While Harlem Grown’s summer camp ended only two weeks ago, the difference in my daily routine makes it feel like my time as a camp counselor was a whole summer away. I never realized how busy my days were at camp, until I had “free” time and noticed how quickly the hours went by (and how little I had accomplished). This change in pace has allowed me time to reflect upon my internship with Harlem Grown.
My job as a camp intern was to create a STEM-based curriculum for the campers and lead the oldest group, the Wild Berries, through their daily routine. I was tasked with the responsibility of teaching these kids, and they fired right back with lessons for me. During the first week of camp, I taught a lesson on the basics of compost using graphs and pie charts. While the camper’s memorized the soundbites that I repeated (e.g. compost must reach a temperature of 130° for three days in order to kill any remaining seeds), it was hard to keep their attention throughout the lesson. Learning from this, I switched the format for the organic decomposers lesson. Instead of standing in front of the kids and relaying the information to them, I printed out pictures of different organic and chemical decomposers and hid them around the farm. Splitting the group into two teams, I watched as the campers eagerly scoured the farm to beat the other team in a surprise scavenger hunt. This hands-on method brought out the campers’ interest and encouraged them to interact with the lesson, rather than passively listening to it.
The rest of the early morning curriculum followed this pattern of mixing hands-on physical activity with information. The biggest challenge with teaching the oldest group is their energy/excitement levels. While they tend to listen more closely to information and hold their attention longer than the younger campers, they often are plagued by the question, “why does any of this matter?” As a counselor, it was my job to explain why this information mattered, or at the very least, make it interesting to the kids. Sometimes, their motivation was spurred by the idea of a popsicle reward or more time on the basketball court. Other times, their energy was brought out by the excitement of competition. While most of the early morning compost curriculum was written by another Harlem Grown intern, the lesson plan had to be altered to fit the needs of the campers.
Another challenge of the curriculum was finding a balance between planning ahead and improvising. Several of the curriculum lesson plans involved science experiments or physical models. Planning ahead was easy enough in the early weeks, but as camp progressed, it became easy to forget to order a bag of sand ahead of time, or print out worksheets the night before. This would lead to a slight shift in the next day’s work, which might entail a little more farm work to make up for the missing pieces, or even a game of Night at the Museum. Sometimes, everything was planned out, but the weather intervened and the morning work was replaced by a screening of Finding Nemo. The weather was not the only outside factor affecting our schedule. Making a cardboard model of the solar system was planned to only take one hour per group, but ended up taking two hours for the youngest group, which pushed back the middle group’s STEM period. An origami project for the oldest group was expected to be finished entirely within one hour, when just the folding alone took the entire period. Essentially, in their written form, lesson plans make everything look straightforward and perfect, whereas real life is not so simple. The campers are a collection of enthusiastic, hilarious kids who are concerned with having fun (as they should be!) The number one thing all of these science experiments and lesson plans taught me is that improvisation and adaptation are key to success in a teaching environment, regardless of the students’ ages.
When I look back on the summer, I’m usually laughing at memories, things the campers had said to me, and the nostalgia of what it was like to be a young kid at summer camp. When I was stressed from a day of running around, my campers made me laugh. When I was playing a game of knock-out on the court, my campers were cheering for me. These kids are exceedingly hilarious, intelligent, thoughtful, exceptional humans who rewarded me with experience and fond memories. I will miss this experience and these campers terribly, but I am excited to visit the farm and some of the kids on Saturdays throughout the school year!