Sunshine. Card games. Those plastic lanyards. Paint. All very camp-like things. But what about math? Reading? Wetlands? Invasive species? The water cycle?
It’s not your average summer camp fare. But the kids in our community needed something to tide their brains over during the summer… hence the summer enrichment program, started by area grandparents. The program provides all the fun of summer camp, with a little learning sprinkled in.
Before camp started, we weren’t sure what our role would be. It didn’t take long to realize that we aren’t just helping the teachers… we are the teachers. And with that responsibility comes a whole lot of planning. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to pull off an engaging and educational lesson without any preparation. If you want to give a lesson about a certain topic, you first need to gather the relevant information, understand it and distill it down to its most important concepts, the ones you want to share. Then you must find a way to communicate those concepts effectively, without sacrificing the fun.
Our best lessons so far have been hands-on and have united a couple different activities under the umbrella of one main topic. For example, we taught the kids about fish anatomy and then demonstrated gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish printing (the kids loved making their own prints). Integrating the core information into a game or craft project gives the kids something to remember. And having the students complete a worksheet or write in their journals afterwards 1) helps them process the lesson and 2) helps us see what they got out of it. Most importantly, you’ve gotta sell what you’re teaching. Reading dully off a page of notes just does not fly. You need to get them interested and excite them with your confidence. It’s not easy, and we’re still working on it.
Each age group has its own challenges and rewards. Younger kids have notoriously short attention spans, but it doesn’t take much to get them excited (e.g., glitter). Middle schoolers are fun because you can get into more complex subjects and activities. However, there’s the added challenge of passing the “cool test.” If the activity involves singing a cute song to the tune of Yankee Doodle, those kids are just going to sit there and stare at you. While laughing.
Eric and I are working with the middle school group. Because of the challenges I mentioned above, just finding an activity to do can be difficult. It has to pass the cool test, the fun test, the hands-on test, the relevant information test and the age-level appropriateness test. Planning – even for a short activity – can take a long time. And the scariest part? That you can be prepared to the utmost, and your lesson can still flop.
Sometimes you don’t sell it right. Sometimes they’re not in the mood. And the lesson feels perfunctory, like you’re just going through the motions without them or you deriving any benefit. It wears you down. But the good news is that we’re getting it. We’re winning the kids’ trust and respect by interacting with them every day. And we’re gradually gaining the confidence to make these lessons what they should be – awesome.