When discussing Forest Park Middle School’s Leadership Camp with the students who attended, one thing quickly becomes clear. There might be one too many leaders in the room.
These kids are not shy by any stretch of the word, and whether the task is to lead a rock climbing exercise during camp or a conversation about the exercise a couple weeks later, they all jump at the opportunity ” at once.
“We’d work together in groups to achieve a goal,” recalled 7th grader Andrew Znika. “The point was to stretch out your comfort zone.” Goals that teachers set for the students included defining and discussing leadership skills and leadership styles, learning more about themselves and others, becoming more sensitive to the needs of others, and bringing what they learned back to their schools and communities.
The camp, which the Middle School offered for the 10th consecutive year, took place in Lake Geneva, WI from August 22 to 24 and was attended by 37 students and six teachers.
Students were divided into three groups ” called dogs, turtles and ducks ” and sent on a series of missions, both physical and intellectual, designed to test and expand their abilities as leaders.
And though most campers agreed that the camp left them with new skills, clearer priorities and enhanced confidence, they certainly did not forget to have fun.
Reminiscing on their experiences, their eyes widen and their voices practically bounce off one another as they finish each other’s sentences, stand up to tell stories, and of course, laugh constantly.
Whether imitating their counselor for the trip, named Trevor, who apparently had a thing for rubbing his hands together and repeating the slogan “totally cool, totally awesome,” or debating which teacher was most scared during the “leap of faith” exercise, the students seem like a group of old friends.
In truth, however, many of them met for the first time during the camp. They come from different parts of Forest Park and different elementary schools. The camp even brought older students together with younger kids, which is quite rare in middle school circles.
“I came in with three friends there, when I came out, everyone was my friend,” said 6th grader Emily Fitzgerald. Sixth grade teacher Beth Stuchell, who went along for the trip for the fourth straight year, said that the friendships formed during the trip seem to have remained strong since returning to school, as she often sees the campers warmly greeting each other in the school’s halls.
At the beginning of camp, Stuchell said, the students were asked to take tests that identified their unique leadership styles. Some were designated mavericks, some developers, others perfectionists, etc. This allowed each to find their role in collaborative efforts among the group and maximize their performance in the tasks they took on.
Stuchell said she hopes that the students will use their newfound leadership capabilities to distinguish themselves among their classmates. She said that during the camp, the kids were presented with “real middle school scenarios.” For example, if they saw someone being bullied in the hallway, would they step in? Would they complain amongst themselves about the elimination of recess at the school, or would they work together to take their grievances to the people who make the decisions?
So far, it seems that Stuchell’s hopes that the students would build on the lessons they learned are being fulfilled. A few campers (Angel D’Souza, Jasmine Renzulli, Andrew Znika, and Christina Atherton) have joined the school’s Builders Club, a community service organization that is a division of the Kiwanis Club and works on service projects within the school and community.
Other campers said that the experience assists them on a more subconscious level. “It’s not like everyday we say ‘oh I learned that at leadership camp,’ but it helps,” said 7th grader Angel D’Souza.
One of the most important lessons the campers learned was how to trust each other and work as a team. As natural leaders, Stuchell said, at first there were sometimes “too many cooks in the kitchen,” as everyone would want to do it all themselves. With time, though the campers learned the value of teamwork.
In one familiar exercise, they were asked to fall and depend on a friend to catch them. Since the word fall has a tendency to stir up fright, the students would instead use the word “biff” to urge their partners to fall and trust that they would not let them hit the ground.
During night hikes, when visibility was low and stray branches were everywhere, the campers worked out a simple system to avoid tripping as much as possible. The campers would travel in pairs and lock arms. Each time one faced an obstacle, they would scream “step,” and their partner would know there was a hazard. The other pairs would then hear the warning and repeat it.
They applied the trust they developed to activities such as the “low ropes.” For this exercise, he students were presented with the scenario that they had just gone to a party and had to sneak back into a house. The only way to get in, though, was to crawl through a series of tiny, uneven rope “windows.” The three groups each came up with a strategic plan to shovel one another through the windows.
The campers slept in a two story cabin, with girls on the bottom floor and boys on the top. “Boys were blue and girls were pink, and the golden rule was no purple,” said 7th grader Jasmine Renzulli.
Though they were prohibited from entering each other’s living space, not surprisingly they still managed to get on each other’s nerves here and there. The girls accused the boys of keeping them up late by making noise, while the boys came up with a bit of a conspiracy theory, stating that their floor was invaded by girls packing spitballs while they were out running. Still, even the bickering between the group is done through wide smiles and between giggles.
The toughest challenge of the week, the students said, was coming up with a list of problems and recommended changes at their school. Other than bringing back recess, they said, they couldn’t think of much to change.
They were also charged with the task of electing a student council president, using a list of descriptions of different character types, which each had a set of pros and cons.
Most of the tasks, the campers said, were non-competitive, as the focus was more on enhancing each individual’s skills. “The teachers were more competitive ” the students just had fun,” said 6th grader David Chatman.
The one competitive task was a scavenger hunt which took place on the 2nd day of the camp. The campers won’t know who won until a reunion scheduled for the end of the month, though they will likely keep trying to get Stuchell to slip and reveal the winner.
Winners and losers, however, take a backseat in the campers’ minds to the many fond memories gathered during their adventure. “It was the greatest experience,” said Chatman.