Two years ago, when my son started at a new school and was having a difficult time, I wrote Why Can’t School be More Like Camp?, and that quote was how my post started. I went on to share some of my ideas of how teachers can incorporate camp practices to create school communities where kids thrive both academically and emotionally and are excited and happy to be there.
Last week, I was honored to share some more of my ideas with a fantastic group of teachers from Learn4Life, a program that has a 66% success rate of getting high school drop outs to return to school and graduate. They were an energetic, fun group of teachers who are passionate about what they do and pour energy and love into creating a safe haven for their students, many of whom have extremely difficult circumstances in their home lives. What a joy it was to spend a morning with that amazing group!
In my talk, I shared four ways teachers and school administrators can make school more like camp. I’d love for more teachers to hear these ideas, so please feel free to share my letter with the teachers in your life or invite me to come talk at your school!
Dear Teachers & School Administrators,
Happy New School Year!
You may think that academic skills are the most important skills you are teaching your students, but the most important skills you will be teaching your students this year are life skills that will translate into a happier and more successful adulthood for them. When you teach your students to love learning, to overcome failure, to collaborate with, encourage, and support others, and to work hard towards a goal, you are teaching them life skills that will benefit them far beyond your classroom. Never underestimate the power you have to change lives, one at a time, interaction by interaction, this school year.
Kids love coming to camp because of the way they feel when they’re at camp. I think by making school feel more like camp, you can create a place where your students are happier and more receptive to learning. I’ll use the acronym CAMP to share four ways you can make school more like camp for your students this year.
C is for Create Connections
All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.
David L. Kirp, N.Y. Times, Teaching is Not a Business
Tina Payne Bryson, author of The Whole Brain Child, says, “Connected relationships and connection to the content [understanding it’s relevance to their lives] lead to better connections in the brain. Relationships and relevance are essential to learning. When we feel connected and engaged, our nervous systems are soothed and we are primed to learn. This is every bit as true for discipline as it is for academic learning. This is why I always talk about attachment with educators. I will share with them that the most important thing that happens in the classroom is their relationships with their students.”
At camp, we talk about how we need to have a relationship based on positive interactions with a camper before we can correct undesirable behavior. We call this “Connection before Correction.” At school, the saying can be “Connection before Learning!”
Connection Idea #1: Team Building Games
An excellent way to create connections with and among your students is to do team building games regularly, and especially at the start of the school year. One camp-counselor-turned-teacher told me that she does team building games at the beginning of every class for the first two weeks of school. She teaches 8th grade science and finds that her students are much more willing to work together and interact once they feel more comfortable with one another, so the games are an extremely important part of her teaching. Don’t know any team building games? Don’t worry! There are some really easy ones you can do in just 5-10 minutes with very few props. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Snow ball Fight: Either create a hand out with specific questions or ask students to write a question on a piece of white paper. Then, have the students crumple up their papers into a “snowball” and throw them at each other for a minute or two. When time’s up, have them pick up the snowball closest to them and answer the question either in a small group or with the whole class.
M & M/ Skittles Game: Give each color a topic. For example, red can be family, brown can be hobbies, green can be favorite foods. Have each student grab a small handful of M & Ms or Skittles and share something about themselves for each color they picked. So, for example, if the topic for a red M & M is “family,” and a student picks two red M & Ms, they share two things about their family when it’s their turn. Due to nut allergies (M & Ms are made in a facility that processes nuts), we now use Skittles for our game at camp. They work just as well!
Name Games (use a bean bag or ball): Have kids stand in a circle and say their name and then the name of the person they’re throwing the bean bag or ball to. Tell students they have to get the ball to everyone in the circle and it can’t go to the same person twice, so they can ask someone’s name if they want to throw it to them. Then, have them repeat the game, in the same order and saying names again. Variations can be trying to do the sequence backwards, faster, or with some kind of accent. You can also have them put an adjective with their name, like Joking Jack, but that could be sketchy if you have teenagers, so be wary.
Create Something Together: Any time a group creates something together, it builds their bond. So have your class or school create a cheer, a poster, a theme, a skit, a song! Working together creates a team and is a lot of fun, too.
Connection Idea #2: One-on-One Chats
Can you figure out a way to have brief individual meeting at the beginning of the year with each student to find out more about them? Taking an interest in each of your students by listening to them talk about themselves will go a long way in forming a trusting relationship with your students. Even if it’s just for five minutes, looking into your student’s eyes and really listening to them can be powerful. Use simple get-to-know-you questions like:
What’s your favorite subject/class at school?
Tell me about your family.
What are your hobbies? How do you spend your free time?
Have you thought about what you want to do for a career? What are you interested in?
If your classes are large, you could have several small group meetings (8-10 students), sitting in a circle, where you are focus on the student who is talking.
Connection Idea #3: WOWs
What are WOWs, you might ask? When someone does something that makes you say, “WOW!” (in a good way), that’s a WOW moment.
What about having time for some WOWs each day in your class? This can be a time where students can recognize their peers who’ve helped them, been a good example, accomplished something, etc. You could have a WOW board where kids post encouraging notes and compliments to one another. Or, you could have a WOW box where students can put encouraging notes in and you read them aloud at a certain time each day and then give the students the notes to keep. Another idea is having a WOW notebook that gets passed from student to student. Those encouraging words could be the best thing your students have ever heard and something they will hold on to forever. Plus, knowing that some WOWs may be coming their way will make your students look forward to your class.
Before you jump into teaching, take five minutes to connect with your students and promote connections and encouragement between students. Because by making your students feel comfortable and connected, you are preparing them to be receptive to learning!
Connection Idea #4: “Campfires”
Okay, I know you can’t light a campfire in your classroom, but you can certainly sit in a circle and have a discussion, right? When I read this post on edutopia about using “Dialogue Circles” at school, I posted it on my Facebook page with this comment, “I’ve always said that schools should be more like summer camp. Every evening at camp, we gather around our campfires, in a circle, to build friendships and collaborate. It’s great that this school has figured out how to have “campfires” in the classroom!” Even if it’s just for a few minutes, let your students sit in a circle, facing one another, and talking. You can divide a large class up into smaller groups for discussions. I think, if you make this a regular practice, it will be something all of your students look forward to each day.
What’s special and unique about each of your students? How do they contribute to your class? Do they have a sense of humor that lightens the mood and helps people laugh? Are they aware of others and helpful? Do they encourage classmates? Are they a good team leader when doing projects? Are they are a hard worker who sets a good example for others?
Know your students’ names, but also know what’s special and unique about each of them. Many of your students don’t feel valued and by you helping them know their social value in your class, you can enormously boost their self worth. You may be the first person who has taken the time to find that unique, special quality and acknowledge it– and that can be life-changing!
I also think, rather than be focused on test scores, it’s ideal to have students be part of their assessment process. What about asking your students to assess themselves at the start of the year? Let them tell you areas where they think they’re an “expert,” areas they don’t understand yet and are “novice” in, and areas where their skills are in-between (“apprentice” and “practitioner”). And then have them set a few academic goals for the year, which they share with you and/or other students.
M is for Make it Fun
What can you do to make it more fun to learn the topic you are teaching? Students do not need to be quietly sitting still, listening to you lecture from a power point, to learn. In fact, many of them won’t retain that information at all. But what if you teach them a song or chant or dance to remember something? Don’t you remember things you learned in a song?
Here are some ideas of how to make a lesson fun for your students:
• Use Songs! Have kids write a song or rap to remember something or use songs that are already written. My college-age daughter still remembers the Preamble to the Constitution from the rap she learned in 8th grade. And the Animaniacs have some great tunes to learn things like the states and capitals and the presidents. You never forget something you learn in a song!
• Use GAMES: You can use games to learn and review almost anything. The snow ball fight can be used with review question before a test. Have your techno-savvy students create a Jeopardy Game for the class to review topics of history you’re learning.
• Have students CREATE something that demonstrates they understand a topic and have them present it to the class to further everyone’s learning. You can use art (drawing, sculptures, posters), technology (power points, videos, photos), skits, songs, raps, etc. The students will have fun working together to create something tangible AND they’ll really remember what they’ve learned.
• Use COSTUMES & PROPS to make things more fun! Find some funny things at a thrift store like hats or out-of-style clothes. Kids will love any lesson you teach “in costume!” Make school memorable and fun for your students by getting goofy sometimes.
• Have a DANCE PARTY after students have completed a project or test. Even a 5 minute dance party will relieve some of your students’ stress and worry and create a fun feeling in your classroom.
P is for Positive Emphasis:
What a downer to enter a classroom on the first day of school and be greeted by a long list of “Nos” and “Don’ts.” Please figure out what you DO want your students to do this year, and review with them all that they CAN do in your classroom. Focus on the Dos with your students and Catch them Doing the Right Thing, rather than just pointing out their mistakes.
How about something like this posted on your wall…
This year, in Mr. A’s 5th Grade Class, we will….
Treat each other with kindness and respect.
Support & encourage each other.
Celebrate mistakes, because that means we’re learning.
Clean up after ourselves.
Write down our assignments in our planners every day.
I’ve been frustrated by topics that are presented to children in the negative, like “Anti-Bullying” and “Don’t do Drugs.” I think it’s far more effective to talk about what we DO want, and I wrote about this in my posts Focus on the Dos and Focusing on Kindness.
Sometimes, we spend too much time focusing on what our students aren’t doing correctly and how many items they missed on a test. We focus on what they’ve gotten wrong. Yes, they need to know what is incorrect, but rather than, “Don’t crumple your work in the bottom of your backpack,” tell them what you DO want. “Please three-hole punch your work and place it in your binder behind the appropriate tab.” If you want students to work quietly for a few minutes, instead of “NO talking,” you could say, “So that you can each have time to think through how to solve this problem, work quietly for 3 minutes. Then, we’ll get in pairs to collaborate with each other.”
Take a few minutes before the school year starts to think about what you’ve nagged your students about before and turn those things into positive, “DO” statements that you can post on your wall and tell your students.
So, there you have it. My four ways I think you can create a culture in your classroom or at your school that helps kids feel more like they do when they’re at camp. I know what you have to do is harder than what we do at camp. After all, most kids are pumped to learn wake boarding, go rock climbing, or make a s’more around a campfire. But, I’ve seen teachers and administrators out there whose students can’t wait to come through their door each day because they love being at school and with that teacher. Create that in your school or classroom this year by making school more like camp.
Thank you for pouring your talents and love into the lives of your students this year. You are world changers.
Parent to five kids who will be walking through your door this year
Camp Director to 1200 campers who love camp and want to feel the same way about school
Share your ideas with me by sending me an email with an idea or link!