For the past two years, I have been spending my summers helping out at a couple different camps and it has made me wonder why summer camp experiences are so much different than our yearly classrooms in terms of how content is delivered as well as the impact it has. The two are clearly very different contexts, but why is it that being at a summer camp ensures that a participant walks away with a life-changing experience while being in a classroom at least once a week for 9 months leaves nothing but bitterness and boredom?*

The two camps I have participated in are created by the institutions of the Ismaili Muslim community and are for the youth within the community specifically. One is a camp based on the curriculum I teach with throughout the year, which not all American students have access to as teachers are lacking and cannot reach every city in which Ismailis reside. It is a two week residential camp experience providing participants with at least 50 hours of content from the curriculum.

The other camp is different in that it brings together Ismaili youth from around the world to participate in an international camp experience focusing on service, leadership and community. Participants at this camp receive content based on the above-mentioned topics as well as the chance to participate in service projects in the country and community far away from their own.

These camps are very different in purpose but both provide experiences that participants will likely never forget in their lifetimes. Comparatively, they will easily forget experiences they’ve had in my classroom within a week or two. That’s not to say that I am a bad educator; I’m not perfect, but I do my job fairly well. So what is it about camps that provides something so different? Below are some of the things I’ve learned in my short camp experience:

  1. Camps (usually) provide an intensive, residential experience where participants are consistently immersed in content and surroundings focusing on the topic of the camp
  2. Classroom attendance at camp is always regular and always 100% perfect, so no one misses anything and there is no backtracking needed
  3. Participants easily build relationships with one another and with faculty (since everyone is always together) and classroom community is effortlessly and naturally built
  4. Camps tend to ensure that content is delivered in an exciting and engaging manner at all times (no do-overs at a camp, after all)
  5. For the most part, the youth have an invested interest in being at the camp and this drives their engagement and participation

This is not an exhaustive list and may not apply to all camp experiences, but there’s something here that regular classrooms may be able to capitalize upon. We may not be able to control attendance (with once a week classes, I definitely don’t have much control) and we may not be able to ensure constant engagement with one another in order to build a community, but I do think there are things we can do.

For one, we can try to build an ownership of learning in our students from the very beginning so that they have an interest to come of their own accord every day or every week. If they are interested and invested in the classroom space, they will want to learn and will likely learn more than if they don’t care much. Secondly, and this is always a challenge, is to try to deliver content in a way that is engaging to as many students as possible as much of the time as possible. This includes creative activities, repetition, various pedagogies, student choice, etc. There are many, many factors that go into classroom engagement and each classroom will be different, but these are things we should strive for at all times.

Just think, how would our practice change if we treated every class as if it was a content session at a summer camp?

*This is not to say that every camp experience or every classroom fits into these descriptions, but doesn’t it often seem that way?

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