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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Camp: Challenges

In this series of summer camp related posts, I keep coming back to the day camp back in Massachusetts where I have been a camper, counselor and administrator. Many of my ideas about what an ideal school would be like, especially in terms of building community and character, come from my experiences there. One of the big pieces of that community building experience was what we called challenges.

Anyone who has done a leadership training course or any sort of Project Adventure program will be familiar with the idea of challenges. Basically, a group is assigned a cooperative task with a set of proscribed rules to make the task more difficult. Completing the task generally requires that the group work very well together and that every member of the group be involved in getting to the finish. One of the classic examples is a challenge we called 'The Peanut Butter Pit.' The task is to get the entire group from a start point to an end point across a boiling pit of sticky peanut butter/corrosive acid/radioactive sludge. Between the start line and the end line, the campers are not allowed to touch the ground. All they have to help them across are a series of evenly spaced cinder blocks in the middle of the pit, and two or three narrow but sturdy boards. The goal is to challenge both their cooperative and problem solving skills.

Generally, we did about three challenges over the course of a four week session, each one a little longer than the one before. The last and longest was generally supposed to take about one full day of camp, although there are legends about epic challenges that took three or four days to complete. Each challenge also came with a back story, usually involving counselors in costume breaking into circle time to enlist the campers help preventing some imminent threat to the camp, the world or the universe.

At the end of the challenge (and often in the middle of more difficult ones) counselors would lead group discussions about how things had gone, what worked and didn't work, and what they could take away from the experience and apply to other areas of life. They were given a chance to give a 'hats off' to members of the group who had been especially helpful, and were guided to the idea that a successful group effort requires both leaders and followers. Finally, the all gave each other a ceremonial pat on the back to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

As a counselor and a teacher, I took a number of lessons away from working with kids on these challenges:

1) Frustration is an important part of the learning process. Personal growth comes from overcoming challenges, even artificial ones. Students need to learn how to handle themselves when things don't come easily. If they can learn that lesson in the relatively safe environment of school, it will serve them well throughout their lives.

2) We learn lessons best when we explicitly talk about them. Somewhere in the teaching process, we need to have a conversation with the students about why they are doing the things they are doing, and what it is we hope they get out of it. The more we give them a chance to talk about the goals, and assess their own progress towards them, the better off they will be.

3) Sometimes students should just be left to figure stuff out for themselves. One of the key pieces to being a counselor in the challenges was to create a safe environment and then to leave them alone to figure out the solution. They need the confidence-building experience of being the ones to solve the problem on their own.

I'm not suggesting in all this that classroom time be taken away from academic pursuits and replaced with team building activities, but I do think that some of the structure of these challenges could be carried over into the classroom. Give the students a difficult task that stretches their abilities, allow them the chance to work through it on their own, even when it is frustrating, and then come back at the end and debrief. In this way, they not only learn the material, but they learn how to work and think independently.

What do you do to really challenge your students?

1 comment:

Beth said...

I like your thoughts and reflections on Project Adventure activities and programming. The connection to the classroom without, as you say, taking away from academic or time-on-learning is Adventure In the Classroom. Adventure in the Classroom is a training where educators can learn to use the Exeriential Learning Cycle, Challenge by Choice and the Full Value Contract to the design of their lesson plans and units. The result is collaborative learning and project based learning where trust, communication, risk taking and challenge are all part of the academic content. For more info on this you can read the Project Adventure blog ( www.projectadventureinc.blogspot.com) or go to our website www.pa.org.
Keep us the great work on connecting your camp lessons to building an excellent school!