I attended 5th grade camp with my son, Stevie, this week. Camp Miniwanca is a beautiful property between the vastness of Lake Michigan and a much smaller inland Stony Lake. The program is based upon the "experiential learning cycle". Small groups of campers work through a series of challenges. The counselors and chaperones allow the children to struggle, disagree and fail. Of course, success is congratulated and enjoyed. Children choose their own goals for individual challenges, so they have an opportunity to strive for their "best self" and meeting or exceeding whatever goal they have made is celebrated. Children were given many team and individual responsibilities. Every part of the day at camp had a purpose. Stevie is the youngest of my children. I have chaperoned several camps before and I attended a few as a child myself and one as an adult participant. This one was by far the best run camp I have attended. Many camps give lip service to experiential learning, but the thing that I observed at Camp Miniwanca that impressed me was there attentiveness to the entire process of the experiential learning cycle.
The camp was not just about the experience. Learning life lessons was not left to chance. Upon completion of a challenge, the groups made observations and engaged in a group discussion about their reflections. Who made the decisions? Was there a disagreement? Why? What did the group do to resolve it? How did you come up with a plan to meet the challenge? Why did the plan work or not work? What (if anything) would you do differently next time? After several challenges, it may have become evident that the same mistakes were made when approaching each and every challenge. That can lead to some great discussions. The camp leaders do a great job of leading the campers to conceptualization of the life lessons that are the end goal rather than just telling the campers what the goals are.
At dinner, as the hungry table of fifth graders argued over the last piece of dessert, I began to attempt a solution. I was gently reminded by the counselor that shared our table that we were supposed to let the children solve their own dilemma. Of course, when I stepped back, they did. They decided to share. Each child promptly used their fork from dinner to take a single scoop of the yummy dessert. I was offered one myself, but after watching them all scoop with their "used" forks was unappetizing to me. I was happy that they decided to share. (We will have to address the other issue another day!)
I found this camp experience to be meaningul to me personally as I watched so many students grasp the lessons and even understand why the specific challenges and responsibilities were used to encourage their understanding. This is something I strive to mimic in my chemistry classroom. It can be a difficult task. Providing hands on activities is not enough. We need to provide time to share our observations, reflect and discuss in order to bring together conceptual understanding. We need to provide opportunities for students to address a similar problem with the new knowledge that has been built. I know this, yet I need reminding. It is easier to TELL as opposed to COACH. Students sometimes wear me down or we are crunched for time and it seems easiest to skimp on the discussion. I am glad for the reminder of the importance of making time for the reflection piece.