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Staff Correspondence to Camper Parents: The “Not-So-Lost” Art of Letter Writing
You might be surprised to discover that even in today’s frenzy of corresponding through text messages, e-mails, tweets, and other social media avenues, letter writing is still being used as a way for camps to communicate with parents. Many camps post a daily blog and upload photos for parents to view online so that they have a window into their child’s camp experience; however, these efforts represent only a small piece of the big picture.
Staff who interact with campers through their core group or in various program activities are the most important link between camp and home in terms of how each camper is adjusting, progressing, and growing. For this reason, many camps have staff write a letter (or similar correspondence) to each parent as a way to provide this invaluable information. With the help of several camp directors, I would like to share the stories of what staff letter writing once was, how it has evolved over time, and several ideas that can be incorporated to help staff with the process.
Writing letters to parents from staff can be traced back many years, long before computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices were part of our world of instantaneous communication. Norman McGee, former camper at Camp Cherokee for Boys in the 1960s and longtime camp director at Clemson Outdoor Lab, still has the letters that were sent from his counselors to his parents while he was away at camp. The counselors wrote daily reports on each camper that were turned into the camp director, who then added a personal note at the bottom of the form. The daily report was sent home weekly along with the hand-typed and mimeographed newsletter called the “Weekly Digest.” These reports were also read each day at the conclusion of morning devotions in front of the entire camp; boys were given a chance to offer corrections, additions, and/or deletions on the spot. McGee recalls campers listening intently to hear their names called.
At Camp Cherokee, counselors were to keep track of certain daily routines such as taking a morning dip and teeth brushing in addition to the camper’s overall health and activity choices. Marks were also given for approximately twenty personality traits, including punctuality, posture, table manners, food idiosyncrasies, participation, responsibility, and self-control (just to name a few!). I found it interesting that the only choices counselors had to evaluate campers on the categories were “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory.”
“It certainly made it clear for parents to know where the counselor stood,” McGee adds. At the bottom of the report, parents were cautioned “not to take their child to task” for receiving an unsatisfactory mark.
Counselors were also expected to write two to three sentences about each camper on the back of the form, providing specific information regarding the events of each day. McGee’s counselor pointed out that Norman “got into a fight during the war games” but that it was “quickly resolved of his own accord.” The counselor went on to say that “Norman was a little slow in preparing for inspection, but his area looked good when he finally finished it.” I can’t even imagine the reaction from today’s parents if a report with such candid information was received — I’m sure a phone call to the director would be quick to follow!
While times have certainly changed, and technology has added new options to the process of sending correspondence from staff to camper parents over the years, the benefits for using this form of communication remain worthwhile. First-time camper parents Lee and Joseph Cazayoux were thrilled to receive a letter from their nine-year-old daughter while she was attending a one-week camp in North Carolina. It read, “It is the first day. It is going well. I love camp. After this we are going to Splash. That is when you get to play in the lake.” There was no “Dear Mom and Dad” or “Love, Sarah,” but it was priceless nonetheless.
To the Cazayoux’s and other camp parents, receiving a note from the counselor helps provide specific details that are often missing from the camper because he or she is young and/or physically unable to accurately communicate such information. It is also a possibility that the child is having too much fun and does not want to take the time to document a comprehensive account of his or her camp experience. I remember from my own days as a counselor that some of the older campers would send home an empty envelope (which was supposed to contain a letter written to their parents) for their “ticket” to campfire each week.
Christine Peterson, assistant director of Cape Cod Sea Camps, shares that they have been doing camper reports since the beginning in 1922. She feels that “it is important to inform parents about campers’ progress and their accomplishments.” Peterson continues, “Some campers don’t share what happens in their ‘camp life’ because they like to keep it separate. They may pass along tidbits here and there, but I feel that it is important for the camp to share information about activities tried, friendships formed, and challenges tackled. It is so vital to provide feedback so that we can help campers recognize what they’ve learned and keep an open line of communication with parents.”
Emily Riedel, executive director of TIC Day Camps, finds that “parent reports are a wonderful opportunity for families and staff. It is great PR for families (if done right) and a glimpse of what kids learned while at camp. It gives staff writing practice for their school and professional lives, and it forces them to get to know campers individually so they can cite specific examples and concepts learned.” Riedel adds that as a parent, “it is invaluable information that I would want to get about my kids (and about my dollars spent).” One comment TIC received on an end-of-summer survey stated that the parent “loved the camper report that came home at the end of camp written by the counselors [and] found it very insightful and a great way to get feedback on how [her] child did learning and interacting with his peers.”
Along with the benefits of sending camper reports home to parents, there are challenges to the process as well. Editing simply takes time, and often there are multiple layers of editing that happen between the counselor writing the letter, a supervisor, and possibly a director before the letter is ready to be sent to the camp family. It may take a week or two to get to that point, and by the time the letter finally reaches the parents, the information is not current, or in some cases, the camper may arrive home before the letter does!
First drafts often lack the basics of spelling and grammar as a result of the habits many staff have formed from using “shorthand” to text and e-mail, and correcting these things can also add to time spent on the editing process. Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Camp Alleghany assistant director, stresses to her staff that “we have a reputation to uphold, and we do not want sloppy, misspelled, or grammatically incorrect literature going out to the parents.” For handwritten letters, one “typo” can be cause to start over. Even using spell check for typed letters is not a guarantee for catching all mistakes; words can be spelled correctly but used improperly.
Letters can also sound generic in nature, which would not demonstrate to the parents that the counselor truly knows the child about whom he or she is writing. This can be especially challenging if there are multiple siblings attending the same camp or if more than one letter is sent during a longer camp session.
Some camps have moved away from the handwritten letter to parents and are having staff use a computer as a way to reduce the time needed for rewrites and streamline the process. Letters can be typed and saved on a flash drive or to a central location for editing. It is not unusual for counselors to bring their own laptop to camp or for camps to provide a computer lab for this purpose. Jeff Cheley, director of Cheley Colorado Camps, reports that his counselors do the entire process online. Each staff member has a username and password so that a form can be completed on each camper. The form is then edited by the unit directors before going “live” for parents to view at a certain time each week.
The timing of written correspondence between staff and camper parents should definitely be considered as well. For shorter sessions, it can be difficult to turn the mail around before the last day or the camper returns home. Some camps opt for sending a postcard or choose to give the report to the parents on closing day. For parents who are traveling while their child is at camp or for camps with international campers, scanning and sending letters by e-mail ensures that they are delivered in a timely fashion.
Falling Creek Camp started using a barcode system in 2012, according to associate director Frank Tindall. Final letters were sent through the fax machine and then made available to families through their Web-based camp management program. The counselors at Horizons Camp write postcards to the campers (in addition to the parents) during the summer that are collected and then mailed throughout the year to celebrate camper birthdays and other holidays. Kim Betts, director, finds that this is a way to keep camp on families’ minds all year.
Training, Ideas, and Alternatives
Training is an important piece of having staff write quality letters, but it is hard to find the time during orientation that is necessary to teach staff the ins and outs of writing camper reports. Staff handbooks are often used as a venue for giving counselors guidance on writing correspondence to camper parents. Helpful hints may include how to properly address a letter, words to avoid, and a format to follow for each paragraph. Sample letters are often included in the handbook, but not without mixed reviews, as some counselors tend to “copy” this letter and just change the name. Because of the extensive letters the staff from Camp Augusta write (on average, about two typed pages per camper), a timeline with benchmarks to strive for over the course of a camp session is provided in the staff handbook.
Author Heather L. Montgomery (2012) states, “One of the most challenging things about writing is getting the details down. Believe it or not, this is usually not because we are not writing well enough, but because we are not observing carefully enough.” Using that insight, time might be better spent if we teach staff how to observe so that they know what to look for in daily camper interactions, such as noticing that a camper sat by someone new during a meal, pitched in to help another camper during clean-up, or had the courage to get on a horse for the first time. This could be modeled by assigning each staff member someone they are to shadow throughout orientation and then having them write a practice letter to that person’s parents later in the training period.
Some camps have their staff keep a log or notebook with camper observations so that specific happenings, moments, and conversations can be captured for later use in parent letters. The counselors at Green River Preserve use a “happy, healthy, disciplined” or “unhappy, unhealthy, undisciplined” form and mark the appropriate description along with a few specifics about each camper several times weekly. Director Missy Schenk comments that these checklists are “a great way to stay on top of things for all staff, and it also helps the counselors when they communicate with parents, whether by letter or phone, to have a reference.”
JoAnne Trimpe, Camp Woodland director, has her counselors complete weekly written “observation records” on each camper. This format helps staff focus on each camper’s personal habits (hygiene, behavior), relationships (friends made, group interactions), and activities (choices, progress, achievements). Counselors are then encouraged to have a conference with each camper prior to writing a letter to the parents to find out more details about favorite activities, strengths, and challenges. Jenny Jordan of Towering Pines agrees that “the best way to get the kind of specific information that is required for a parent letter is to have a conversation with the camper.” It is the same process she uses when asked to write a letter of recommendation for a staff member.
Camp Wingate-Kirkland has a scheduled “balancing session” each week that has been a longtime Sunday morning tradition. Balancing was originally intended to help kids balance their schedule and encourage them to try new activities; over time, it has developed into much more. Director Will Rubenstein explains that bunk counselors split their camper group and meet one-to-one with each child for fifteen to twenty minutes, asking specific questions that focus on summer goals and address camper needs/concerns. While waiting for their turn, the other campers are involved doing “super clean-up” in the bunk and around camp while being supervised by the CITs and other nonbunk counselors. Sample balancing questions include: What are three good things that happened in the first few days of camp? Are there any concerns you have about your bunk? If so, what can you do to change or improve things? What has a counselor said or done that made you smile or laugh this week? If you were to make a time capsule capturing the top five highlights of the summer, what would be on your list?
Bunk counselors then write a summary of their conversation with each camper before turning the report in to the “lodge leaders.” Parents are given copies of the summaries midsummer on visiting day and again at the close of the final session. Even though the balancing session summaries are not mailed home each week, the balancing process is a great way to obtain the specific kinds of information that parents want to know about their child’s camp experience. Rubenstein also mentioned that counselors are given the opportunity to practice a balancing session and write a summary during staff training week.
It is also important to note that today’s learners are accustomed to collaborating when working on projects (Hart, 2008). Finding ways for staff to work together to write letters home to camper parents can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing! At a minimum, co-counselors should compare notes on shared campers to gain a wider perspective. Getting program staff involved to share with counselors any “aha” moments they had with campers during activities is another valuable resource that should be utilized.
Cape Cod Sea Camps gives small groups an example paragraph from a letter that is laden with common mistakes, and their task is to find and make corrections. Christine Peterson offers that “counselors have a great time writing fake camper reports to [her] husband and to the camp dogs” as a way of practicing the letter writing process. Having staff brainstorm “power” words that can be associated with each activity or area could be a fun way to take a camp tour and build a “word bank” that can be used when writing parent letters.
If you are like me, it is probably hard to remember the last time you actually took out a piece of paper and a pen and sat down to write a letter. Being the example and doing the same task that we ask our staff to do can be a powerful teacher. This may be the year for you and your leadership team to write letters to the parents of staff members (and share them before mailing!). Or maybe this is the summer that you decide to give staff correspondence a try. You see, letter writing is not such a “lost art” after all!
Author’s Note: A big THANK YOU to the many camp directors who supported and encouraged me to write this article . . . your ef forts and willingness to share are greatly appreciated!
Hart, J. (2008, September 22). Understanding today’s learner. Learning Solutions Magazine. Retrieved from www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/80/understanding-todays-learner
Montgomery, H. L. (2012). It’s all in the details extension activity. Nature and Science Writing for Kids. Retrieved from www.heatherlmontgomery.com
Kim Aycock, MST, has twenty-five years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found on her Web site: www.kimaycock.com. Kim may be contacted at 601-832-6223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Courtesy of Camp Wawenock, Raymond, Maine
Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.