Reflections on the Writing Retreat

This November I spent a month in the beautiful mountain/college town of Durango, Colorado, at the Unschool Adventures Writing Retreat program. The purpose of the Writing Retreat is to create an environment in which ~20 teenage unschoolers can dedicate themselves to writing an entire novel (or memoir, or series of poems, etc.) in one month. I first designed and led this program in November 2009 (on the Oregon coast). This year I decided to remove myself from the leadership team and let other staff run the show. That led to some interesting observations which I’ll get to later.

This year’s Writing Retreat, like its predecessor, was a great success. (I based this on both my interpretation and the overwhelmingly positive response from the student feedback forms.) While designing and preparing for the program I tend to focus heavily on the writing aspect, and then when the program happens, I’m reminded of how much these programs are actually about making new friends, learning how to live with a group, exploring new personalities and lifestyles, and self-discovery in all its other forms. Of course, everyone did a ton of writing too. Many students undertaking NaNoWriMo hit the 50,000-word mark, and a few made it to 70,000-80,000. Other students “only” wrote 20-30,000 words of fiction and then decided to transition to poetry, memoir, or short stories. The most important thing (for me) was that everyone was working hard on some sort of self-assigned writing challenge on a regular basis. While a lot of socializing, exploring, and adventuring of the non-writing variety took place on the trip, everyone seemed to strike a healthy balance.

Students walking from the hostel to downtown Durango

A few new, unique challenges presented themselves on this trip, as they do on all trips. For example, one student wasn’t prepared for the level of swearing that teenage unschoolers (or should I say: many teenagers who aren’t closely policed by adults) do. This student wasn’t comfortable communicating this message directly to the group, so another student did it instead (in the nightly all-group meeting); our very courteous group then made a sincere effort to minimize their swearing. Of course, the swearing didn’t completely disappear. This made realize that I need to do a better job of communicating the specific “culture of unschooling” that we allow/encourage on Unschool Adventures trips; that way, parents and students won’t be shocked to discover that we let students roam around town unsupervised, go to bed whenever they want, or swear more than a typical high school teacher would allow. I added a newly expanded “FAQ” section to the Unschool Adventures website.

Halloween trick-or-treaters

My incredible staff included:

  • Cameron Lovejoy: organizer of the unschooling conference “The Autodidact Symposium,” world-traveler, and staffer at my two Homeschool Leadership Retreat (HLR) programs
  • Brenna McBroom: potter, HLR volunteer, India traveler, and certain special-someone
  • Dev Carey: long-time adventurer, charter school founder, Ph.D. ecologist, and designer of sustainability/leadership programs
  • Jessica Barker: former Writing Retreat student, HLR volunteer, and blogger

Most of the staff had previously worked at Not Back to School Camp, which prepared them excellently for managing a large group of unschoolers for an extended time. Each staffer brought unique gifts to the program: Cameron taught the group how to partner dance, Brenna managed the finances like a champ, Dev led hikes and took the group to harvest its own Thanksgiving turkey from a local farm, and Jessica ran well-attended writing workshops. All of the staff shared the ever-present duties of food buying, cooking, chore-managing, and running meetings each night. They kicked ass in each of these regards.

Cameron leading a writing "power hour"

For me as Director this was an eye-opening trip. Originally I planned to let the staff run the show themselves while I was off in New Zealand with another Unschool Adventures trip. But that trip didn’t fill up, and I had plenty of writing to do (on my ZTC manuscript)—so I decided to hang around Durango as the out-of-the-way-yet-still-present director. And honestly, I wasn’t ready to let other people run the show; this being the first UA trip which I wouldn’t be staffing made me nervous, and I wanted to be around “just in case.”

The verdict? I didn’t absolutely need to be there. The staff could have handled everything that came up on the trip. My presence may have actually confused the staff more than helped them, as I didn’t intend to manage the day-to-day affairs of the trip but couldn’t help myself sometimes. So my worries were allayed.

But by the end I learned an important lesson: I’m not interested in creating some large trip-leading empire in which other people run all the trips for me. I like leading trips, I’m good at it, and I feel that my direct leadership is necessary to create the type of Unschool Adventures that I want to see. Most significantly, I love being with the students on our trips. They’re the coolest, most down-to-earth, intelligent, and witty teenagers ever. They’re an absolute pleasure to be around, and they’re why I got into this business in the first place. The modern entrepreneur’s mantra of scale-leverage-outsource-delegate doesn’t apply here, because doing those things would decrease my enjoyment of the business. If I just wanted to organize trips, I could probably make a lot more money doing that for a larger trip-leading company. But I love supporting and participating in the unschooling community—that’s a huge non-monetary pay-off. The autonomy of designing my own programs also matters a lot. So for now, I plan to continue running ~2 programs per year, with me leading them.

The entire 2011 Writing Retreat group

Don’t miss the group blog from this year’s program, and keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Writing Retreat!


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