Education Opinion

Back to School

By Emmet Rosenfeld — June 29, 2009 3 min read
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Never thought I’d be starting a blog post with that title on Monday, June 29. But here it is, 12:28 in the AM, and once again I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with back to school jitters. Only this time, it’s summer school—sort of—and instead of teaching it, I’m running it.

Tomorrow marks the first day ever of academic summer classes at Congressional, a brand new program I’ve conceived and implemented (with a little help from my friends, as usual) which features challenging, ungraded enrichment courses taught by certified teachers.

The classes this session are: Math Lab, for kids from 1st to 9th grade featuring tutoring by TJ students; Story World, language arts enrichment for 2nd and 3rd graders; Rockets and Robots, where 4th graders including my own son get to play some hands on science; and Literature for Muggles, a class for middle schoolers who love Harry Potter. Courses in future sessions include writer’s workshop, Spanish immersion, and reading readiness for munchkins.

This isn’t the first summer program I’ve imagineered. I started a camp up at another private school two teaching gigs back (before TJ I spent a couple years at Alexandria Country Day School), and before that ran a walk-paddle-bike trip called “Potowmack Discovery” along a local stretch of the river (the extra letters are historical). But this is the first that is exclusively academic in nature. And there are a couple significant features I just have to brag about.

One, no grades. Gasp. That’s right, not a single percent, signifying letter or other abstract summary of a kid’s ability/performance/cut of jib/etc to be found in these classes. As a teacher I have always had mixed feelings at best about the efficacy of the extrinsic reward system that is as much a part of school as summer vacation (also needs to go, but I’ll rant about that some other time). Since they finally asked me, I chucked ‘em.

Here’s a prediction: even without grades, kids will learn. And teachers will be able to “control” their classes. And parents will be happy. Of course, we do plan to send home narratives at the end of each two-week session, with detailed description of course content including skills and essential concepts, featuring anecdotes and observations about each child. Imagine that: assessment that treats each student as an individual learner. Regasp.

Another cool aspect of this program is that it is designed within the context of our already existing mega-camp. Congo Campis a wonder to behold: hundreds of children descend on our forty acre campus to ride horses, swim in the pool, zip in the trees, arch… you know, all the stuff that makes camp cool, and you don’t even have to sleep over. Dozens upon dozens of unfailingly cheerful blue-shirted staffers take care of all these bodies, communicating on radios and governed by elaborate color-coded schedules that look like they were created by Mondrian on speed. Nesting half day classes within the moving parts of camp was both a challenge and a necessity.

The trick for me now will be keeping track of my forty-four students amongst the 400 or more that will be running around camp this session. The campers will all be clad in lime green or orange t-shirts festooned with turtles; my kids will be the ones in civvies clutching pencils (except the ones that are only with me for a half a day, and then go to or come from camp, who will be wearing t-shirts and clutching pencils). After months of planning and preparation, it all comes down to counting noses.

“Camp Brain” will help with that. This old dog learned a new database, though I claim only basic facility with this software (the registrar works it like he’s driving a Ferrari in LA traffic). Another secret weapon is my girl Friday, in this case a UVA second-year named Casey, who has worked camp before and can walkie-talkie her way around both camp and campus blindfolded (she’s a grad of both CSOV and TJ, to boot).

The heart of it all, of course, will be what happens in the classroom. And while I have faith that my hand-picked staff will offer great classes, and have worked with them along the way to make sure that they do, there’s still going to be a twinge at 9 AM when their doors shut and I’m on the outside, clutching my clip board, looking in.

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