PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Brenna McBroom. Hi Brenna!
BRENNA: Hi! How’s it going?
PAM: It’s going great, thank you!
Brenna is a ceramic artist, a blogger, a millennial, and has been camper and staff at the Vermont sessions of Not Back to School Camp for years. I’m really excited to dig into Brenna’s unschooling experience and hear how all these different threads weave together. So, to start Brenna …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. So, you’re correct, I’m 27, I’m a grown unschooler, and I’m currently living here in Asheville, North Carolina and working full time as a ceramic artist. But in the fall every year for the last 5 years or so I’ve been staffing at Not Back to School Camp. And yeah, in addition to making pots I’m also writing a blog right now and I’m actually also training for a triathlon because I’m a glutton for punishment. (laughs)
And I’m the oldest of two; I have a younger brother who is 23. His name is Logan. And then also we are part of a blended family, so I also have three step-siblings who grew up mostly in Texas. But my brother and I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and grew up very close to some extended family. And so, when I was growing up, like in the lower grades, we were doing more traditional homeschooling, and we did that alongside my mom’s sister and her family. So we were very tight growing up.
PAM: That’s cool.
Can you talk a little bit about what your family’s move to unschooling looked like?
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. So I attended the first grade in Jacksonville, Florida. And then, after that, public school just wasn’t a good fit for me. I was kind of an anxious kid. And so the cousins that I just mentioned were already doing sort of traditional homeschooling, and we transitioned when I was about seven to doing sort of traditional homeschooling.
And we did that until I was about 12 years old, and then we were looking at what options were available for high school. And that was a time when a lot of my traditionally homeschooled peers were going back to school. And my mom took the family to, I think, the second annual Live and Learn Unschooling Conference in Columbia, South Carolina.
And at the time I was considering a couple different options for high school. I had been accepted, actually, into the International Baccalaureate program at a local high school and then there was also a co-op option at a local homeschooling co-op, but it was very religious.
And so we went to the conference and heard Kelly speak and heard Pam Sorooshian speak, and I think just kind of felt like, “Oh! We found our people here, and this is what we need to be doing.” And so ironically, actually, I went home from the conference and I had picked up strep throat from the conference. I was pretty sick, and I think that was one of the things that made the transition a little bit easier, because there was this week where it would have been very easy for me to go home and sort of jump back in to what I had been doing and kind of continue on sort of business as usual. But I was just kind of really laid up, and on antibiotics, and so had some time to think about what I wanted and make this big leap, kind of, to unschooling. And so that was sort of the beginning of the jump, and then we just sort of ran with it from there.
PAM: That’s really interesting to hear. And you know what? I think that was the very first conference I went to too.
BRENNA: Oh! Interesting. (laughs)
PAM: (laughs) Yeah, because we had started maybe the year before and hadn’t connected with local unschoolers, so we decided to make the trek down to South Carolina for that one, so that’s really interesting.
And I love—it’s so true, you know—you said that that break, while you were sick, gave you some time to actually think things through, right? And see how they felt. Or else, it’s so easy to get caught up in the next thing and the next thing and “here’s what I do, what I do, what I do…”
BRENNA: Sure, “I have to do this, I need to do that. This is on the schedule.” Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: I’ve found over the years, one of the most valuable things from unschooling is having that time to really think things through and connect to ourselves and see what really makes sense for us personally, right?
BRENNA: Yeah, yeah absolutely.
The unschooling lifestyle is definitely an unconventional one, which can sometimes be both awesome and challenging in turn. I was wondering if you could talk about a challenge that you encountered and how you guys worked through it.
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. I think probably one of the biggest challenges once we made that transition was feeling just socially connected to other teenagers in an area where a lot of my friends had gone back to school and the homeschoolers that were around were pretty religious.
And I think the way we worked through that, or the way that I chose to work through that, and my parents sort of helped me with, was – just getting very active in the community. So, I got trained to be a literacy tutor, I did some political organizing and helped to found a grassroots political network, I did community theater, I did Odyssey of the Mind. And eventually I discovered and attended Not Back to School Camp, and felt like I finally found my people, even though it was a once a year thing, and then we were kind of spread across the country. I had all these connections after that.
PAM: Oh, that’s so interesting to hear all the different ways you reached out in your community to connect. I know Michael had found a lot of connection through his dojo, but Lissy did some Girl Guides and then she really enjoyed helping with the Brownies with the little kids, and then volunteering at the pet shelter and the thrift store.
It’s just finding ways you kind of want to reach out when you’re ready for that next step, right?
BRENNA: Yeah, I think something that’s really valuable is the ways in which you’re able to really get involved in the community and be involved with people of all different ages when you’re not in a classroom six or seven hours a day as a teenager.
PAM: Yeah that’s one of the fascinating pieces too, because once you’re out there in the community it’s about connecting with things that you’re interested in, and age just isn’t an issue.
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely.
PAM: I know a much older retired lady that Lissy connected with at the thrift store. Lissy did a lot of costuming and props and stuff for her photo shoots and the woman was supplying most of the props to all the local plays and productions, and her husband was a photographer… (laughs)
BRENNA: Oh my goodness!
PAM: So we went to their house to visit, she had her choice of props, and she got old dark room equipment from them, and it was a wonderful connection and relationship that we never would have found otherwise, right?
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely, and one thing that I found is that by the time I was 18, I had a large group of friends of a variety of different age groups, from a potter-mentor who was in her 80’s to political friends who were parents in their 40’s, and kind of everything in between.
PAM: Yeah, I love that. I love that.
I would also love to know how your passion for ceramic art developed. I was hoping you could share a bit about that journey and what it looks like today for you.
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. So I started when I was about 18. My mom and I actually took a class together at just a local community studio. And I was really excited because I had done a tiny bit of wheel throwing when I was about 12 and really liked it.
So we signed up for this class and I was very excited but I think I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to love it and just become obsessed with it a little bit. I’ve always been a kinesthetic learner. I’ve always loved making things with my hands, and so I started doing this and it just kind of hit home for me.
And so I eventually arranged an apprenticeship with a woman up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and went up and worked with her a little while. And then eventually we moved up to Asheville from Jacksonville, which is a really incredible ceramic arts community, and just sort of craft community in general.
When I first got here I had a wheel and was making pots, kind of on the side, and got a job in a restaurant to pay the bills. And then pretty soon after that I arranged another apprenticeship with a gentleman out in Oregon, named Dale Donovan, and I went out and worked with him. And he did something called crystalline glazing, which is this sort of niche glazing technique where you mix the glaze in a certain way and you apply it to the piece and then you’re actually growing crystals in the glaze—two-dimensional crystals—during the firing process.
BRENNA: Yeah. And the thing about doing clay here in Asheville is that it’s a very saturated market. When I moved here people told me you can’t throw a stick without hitting a potter.
BRENNA: And there’s a lot of people doing sort of the same kind of traditional Appalachian stoneware, and it’s difficult to stand out. And so I was making pots and selling them some places, but then I went and did this apprenticeship and learned how to do this pretty unique glazing technique; it’s kind of tricky and not a lot of people are doing it. And then I came back to Asheville after that and pretty quickly, I think within six months maybe, I started making this new line of work.
It looked different from pretty much everything else around here, and then I was able to transition into working full time as a ceramic artist. And the other thing that happened—or the other thing that I did to kind of set myself apart was—I started making urns, which is also a pretty unique, niche market. Which, if you had asked me as a kid, “What do you see yourself to be?” I never would have said, “Making cremation urns and crystalline glazing them.”
BRENNA: But yeah, so that was another way that I sort of managed to set myself apart. And now I actually do a pretty tidy pet urn business online. Which is another just super unique—I make these little lidded jars that are about 60 cubic inches on the inside and they’re perfect for dogs and cats. And I found that actually people are very happy to pay for just a really nice piece that is a resting place for their pet.
So about four and half years ago I started working full time, I’ve been working full time since then, and right now I’m kind of in the middle of show season. You had initially asked if we could talk last week and I was like, “I’m so busy! I have to go do a show this weekend!” So, I did that and survived, and I have three more on the books. This is just because of Christmas. It’s a really busy time of year.
PAM: Ah! That explains it.
BRENNA: Yeah. So I’ve got all these shows stacked up. And I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I have a lot of inventory. But yeah, my last show is December 11th and then I can kind of breathe this sigh of relief and do some Christmas shopping and hang out with my family.
PAM: (laughs) I really loved hearing all those little—I wouldn’t say dodges—but little look here, this connection, this connection. How did you first hear about the potter in Oregon with that cool glazing technique?
BRENNA: Yeah, it was super interesting. I actually was traveling in India, and I was working at one session of Not Back to School camp, because they have a couple of west coast sessions. So I was working at the first west coast session and then I had another engagement at an unschooling conference after, like a couple of weeks later. And so I had this break. And it didn’t make sense for me to fly home—it would have been, in and out and then fly back—it would have been hundreds of dollars.
But I didn’t want to just hang out for a couple of weeks on the west coast. And so I had this time to fill, and I thought maybe I can connect with somebody who’s doing something interesting in clay and work with them. And so, I basically just found him through a Google search and sent an email.
I had contacted a couple different people, and kind of didn’t think that I would hear back. But I think within 48 hours he wrote back to me. And I basically had offered to just come and do whatever work he needed done in his studio, kind of like a work trade opportunity, and he asked me to come on out and do work with him. And he walked me through the whole process of crystalline glazing and I, in exchange, I wedged and pugged a lot of clay. I took apart and cleaned his pug wheel and put it back together. And then I organized his gallery at that point as well.
PAM: Oh cool! That’s one thing a lot of unschoolers get comfortable with, is just reaching out and connecting with people, right? And just seeing where it goes.
BRENNA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
PAM: That’s very cool. Next question …
The conventional parent-child relationship is often steeped in power and control, but unschooling encourages a different dynamic. Can you share a bit about what your relationship with your parents was like growing up, and now as an adult?
BRENNA: Yeah, for sure. So my parents and I have always been really close. We both live in Asheville. I live in south Asheville and they live in north Asheville, but I’m actually at their house right now, because this was the most convenient place for me to have fast internet and be able to talk out loud.
BRENNA: I could have gone to the library or café but then it would have been awkward if I had been talking to you. So, yeah, I see them. I see them all the time.
And really my mom was the person who kind of brought unschooling to my attention and into our lives. Right before we went to that first unschooling conference I remember we had this conversation where I was thinking really seriously about doing the International Baccalaureate program, and it just had a reputation for being very intense and everyone I knew who had done it just had a lot of homework, they were very busy all the time. And I remember my mom just sitting down with me at one point and saying, “You can do this, and I will support you, but I’m afraid that you’re not going to have time to do all the things that you like to do.”
I always had various projects going when we were homeschooling, and just stuff that I was working on. I think she was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to keep doing that if I signed up for this program. And so, she was really the one who encouraged me to kind of jump on board with unschooling, and then she was also the one who really—and then my stepdad and my dad as well—really encouraged me when I wanted to be a ceramic artist, which was kind of a scary thing. Just because it’s sort of unconventional, even after you’ve been unschooling for a while, it’s sort of unconventional to say you want to make pots for a living. Yeah, and so, yeah I think – I can’t say enough positive things about my family and my parents. They’re super great.
PAM: That is lovely.
You recently returned from the Vermont session of Not Back to School camp—a camp for teen unschoolers if people don’t know what it is. And I will share a link in the show notes. You attended as a teen and continue to return as part of the staff. I was wondering if you could share a bit about your experience as a teen camper and what kept you going back?
BRENNA: I first attended in 2004, when I was 15. And then I attended for four years. And then I took a couple of years off and then I came back as staff in 2011. I think I was a junior staff in 2011 and then I’ve been advising since then. And I think it was just really the place that I finally felt connected as an unschooler and where I really found my tribe.
And the connections that I made as a teenager—I’m still friends with so many of the people that I met as a teenager at Not Back to School camp, and I currently live with someone who I met when I was 15 at Not Back to School Camp, my friend Liam Nilson, here in Asheville. And then went back as staff and just discovered that that’s almost even more fun. I really love working with teenage unschoolers because they’re this age where everything really is open to them, they can do anything that they want and it’s just a really fun age cohort, I think.
PAM: And unschoolers are generally pretty fun people, I think.
BRENNA: Yeah, well that’s true as well. Yeah, totally.
PAM: They just seem very open, I guess maybe is the right word. Seeking, open to, at least, conversations, thoughts, they’ll think things through rather than jumping to just the typical answer to anything.
BRENNA: Yeah, yeah for sure. Yeah.
I saw that this session you ran a project at the Vermont camp called “Deep Dreams—Unearthing, Mapping and Achieving Your Hidden Ambitions.” It sounded super cool and I was wondering what drew you to that topic and if you could tell us a little about how it went?
BRENNA: So at camp we have workshops which are an hour long, and then we have something called projects, which is like a workshop but it’s six hours total and it’s spread out over the course of three days. So you do three 2-hour sessions, which is really cool. I love projects because it allows you to just look really deeply into whatever topic you’re focusing on.
And so, people offer projects on a variety of things, like writing comic books, or experimenting with color, or I’ve led projects in the past about acting or starting a small arts-based business. So yeah, this year I worked with 16 teenage unschoolers on a project that was focused on setting and mapping big goals in your life. So like, writing and self-publishing a comic book, or planning a backpacking trip to Germany, or starting a small business selling cool paper art, or something like that.
And so during the project we spent a lot of time working to draft good goals; so taking abstract goals and then making them concrete. For example, if somebody came in with the goal “I want to travel in Europe this year,” we worked together to narrow it down to something more specific like, “I want to spend six weeks in France and Italy in the fall of 2017.” And then moving forward, they had this goal that was specific enough that they could actually start working on it.
Then we took those goals and did some work with reverse mapping techniques; so starting with the goal and then working backwards through the steps that needed to happen and kind of creating a full plan for achieving the goal. And then we actually also spent a lot of—maybe even we spent half of the workshop—talking about impediments to big goals, so working through things like pacing problems.
If you have a really big goal and you get very enthusiastic about it and then you start, and you work and work and work and then burn yourself out—how to overcome things like that. And then procrastination, moving through fear, cognitive distortions, and so on and so forth. And I think I was drawn to this topic because I love doing dream mapping and goal setting, and I spend a lot of time doing those things in my own life.
I mentioned earlier my 80 year old potter mentor. I had so many great mentors growing up as an unschooler that sort of helped me with the big projects and ideas that I had, and that kind of mentorship was really valuable for me and I wanted to try and create something similar for these teens that I was working with. So I’m actually working to develop a similar Skype-based dream mapping program starting tentatively in January 2017. I’m still working out some of the details at this point, but I’m hoping to offer both a group option—sort of like the project I did but maybe capped at six people or something like that—and then one-on-one option for people who want more individualized attention.
PAM: That sounds like lots of fun. You know what I loved about it? It sounds like what you’re doing really is giving some more language to the process.
BRENNA: Yeah, yeah.
PAM: The way you were talking about it, it’s stuff that we do naturally but for big projects and big goals, like you say, it can get overwhelming, right? Until you can break it down into actual steps that you can take. I love the way you’re giving the whole process a language and steps.
It helps to even walk through just getting started and seeing that you’ve got a plan, and then, again, all the issues that can come up, like you talked about: procrastination, and burn out and all that kind of stuff. That’s super cool.
BRENNA: Thank you.
PAM: And speaking of all these different things that you’re doing, this year you started a blog called (I’m going to get this right): Millenimalism. Is that right?
BRENNA: Yes. That is correct, yes.
PAM: Yay! (laughs)
What was the inspiration behind that?
BRENNA: Yeah, so, it’s a blog that nobody can pronounce, and I kind of realized that that was an issue after I started it. But yeah, it’s very much inspired by unschooling and, I think, the lifestyle that I see a lot of grown unschoolers leading. And so, sort of intentional simplicity and minimalism and frugality, coupled with doing work like I’m doing that doesn’t always pay well, but you’re working at something that you love to do.
I’m working full time as a potter right now, and one of the ways that I made that work is by living with other people, utilizing economies of scale, intentionally keeping my living expenses low, things like that. And I also think it’s a lifestyle that a lot of millennials have kind of had to adopt out of necessity, just because of the economic climate that we sort of grew up into.
And yeah, so I see a lot of friends living like this, and then also a lot of grown unschoolers. So right now I’m posting—I was posting once a week and then I went to camp and things got kind of crazy with my show season and stuff—so I’m posting every two weeks right now. Yeah, and it’s been going well. It feels like it’s kind of noisy out there, like the blog market is kind of saturated, but yeah. It’s just been kind of a passion project that I’ve been enjoying working on.
PAM: Yeah I love the—I think intention is a big word around it, right? Because these are choices that you’re making, and when you realize that they are your choices then you don’t feel like you’re being judged or a failure. Because they are different choices than other people have made.
And you mentioned some millennials—if they’re feeling forced to live that way because of the economy and the environment that they’re finding themselves in—that can make things a lot harder, right? When they’re feeling like, “Oh I’m a failure because this isn’t working.”
BRENNA: Yeah, yeah.
PAM: When you’re intentionally making these choices, it can be very awesome, right? This is the way you wanted to live.
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
PAM: You’ve got some great articles there. So I encourage people to check it out.
BRENNA: Oh, thank you so much!
What stands out for you as you look back on your unschooling years? For example, from your perspective now, what do you most appreciate about living an unschooling lifestyle growing up?
BRENNA: Well I was thinking about this question and I started thinking about this quote, and I’m not sure who said it, but there’s this quote: “You are what you consistently do.”
And I think about that a lot in relation to unschooling because I think that having a self-directed education has turned me into a self-directed adult. And so I feel like I can teach myself anything, or find the resources that I need to learn anything. And I really, as an adult, I think, take pride in figuring things out for myself. So whether that’s like, my car headlight went out and I don’t want to pay 60 dollars to go to the mechanic, I can go on YouTube and go to the auto parts store and figure out how to replace it, for example.
I think that one reason that I’ve been successful running a small business is that, as an unschooler, I’m sort of used to flying by the seat of my pants and just playing whack-a-mole and dealing with challenges as they come up.
So, one example. You know I work as a potter and I throw pots and trim them and glaze and fire them. But I also, over the course of starting this business, I’ve had to learn how to do a whole bunch of other things, like file for a sole proprietorship, or rewire my kiln, for example. So I have this kiln and something that happens is, every so often, every six months or so, I have to change like the elements inside, like the electrical wiring that actually heats up. And so, yeah, it was very intimidating when I first started because there are wires involved, and electricity, and needle-nose pliers. And so that was something that I just kind of had to figure out for myself. And I just continue to feel excited and empowered by figuring things like that out, and learning to do them. And also things like pay sales taxes and designing a booth—things that you maybe wouldn’t consider super exciting, but that are necessary parts of running a business like this.
PAM: The phrase that came to mind was “self-reliant.”
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
PAM: Yeah, just a confidence that, for whatever comes up, you know you’ll figure something out. You don’t know what it will be … (laughs) And for our last question …
As a grown unschooler, what piece of advice would you like to share with unschooling parents who are just starting out on this journey?
BRENNA: Well, so I feel like I’m not a parent at this point, so I don’t have first-hand experience or perspective on that. But as a grown unschooler, the way that I mostly interact with kids these days is they come into my booth when I’m selling stuff at a craft show. And most of these kids aren’t unschooled. And something that I see a lot is parents just being very, very controlling of their kids. Like, “Put that down. Don’t touch this. Back away.”
Or things not even related to what’s going on the booth. Just a lot of pretty controlling behavior. And I will just say that I’ve never had a child break something in my booth, but I have had several adults break things when they come to my booth. Kids come in and they’re usually very, very careful because their parents are often kind of complaining at them about it.
And so I think the piece of advice that I have is that, if you can work on relaxing your need to control things, even a little bit, it helps to move you in the right direction of unschooling and it helps to improve the relationship that you have with your child.
Because I think that that’s the big difference I see, is that sometimes parents come in and I see this good relationship between them and their children, and I see them really working with their children rather than trying to control them.
PAM: Yeah, that is such a fascinating point. Because, as you were saying, you haven’t had kids break things. I imagine parents jump in with control because they don’t think their kids know, but kids can definitely be attuned to what’s going on around them, and when we jump in and control, we take that power away from them, don’t we. Because they would be going in and being careful on their own, but we snatch that from them when we tell them that they have to do this, and they have to do that.
BRENNA: Yeah, absolutely. 99% of the kids who come in already are being careful. But then they’re getting this negative feedback from their parents as though they’re misbehaving or doing something wrong. And sometimes it’s kids who are quite old. Kids who are 11 or 12 or 13, who certainly already have the self-control and maturity to be able to come in and interact with me as an adult.
PAM: Yeah, when you look at it from their perspective, being told that when they’re already doing that, I imagine that they don’t feel seen. Because it’s like, “Well can’t you tell I’m already doing that?” (laughs)
BRENNA: (laughs) Yeah, for sure. Absolutely.
PAM: Yeah, that’s really cool. That is a great first step. And one of the things that, when parents are coming to unschooling, to be able to open up and start to release some of that control and start to see their kids for what they’re actually doing, that’s a huge piece of deschooling. So that’s very, very cool.
BRENNA: Oh thanks, thanks.
PAM: I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Brenna. I really enjoyed this peek into your life. Thank you.
BRENNA: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, it was wonderful to talk to you. I really appreciate the invitation.
PAM: That’s awesome, thank you. And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
BRENNA: Well, you can check out my website, which is brennadee.com. And then email is probably the best place if you want to actually connect with me, which is just brennamcbroom at gmail.com.
PAM: Excellent! I will share that in the show notes, and your blog link as well.
BRENNA: Oh, awesome.
PAM: Thank you so much for your time.
BRENNA: Yeah, thank you so much.