Growing up I admired people who worked with kids. People like Mrs. Leaderer, my first grade teacher, whom I felt particularly noticed by, to my mom who would come home with stories about the difference that she was making in the lives of the kids she saw as a speech therapist in the Rochester City School District.
I remember feeling valued and noticed by a handful of teachers and educators. My art teachers validated my perceived skill in the visual arts. I was happy to be connected with an English teacher or social studies teacher along the way. For the majority of my 12 years in public school, though, I felt like a cog in a system, and often a misshapen abnormal one at that. I remember feelings of anxiety before an exam, or the paralyzing ridicule I often imagined from peers if I was to offer an answer or an option in class. My memories are filled with an overwhelming sense of blandness and drudgery.
My mom tells one story in particular of my experience in the 4th grade. I guess I came home from school one afternoon and answered the obligatory question of how the school day was with what I thought was the most interesting part. I said that when the teacher cleaned the overhead projector by spraying a water bottle on it. I loved watching the red and blue and green colors of the markers swirl and mix before the transparency was wiped clean.
This innocent and honest answer infuriated my mom. She was immediately on the phone with the principal of the school, demanding a parent-teacher conference, where she proceeded to make a real fuss about the caliber of teacher and instruction I was receiving if my favorite part of the day was watching the overhead projector get cleaned.
I think for the most part that I am what the education system would call a success.
I attended class, stayed in the boundaries of the curriculum, made honor roll and didn't ask too many probing questions about why any of it was necessary. I plowed through just like the majority of my peers around me. The thing I remember most about school is the overwhelming wish I could sometimes be invisible.
After landing a job as a summer camp counselor at Camp Stella Maris I had the fortune to meet others who were finding their own ways to positively impact kids’ lives. However, while working there I never took the job to be anything more than a summer gig. It just made sense that summer is for fun, and the school year is where the real learning and impact happens.
For college I went to art school (where I had the opportunity to play with lots of green and red and blue paint…). After graduating, Jack, my partner, and I decided that we would take a road trip. We wanted to see the country and we thought that we would ask other camps if we could stay with them during the off season to cut down on costs. At this point we were interested in finding out if other camps in the country had a similar magnetic pull as that of Stella Maris.
Our small road trip turned into 2 years on the road where we had a chance to visit over 100 camps. We met some of the most compassionate and passionate people who were carving out intentional communities of kids and staff members learning and living together. During this trip we were introduced to the idea of learning communities outside of the traditional or conventional education system.
Places like Sudbury Valley or Free Schools where students and staff were able to set their own intentions and goals for learning. Where everyone voice in the community mattered and kids were seen as whole, curious, and motivated people rather than empty vessels to fill. We visited the Agile Learning Centers where facilitators work with individual students to find systems and processes that help them to learn best and make the changes they want in their lives and in the world. All of these intentional learning communities from unschooling and liberated learning networks, to democratic dchools and community learning centers, inspired us the most. Whole mini societies of people treating each other the way the other wants to be treated and forgetting the grades, the forced participation, and the rules for adult convenience. These communities feel so authentic and whole.
More and more research is showing that human being are intrinsically motivated and curious when their three psychological needs are met. According to Richard Ryan and Edward Deci of the University of Rochester, those three psychological needs are autonomy, connection, and competence. They define autonomy as the ability to have control over one's decisions, connection as the feelings of belonging to a group or forming relationships with others, and competence as the feeling of mastery over a task or idea. Learning does not take place when these needs are not met.
How is the prevailing school system attempting to meet these needs? It seems like there is an intense focus on mastery and competence. The whole “standards movement” is about setting higher and higher standards and expectations. As Ken Robinson puts it, “Yes, why would we lower them…” However many thought leaders are wrestling with the current education crisis. Ken Robinson, Peter Grey, Alfie Kohn, John Holt, and more are concerned that while we are so obsessed with measuring up and not falling behind other school districts and other countries that we have lost sight of what it really means to master something. Memorizing rote facts only to spit them back out at a scan-tron is hardly mastering anything.
Plus we have completely forgotten the other 2 psychological skills. Where does genuine connection take place? Where is there choice and autonomy in a system hell bent on forced participation?
Over and over I talk with teachers, educators, parents who have the best intentions for kids. They work tirelessly to create individualized programs, and cater to the whole child. Teachers are undervalued and underappreciated. I am inspired by these people. I am also inspired by some incredible schools that have completely thrown out the conventional wisdom of education.
For so many parents these unconventional, alternative schools are out of reach, whether financially, geographically, or philosophically it is hard to imagine at this point in time revolutionizing the system overnight. I think it will take many brave people starting schools and learning environments as a grass root movement till there is a critical mass of people believing more is possible.
Why am I a summer camp director?
This coming summer Jack and I will embark on our second season of Stomping Ground, a independent, non-profit summer camp community outside of Binghamton New York of self-directed learners practicing radical empathy and reimagining a world where more is possible. We will have about 150 campers over the course of 3 weeks in July. Kids will come to camp and help create the world that we will live in together, the rules and guiding principles, the activities, and the culture. Together with about 25 staff members we will try and redefine what is possible in our own way.
When I think about how I want to make an impact on kids’ lives, I think that helping to narrate their decision making, modeling non-violence and peaceful communication, and constantly pushing myself to try and do more this is where I will start. I want to be a part of the movement of people seeing kids as whole curious individuals and treating them with dignity and respect.
Summer camp is an affordable, reachable, non-threatening step in the direction of self-directed learning for most parents. Camp is inherently a place where kids can come into their own without the pressures of mom and dad or the grades and regulations of school. Stomping Ground will work hard to partner with parents to meet the individual needs of young people, while at the same time supporting campers to make decision on their own, maybe for the first time in their lives. Why is this important? Because people, and especially kids “learn how to make effective decisions by making decisions and not by following directions.” This quote from Alfie Kohn I think illustrates one of the core principles of camp, as well as one of the gaping holes in the education system. This core of learning is decision making.
I want to make this type of learning possible for kids at camp. To be a part of unleashing their authentic curiosity, and their unparalleled creativity. I want to step back and let collaboration and cooperation happen and flourish. I want to be able to say “yes!” when kids want to skip the next activity period to finish their catapults in the Makerspace. I want to let kids self-organize and learn from others who are older and younger than them. I don't want to tell kids that they have fallen behind or that they are wrong because they learn a different way than me, or the kid with the best grades in the class.
I am a camp director not because it is easier to do the licensing paperwork, or because I like swimming and arts and crafts better than math and science. I am a camp director because I think that even just for a week I can provide a space for kids where genuine play leads to genuine learning. I think that the idea of starting an intentional community of self-directed individuals is possible, but not within the bounds of the traditional model of education. I think that summer camp is a non-threatening, relatively mainstream idea, and therefore more widely accessible to families of different backgrounds.
Someday, maybe, Stomping Ground will morph into a school, a year-round learning environment. Maybe, someday I will help facilitate this environment. But for now I have fully reversed my original thinking. I know that real learning and impact happens at summer camp.
Laura Kriegel is the director at Stomping Ground an overnight camp near Binghamton New York