We have a theme emerging! I asked Matt (for the last post) to reflect on working 8 different staff positions, and when I asked longtime staffer Blake for a post he offered to share a snippet from his AWESOME forthcoming book. Matt’s post heavily featured how we do check-ins at camp, and as it turns out, so does Blake’s.
Now about Why Are You Still Sending Your Kids To School. I got to read a preview of the manuscript, and it’s so gooooooood. All of Blake’s books are important, and this is the best so far. I think it’s one of the clearest distillations EVER of self-directed education – the whys and the hows. He just sent it off to his copy-editor for a final tidy-up, and we could have waited for that slightly more polished version, but – we wanted you to have the opportunity to access the book + perks at the discounted kickstarter price. If you’d like to get that deal, just sign up before February 20. (The Kickstarter has already reached its primary goal, but Blake has promised some cool “stretch rewards” to all backers if he reaches additional mileposts.) I contributed enough to get a couple gift copies plus a loaner copy – it’s that good. And yes, I would love it just as much if there was no mention of NBTSC. Okay……. maybe 99.65% as much. -Grace Llewellyn
Late one summer evening, I found myself driving the tree-lined streets of Eugene, Oregon. One hand clutching the steering wheel and the other clutching Google Maps directions—this was 2006, when one still printed driving directions on paper—I scanned the dark streets for house numbers.
I had just driven 10 hours from the mountains of California. It was my first time in Oregon, and I was about to start a brand-new summer camp job, just one day after working a full summer as the Assistant Director of Deer Crossing Camp. A frothy brew of excitement, nervousness, and exhaustion sloshed around my stomach.
I found the house, and inside, my soon-to-be-fellow camp counselors. One by one they stood up and gave me a hug. But the star of show—the camp director, the famous author—wasn’t yet there.
Grace Llewellyn was out dancing tango.
A half-hour later she returned, beamed me a smile, and gave me a sweaty hug. In one hour I had already received more hugs from the staff of Not Back to School Camp than I had the preceding three months.
The next morning, we began our first staff meeting with a “check-in.” Coming from the world of traditional summer camps and outdoor education programs, the only type of “check-in“ with which I was familiar was the logistical variety: Are all the kids accounted for? What are my responsibilities for the day? Do we have all the supplies we need? What’s the plan?
At NBTSC, however, a ”check-in” was a chance to reflect upon your entire being. How are you doing? How are you really doing? What’s up for you? What’s pulling you down? What’s keeping you from being here and now?
As we went around the circle that first morning in Grace’s house, each staff member shared from their heads and hearts. Sometimes their check-ins were quick and factual; other times they took long periods of Quaker-like silence. Some cried. More than once I found myself sitting through multi-minute monologues about the stresses, anxieties, relationship issues, health statuses, and philosophical musings of co-workers whom I hardly knew.
In those first few days, my gut told me that these check-ins were unprofessional, an exercise in over-sharing, and a waste of precious time. Why weren’t we discussing the workshops we were going to run, or the principles of unschooling, or risk management policies? We checked-in twice a day, which often felt like two times too many. But I was new, I liked my co-workers, and I didn’t want to ruffle feathers—so I played along, always keeping my own check-ins brief.
Soon my skepticism softened. In my previous workplaces there had always been a clear line between work life and personal life. At NBTSC, we discarded such compartmentalizing. Check-ins offered a window into the lives of my fellow staff that initially felt voyeuristic but soon revealed itself as an empathy-building tool. Co-workers always have the potential to become friends, but at NBTSC, the vulnerability and openness of our daily sharing accelerated this process toward light-speed.
Check-ins offered a powerful platform for debriefing stressful incidents, big and small. Half-way through the camp session, for example, there was a freak medical incident that I tackled as the camp’s first aid authority. A 16-year-old camper had started acting weird and out of character. She began saying inappropriate things to campers and staff alike and became a bit combative. I drove her to the local emergency room (accompanied by another staffer) where she was promptly admitted. Ten minutes later, I looked out the window and saw her wandering the hospital parking lot; she had apparently just gotten up and left the ER. The nurses guided her back inside where they promptly scanned her brain and discovered a small, spontaneous hemorrhage in the front of her brain. This “brain bleed” was putting pressure on her decision-making and language-filter systems, causing her to act irrationally. They rushed her to another hospital where she received an operation and fully recovered within the next few days.
This wasn’t my first medical incident, but it was by far the strangest. The following evening, in staff check-in, I shared a lot about the anxiety, stress, and confusion I felt during the incident. Previously I would have buried these emotions in the name of professionalism, but after four days of ritualized check-ins at NBTSC, I knew that my fellow staff would gratefully listen with full attention. No one would resent my sharing. No one would be checking their phones or whispering in side conversations. At every check-in—not just exceptional days like this—my fellow staff ensured that I would be seen, heard, and acknowledged. This was a brand-new experience for my 23-year-old self, and on this weird and stressful day, I witnessed its full power.
More cracks appeared in my emotional shell as I saw what this same check-in culture did for teenagers. At Not Back to School Camp, every advisor is responsible for an “advisee group” of approximately a dozen campers. Advisee groups are purposefully designed to combine young people of all ages (13-18), genders, and camp tenure (first-timers and old-timers). As an advisor, I was free to lead whichever games, discussion, or activities I pleased with my advisee group for the 30-60 minutes we met each morning—but starting with a check-in was mandatory. Grace was adamant about this. In a summer camp that gave teenagers many degrees of freedom, she explained, check-ins ensured that every individual camper was seen, heard, and acknowledged by an adult, every day. The advisor-advisee relationship was vital for ensuring that no one slipped through the cracks or felt overwhelmed in this high-freedom, high-responsibility camp environment.
NBTSC campers come from all over the U.S. and Canada. Many don’t know a soul before arriving. Upon arrival campers are greeted with warm hugs, a few quick group games, and their advisor who, pretty much immediately, leads a check-in. Just as they bring the adult staff members together quickly and effectively, they do the same for campers. With the foundation of a daily advisee group meeting and check-in, every camper—especially the newer, shyer, and more vulnerable ones—feels immediately connected to the camp community.
But what does that word connection mean? Before I stepped foot in Oregon I had worked in three different summer camps and two outdoor education centers. I had volunteered in schools both conventional and alternative. Each of these institutions had their virtues, but none came close to matching Not Back to School Camp on the connection front. The campers told me they felt connected to each other, to the staff, and to themselves. I felt something similar. But still, what was it?
I didn’t have the words for it then, but what I observed in those grassy fields in Oregon was a massive, rapid infusion of connection into the lives of young people who desperately craved it. Connection was the blood that coursed through veins and arteries of Not Back to School Camp. It was the legal drug in which they trafficked.
I’ll provide another example. A game that I picked up at NBTSC, and one I always play with my advisees, is called “Hot Seat.” When I first played it, Hot Seat felt like a game of Truth or Dare, minus the Dare. But it didn’t take me long to to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational connection-generator.
Hot Seat requires a group of a dozen-or-so teenagers who know each other a little but aren’t close friends. (NBTSC advisee groups and Unschool Adventures groups are perfectly sized for this.) I begin by asking for a volunteer to sit on the metaphorical Hot Seat, in which the teen agrees to answer every question asked of her for a defined period of time, usually 2-3 minutes.
Next, I explain to the rest of the group that they are responsible for coming up with questions to ask the person on the Hot Seat. A great Hot Seat question should be something you’re genuinely curious about. It should be something the person can answer in a brief amount of time. Crucially, it should be something that wouldn’t be appropriate in normal, day-to-day conversation. This ensures that Hot Seat doesn’t waste our time with boring, toothless questions like “What’s your favorite color?” or “What did you eat for breakfast today?” If a Hot Seat question doesn’t make you sweat a little, it’s probably not a great question.
I then suggest a few broad categories that often lead to good questions: dreams and fears, romance and sexuality, religion and spirituality, personal image, and family matters. For example, a few solid example questions might include:
- What will happen to you after you die?
- What do you wish was different about your relationship with your parents?
- What’s one way you feel that your nontraditional education has failed you?
- If you could change one physical feature of your body, what would it be and why?
- If you could take one person at camp out on a semi-platonic picnic lunch date, who would it be?
- Do you have a camp crush? (And perennial follow-up question: Who is it?)
I give the group a few moments to think up initial questions. I ask the volunteer if she’s ready. I start the timer. And we’re off! At its core, Hot Seat is just a rapid-fire series of highly penetrating questions, asked popcorn-style, for a few minutes. You do your best to answer them, and then it’s over. Ready for the next volunteer.
Hot Seat demands courage and vulnerability (when you’re the volunteer), along with tact and creativity (when you’re coming up with questions). It benefits from an experienced facilitator—typically either a staff member or an older camper—who will maintain a serious tone and veto bad questions. And from this seemingly mundane activity comes a strong sense of belonging.
Advisee groups at NBTSC start as collections of strangers who are reluctant to talk to each other. But after a few days—and especially after a few rounds of Hot Seat—these once awkward, isolated, or nervous teenagers are now joking with each other, striking up deep conversations, and making plans outside of the group. They’re connected.
One more powerful Not Back to School Camp activity that I’ll highlight is a ceremony that I’ve witnessed nowhere else in the world. On the third evening of camp, everyone who chooses to participate (typically, most everyone) gathers in a large room and is divided by a facilitator into two groups. One group spreads out to fill the majority of space in the hall, standing with their eyes closed and their hands by their sides. The other half is then freed to walk around the room and give hugs to those with their eyes closed. (There are clear instructions and monitoring to ward off silly or inappropriate hugging.) After roughly 20 minutes, the huggers return to their side of the room, the huggees open their eyes, and then the roles reverse.
The first time I participated in this ceremony, I had no idea what to expect, and I kept my guard up. Is this okay? Is it appropriate for these teenagers to be hugging me (and vice versa)? Once the little risk-management-officer who lives in my head determined that this was, in fact, a harmless activity, I let myself sink into it.
Have you ever received anonymous hugs from 50 people? Neither had I, and it created a feeling I’ll never forget. Shivers were running up and down my spine. A wide smile hung on my face. I felt overwhelmed by love, acceptance, and gratitude. While I may jokingly refer to the evening rituals at NBTSC as “hippie bonding activities,” I cannot deny their power. Every session, without fail, ceremonies like this transform the young people at NBTSC from a loose group of individuals into a community positively pulsing with connection.
Why am I telling you all this? I’m not trying to convince you to send your kid to NBTSC. First of all, it’s against the rules to be sent to NBTSC; a teen must acknowledge that he is willingly and voluntarily attending camp. Second of all, I don’t know your kid. Maybe his personal nightmare is getting hugged by dozens of strangers and being asked to share his feelings every morning! Connection comes in different flavors, and Not Back to School Camp has mastered just one version of it—one that seems to work particularly well for unschooled and nonconformist teenagers.
My intention here, at the end of our journey, is broader.
Soon your child will be grown and forget about all this education business. He will have his own life, work, and relationships to worry about. Formal education constitutes just one episode of our (hopefully long) lives, and the details fade fast. I don’t remember the vast majority of my grades, assignments, or test scores from school. Nor do you, I assume. Nor do all the homeschoolers, unschoolers, and alternative school students out there. We tend to forget what others say and do, but never how they make us feel.
What I’ve seen in my 15+ years in the field is this: Whatever “connection” is, it’s what young people crave, and it’s what they remember most. With connection, everything is possible: learning, relationships, growth, you name it. Without connection, everything is difficult, and everyone goes home frustrated.
Again, Blake’s kickstarter for Why Are you Still Sending Your Kids to School? is here. You can get in on the deals and perks anytime before February 20. Thanks, Blake, for sharing this generous preview and for telling the world about NBTSC!
We eagerly welcome thoughtful comments that add something helpful or pertinent to the topic at hand. Please imagine, as you write, that you are sitting in a cozy room speaking with the other human beings who are part of the discussion. We are glad you are here and we look forward to connecting with you!