Bring the Camp World to the Classroom

February 7, 2013

This week's post is a guest blog from Laura Dallas McSorley, a member of one of ACA's educational allies, Teach For America.

Camp Glisson was the most wonderful place I had been as a kid — almost magical. I had been to other day camps and even overnight camps, but nothing was like the first time I stepped onto the grounds of Glisson — beautifully nestled in the North Georgia mountains around a large waterfall, with an old wooden chapel. I went every summer, as did my siblings, and even my parents as a nurse or the minister for a week. (Glisson is a United Methodist camp.) When I was old enough, I was finally a counselor, getting to fulfill a long-held dream. Most of my co-counselors were passionate about Glisson's central mission: ministry to children. Many went on to go to divinity school or teach school.

I, however, couldn't imagine myself in the classroom or in a church. Instead, I spent the next several summers dedicated to various social justice causes that pulled me away from camp — homelessness prevention and housing reform, advocacy on my college campus. And as I began to dig deeper, exploring not just the effects but the root causes of the social injustices I saw around me, I found Teach For America (TFA). After graduation, I headed to Washington, DC, to teach in a Head Start classroom with TFA’s first cohort of early childhood educators. I spent the next five years teaching pre-K in the city.

At camp, the culture we built in our “living groups” was so powerful that campers and counselors were often crying at the end of the week when it was time to say goodbye. We often said at those times that, while we felt like we were returning to the “real” world, in many ways camp was more real. Camp and the communities we built offered a glimpse at what a “beloved community” could be, in the way God intended us to dwell in the world.

I thought about this often when thinking about how to build a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment for all my students, regardless of what might be happening outside our classroom or school. Of course, I worked intentionally to have strong relationships with families, including home visits, and to incorporate students' home lives and cultures — through pictures of their families, favorite books, memories of neighborhood walks, and community reading materials. Just like at camp, I tried to make my classroom a microcosm of the real place we want the entire world to be — one where we are free to explore the “outside” world with fresh eyes and discover new information about ourselves we can translate at home. For my three- and four-year-old students, this might mean being more independent in their routines or exploring and describing an array of animals that live in the ocean.

One of my dear friends and co-counselors, Rob, and I were known for singing — all the time — with our youngest campers. Not just at the designated chapels or special “singing on the porch” activities, but literally walking from lunch to the pool . . . and everywhere. Years later, this became my persona as a teacher as well — but with a different purpose. I wanted to use all my teaching time with students in developmentally appropriate ways as strategically as possible — making every moment count toward the ambitious goals we were working toward together. While we rhymed our way through “Willaby Wallaby,” counted down with understanding from ‘Five Little Monkeys,” or explored complicated new vocabulary like “Dreidel,” this brought joy and perhaps again a bit of notoriety to our neighborhood walks — just as I had enjoyed at camp — but also rigorous mastery for our students on key skills to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

I want all kids to have the chance to feel a part of a loving community as I did each summer at camp, just as I want all children to have an excellent start from their very first formal experience in early childhood through the rest of the school experience. I loved being a camp counselor, as you likely do, too. Now imagine you are getting to expand your impact to not just a few weeks, but to a year or more with a student and their family. As a teacher, you'll get build daily the “real” world we want all students to have. What could be better?

Laura Dallas McSorley was a 2006 D.C. corps member with Teach For America. She currently serves as Managing Director of Teach For America’s Early Childhood Education Initiative. Don’t forget to apply to Teach For America by the final deadline — Friday, February 15th. APPLY NOW

Photo courtesy of Lutherhill Ministries, La Grange, Texas