-by Krista Taylor
Every year, in the middle of September, I fall a little bit in love with each of my students, while simultaneously experiencing some of the greatest stress and fatigue of the entire school year. Our annual fall camping trip is intense – and it yields profound results.
Let me be honest. I really don’t like camping . . . at all. And yet I have camped with my students each September for the past six years. It certainly isn’t “glamping.” It is rustic. And dirty. And stressful. And exhausting.
However, I am certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this annual experience is critical to my students . . . and to me.
At Gamble, every fall, our 7th and 8th grade communities spend 4 days and 3 nights (rain or shine) tent camping, without the benefit of electricity or other creature comforts. We cook all our meals, do all our dishes, and manage all our needs together at the campsite – not a small feat for 55-65 individuals.
The best way I have to explain the power of this Erdkinder experience is simply to share with you glimpses – in stories and photographs — of this trip. These glimpses provide insight about my students that I never would have gained inside the classroom. The stories below are from different trips with different students – in fact the photos are intentionally of different students than those discussed in the stories, because year after year, this trip seems to draw the same positive qualities out of each group of students. The powerful moments in each trip seem to be universal experiences.
Almost all of these stories feature students who often struggle with expectations at school, and that is what defines the power of this trip — the opportunity to see students in a different light, one that allows them to shine.
So imagine, if you will . . .
One evening, I was helping a student with significant disabilities on his work packet. I looked up to find William, a rather challenging student, standing beside me.
“Do you want me to work with him, Ms. Taylor?”
“Do you know the difference between biotic and abiotic factors?”
“Yeah. Biotic means living, and abiotic means non-living. I got this, Ms. Taylor!”
The two of them spent the next half hour working quietly side-by-side, on a picnic bench at the edge of the woods.
When students were able to choose their own partner for the final leg of the canoe trip, Malik, a popular, 8th grade student chose to wait to pick a partner in order to see who wasn’t getting chosen. Ultimately, he selected an unpopular 7th grade girl, admitting to a teacher later that he did this because, “No one was picking her, and I didn’t want her to feel left out.”
My tent was next to the tent of a group of girls who were nature-phobic. Over and over again, I was summoned with screeches of, “Ms. Taylor! There’s a spider on our tent!” “Ms. Taylor, Come get this caterpillar!!” “OMG there’s a bug!” The final morning of camp, things had shifted.
Same girls. Same screech, “Ms. Taylor!!”
Then it became different.
“Come see!! We caught a toad!”
On the way to the bathhouse one morning, a boy with Down Syndrome silently reached up to hold the hand of another male student. Despite a jeering look from a peer, this 6’2″ 8th grader didn’t say a word, and the two walked all the way down the path holding hands.
The initiation ceremony is the culminating celebration of the trip, and it is entirely planned by returning students to welcome the new students. Each year, the speeches the students write serve to remind me of the importance of “what we do here.”
It is the ownership of creating a place where everyone belongs that makes the stress, the exhaustion, and even the dirt, of this non-glamping experience, all worth it.
All real-world experiences provide powerful learning, but there is something about Fall Camp that is unique. In the confluence of the hard work, the time spent outdoors, and the opportunity to intensely build community, lies the magic upon which the rest of the year is built.