What a Teacher Discovers in Her Summer Writing Camps

19
May
2016

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By Samantha Strauss

Last year was our first summer of writing camps at Project Write Now. I must say that at first I was skeptical. All of my classes at the studio had been an hour or an hour and a half long. How would I keep these young children entertained for three hours in one small room? I trepidatiously asked our fearless leader Jennifer, “Are you sure these camps should be three hours?” hoping she didn’t hear the terror in my voice. Jennifer is the eternal optimist, and she has supreme faith in me. “It’ll be great!” she said, not having to fake her confidence. All right, here goes nothing, I thought.

So I set off to plan these camps, much like I would plan a morning of school for my first grade students. I had the first-year teacher state of mind: just get through one day at a time. I thought about some fun icebreakers we could do, and then I’d introduce a style of writing and let the kids write. Afterward, the kids could have a little movement break, and I could teach them something else. Another break, and so on. Pretty soon I had planned about a million activities, breaks, books, and discussions.

When the kids came in and we started our work, I immediately felt at ease. I completely forgot what I was so worried about. The kids were incredible. This was their summer break, and they were beyond eager and enthusiastic about writing! Each morning I was greeted with someone sharing what they continued working on at home, someone talking about how much they loved what their peer wrote the day before, or someone’s smiling face awaiting what this new class would bring. It was a teacher’s dream. So I stopped worrying and started enjoying myself. And each day the students kept feeding my creativity with their own.

Week after week, camp after camp, this magical formula of sunshine, writing, games, books, incredible kids, and coffee kept me going. I felt an energy for teaching, sometimes even beyond what I had felt in my own classroom. Here at Project Write Now there are no rules, and I mean that in the best way possible. Not only are kids encouraged to be themselves, but teachers are too. I’m the kind of teacher who loves to learn new ideas, styles, and strategies and immediately implement them into my teaching. When I read a book that touches me, attend an inspiring workshop, or even have a conversation with an enthusiastic teacher, all of those experiences inform the classes that I teach. At Project Write Now, I get to create my own curriculum—one that is ever-evolving, and therefore ever-exciting.

While I tutored for many years (and still do), I discovered something unique that only summer camps could offer—a space for students to truly dig in and immerse themselves in a genre or a writing style for three hours a day, five days in a row. Within each camp, students had the opportunity to write five pieces of writing or more, with dozens of other story seeds, characters, and ideas for future pieces. Students not only wrote short stories and longer pieces, but they also got tons of ideas for how to generate writing on their own.

They also were able to collaborate on fun group writing projects. Students in my “Heroes and Villains” camp wrote and performed their own mock-trial of the Big Bad Wolf. Unprompted they came in on the last day of camp in full costume and then created opening statements, cross examinations, and hilarious fake testimonies. In “Ignite Your Voice,” students took a tasting tour of the sweet shops in Red Bank to decide which had the best desserts in town. On the final day, we brought their mini “Zagat” guide to the blue-ribbon shops, many of which were proud to display their reviews. Nothing about these camps ever felt ordinary!

Having a group of students together in one room and building a community around writing helped them see writing not only as a tool for self-expression but also as an activity worthy of their summer vacation. Watching this, I knew that I was truly making a difference for them.

As summer swiftly approaches, I feel that same nervousness creeping in. This time around it’s not about being able to fill the time. What gives me butterflies in my stomach is the immense desire I have to make each day in the classroom with me as enjoyable for the students as it is for me. I take this privilege of being a teacher very seriously, and I know that I have a lot to live up to. Each day of camp is an opportunity to turn someone into a lifelong writer. That task set before me is no small feat. But sure as I have these fears and stress bubble up inside me, I can already hear that optimistic voice, always my cheerleader, confidently telling me, “It’ll be great!”

Samantha Strauss is a writing instructor at Project Write Now and one of its co-founders. She also teaches at Point Road Elementary in Little Silver.