If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Summer Camp: Comfort and Caring

By a quick count, I think I have either attended or worked at six or seven different summer camps over the course of my life. Of all of them, one in particular has played a central role in my development as a person, as a teacher, and as a thinker about education. I first attended the camp (as always, I will avoid accurate names) in the summer between fourth and fifth grades. From that summer on, I and/or one of my siblings was a camper, counselor, or administrator there continuously until last summer, when for the first time in our adult lives, neither my sister nor I were working there, overall a streak of 22 years.

Among other significant life events that occurred at this camp, I met my wife while we were both working there in the summer of 2000, eight years ago this weekend. Since my wife's younger sister has been on staff at the camp for the past two summers, I count the family streak as still active at 24 years and counting.

While this family devotion is extreme, it is not actually exceptional. Many other people and families have similar stories and streaks, a fact that gives the camp a certain cult-like aura that many newcomers find off-putting at first. My wife often tells the story of her first day of staff orientation, at the end of which she went home wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into.

There are many aspects of the camp that lead to this bizarre devotion, and over the course of the summer I will spend some time on many of them, because I think if schools could cultivate similar feelings of attachment in their students, the job of education would be much easier. The most important of them, though, is that, more than any other environment for children that I have ever been a part of, this camp gives children a safe place to be their true selves. I have spoken with many young staff and campers who spend all year being miserable at school, feeling trapped in a place that doesn't understand them, waiting for summer to come so they can go out and find themselves again.

Again, there are many pieces in place to create this welcoming environment, but the first of them happens almost the moment that the campers arrive each day. Every morning, camp starts in a circle. The circle is a camp motif that is reinforced in many ways over the course of a day and the summer. Each circle is a mixed aged group, from fourth through eighth grades, plus counselors of a variety of ages and life stages.

Circle time begins with Comfort and Caring, a time for those who want to to share whatever is on their mind that morning. Usually it is light-hearted--stories of baseball games played, or new Pokemon cards acquired--but sometimes there is more vital information shared--a beloved pet passed away, a best friend gone to overnight camp for the summer. In addition to giving everyone the chance to share, and to feel like the events of their lives are important to other people, it is also a chance for the kids to get off their chests whatever thing has been occupying them. Once relieved of that burden, they are more ready to focus on the tasks of the day.

It can be a little hokey, and the oldest kids often roll their eyes at the prospect, but how much happier and more productive would we adults be if our days began with the chance to share with our colleagues the things that were exciting or depressing us that day, to ask for a little leeway when we missed our morning coffee, or to feel like our accomplishments were celebrated by the people with whom we spend our days. A little bit of hokey is not such a bad thing.

1 comment:

Melissa B. said...

Love the camp posts! You're invited to contribute to Take Another Look Thursday. It's a way we teachers can stay on our toes this summer! http://scholastic-scribe.blogspot.com/2008/06/take-another-look-thursday.html