• Education at Pemi
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  • Newsletters 2012

Summer 2012: Newsletter #3

Greetings again from our snug little valley, where a remarkable run of good weather has allowed all areas of the camp program to run at maximum capacity and with maximum benefit. Athletics are thriving, with Pemi compiling an admirable 16-11-7 record in the first ever Baker Valley Tournament Day last Saturday, featuring round-robin contests in all five age groups. We’ve now sent out five standard extended backpacking trips, three jaunts to the high-mountain hits of the Appalachian Mountain Club (with another slated for tomorrow), and are ramping up for next week’s five-day canoeing expedition to the Allagash Waterway in Maine (not to mention 30-odd trips of a more local nature.) Drama and music got off to a terrific start with the Fourth of July Pee-rade and old-time Vaudeville Show, and rehearsals continue apace for Friday’s world premiere of Metal Boy: The Musical. As for Nature, sign-ups for occupations haven’t been this robust in years, thanks to the ever-renewed and –evolving efforts of Larry Davis and Deb Kure.

Speaking of Nature, we thought this would be a good time to hear from Larry on the Instructional Clinic he runs every June, a unique national training program that he inaugurated some years back and that puts Pemi at the forefront of the camping world’s commitment to environmental education. As you read the following description, we’re sure you’ll have no trouble imagining how staff members who have been fortunate enough to participate in this clinic can inspire your sons with a profound appreciation and knowledge of the natural world in which they find themselves. Over to Larry!

As many of you know, Pemigewassett runs a preseason, 5½-day-long “Nature Instruction Clinic” for staff members from Pemi and other camps, and for students (as part of their programs) at the University of New Haven. As this was the 20th year for the clinic, I thought that I would use this space to tell you a bit about it—how it came to be, what we do, and how it benefits Pemi, the participants, other camps, and the children who are taught by our participants.

Nature Clinic History

In 1992, former Director Rob Grabill, former Associate Nature Head Russ Brummer, and I attended the International Camping Congress in Toronto. We were there to present a workshop entitled, “Building a Camp Nature Program: 12 Keys to Success.” Our “keys” were divided into two groups, the institutional framework and the program structure. As examples, two of the institutional framework “keys” were, “The Directors must provide philosophical and financial support for the program” and “There must be a permanent facility of the program—even if it is only a corner in a larger building.” Two of the program structure keys were, “The program must be rigorous; the activities must have some educational substance to them and not be just meaningless games.” and “The program must be demonstrably as ‘prestigious’ as other major camp training programs in terms of access to camp facilities and vehicles, type and level of awards, and place in such all-camp activities as color wars, individual achievement awards, and so on.” We were prepared for an audience of 30 or 35 and were very surprised when over 100 showed up. People were sitting in the aisles and standing against the walls. The questions following our presentation clearly indicated that we had struck a chord. One that was frequently repeated, both at the session and during informal “corridor” discussions throughout the rest of the meeting was, “You’ve said that there must be ‘a well-trained and enthusiastic staff.’ Where can we find these people?” This got us thinking and we looked to see what was “out there.” The answer was “not much.” So, we decided that we needed to do it ourselves – and the “Camp Pemigewassett Nature Instruction Clinic” was born.

Our basic idea, still in place, was not to train people to duplicate our nature program, but rather to give them the tools that they needed to create a nature program suited to their own camp, its setting, its clientele, and its overall program structure. We thought that contact with nature played an important part in childhood development and that a camp was the ideal place to provide it. Of course, since then, Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods has put a national spotlight on this idea, and with the increase in electronic “entertainment,” the role of camps in providing access to nature is even more crucial. Beyond that, we hoped to spread the good word about nature study. After all, we reasoned, we can only reach a small number of boys here at Pemi each summer. However, by training others, we could magnify this number many fold.

The basic objectives of the clinic, established from the outset, were to: 1) help the participants become familiar with the flora and fauna of northern New England, 2) show them how to plan and execute lessons for teaching about nature and natural history, in the outdoors, and 3) familiarize them with the resources available to help them with their teaching. These might include books, state and federal agencies (such as the U.S. Geological Survey or NASA), non-profits (Audubon Societies), and museums or science centers.

The first clinic was in 1993. Russ Brummer and I taught it and we had 11 participants. Two were from Pemi and nine from other camps. Since then, we’ve taught it every year, adding current Associate Head of Nature Programs, Deb Kure, in 2009. Not so coincidentally, Deb was a participant in that first clinic and so now, as an instructor, has come full circle.

The 20th Annual Nature Instruction Clinic

This years’ clinic, the 20th, took place on June 10-15 with Russ, Deb, and me instructing. We had 14 attendees, which is the most ever. There were two from Pemi, four UNH undergraduate and two graduate students, and six from other camps. One of those camps, nearby Walt Whitman, sent a participant to our very first clinic and has had participants periodically since.

Nature Clinic participants, 2012

As I said earlier, the clinic’s objectives are to introduce the participants to the local natural history, to teach them how to teach about it, and to show them the resources that are out there to help them in their teaching. We break the clinic up into two halves. For the first days, we focus on the natural history. We do this mostly in the field, modeling some of the teaching techniques that we’ll be talking about later and introducing the participants to the resources that we’ve used to create our lesson plans. The second half of the clinic focuses on teaching. Here, too, it is “hands-on,” as they have to create and teach an actual lesson with the rest of us being the “campers.” They also will create and build a display as an example of how you can teach without actually being there. Both of these activities further serve to introduce them to the area’s natural history and to the resources available to help them with their teaching.

The Clinic Schedule

Here is an example of a day’s activities, as listed in the schedule:

Tuesday (June 12)

Early Morning (6:30-7:30 AM)           

Tweet, Tweet: Birding with Russ


Creepy Crawlies: Workshop on Insect Ecology, Collection, and Preparation


A Colorful Feast: Wild Foods and Natural Dyes

Field Walk and Cooking Lesson (Wild Foods)

Nature Crafts, Natural Dyes (Demonstration and Activity)


Rocks and More: Workshop on Rock and Mineral Activities, Weird Science Stargazing, Nature Drawing and Journals, and More Students will participate in these activities.

The pace is fast and the schedule is intense. In fact, the participants this year nicknamed it “Nature Boot Camp.” It also takes up an entire week. This is very different from other pre-camp instruction clinics such as lifeguarding or archery instruction or sailing. These last only 2 or 3 days. Even the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Leadership School lasts only 4 days. I think, however, that we need this much time even to begin to reach our objectives.

While space and time (and I’m probably stretching your patience too) do not allow a detailed discussion of what happens each day, I’d like to enlarge upon a few of these activities.

Sunday Evening: In the Dark

Nighttime can be scary or entrancing. There are new sounds, new sensations, colors fade, shapes loom out of the dark. We want kids to be comfortable in the dark and fascinated by it. We really start the clinic in earnest with this night walk. We get out the bat detector and listen to the bats use their sonar to chase a tennis ball or moth. We watch the female fireflies signal for mates and the males answer. Each species has its own unique “Morse code.” Some females, however, will also mimic the flashes of another species, lure the males to them, then eat them—true “femme fatales.” There is a constant chorus of frogs—at this time of year, mostly the chirps of grey tree frogs. Occasionally there is the plucked banjo call of the green frog or the “jug-o-rum” of a bull frog. Russ imitates the call of the Barred Owl (“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Hawwwwww, hawwww”. They are highly territorial and will call back to defend their territory. We look at the flashes generated when one bites into wintergreen lifesavers and by scratching two pieces of smoky quartz together. All of these activities can be used to safely introduce children to the wonders of nature at night. The two hours fly by and then it is time for bed.

Tuesday Afternoon: A Colorful Feast

Collecting plants to create natural dye

Many children think that nature is just for nerds. What we need is a “hook” to catch them and reel them in. Two great hooks are wild foods and natural dyes. On this afternoon we do both, collecting plants to eat and collecting plants to dye wool that can then be used for weaving or other nature crafts. These can also be powerful tools to introduce children to where their food and clothing comes from. We try to show our participants sure-fire, and safe, plants to use. We also try to show them how to deliver a message about how hard the Native Americans had to work to keep themselves fed. These activities can also be combined with gardening or raising animals (they do this at some camps). This year we had deep-fried black locust flowers, milkweed shoots and unopened flowers (yes, you can eat milkweed if you change the water frequently while cooking it), wintergreen tea, yellow wood-sorrel, and indian cucumber root (these last two are trail-side nibbles).

Wednesday Afternoon: All Together in the Field

This is the “capstone” of the first half (the natural history half) of the clinic. We spend the entire afternoon walking the trail around Quincy Bog in Rumney, NH. The bog is formed by beavers. Their dams and lodges are clearly visible as is their recent (the night before?) work. It is a fantastic ecosystem, and the trail moves up and down through hardwood forest and bog. There are even rock outcrops. It is a perfect summation of all we have done before; a chance to review what we’ve seen; a chance to discuss some of the teaching techniques that we have been demonstrating. I should note that this excursion is a recent innovation. It is only the third year that we’ve done it, and we had to expand the length of the clinic by a half-day in order to include it. It was suggested by one of my UNH graduate students Yi-chen Luk who said, “Why isn’t there a…?” It was truly one of those moments where you think, “This is so obvious, why haven’t we been doing it?” and we made the change the next year. By the way, Yi-chen completed his Masters degree and has gone on to a career in outdoor education. He currently works at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Wednesday Evening and Thursday: Putting it Together; Getting Ready; Trying it Out

Wednesday evening marks the start of the teaching part of the clinic. We introduce the participants to the concept of a lesson plan, explain why it is needed, and do a simple exercise that shows how one is written and executed.  The next day (Thursday) we break the participants into four groups and ask them to plan a new lesson. The “rules” are that it must last 50 minutes, it must deal with a “natural” subject, it must be taught mostly outdoors, and it has to stand alone (i.e., not be part of a multi-day series). The students also need to select an age group to which they will be teaching the lesson. The entire morning is devoted to preparing the plan. The groups have access to all of the resources in our 1,000-volume nature library, and Deb, Russ, and I circulate to answer questions and help out where we can. One of the things that we have to keep emphasizing is that games and activities must serve the objectives of the plan and not the other way around. It is very tempting to find a great game and put it first.

In the afternoon, each group teaches its plan while everyone else acts as campers. After each presentation we ask, first the teachers, then the other participants, then Deb, Russ, and I, to comment on what went well and what they would do differently next time. This year, we had two different approaches to learning about leaves and trees, one about ponds and streams, and one about sensory awareness on the trail. This last had the memorable activity, “Who is a naturalist?” As the kids shouted out answers about who and what a naturalist was, one of the “instructors” was busy writing on a white board, but no one could see what she was writing. When it was revealed, the answer was “YOU!” This activity is probably the most important thing that we do. Everyone finds out how hard teaching is and how hard it is to plan and execute a lesson plan. It is a humbling experience, but the participants also finish feeling empowered because they know what to expect and what they need to do.

Thursday Evening and Friday: Teaching When You’re Not There and HELP!

Displays with flip-up cards

Because we had such a large group this year, we had our final lesson plan presentation on Thursday evening, before retiring to a well-deserved campfire and s’mores feast. On Friday morning, we repeated the exercise, but with displays. These are ways to teach when no one is there. (It’s how museums work). It is also a way to familiarize everyone with the resources that are available to them. Each group spends the morning (and part of the afternoon) working on a project which, when completed, is evaluated in the same way as the lesson plans (“What worked?, “What would you do differently?,” “What could be improved?”). This year we had a habitat map of camp with fold-up cards that showed “What lives where,” a model bat and a model wolf spider with cards that discussed different parts and different activities, and a do-it-yourself food web game that allowed the user to connect different parts of the food web here at camp. We finish with a brief discussion of resources available, including museums, organizations, state and federal agencies, and more. We try to make this as specific as possible based on the camps and locations that our participants come from. The last thing is filling out the evaluation form (this is where we first saw the idea of expanding the clinic ), the awarding of completion certificates, and hugs all around for a job well done and new friends made.

What are the Benefits of the Nature Instruction Clinic?

The clinic has both direct and indirect benefits. Pemi campers benefit from it because we use it to train our own nature staff. Our regular preseason is jam-packed with workshops on child development, training on behavior management, discussions of safety issues and risk management, and lots of work preparing camp for the campers. There is little time for in-depth discussion of specific program teaching techniques such as we do in the clinic. By the way, it’s worth mentioning that many Pemi staffers attend other specialty clinics during the pre-preseason. These are taking place at the same time as our clinic. Indirectly Pemi campers benefit because we (Deb, Russ, and I) are forced to constantly think about how we run our own program, and constantly read about new approaches and new techniques. It keeps us on our toes and prevents things from becoming stale.

Of course, campers at other camps and in other settings benefit in the same way from the training that their instructors have received. This sometimes goes well beyond camps as several of our participants have chosen careers in outdoor education, at least partially because of the experiences that they had at the clinic. These include our own Deb Kure who went on from that first 1993 clinic to teach at, among other places, the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and who now teaches afterschool outdoor science programs for inner city students in Austin, Texas, through Camp Fire USA.

Finally, the clinic itself may serve as a model for similar clinics that could be developed elsewhere. This year, Rob Bixler, Associate Professor of Recreation and Tourism at Clemson University, attended the clinic as an observer. He, I, and some of his colleagues at science centers are in the process of preparing a National Science Foundation grant proposal (under their “informal science” program) that would provide funds for developing a template and testing it out. This could truly spread the benefits to a much, much wider audience.

~ Larry Davis




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