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Generations of students in Palmyra Area School District have spent a week in the woods to further their education.
But the annual Outdoor Education program — held for two weeks each May at Camp Swatara, at the foot of Blue Mountain on the Appalachian Trail in neighboring Berks County — fell victim this year to COVID-19, which closed schools in Pennsylvania to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“This would have been the 40th year of the program,” school counselor and Outdoor Education director Michelle Waiter said Thursday. “I have third generations of families that have come through the camp. … It’s part of the Palmyra culture.”
So, with students and teachers stuck for the most part at home, Waiter and the Palmyra faculty decided to come up with something different.
Immersed in the experience
In a typical year, Waiter said, all seventh-grade students at Palmyra Middle School would be divided into two groups, each of which would spend five days immersed in the camping experience.
The Monday-through-Friday schedule includes a variety of classes and activities, from social campfire gatherings, skits and a square dance to coursework in stream ecosystems, orienteering, survival, fishing and a collaborative adventure rope course that requires students to work together to solve problems.
“The classes are awesome … in an interdisciplinary and hands-on outdoor learning laboratory,” Waiter said. For instance, she said, “I can’t bring a stream into the classroom, but at camp the stream is our classroom.”
Students, she explained, are put into different class and recreation groups, forcing them to interact with students they might not usually get to know in the normal classroom setting.
“Certainly the educational component is important, but it’s also an opportunity for students to take risks and push outside of their comfort zones,” Waiter said. “When you’re immersed with each other for five days, kids really get to know each other on a deeper level. It often changes what we think and know about each other. They make new connections and friendships.”
At the end of the week, students are asked to reflect in writing on their social and emotional growth during the week. Typically, she said, the staff sees students gaining confidence during the week, developing “perseverance and grit” that can stay with them for a lifetime.
“The experiences aren’t something that’s forgotten,” Waiter said. “The program is just one of the unique things that really sets our school district apart.”
‘A pretty mad rush’
Palmyra’s Camp Swatara experience usually is held over the two weeks before Memorial Day.
But, Waiter said, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced that schools would be closed through the end of the year, the faculty scrambled to come up with an alternative.
“We had about three weeks” to put it together, she said. Camp — which also involves about 40 high school seniors and juniors who act as counselors to the seventh-graders — was rolled out to students on Monday, May 18.
“It was a pretty mad rush. We just didn’t want this group of students to miss out on the program totally,” Waiter said.
“This could never replace being there in person for five days,” she added, “but I think it was really remarkable, the innovation and creativity the staff put together.”
There are about 265 students in the seventh-grade class this year, she noted.
Building a virtual camp
The virtual camp they assembled was sent out to students in a series of slides, each containing links to various presentations and activities.
On the first day, for instance, campers were encouraged to upload photos of themselves in red, white or blue t-shirts, follow along on a virtual hike, participate in a sing-along, meet cabin counselors via Zoom, begin a cabin design project via Minecraft and join in a campfire presentation.
On Tuesday, students joined video walkthroughs of the adventure course and were asked to come up with their own solutions to the obstacles presented, then create a brief obstacle course at home that they could share through their own videos. They also had more sing-alongs, a virtual square dance and nature observations and expressions.
“We rolled out new slides each day,” Waiter explained. As the week progressed, they added more themes, such as Hawaiian day and sports jersey day, and added more coursework (geology, orienteering, watersheds, star lab, stream study) and activities (movie night, camp skits, creative reflections, camper awards).
“The great thing about the slideshow was, it was a one-stop shop,” she added. “It included classes, songs and evening activities, and students could take part in it on their own time. I had some students up by 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, already viewing the class activities. But it was meant to be for whenever it worked for the students in their day.”
Some Zoom meetings were held at specific times, on the other hand, to work around the schedules of teachers and the junior and senior counselors, who had their own homeschool activities to complete.
“Some of the in-person experiences, you just can’t replicate, but we gave them as much of the program as we could,” Waiter said. “The camp is such a unique environment — there are no distractions, no cellphones or social media. The students are immersed in camp. … Obviously, we couldn’t do that here.”
But the Zoom and Minecraft meetings were especially popular among the campers, she noted.
“You could tell, the kids were really craving and wanting that personal connection,” she said. “They really showed up for those.”
Seventh-grade students were disappointed that they missed their week in the woods, but Waiter said they seemed to enjoy this year’s socially distant alternative.
“It’s a program that kids look forward to every year,” she said. “Overall, the feedback was very positive. It’s bittersweet. A lot of the kids were very grateful to the staff for putting it together. They said they enjoyed a lot of the activities the staff put together — but they really wanted to go to camp.”
At the end of the week, students had an opportunity to provide feedback through a written essay or personal video.
“We had lots of positive feedback from the students who were immersed in the program throughout the week,” Waiter said.
For instance, seventh-grader Kamryn Denger wrote that she “enjoyed doing the creative cabin stuff because of everyone’s creativeness in working and all our ideas coming together” to design their cabin in Minecraft.
Waiter said she hopes that the Outdoor Education program can pick up next year where it left off — and, she said, if possible, she would like to give this year’s seventh-grade class a taste of what they missed next year.
It’s not certain that opportunity will be there, however.
“COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on district budgets, and it takes a lot of resources to run the program,” she said. “We’d like to give them something next year to make up for it … but the future of the program is uncertain. We’re not sure where things are going from here.
“I’ve been at Palmyra for 20 years, and I’ve been directing this program for 18,” she added. “I feel very invested and very strongly about the impact it has on our students.”
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