Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finding Our Tribe: Our First Unschooling Conference

It's time for Not Back To School, or in our children's case, Have Never Been To School And Currently Have No Plans To Attend. We've just returned from our first-ever unschooling conference, the NEUC. It has been said, many times by people who have attended unschooling conferences, that conferences can be life-changing. We didn't attend because we needed convincing as we are dedicated to unschooling and learning in freedom, and it's not really that we needed more information, and we are fortunate that we have an established network of relaxed-unschooly-homeschooling families in our area, but our conference experience was indeed life-changing. Attending the conference expanded our tribe, our unschooling connections, it even laid the foundation for a larger unschooling family. This is exceedingly important, and equally so for Olivia and Adam, as it is for me and Alex. Being in a space with other unschooling families for four days, who already understand, embrace trust and learn in freedom, every single day, is a very empowering, accepting and loving environment in which to share. Though many of us were known to each other through blogland and social media, we didn't know a single family in real life, at the conference. And most of the families there had been attending  NEUC for years, as well as the many other conferences held around the country throughout the year. So we were newbies. It was an act of trust, of self-discovery, of emotional work, to attend, as it is for anyone.

we came home with lots

Our arrival on Thursday afternoon had us feeling a little shy, a little exposed, and intimidated. The hotel was nice and as we stood in the lobby, I immediately recognized my friend Shannon and we greeted one another with a big, cozy hug.
We settled into our room and then we were off. We checked in with the conference divas and explored the funshops. Adam and I went off to make sushi with Beth, while Olivia did speed dating and Alex gathered with some of the other dads.

sushi with Adam

We could choose to do funshops, we could hang-out, wander, go back to our room, it didn't matter. The point was, the conference would be what we made it and we would take what we wanted from it, and we would hopefully give something back, too. That first evening during dinner break, we went out for pizza and supplies, as we brought our cooler and coffee maker, so we could have breakfast and lunch or snacks in the room.

We don't have a Trader Joe's in Maine yet, though one is supposed to be coming to Portland within a year.

getting supplies
back at the hotel

Back at the conference, we enjoyed the music of Fishing With Finnegan. Folks milled about, kids and adults formed long chains and danced through the rows and mostly, we hung back a bit, tried to take it all in, and hoped that we would get a hang of feeling comfortable being newbies.

dance chains
music night
Fishing With Finnegan

I could see the kids, working through the discomfort, trying to find their niche. As the evening went on and the music ended, the kids both joined a group of kids playing capture the flag (using the entire hotel as their arena). They were both in the room by midnight, however, tired and pleased with how the day had ended.

getting to know each other

Friday morning, Olivia and Adam had lots to tell about the day and evening before.

lots to tell

We stuffed the kids with Greek yogurt, orange juice, vitamins and elderberry syrup, knowing that Olivia was already feeling a bit run-down and having read many accounts of post-conference crud, it was something we were eager to avoid. Alex and I went to see Peter Gray speak about free-learning and play in hunter gatherer societies. The kids took off to their various funshops but also attended some of Peter Gray's talk. His talk was fascinating as his research has explored child development in societies with free-play as learning. It was a timely and excellent reminder to both Alex and I to let go and be more than okay with the hyper-focused play that so often has us and all parents anxious. (As in, Adam spending months exploring and producing with his FXhome tools is indeed months and months spent learning. When he masters that, he will move on to something else.)

Friday afternoon was spent enjoying more talks, (some so moving, I was nearly brought to tears-I'm talking to you, Phil Biegler), more hanging-out, the kids played lots of Werewolf and we generally did what we felt like doing.


We went into town for a quick bite to eat and stumbled on an old-fashioned ice cream parlour.

out for ice cream
three frappes
mocha frappe

Everyone was looking a bit tired by this point, but we were determined to locate a second or third wind somewhere, and maybe at the Talent Show, which was Friday's evening entertainment. The Talent Show was three hours long and consisted of a wide range of acts, improvised and rehearsed, from all ages and abilities.

singing the blues
concious verses

It was totally inclusive, zany, loud, funny and fun. Olivia was brave enough to get up there and perform the song she had written, and despite her sore throat, she performed it well. We were struck by just how much true talent, love and support was in the room. After that, we thought for sure the kids, not to mention Alex and me, would fade, but with a little searching, we slowly found the beginnings of our conference tribes.

NEUC - 2010, werewolf x infinity

Adam and Olivia soon joined a large group playing what was to be all night morning Werewolf and Alex and I stumbled into a room full of hilarious, warm and friendly also wickedly obsessed, Bananagrams players.

new tiles
newbie at the Bananagrams table

We were invited to play immediately. Alex joined in first, because he's like that, and soon the whole table was laughing, with all the players trying to spell out bitchslap, which was the winning word. Soon I was playing. A little sharing about ourselves, learning more about the others there, many innuendos and lots of laughing later, Alex and I definitely felt like we had made friends.


We didn't head up to our room until about 1am, after checking in on the kids, who were engrossed in a game of Werewolf. Adam came up at 245am and we didn't see Olivia until almost 5am. It looked like they had found their tribe as well.

Saturday, our last full day at the conference, had us feeling as though we wanted to pack as much into our day as possible. Olivia was up and ready to go by 9am, and Adam soon followed. Alex and I attended more presentations, one on unschooling with teens and one on unschooling math and video games, both fascinating. Much of our day, however, for the kids and us, was simply spent walking the halls, finding a spot to chat with friends (apparently Zoa and I chatted so much that I forgot to take any pictures.)

moderator, ie, God
again with the all ages

Alex played some Werewolf, as did the kids, of course. But while it looked like play, and naturally it was fun, it was also really important learning-how to be together in a group, learning to work through irritations (it's no fun being discovered a Werewolf early in the game, as it happens), learning to build those oh-so important relationships and connections.

it sucks to have your werewolf identity disovered early in the game

During the dinner break, Alex went and picked up pizza and Olivia insisted she could not nap and proved it by falling promptly and deeply asleep for two hours, while Adam and I cuddled and cat-napped.

she's not tired, see?

By the time the evening concert and dance rolled around, the kids were feeling energized and eager to gather with friends for another evening of fun and connection-building.

the dance
dancing pants
dance moves
conference baby

We danced, we laughed, the kids took off and Alex and I hit the Banangrams tables once again. Content and tired, we were all in bed early, by 230am.

Sunday morning, our last hours at the conference, was spent in a very similar manner. Lots of small group chats, swapping of contact info, movie-making and photographing.

something about a goose
near the end
secret handshake
last conversations
let's do this
strike a pose
the lobby and good-byes

We listened to the closing remarks and then spent the next hour or so, not wanting to say good-bye. Many hugs, secret handshakes, and goofy photos later, we climbed into our hot van and headed up the road towards Salem, MA. We thought we'd explore Salem some, but the 95F temps got to our physically and emotionally tired bodies very quickly.

on the way home

The thing about learning in freedom, however, is that we had choices as a family. We knew we didn't have to do Salem, right then. We didn't have to wake up for school the next day. We could come back, plan a fall trip, perhaps. We had options and we exercised them. We opted instead to keep heading up the road, where we stopped by the Platts-Bradstreet House in Rowley, where we were given an impromtu, off-hours tour by one of the caretakers. It was the perfect, free-learning moment at the end of such a meaningful, wonderful, enriching, and yes, life-changing conference experience.

Olivia's video from the NEUC. Grabbing tissues.

So what I've learned, and what I think the rest of us have learned, is that we needed this unschooling conference. Even though we've always unschooled, we needed to expand our tribe, build a foundation of people who get us. Alex and I felt and feel supported, accpeted and loved. Truly. Both Olivia and Adam have come home, fielding friend requests on Facebook, sharing photos, seeking their own game of Werewolf (plus expansion pack) and I know that they, too, feel that they have cast a wider, stronger circle. The unschooling conference is one of the best things our family has ever done and we can't wait to seek out other conferences to attend. We hope to see new friends well before another year goes by, as so many are in the New England area. I know that if you, dear reader, are in any way thinking about or are already unschooling, attend a conference. Build your tribe, unschoolers. I'll see you at the Bananagrams table.


  1. Great conference review. It was awesome to meet you all there!

  2. Sooo cool. I am drooling with envy. Never been to an unschooling conference and now am even more determined to get to one. I think it is *hilarious* the winning word was bitchslap.

  3. What a great post and sweet video. Thanks for sharing :) our family wasn't able to make it up there, looks like you had an awesome time. I remember our first conference, it was life changing.

  4. Yay!!!
    I love this whole thing, and am so glad to be a part of your new found tribe <3

  5. What a terrific post! I'm so glad you had such an amazing time! Like you, we've been unschooling since the kids were born but have never been (yet) to a conference. Now I'm even more excited about going! :)

    By the way, we LOVE the Werewolf game. I discovered it at Vermont Witch Camp in 2005.


  6. Fantastic post!

    I'm planning to take my family to the conference here on the west coast next year. I'm hoping it will help my husband understand the ideas behind what we're doing a bit better and feel more relaxed with it.

    I'm so glad you found a bigger tribe. I would so like that in my life.

  7. So glad to meet you and your family! Katie loved playing Werewolf too! She sent me a link to Amazon to purchase the Werewolf game as soon as we came home. It should be arriving in a day or two! Laurie :)

  8. To those of you I met at NEUC, yes, it was also lovely to meet you and I'm so grateful to be able to include you in my tribe. Thank you to all who have read and commented and have shared this post with others, I'm also grateful for that. For those of you I have only met in blogland, a virtual tribe is just as imporant, correct? If it weren't for our virtual tribes, I wouldn't have gone to the NEUC at all. It's critically important to connect this way also, so thank you. I hope all of you can attend conferences, too. I know we are already looking at the calendar and the planning gears are spinning.

    Laurie--wouldn't it be fun to have a Werewolf reunion weekend or something? I have a feeling I'll be doing a lot more driving this year. It's all good.

    Many thanks, truly.

  9. I think it's WONDERFUL that you all were able to go to the conference. It's something we always wanted to do. Now, we're on a small island in SE Alaska and haven't found any other unschoolers.



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