I am a huge fan of Responsive Classroom. When I took the training between my first and second year of teaching, my instructor asked, “What’s a time when you felt significance, belonging, and fun?” I immediately knew my answer: working at Summer Camp. The question was meant to prompt us to think of our classroom as a place where we want students to feel like they belong, to feel significant, and to have fun. I think that’s an awesome goal to have for any classroom.
I was a summer camp counselor for 4 summers before I started working as a teacher. It was an exhausting job, more exhausting than teaching in many ways, and I know that’s saying something. When I was a counselor, I did not get a physical break from kids ever. I am not a parent, but I imagine it was a lot like being half parent/half teacher to about 16 kids 24 hours a day. But it was exhilarating, rewarding, joyous, and FUN. The relationships I formed with other counselors have been some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had, and I bonded with kids in mere DAYS in ways that still blow my mind as a teacher struggling to constantly make connections and foster relationships. I think the secret was the fun. Here are a few secrets to that fun that I learned from Summer Camp.
We played a lot of games. We sang ridiculous songs, played silly games, and did a million name games and get to know you activities. I used to loathe ice breakers, but I realized, I was just playing the wrong ones. Click to read more about academic review games or mind games for morning meeting.
We as coworkers saw each other at our best and our worst. We saw each other covered in mud (literally) and we saw each other when we arrived on Sunday in fresh clothes with hair done still looking good from church. We saw each other cry. We saw each other laugh. We saw people overcome fears on the ropes course/challenge course. We saw each other miss homes and parents. We empathized with one another.
I have never been the girl who dressed up for Spirit Days, so I rebelled against themed days at first. Thursday was green shirt day. Friday was fancy. Sunday we wore the current staff t-shirt. Tuesday was twin day. There wasn’t an expectation that you follow most of these, so it was easy to rebel against it at first. Once I gave in, I realized it’s fun to feel a part of something. It makes you feel like you belong. It gave me a new appreciation for pajama days and SCA Spirit Days at school. I will never be that decked out in decorations teacher, but I will embrace making a Christmas Tree Skirt.
We had a sense of adventure and wonder. The older campers have more variety of activities and extra privileges, but each week was always an adventure. There were always things that were new to the kids. Some have never slept away from home. Or they had never seen a crayfish! Or they hadn’t heard cicadas outdoors! Or they’d never gone down a zip line! Or they’d never seen a shooting star! Taking joy in their wonder at new experiences was the best feeling. Even though the activities repeated for me each week, it was a new thing to someone else. I also learned how to highlight the best parts of the week so kids could constantly be hopeful for the next thing.
There was a sense of surprise and anticipation. I worked with one counselor in particular who would never let kids know the schedule for the week. I happened to know that this caused some kids undue anxiety, so when I worked with her, I always prepped what they would need throughout the day. Still, I understood her reasoning: for the lover of adventure and spontaneity, knowing that all you’ll get in response to “What are we doing?” is “You’ll see” is a little thrilling! On my own terms, I tended to reveal the activities in the cabin “morning meeting” style. The structure of the day had many predictable things, too: Meals, Worship, Devotion, and trips to the Camp Store all took place at the same time everyday. Activities had the same start and end time no matter what; it was just the type of activity that changed. The element of surprise allowed for the joy of anticipation of what was coming and the unknown. Special evening events were a particular source of joyful anticipation. I loved getting kids excited about activities that would happen throughout the week. It combatted homesickness, and it also made each day feel special and exciting.
So how does this work in the classroom?
You probably aren’t conjuring shooting stars and setting up zip lines. As I sat in that Responsive Classroom training, I knew I wanted to make my classroom a place for belonging, significance, and fun. I knew that the atmosphere I felt at Camp was something I had to make come alive in my room, so here’s what I thought about.
I love playing games with students. They get us laughing and being silly with one another. They open everyone up and actually break the ice. I’ve used many of these with success. They can be review games or they can be morning meeting games. There are so many ideas out there.
Sharing and reflection between students fosters empathy. Overcoming obstacles feels significant; It feels like you’re really making progress. Living at the edge of your comfort zone or living in an atmosphere of growth helps build empathy for the struggle that others feel as they are pushing their boundaries. By doing a variety of activities and highlighting multiple intelligences, it is easier for students to see that those obstacles are different for everyone. Part of why I appreciate Positivity Project is their core value of appreciating the strengths in others.
I have thought about things I can do that make my class feel special. I enjoy doing secret valentine buddies or kindness buddies. Read Alouds can foster a community and create shared experiences. The mind games I talk about here create memories and allow for obstacles to be overcome together. A school community can foster this with spirit days and days to remember the history of the local community and/or the school itself. My school has an amazing history in that it was originally a school for “colored children.” We’ve had speakers come who were students at that school or students during integration. We have a whole day dedicated to the history, and I love that we honor those who worked hard to change those structures.
Everything is new once. I love showing kids new tech tools that will help them create videos, podcasts, websites, and infographics. For me, it’s often the first time they encounter a new tool that gives them so many possibilities. I can blow their mind when I show them how to indent using tab, copy and paste using ctrl + c and ctrl + v, split their screen to read and record a video at the same time, and voice type. My students learn how to use locks for lockers before they head off to middle school, and their wonder at how this possibly works is undeniable. Let wonder and curiosity fuel discussion in the classroom and allow for new ideas and experiences. A new game I introduce in math can thrill them. Offering watercolors or pulling out play doh surprises and delights them.
Do something totally different every once in awhile. Rearrange the desks in a circle or push them to the sides and do a game in the center. Make them curious about a task by doing something that seems unrelated! If you have a very predictable routine, that’s awesome for kids; it will be even easier to surprise them every once in awhile with a different structure.
It doesn’t take a lot of work to bring summer camp into the classroom. It just takes the willingness to have some fun. After all, what could be better than an environment where students feel like they belong, have fun, and feel significant?