The time has come to get rid of the desks in neat rows, get creative, look outside the box, and bring the camp experience to the classroom. Kids need the chance to develop life skills, develop strong character, and create their own knowledge through authentic learning experiences that allow them to be creative problem-solvers all year round — not just for a week in the summer. The education system in the United States is failing to meet these needs in today's students. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to low achieving schools as "dropout factories." The U.S. Department of Education reported in the High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007 Compendium Report that in 2007, there were 3.3 million people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four that were not enrolled in school and had not earned a high school diploma. There are hundreds of ideas about what needs to be done, but what the education system needs is to be "campified."
I would like to introduce you to some of the young people in my classroom (student names have been changed to protect student confidentiality). Mike was robbed in his neighborhood and is afraid to come to school because the people that attacked him have friends in some of his classes. Tim cannot stay after school to finish his assignments because he has to get to work — not because he is saving up his money for his first car, but because he is supporting his friend and her baby. He is not the father, but wants to help because he knows his friend is having a hard time. Then there is Rick, who chooses to stay in his room because it is easier than fighting with his stepfather. Brenda is fourteen and pregnant without any health insurance and has a second grade reading level. James is being harassed by a group of gang members because he refuses to join their group. He and his family have been threatened. He has the cuts and bruises to confirm it. The authorities have been notified, but there is no clear evidence, so no action has been taken. Kathy is unable to come to school because she is homeless and doesn't have transportation. Linda is having troubles coping with being fifteen and is showing signs of depression. Her mom is faced with her own emotional challenges and is further burdened with trying to finish her GED, but lacks the appropriate skills; consequently, she is not able to provide Linda with the support she needs.
These students have never been to camp. They have never experienced the excitement of an all-camp-counselor-hunt, and the innocence of a campfire under the stars with S'mores has passed them by. They have seen more ugliness, heartache, and struggle in the world at fifteen years of age than many of us will ever see in a lifetime. Yet, they still try to come to school every day and make an effort to finish their work and pass their tests — even though the content and the objectives in the classroom often carry little significance or relevance to their own lives. As a public school teacher, I am charged with the responsibility of making sure that all of my students are equipped for the twenty-first century, which is ultimately measured by their ability to pass a state standardized test. But these students need more than a list of words and facts to memorize. They are desperate for the kind of positive teaching and conscious youth development that happens in all types of camp settings all across the country.
I want my students to be confident leaders, team players, and creative problemsolvers with warm hearts. As a camp professional with over a decade of experience, the best way I know how to teach them these essential skills is to bring "camp" to the classroom. On the first day of school, I love playing the same silly name games that I would play with camp staff or new campers on the first day of camp. It immediately creates a classroom culture based on mutual respect and allows everyone time to get ready to learn because they are not so intimidated by a group of strangers.
Discipline becomes a process of debriefing in an effort to build character. When students are unable to get along, work together, or follow the rules in order to promote the appropriate learning environment, we talk about what is happening. We ask questions such as, "Why is it not working for the class?" And then we make a plan to fix it. In addition, I challenge my students with many team building initiatives in order to promote cooperative learning and critical thinking.
Camp professionals know you can teach anything from perseverance to goal setting and logic through a wide game or an outdoor challenge. You can change a stressful week into the best experience ever with an amazing all-camp on Friday night. And never underestimate the power of arts and crafts and glitter.
I can turn a flat geography lesson into something meaningful by bringing out the arts and crafts and encouraging students to create 3D maps, reduce the stress and anxiety of test time with a costume party, and discuss the qualities of leadership exemplified by world leaders through a game of Detective. I use the popular game Train Wreck to help break down the barriers that can lead to bullying by helping students discover similarities with their classmates. I run a values auction to start the unit on religion to show students the importance of understanding the beliefs that are important to them while still respecting different beliefs held by others. A round of Group Juggle helps students recognize the importance of setting goals and how important it is to recognize their role in helping those around them be successful.
As camp professionals, we think about how to make our campers' experiences safe, fun, and meaningful. We require our staff to provide programs that are engaging, amazing, and beyond the average day. Classroom teachers can change the culture in their classroom to create a more authentic, meaningful, and twenty-first century experience by adopting the same philosophy.
As a camp director, I tell my staff that the kids that are your greatest challenge are the kids that need to be at camp the most; therefore, we always figure out how to make it work. In the classroom, some teachers are quick to try and have a student removed from their class if he or she cannot conform to the classroom policies. School officials look to have the student placed in alternative locations. In some cases, that is the best plan; but as budgets are getting crunched, there are becoming fewer and fewer alternative places for challenging kids. They are going to be in our classrooms and ultimately in society, whether they are ready or not.
Camps focus on people, relationships, life skills, and experiences. Today's students are desperate for positive role models, mentors, skills to help empower them to deal with life's challenges, and authentic learning experiences that are relevant. Camps often wait for school to be out before they offer experiences and adventure to kids. It is time for camps to come to the kids while school is still in session. Let's "campify" our classrooms.
U.S. Department of Education. (2009). High school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2007 compendium report. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/  pubs2009/2009064.pdf
Wendy Scott is a history teacher and the assistant director at Camp Motorsport. She is currently a board member of the ACA, Virginias and a member of the National Education Association. In May 2010, Scott graduated from Regent University with a master's degree in education. E-mail the author at scottwel@ cps.k12.va.us .
Originally published in the 2010 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.