Having spent the better part of the last thirteen years in summer camps and school classrooms, I have observed the benefits of year-round learning, although not necessarily in the form of year-round school. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put school vacations on notice with talk about "fighting the status quo," and calling summer "an inexplicable, counterproductive anachronism that takes youths out of an educational setting for two to three months every year" (Duncan 3/5/2009). To those in the camp and out-of-school time learning professions, his comments signaled a red flag that would pose "a shock to the system" in the form of a "year-round school year" (Duncan 3/5/2009). Simply expanding the current school year ignores the benefits of existing summer learning opportunities, and the potential for expanding those successful programs to enroll more children. Suffice it to say, I was surprised to hear Duncan recently clarify his views on summer camps and camp's potential to decrease summer learning loss, and narrow the overall achievement gap.
Identifying the various spaces where learning takes place, and the value of each setting, is crucial when emphasizing the camp experience as a viable alternative to mandated summer school. Peg Smith, ACA's chief executive officer, says the solution is "not to confine children to classrooms for year-round school," but instead "the answer lies in much more natural, developmental settings that promote experiential learning, improve social skills and physical fitness, teach kids to take calculated risks in a safe environment, and expand the creative mind allowing for the possibility of innovation" (Smith 2009). Understanding the characteristics of learning at camp and the features of learning at school, and the ways children cumulatively link their learning experiences from these spaces, reinforces the singularity of these institutions and the possibilities for mutual contribution.
Summer School or Summer Camp?
On October 22, I listened to Secretary Duncan's speech at Teachers College, Columbia University, and as his remarks drew to a close, a former camp counselor in the audience asked the Secretary about his "ideas or possible plans for partnering with summer camps as an alternative to replacing them?" (Transcript 10/22/2009). The Secretary's response reversed his earlier position that "summers are a problem to solve," toward "summers offer promises to explore": "I am all for camping," he said. "I am a city kid, and I think anything that promotes getting out and increasing exposure to the world is important," he continued. "This is not about replacing summer camp. I don't worry about the students that are going to summer camps. I worry about the millions of students who don't have the resources to go to summer camps" (Duncan 10/22/2009).
Secretary Duncan's support for camps and other out-of-school time learning programs aligns with the recent wave of support from the White House. When President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law last February, Congress included an unprecedented amount of funding for education, with significant opportunities for summer learning programs. While not all of the reinvestment funding is geared toward summer, the emphasis on out-of-school time programs has renewed excitement and national attention towards the importance of summer learning experiences for children. And just this past summer, The Johns Hopkins University National Center for Summer Learning announced the President's proclamation declaring July 9, 2009, as "National Summer Learning Day." Across the country, nearly 500 programs, including camps, in forty-eight states held events to draw attention to the importance of summer learning in the lives of youth and their families.
Over one hundred years of research on summer learning loss compiled by the Center for Summer Learning appears to be gaining traction (White 1906). These studies show all children lose ground academically during the summer, and the achievement gap is even more striking for low-income children (Cooper 1996). Richard Rothstein, former national education columnist for The New York Times, and now a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute, agrees "disadvantaged children get less educational support in summers and after school." His research confirms this differential "summer setback" occurs partly because middle-class children's learning is reinforced in the summer months — they read more, travel, and learn new social and emotional skills in camps and organized athletics" (Rothstein 2005).
Associations between the school year and summer camp are rooted in the experiences of campers and staff who travel fluidly between the two institutions. Writing for a special edition of the Teachers College Record, Hope Jensen Leichter (1978) acknowledges in addition to camp, children obviously participate in multiple settings, and since it is possible for children to combine the expanded horizons acquired in camp with those more fundamental school experiences, children's typical ways of learning and thinking can be dramatically altered. In these instances, children become the "common messenger" between these settings. As children begin to pass through and participate among these various settings, the learning becomes bound to the individual in more meaningful ways, traveling with them.
The learning that children carry from multiple settings closely resembles Edmund W. Gordon's description in Supplementary Education, where he argues that while access to high quality schools is "a necessary ingredient for the education of students, good schools alone may not be sufficient to ensure universally high levels of academic development" (Gordon 2005). Dr. Gordon contends supplemental educational experiences are vital to all children and are closely associated with "exposure to family and community-based activities and learning experiences that occur both in and out of school" (Gordon 2005). Categorizing these supplementary experiences by setting and season are helpful to distinguish the myriad characteristics that are blended and bound as learning becomes holistic.
Data: Focus Groups
In April 2006, Project Morry facilitated an education symposium at Columbia University's Teachers College, bringing together some of the best and brightest teachers, researchers, policy makers, curriculum experts, camp staff, and directors to consider the issue of summer learning loss with respect to summer and out-of-school youth development programs. The group gathered to brainstorm conceptions of learning, summer learning, and year-round learning. Following the brainstorm, the group engaged in a rich discussion of the data and identified the common themes.
Their findings outlined a broad definition of learning and incorporated the tenants of "supplementary education" Gordon advocates. Opportunities to expose children to the various features of learning identified by the attendees cannot possibly occur within the framework of a school day or year. Despite conventional wisdom that suggests the solution is to expand the school year, keeping in mind Leichter's notion of the "common messenger," it was important for the group to consider how children accumulate experiences from different settings and bind them with others to form collective learning outcomes.
Multiple studies have identified social development as the primary predictor of life success, including academic success, and have identified several critical skills contributing to life success. This research has concluded these skills include: 1) communicating effectively, 2) ability to work cooperatively with others, 3) emotional self-control and appropriate expression, 4) empathy and perspective taking, 5) optimism, humor, self-awareness, 6) ability to plan and set goals, 7) solving problems and resolving conflicts thoughtfully and non-violently, and 8) bringing a reflective, learning-to-learning approach to life situations (Elias and Weissberg, 2000; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, and Walberg, 2004).
To better understand the factors promoting the acquisition of these skills or positive social development of adolescents, researchers at the Search Institute have established the forty developmental assets (Leffert et al., 1998). These forty assets are categorized into eight domains representing the internal and external characteristics of a child and his/her environment: 1) support, 2) empowerment, 3) boundaries and expectations, 4) constructive use of time, 5) commitment to learning, 6) positive values, 7) social competencies, and 8) positive identity (Leffert et al., 1998). The outcomes identified by symposium participants complemented these research findings.
In addition to the focus groups with youth development practitioners at the symposium, similar questions were posed to graduates of the Project Morry program. Their responses verify the results of the focus groups, as well as the conclusions of numerous research studies. Although it would be hard to directly relate their camp experiences to their academic performance, the questions focused on how each participant perceived themselves as learners. Overall, the participants reported positive feelings:
School is hard, but I am enjoying it. It's the first time I actually have an idea of what I want to do so that's exciting. I'm majoring in Applied Economics and Management.
Junior in College
I am doing well in school right now. In the beginning, it was a challenge for me because I was a business major and some of the classes were challenging because I was not interested in what I was learning, and because of this, I did not apply myself as well as I could or should have. But now that I have found a major that suits me, and I love what I am learning, school is going well.
Junior in College
One hundred percent of Project Morry participants who complete the program graduate from high school — a remarkable statistic considering the average high school graduation rate in urban neighborhoods is below 40 percent. Additionally, almost 80 percent of Project Morry campers go on to college, and 100 percent of those campers have remained in college. As the participants point out, they have high levels of confidence about their experiences in school thus far.
Considering the research on summer learning loss and the seasonal perspective of learning, it is tempting to make a connection between the experiences of campers each summer and the impressive graduation and college retention outcomes of the organization. The following participants reflect back to their experiences as campers at Morry's from the point of view of successful college students:
Camp was one of my favorite things ever growing up. I always anticipated going to camp and what the year would bring, who I'd meet, who I'd see again, and what new things I'd be able to try. I enjoyed probably every aspect of it and probably wouldn't have done half the things I've done in my life if I never went to camp.
Junior in College
I think going to Morry's has definitely taught me responsibility, and it allowed me to mature because in some ways, I was responsible for me. My mother was not there to make sure that I did things correctly. Looking back, it is somewhat like college because we had to take care of ourselves in many ways. Overall, camp was a positive experience for me.
Junior in College
Focus on the Learner Broadly Defined
The learner who remains focused becomes the "common messenger" between the camp and school settings, combining diverse experiences, information, and other assorted learning. The task of delineating the complexities of these relationships is extensive. And, since children recognize a distinction between camp and school settings, their ability to transfer skills gained from one experience to a different space is entirely possible. Children who attend camp benefit from the experience of a camp program, emphasizing opportunities to participate in games with complex rule structures, explore the natural world, and cultivate their artistic talents and interests thus encompassing the passive learning component. However, the unique attribute of Project Morry, and similar organizations, is the extremely focused and intentional demand placed on campers and staff to engage in active learning. This active learning takes place in several ways, both on a daily basis and on a more sustained, cumulative level over time. These layers of academic support are an essential enhancement of any linkages between camp and school. At the core of these layers, campers participate daily in an hour of direct academic-oriented instruction and/or reading. Additionally, over the course of the summer, each program (in all areas) is organized around the development of independence and critical thinking. For instance, each program period or activity contains a beginning, consisting of a mini-lecture, a middle period of time for independent practice and negotiating skills, and a final share period in which the important process of debriefing takes place.
The Child as Learner
The "common messenger" can take on many forms and assume many responsibilities. Children are, perhaps, most commonly assigned this role. In both camp and school settings (and to some extent in family and community settings) children often are the beneficiaries of adult and teacher energies. Schools devote a tremendous amount of energy and resources to assuring every child obtains the skills necessary to become productive and competent members of a democratic society. Years are spent conditioning children for a livelihood through exposure to reading, writing, and mathematics, accented by coursework in science and social studies.
Although advanced in a much different way, camps and schools share a similar and somewhat common agenda. That is, they spend a great deal of time focusing on the child as a learner. Children who attend camp benefit from the experiences, interactions, and learning in both settings. Their ideas become linked and connected in ways that might not have been possible without the benefiting from both settings. As we have seen, what is learned in school is often reinforced and substantiated in activities at camp, and vice versa.
Linkages Over Time
The process of these experiences being catalogued and stacked in the conscience of an individual over time is vital in analyzing the relationships between all the settings identified thus far. Varied and diverse are these bits and pieces of life, acquired here and there, both realized and subliminal, which help to assemble tools and skills useful to the individual as they advance to other settings.
The very nature of these linkages permeate the walls of traditional educational institutions, eventually seeping through strongly enough to break free and become something better. Therefore, camp is more than an educational institution; it is a space, a setting, a canvas. Unconstrained by the rules and regulations of school, few institutional barriers exist between teacher and learner; configurations among all actors are free to evolve and multiply; numerous settings are incorporated; and robust communities of interaction begin to flourish and foster.
"Reframe the Issue"
Camp, unlike any other organization, becomes a vital landscape for learning and living. Institutions that educate from a variety of life experiences, including families, communities, and schools, converge and become juxtaposed with one another to form unprecedented learning outcomes. With the summer school surge on the horizon, camps can combat the call for "more of the same." Public education reform relies on the input and innovation of the private sector, while holding true to the values of equal and broader access for children to have opportunities.
The "shock to the system" Secretary Duncan is calling for should not eclipse the proven success of summer camps as locations for significant growth to occur. Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, recently claimed "the camp experience is a well-tested, viable learning environment that contributes to the overall health and development of children, youth, and adults," and urged policy makers to "reframe the issue . . . to introduce the importance of understanding how children learn — not pass the test" (Smith 2009). There not only needs to be greater collaboration between camp organizations and educational institutions, but also dedicated resources to engaging more children during summer vacation to think and build competency so that their school year is more successful. Teachers, counselors, learners, campers, organizations, institutions — all of these operate collectively and independently to reform our understandings and unchallenged beliefs of what is possible. Camps are gaining recognition as vital summer learning venues, most notably from those who are in a position to make their promise a reality for all children.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., and Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66, 227-268.
Duncan, Arne (March 5, 2009). http://www.onpointradio.org/2009/03/education-secretary-arne-duncan
Duncan, Arne (October 22, 2009). Transcript of Major Policy Address. Columbia University Teachers College.
Gordon, Edmund W., Ed.; Bridglall, Beatrice L., Ed.; Meroe, Aundra Saa, Ed. (2005). Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of High Academic Achievement. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Leichter, Hope Jensen. (1978). Families and communities as educators: some concepts of relationship. Teachers College Record, Volume 79, Number 4, May 1978.
Ozier, Lance (2006). Morry's Camp Education Symposium Follow-up Report. http://www.projectmorry.org/pages/education/pdf/symposium_follow_up_2006...
Rothstein, Richard. (2005). http://www.hfrp.org/evaluation/the-evaluation-exchange/issue-archive/com...
Smith, Peg. (2009). Camping Magazine. Volume 82 Number 6. November/December.
White, W. (1906). Reviews before and after vacation. American Education, 10. 185-188.
Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.