I Wanna Go to Summer Camp!!!

Summer 2006 - I was a lifeguard at Camp Stonybrook Girl Scout Camp in central Ohio. Here, I was dressed as Willy Wonka for an all-camp game of some sort
Summer 2006 – I was a lifeguard at Camp Stonybrook Girl Scout Camp in central Ohio. Here, I was dressed as Willy Wonka for an all-camp game of some sort.

Summer camp – so many possibilities, so many activities to choose from, so many games to play, so many arts and crafts to do, and so many, many things to learn!

Best of all? No grades!

Upon reading this week’s “ungraded classroom” piece, my mind immediately wandered back to the years I spent as both a camper and counselor at Camp Stonybrook in central Ohio. I learned a lot of neat skills – everything from tie-dyeing T-shirts (not so useful, although I still do it on occasion even at 31 years old) to tree identification (more useful than tie-dye) to making minor repairs to my bicycle (totally useful for getting around Blacksburg). More than that, I learned intangible skills like cooperation, assertiveness and confidence.

Best of all, I learned those skills more completely because I was able to do so without fear of failure. Without a grade, I learned it was okay to take bigger risks and that someone besides myself (usually a counselor) knew what was going on, so I had someone I could go to for guidance when I needed it. I fully immersed myself in the learning because it did not feel like learning, it felt like fun!

Moving into the classroom setting, I think learning could be done in much the same way. If an 8-year-old can become fully immersed in a subject, then why not an 18-year-old? I believe learning should be fun and that I should play the part of a counselor rather than an instructor. I want my students to play with ideas, challenge them (and me, and their peers) and make those ideas their own.

This also leads into the imagination piece we read. If students are ungraded, they have more room to imagine new possibilities without fear of being wrong. The part in the imagination piece about doing the least amount of work for the ‘A’ resonated with me. I have been there. I have had semesters where I am busy, and all I want is to do what I have to do to get the ‘A.’ Usually in those classes I never feel like I’ve earned the ‘A’ or even learned very much, but I did the required work so I got the ‘A.’

Summer camp is where I learned.

So the real question is: how can I make my classroom more like summer camp?

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9 thoughts on “I Wanna Go to Summer Camp!!!

  1. Your sharing reminds me of the precious and practical skills I gained from summer camps, too. They did not turn out to have a direct or quick results, like I can apply what I learned from the lecture or textbook into the exam and get a good grades, but they are benefiting my whole life. I also think of the impressed scenario at the departmental orientation on my first day of graduate school. Our department head asked us who would like to join a game with him. It was unexpected silent among us, which was quite disappointed. Then he asked us one question that I will never forget, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? If it was in kindergarden, the kids would move, shout, and laugh to join the game with teachers. But look at us, we were numb. We are even not interested in games, which supposed to be most attracted activity in the world nor we are not curious what kind of game the professor invited us to play. We are afraid to be embarrassed and to lose as adults. Do the children who lost the game cry? No, not always, or most of them do not. They just simply enjoy the game, enjoy the time with friends, enjoy the interaction with peers. The pressure from others, the grading system, the risk of failure, constrain our bravery to try new thing, limit our imagination and intimidate
    us from innovation. Let reflect on what we learned in kindergarten, get rid of the restrictions, and enjoy ourselves.

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    1. Hi, KT, thanks for bringing up this no grade issue. I enjoyed reading your experience in Summer Camp, which makes me really excited because it reminds me of similar experience as well. I also intended to write something about grade initially, but after some reflection, I figured maybe we still need the grading system. Here is my reasoning, feel free to comment if you have any idea.

      It all depends on the role universities play in the society. Michael Spence, the 2001 Nobel winner in Economics, has a famous signal theory on education. It says the purpose of education is to find a good job. But employers lack the adequate knowledge about the candidates’ ability, therefore education credential or grade serves as a signal to employers about the candidates’ ability. If that’s the case, then I think grades still have its reason to exist.

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      1. Upon further reflection and reading the Lombardi piece a second time, I feel there is a need for assessment, but not necessarily for grading as it is currently done. Just because employers are used to the idea of letter grades as benchmarks for competency does not mean we cannot change that mindset. It will take imagination, as Liu and Noppe-Brandon point out, but it can be done.
        Assessment is not a bad thing (can I build a fire and survive a cold night in the wilderness or not? to use a summer camp example again), but I believe that lower stakes, more holistic learning assessments can benefit everybody.

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    2. I have been in similar situations like the one you mention. It’s really sad that this happens, I again blame in part to the higher education system and its “mass production.”

      Let me share an example that always frustrates me. One time in one of my classes we decided (in part based on Daniel Pink motivational ideas) to create a project called “Your passion.” So, the project was about letting students do research and a presentation about something that they are really passionate about, with the concept that we could all learn from that. The project had also a percentage on the final grade (about 10%). Our surprise the first time (and this was repeated over several semesters) was that students were doing projects that satisfied some of the topics of the syllabus. Instead of talking about something that they really loved like photography or a sport, they ended up doing something that related to basic engineering. It made me feel like they were just trying to satisfy the professor rather than talking about the things they were passionate about.

      That’s another reason to change the system, right?

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  2. What a great post! I really think that classrooms should be more like camp (who doesn’t need a well-working bike or a good-looking dyed tshirt?). More importantly I think the skills that you mention (cooperation, assertiveness and confidence) are the skills we should be more worried to promote in the classroom, despite the discipline. I truly believe that College is about gaining professional skills and building the theoretical basis that will help you navigate the professional world. I as a teacher am more worried about the skills. For once, in this technology-driven world I have seen people learn to do really complex theoretical things just by watching a youtube video, however, how can you learn the skills you need to effectively work with others or to assume leadership roles by watching a video? I think those are the things you must learn in the classroom with your peers and mentors (or as some call them “instructors”).

    Thanks for sharing!

    Homero

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  3. Really like how you brought up summer camp. This reminds me of going to “Outdoor School” in the 8th grade. Basically we went to a small camp about 50 miles from our school. For three days we hung out in cabins and looked at plants and animals. There were no tests or grades, but just learning through doing. What if we were able to incorporate more experiences like this…even in college…oh goodness…what a thought…

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  4. Very good post. I like how you brought summer camp into the discussion. I’ve had similar experiences as you in regard to some classes in which I just went over the material to get the “required” A and I feel I didn’t learn. I just read the required text, never explored beyond that. What if there were no grades and I felt compelled to dig deeper into the material. It will be the teachers responsibility to be the motivator instead of the grader. But how about the students that only look at the material because they have to study for a test? Could this mentality seize to exist without exams and grades? Maybe, maybe not… maybe students will select classes that call their attention. This is what should be happening, but sometimes curriculum’s are a straitjacket.

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    1. “Maybe students will select classes that call their attention. This is what should be happening, but sometimes curriculum’s are a straitjacket.”

      I so feel this, this is why I was grateful that my department was very hands off when it came to syllabus design and grading. I use grades because I have to, but I use them very loosely. Did students understand the basic concepts? Can I tell they read the material?

      My midterm and final involves them identifying passages, recalling who wrote the article and giving a general explanation about what it said. If I had thought about it, I would have rethought this method. I believe (believed?) that students would only do work if they were going to be tested on it, my students are surprising me. There seems to be some intrinsic motivation and I’m learning to trust my students more and more as the weeks go on.

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