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Virginia Journal of Education


Authentic Learning


by H. Nicole Myers and Sharon L. Teabo

Why were 42 graduate education students at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) running through streamers at Quantico Marine Corps Base last June? Call it summer school: They were celebrating the start of Camp of Hope, a first-of-its-kind day camp for children with disabilities that the graduate students developed and ran as part of three UMW summer courses. The camp hosted 28 children with various disabilities, including developmental delays, learning disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and various medical conditions. Several siblings were also invited to participate in the day camp, giving it a bit of "reverse mainstreaming."

Camp of Hope began when Quantico's Exceptional Family Member Program contacted UMW to ask for help with a camp for students with special needs. We felt we could do even more than that: we believed that UMW students could organize, plan and run the entire camp program as a way of meeting course goals through authentic learning.

Limited funds were available because the camp was a pilot project, so each UMW student worked to solve an assigned "obstacle/problem" in order to create day camp experiences as part of their coursework. They chose themes, created activities, shopped for craft items, created tutorials and prototypes of all activities, and sought donations, which came in from local businesses, UMW faculty and even a local group of children, who organized a lemonade stand.

Before camp began, the UMW graduate students reviewed camper applications and researched appropriate activities with the children's special needs in mind. They voted on various activities which were broken into three themes: Creepy Crawly Bugs, Circus Carnival and Beach Day. Each activity was tested, and it was noted where accommodations based on learning styles and special needs would be necessary.

Each class had a special focus for the camp. The Characteristics of Disabilities class chose activities based on disability-related needs. The Goals and Practices for Mental Retardation class reviewed activities, created prototypes and designed the camp schedule. The Emerging and Assistive Technologies class developed digital storybook activities and supervised the campers as they created their own multimedia digital story about their camp experiences. As a bonus, camp participants took home a copy of their digital story on the final day of camp.

How did the day camp relate to course objectives and classroom teaching? The UMW students solved real-world problems and immediately saw the benefits of their work. They were able to implement teaching strategies instead of merely reading about them. They observed disability characteristics and differentiated for various learning styles using a variety of special education techniques, such as behavior management, backward and forward chaining, and GIA (Goal, Instruction, Analysis). They also incorporated assistive technologies, such as optical enhancement and reading output, into social and learning activities.

Campers were very positive about their Camp of Hope experience. One camper said, "The camp counselors are real cool. They helped us a lot!" Another said, "If they did it all year, I would come!" The UMW camp counselors enjoyed the experience, as well. One grad student said, "The campers were wonderful. Beach Day was extremely fun. The campers' prior knowledge about oceans and their inhabitants made each craft more interesting. We were making oceans in a bottle, which included water, oil, blue food coloring, plastic sea creatures and glitter. We were adding the glitter just for decoration but one of the campers suggested it could be tiny sea plankton." Another counselor said that her group decided that the red glitter they put into their ocean bottle represented creel, leading to excellent conversation.

The camp was also a good learning experience for the UMW student counselors. One described it this way: "I enjoyed seeing and working with kids from a very different age group from the one I usually experience. I was ready to be flexible-and I needed to be-and I enjoyed the joyful chaos. It was so rewarding to watch the campers bloom as their time in camp progressed." A different UMW counselor discussed the focus on ability, not disability: "I loved seeing the children interact with the adults, each other and the activities. I liked having children of varying abilities and disabilities working in a room together."

At the end of the camp graduate students continued participating in GIA by developing ideas for this year's camp and reflecting on their experiences and teachable moments.

Was the program a success? Parents seemed very happy with it and offered only one suggestion-make it longer! Campers seemed to agree, with one asking, "Can you make them (UMW students) come back next week so we can do it again? Next year, can it be all summer?"

The multimedia digital stories created at Camp of Hope were presented at the Virginia Council for Exceptional Children's state conference last fall, and they are available at www.careumw.com , along with lesson plans and other resources. The site also has a link where teachers can submit lesson plans to share with others.

What is in store for Camp of Hope now? We're currently working to help plan the 2008 session, and are planning to increase marketing in order to reach more children with disabilities, increase the number of campers, and possibly extend the length of the camp. We hope that Camp of Hope will serve as a model for traditional day camps to incorporate activities which would allow children with disabilities to participate.

Myers ( nmyers@umw.edu ) and Teabo ( steabo@umw.edu ) are assistant professors of education in the University of Mary Washington's College of Graduate and Professional Studies.


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