), I was transformed by challenging and mindblowing social science seminars and through my participation in vibrant communities on campus and in the city. I found peers, discovered projects I was passionate about, and slowly found purpose. Purpose that led me to work on higher ed reform in Egypt during the Arab Spring. To write about drivers of political reform in post-authoritarian contexts, to help found a pan-African university, and finally to Lifelong Kindergarten, where I explore ways to design and spread learning environments that empower people.