Teacher to Teacher
Talking with ... Not Back to School Camp
Interviewed by Magdalen Dale
I first heard of the Not Back to School Camp the summer after I graduated from high school. One of my friends had attended the camp and came home raving to me about her experience. She described the campers and staff and how interesting they all were and how excited they were to be there. The camp is for high school age students (13-18 years old) and I was bummed that I wouldn't have a chance to attend. So now, seven years later, as I plan a drive down the Oregon coastline, I decide to include a stop at the camp in Myrtle Point.
Since workshops at the camp can be led and attended by both campers and staff, I thought it would be interesting to talk about writing and education with a variety of people at the camp.
I started by talking with the director of the camp Grace Llewellyn (pictured here with camper Emily 'Blueberry' Keller). Grace created the camp in 1996 as a place for "unschooled" teenagers to gather. On the website for the camp, she writes, "We come to camp to change ourselves and the world, teach each other great things, and sing under the moon." Grace is also the author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and has been active in the un/homeschooling movement since 1991.
MD: Grace, you've obviously been a mentor and inspiration to so many young people through this camp and also through your book, which reaches an even wider audience. Can you tell me a little bit about who has been the most influential to you as you were creating this camp and writing the book, and also yet today in the work that you do?
GL: When I wrote my book there was no question about that. It was John Holt, whom I had never met in person, but whose work I had read with great enthusiasm. I came across his work while I was teaching school and it completely changed the way I thought about learning and education. Not only his ideas about education, but also the personal, non-dramatic, carefully observant, very human way he wrote about them. Ironically, I wanted him to write The Teenage Liberation Handbook. At that time I had read and reread all his books and had conversations with him in my head and imagined that someday I would meet him. On one particular day I was thinking, "Kids really need a book of their own--not one addressed to parents or even to the general public. I should write to John and ask him to write something for teenagers." While I was thinking all this, I was holding one of his books, absentmindedly staring at the back cover, and at some point my eyes focused in on two dates under his bio. I remember the moment so clearly--I was sitting on the sofa at my grandmother's house, and at first I thought, "Huh. That's kind of weird. Usually they only put two dates when somebody's dead, but of course that's not true in this case... maybe the second date is when this book was published." His words were so alive to me, and my internal conversation with him was so fresh, that there was no room in my mind for the concept that he could be dead, especially without me knowing it. But a few minutes later I got up and poked around a little and yes indeed, it turned out that he had died five years previously. So after a bit of shock, I was like, "Okay, I guess that book is up to me."
Can you sum up his philosophy?
He said, more or less, that if he had to sum up everything he had to say about learning and teaching, it would be: "Teachers do not make learning, learners make learning." Maybe that's not a very nice thing to put in an article for teachers, but I actually believe that all good teachers approach it that way--what we do, if we're lucky and know how to get out of our own way, is facilitate learning. We don't fill up empty vessels; we create a context that supports learners in creating their own learning.
I think creative writing teachers especially can identify with this idea. I know that many creative writing teachers, myself included, often struggle to create a dynamic in their classroom that pushes students to excel without stifling their creativity. What are some of the strategies you employ at the Not Back to School Camp to create an environment that is both organized and flexible?
It's a really tricky dance. It's partly possible because this is a short event, just one week at a time. Those of us who work behind the scenes do a ton of planning throughout the year, so that we are all able to arrive and experience what feels like a really free, loose, open schedule, yet one that is pretty intensely packed with choices. The campers usually only have two things they have to do each day--show up for morning meeting and evening meetings. Other than that, they choose--from a lot of options--what to do with their time. But this combination of flexibility and richness is made possible by the intense prep work we do. It's like choreographing an intricate, complex ballet for 130 people.
What are some of the choices?
The choices are little samplings of everybody's passions. That's how I frame, in my own mind, what we do here. Everybody brings their own skills and passions to the table. Many people bring this in the form of an hour-long workshop that they offer to anyone who's interested. But others might initiate a lunch discussion on politics, or they might just wear really crazy clothes all week and inspire other people that way. So, everyone brings that thing they are passionate about, but everyone--and I mean my staff as well as the campers--also wants more of that quality in their life. We want to be inspired, in a general sense, by the way other people follow their dreams, and sometimes we are also shopping for a new interest or two to take up. Not Back to School Camp is a really rich place for both of those kinds of inspiration. And when we create the schedule, in the weeks before camp starts, I always get excited thinking, "Wow! Check out all this great stuff that people are bringing this year."
What do you think other educators can learn from the structure of the Not Back to School Camp?
I think one of the things we do best is simply to offer a smorgasbord of choices, like a beginning writer's workshop or an intro to swing dance, and in doing so we capitalize on everybody's enthusiasm, by having campers, as well as staff, teach. We also do a lot of affirming. Not a lot of evaluating, but a lot of encouraging and celebrating. The staff gets excited about campers' excitement, and we reflect that back to them and it's one more bit of fuel that helps them stay with whatever they're pursuing. We read what campers are writing, in the talent shows and poetry slams we listen to them read from their journals or recite poetry. We're often basically just saying, "Keep going!" We're not usually giving a false, "Oh, that's really good," but neither are we saying, "That's not any good." We're essentially giving the message, "I'm so glad that you're doing this and I hope that you keep doing it and I'm excited to see what you bring back next year."
Dave Thomas, Alex "Truff" Rhue, and Reanna Alder (pictured right) teamed up this year to offer a creative writing workshop for Not Back to School campers. Along with leading the workshop, Dave, the "dishqueen" headed up kitchen clean-up at the camp, while Truff and Reanna functioned as camper advisors. Although this was the first year they led the writing workshop, writing has played a role in all of their lives outside of camp. Truff of Brooklyn, NY is working on a screenplay, Dave studies creative writing intermittently at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Reanna was just hired as the Managing Editor of Front Magazine.
Can you tell me a bit about the writing workshop that you led here this week?
Dave: I sent out an email about a month and a half before camp and had interested campers send in manuscripts of their short fiction and also gave them guidelines for marking up the manuscript--what they should keep out eye for, what they should think about for the workshop--and then they came in and we just tore their stories apart, well maybe we didn't tare them apart...
Truff: I was surprised with how constructive the feedback given and taken was. I was expecting to be harsher with them, and for the kids to be more offended when we were critical and instead they just seemed thankful. There was really no resentment whatsoever, instead they would just say, "Wow. Thanks. That's really helpful."
Dave: Going into the workshop I had this idea that I wanted to give them a college-level workshop experience and I planned to be really brutal with them, but once they were there, I couldn't do it. I wanted to be more critical of their writing sometimes, but then I would look into their little doe eyes and I just couldn't be that harsh on them. In my college workshops, I can be really mean, but with these guys, I couldn't do it, I couldn't destroy their dreams. Leading the workshop here, I really learned that you have to have more tact when giving feedback to people who are just starting out on something.
How was the experience of co-teaching?
Dave: Co-teaching in a workshop environment is a loose term I feel because really we were all just talking about our opinions of the story. We were there to egg it on when it needed to be done, but there was really very little teaching that needed to be done.
Reanna: It was more like moderating.
Dave: And we didn't even need to moderate that much. Occasionally we had to pull the discussion back on topic or ask a poignant question. But whenever I faltered or stuttered it was really nice to have one of these folks here to kind of pick up the pieces and keep things going, and likewise to all the campers attending the workshop. They were really helpful in that they were able to take anything and run with it.
Truff: Very true.
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