“I can do some hard things!” - Life Lessons from Summer Camp

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This week’s blog post is a guest post by Pear Deck CEO and co-founder Riley Eynon-Lynch.

“I can do some hard things!”

The things we say about ourselves can either restrain and embarrass us, or they can help us realize new parts of our potential. A kid who insists “I hate math” has a ton of great reasons to say so, but he or she will be in a pretty different position than someone who says “I can do some hard things!” with the same confidence. In my life as a teacher, camp director, father, and now co-founder of Pear Deck, I have tried to help kids realize and believe and say to themselves, “I can do some hard things!”

At a summer camp, kids are relatively carefree and it’s easy for them to try some hard things. In school, it takes more skill and effort for teachers to get the difficulty level right for all of their students. Teachers have to avoid being too easy, and also avoid going too fast, and you have to do it for two dozen people at once.

I think assessing and reacting to student skill & comfort levels is the most important role of teachers. We started Pear Deck to help - to make sure teachers can engage each of their students every day.

 

Teaching at Summer Camp

I worked at Shiloh Quaker Camp for 12 years, and it was the most effective educational environment I have ever worked in. We had a strong lesson plan for showing kids they can do hard things, which I tried to use in my math class as well.

Show them something a bit scary

Campers arrive to find that they will be living in rustic cabins with no running water or electricity. Their beds are made of plywood and their phones don’t work. They begin to think this might have been a terrible idea and many are visibly nervous.
 

Reassure them that they won’t be alone and ease off of the challenge

But now their new counselor is smiling and teaming them up with a cheerful camper who’s experienced this before, and who knows how crazy it all seems but assures the newcomer they’ll make it, and it’s super fun! “Do you want to see where all the art supplies are?”

We play foursquare and drink lemonade and eat spaghetti for dinner, and sing songs and tell stories that night, and make every single other part of camp as comfortable as we possibly can. We make a point of introducing every camper, new or returning, to every single other person on the entire property. The campers are facing a big challenge, but we make everything else as comfortable as possible and help them through the hardest parts.
 

Build their skills until they are comfortable with the new baseline

After a few days even the new campers are comfortable. They’ve done it! We help the campers verbalize how incredible it is that they’ve been living in the woods for three days in what essentially amounts to a plywood box! And then...
 

Challenge again!

We send them into the woods for a 3-day hiking trip. They were already comfortable with the cabin, and have grudgingly admitted in their letters home that they may even be having fun most of the time, and now, with help from friends and counselors, we push them a bit farther! Before they know it they have managed to sleep for two nights ON THE GROUND!

We couldn’t have started here, but we’ve scaffolded this experience so we can push them to do things they would have abjectly refused at first.
 

Celebrate and Verbalize

Finally everyone arrives back at camp, and we set aside a couple of hours for the whole camp to share what lessons they learned. We emphasize gratitude and call it a “thank you circle,” so the stories we hear are couched in phrases like “Thank you to Lily for helping me get through the first night when I didn’t think I was going to make it” and “Thanks to Jerome for telling me jokes when my feet really hurt on the hike.”

The kids are reflecting on what was difficult for them and crediting each other for helping achieve hard things. Does this happen in school??
 

Let them be comfortable in their new baseline

After the thank you circle, the kids go back to their plywood beds, and I am telling you that I have walked down a dark wooded trail on many evenings and heard kids talk about how grateful they are to have a plywood slab to sleep on. Six days ago some of these kids didn’t think they would make it in these cabins, and we have transformed them to be RELIEVED to be back in them!
 

Give them ownership so they can make it part of their identity

And finally, after two weeks (and another cycle of this basic lesson plan), we gather the kids together a final time and acknowledge the growth and skills of each camper. We have been watching what adjectives the kids use about themselves for two weeks, and when they leave they are saying more positive and empowering things - and they really deserve to, because they have come so far!

As they load up into their cars, I hear them bragging to their parents about the number of miles they walked or the time they almost died. They are establishing to their family, who didn’t see their struggle, that they are now people who can do hard things.

 

It Doesn’t Work If It’s Too Hard or Too Easy

If camp was all kickball and lollipops, it would be just boring. You’d see kids bullying each other and disengaged counselors. If it was too hard, and someone actually came into serious danger, they wouldn’t learn anything either, and we might actually risk regressing to “I can’t do any hard things” and “I hate math.”

It only works in that zone of proximal development where we don’t think we can do it, but with some help, eventually realize that we can!

 

This is WAY HARDER in school than at camp!

I was a teacher and a camp director and I can say that at camp it’s pretty easy to do this well because we don’t have any obscure learning targets to hit. Growth and respect are the only requirements for success. All the kids eat the same meals and live in the same huts and do the same things and nobody can even get to a store to buy nicer equipment. So we have kids who can’t wait to come back to camp each year, and who say camp feels like their second true home.

At school it’s much harder to hit this sweet spot of proximal development. We’re supposed to hold everyone to the same standard, but people come to school at more drastically different levels. Some of our students read books in bed as a reward for cleaning up after dinner, and others come to school having not eaten dinner at all.

At camp I would hope that it rained on our campers because I knew they could handle it. At school, it’s much harder to understand whether students can handle any given challenge.
 

Assessing Students and Reacting Is The Main Job of Teaching

I think we as teachers should be analyzing where each student is, and where the zone of proximal development starts for our students. I think this should come before lesson planning and reporting grades and attendance (unless those things are really helping you analyze your students comfort zones and skill levels).

This is why we’re building Pear Deck! When you’re trying to keep 20-30 different people in a sustained challenge that’s not too scary and not too easy, here are some situations in which Pear Deck can help:
 

  • You have some students who are out of their comfort zone just speaking up in your class. These students may not be learning because your curriculum, on top of their discomfort, pushes them too far outside the zone where they can usefully learn. We are trying to make it easier for them to engage with you so you can challenge them in other ways.
     

  • You have some students who are so far in their comfort zone in school that they raise their hand every time you ask a question, and are sometimes so eager to participate that they aren’t challenging themselves to think harder. Sometimes it’s scarier to listen to a classmate with a different opinion than it is to speak your own opinion! We are trying to make it easier for these kids to hear their peers, and easier for teachers to take input from the whole class on a regular basis.
     

  • Kids have a lot going on, and to be honest I don’t think computers are helping. A lot of tech companies are fighting for our students’ attention on their devices, and before we push this tech on our kids we need to understand what we’re getting in return. At Pear Deck we don’t want their attention on their screens - we want to help YOU get their attention.
     

  • Overall you’ve got 100+ people in your classes every school year. No wonder the mundane tasks of assigning and grading and managing take so much of our time, and no wonder that most edtech tools focus on these time-consuming tasks! We are leaving these tasks to other tools and trying to help you stay focused and in control when you’re actually in class.

At Pear Deck we are focusing on the core value of being able to listen and engage with students during class. We want to make sure teachers can engage all of their students every day, and help students realize that when they work hard, and ask for help - when they feel safe and respected! - that they can do some hard things.

 

PS: “Zone of Proximal Development” is a concept in psychology introduced by Lev Vygotsky. You can learn about it in 10 minutes and it’s a really useful framework for lots of things. I recommend checking it out!