On the thirteenth of October I stumbled off a bus in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep and approximately nine hours of travel, I asked the bus driver where main street was. He pointed, and I navigated the streets until I found the Hosteling International Youth Hostel on Ocean Street.
Blake, the director and founder of Unschool Adventures had hired me to work at his company’s month-long writing retreat. Soon we would be joined by twenty-six unschooled teenagers, each of whom would be attempting to complete an ambitious writing project.
Already at the hostel were my fellow staffers Blake, Brenna, Cameron, Dev, and Dev’s ten-year-old daughter Seraya. We would each be taking on a specific role; Blake is directing, Brenna is our kitchen manager, Dev is our first aid/counseling aficionado, and I am the chore czar, making sure that the hostel stays clean and presentable over the course of the month.
After two days of staff orientation, the students arrived. We ate a delicious dinner and oriented them to the space. At the stroke of midnight, the writing began.
Most of the students here are attempting to write 50,000 words of fiction (the national novel writing month challenge), but we have short stories, graphic novels, non-fiction, and blogs in the works.
On most days one of us will host a workshop on one aspect of writing. So far I’ve hosted two. One in which we tried experimenting with various writing prompts and restrictions to break writer’s block, and another on blogging, which I co-lead with Brenna. It turns out that we have a student who has a lot more expertise than either one of us. Jessica has a blog called Shut Up! I’m Reading that has more than 1,200 followers!
Every night we have a large group meeting in which we make sure everyone is alive and healthy. We check in about the upcoming schedule and any relevant announcements, and give time for appreciations and requests. We also have small group meetings in groups of six or seven in which we check in with each student, play games, share writing and get feedback.
Most nights we host some sort of event. Sometimes it’s a movie, other times it’s roasting s’more’s around a fire, story-telling, or reading excerpts of our writing. Cameron is an excellent blues dancer, and he’s taught a series of blues dancing workshops, so we often end up dancing into the evening!
The past couple of days have represented the midpoint in our writing retreat. We celebrated Halloween by making pumpkin Jack-o-lanterns, and then embarking on a costumed pilgrimage to Chipotle, where they were offering $2 burritos to anyone who was dressed up. The man behind the counter informed us that we needed to order a boo-rito, or else we’d have to pay full price. When he said the word boo-rito he spread his arms wide and shimmied his shoulders back and forth.
After Chipotle we hit the town in one costumed mass. We walked by one house where a small child was sitting outside with his parents. “Look, business people!” said that kid.
We headed back to the hostel to watch The Shining, and then have a Halloween dance, while The Nightmare Before Christmas was showing in another lounge.
I could’ve imagined that occupying a hostel with more than thirty other people, many of whom aren’t used to group living, would be challenging and draining, but to me working here has been an absolute joy. I love that I get to cook for a large group one or two nights a week, and I love hearing what other people are writing. I love sitting in a room full of people typing away at noon and then sitting in a room at midnight with the same people debating the best strategy for Settlers of Catan.
You might wonder how easy it is to focus on a large writing goal with the distractions of other students, activities, events, and the temptation of going into town or staying up all night. It’s a balance that some of the students walk better than others, and I appreciate that our job isn’t to force the students to finish their writing goals. On average the teens in my small group are slightly behind their goals, and that’s fine. They are all working hard and have a genuine desire to complete their projects. Whether or not they hit 50,000 words (or whatever their goal is) is beside the point. The retreat gives them the opportunity to self-direct a major project, setting their own ambitious goals, work hours and strategies for success. Full completion or not, they are learning valuable lessons about self-directed learning and writing.