Third term is almost over. It’s been a crazy term with school camps, debating competitions, hosting the Open Book Festival at our school, disciplinary hearings (I wasn’t involved), interpersonal challenges with staff members, failed tests and assignments, performances of Macbeth with bursting flames in the school hall and endless shouting monologues addressed to teenagers (who don’t listen to crazy teachers anyway) and good doses of laughter some of the time.
Third term is a trying term. It’s the most exhausting for everyone, teachers and pupils alike. It’s my least favourite term. The kids struggle with understanding why they should care about learning when there are no exams. The momentum and interest in work lags and teaching is like sucking blood out of a stone. And not to mention all the marking that still needs to happen.
In the efforts of infusing some excitement in the kids, school camps have been the remedy. The Grade 10s had a leadership camp and the Grade 9 girls had a three day camp as well. Earlier in the year the Grade 9 boys were whisked away for a weekend of adventure to address some of the teenage strife amongst them. Fortunately I did not attend this camp and those who did wish they hadn’t been there. A story for another day.
When I realised that I had signed up for a three day camp with 60 girls I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to my school days and the school camps we had. In primary school we have “outdoor education” for each grade every single year. Trips to the beach, the forest and small historical towns were central to my primary school education. I didn’t know it then, but now I’ve come to realise that school camps are an essential part of middle class education (the financial expenses involved, the idea that “going away” could remedy conflict, the idea that a planned and structured programme of events will ensure different sets of behaviour and thus learning will take place). Camps also make me think of the American dream and the famous summer camp that teenagers attend every year. Camps become a symbol of coming of age ceremonies. Military boot camps about turning men into soldiers and of course, even in our own African setting when boys leave home to return as men after a few weeks out in the bush.
In spite of the good intentions, my adult self wonders who decided that the one way of getting kids to interact in high school is to take them out of their natural habitat (the school or away from home)and place them in dorm rooms, use sleeping bags and make them play games for most of the weekend? Don’t get me wrong, as a teacher, I have enjoyed each camp I’ve been to thus far (there was a Grade 8 camp earlier this year), but I’ve also been wondering if there aren’t other ways of extending children’s learning without the forced environment of a camp? What if we didn’t have the resources we have at my school? Would we simply accept the challenges we have and go without a camp or would we think of other forms of dialogue to get the kids to think about themselves and their friendships?
The Grade 9 camps had an overarching agenda which the kids referred to as “forced integration”. There’s been a great deal of conflict amongst the Grade 9s mostly related to race and class tensions. So in whisking them away to a secluded area where they have three days of sleeping in the same rooms with communal showers and a communal bathroom, we, their teachers, hoped that a camp would unite them. This has had different implications for the boys and girls. Some of the conflicts still remain after the camp, but some friendships have developed. At the girls camp, the girls had a motto that turned into a jingle which they sang in front of the whole school after reporting to the school about the great camp they had.
The gendered nature of the camp was also very interesting. The girls didn’t go on an arduous hike. The boys did. The girls left the camp venue clean at the end of the camp. The boys destroyed some of the tents they slept in and ended up sleeping outside (or getting no sleep at all). The girls were treated to hot chocolate and feel-good conversations from their teachers, a nurse and a life coach. Every morning we had a morning devotion where we spoke about beauty the one morning and the last morning of the camp the girls got involved in a letter writing activity: writing a letter to their future selves.
I’m still recovering from the camp that happened almost two weeks ago. I developed a flu which I’m still battling with. And I get to observe the Grade 9s I teach everyday wondering if the camp was worth it. There’s no doubt I had moments of fun laughing at some of the kids during their activities. There’s no doubt I learned some things about the kids I teach that my English lessons would never unravel (that shy girls are also the best dancers and forget that the teacher is watching when the jump on a table and dance like Beyonce). But something’s got to give. Perhaps I’m over-thinking a tradition that seems to be established in my three year old school. That camps bring people together whether I like it or not.