Wednesday Words

 Hello Readers! Here we are with our second Wednesday Words post for 2016. As always you are in for a real treat and today’s post is even more special to me as I get to share with you a person who has, over more than 20 years, become a close friend and confident. “Grown- ups” are not really supposed to show favourites or have “Besties” but I’m stepping out boldly today to proclaim, that for many many reasons, Michelle Holloway, is and always will be, my best friend.
Welcome Michelle!
       We have just moved, and I have left a job I loved at a museum where for the last 9 years I
have been working as an education officer, developing and delivering sessions for school groups. As I prepared to leave, I thought back to the various jobs I have had in schools, and how lucky I was to have had some really amazing and gifted teachers to mentor me along the way. Then I thought back to my teacher training, and
 to the courses I took once I started teaching, and how useful and important those were. Then I realised that my “teaching” had begun before that, at Day Camps. It occurred to me that my time working on Team has had a huge influence me.   If I had to sum up in one word what Day Camps has been to me, I’d say”invaluable”.
    Of course it was invaluable for lots of good, pious, spiritual reasons. And it was invaluable for my personal growth, which sounds dull, but isn’t. And it was invaluable to visit so many different churches of different traditions in so many different places.  It was also a huge influence on my style of teaching and the way I approach it, which is what I then proceeded to use in a variety of teaching related jobs over the next… goodness… TWENTY years. It’s been 20 years this summer since I was last on a Day Camp team as a Traveling Team member.
One of my earliest memories from Day Camp training is of Brett Cane taking us through “The Philosophy Behind the Program”. I remember him boasting (quite rightly) that people had commented that the way Day Camps unfolds, and the Main Presentation in particular, is pedagogically excellent.
Information is communicated in lots of different ways all throughout the morning through songs, plays, the Quiz, conversations with Lamb, and what was then the film-strip. I have used that idea many times in many different contexts over the years. I know I would have (and did) read about those things as I passed through teacher training and spent a lot of time talking with my colleagues about learning, but I know that this stuck with me because I had years of good example and practice on Team. When I sang “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly” with kids in grade 4 in the Bronx as we were learning about food chains, I knew perfectly well that the craziness of connecting that song with that topic was a legacy of Day Camps, where I learned not only that it’s okay to sing badly in public, but also that it’s good to be Creative and Crazy.  And years later, it was singing with kids and playing the guitar rather poorly during Main Presentation and in front of unsuspecting members of the congregation during Day Camp closing services which gave me the courage to teach kids to sing a song from the Tudor period in the middle of a public museum.
It wasn’t just during Main Presentation that the content of the week’s theme and the daily stories from Scripture were reinforced, either, of course, but also in the crafts (in the “olden days”) and later in the Creative Connection. This example helped me when I first started teaching Science in an elementary school where it was completely up to me how I went about teaching the children. I could let my imagination run wild about how to reinforce ideas (and come to think of it, there was singing there, too!). Using our hands and bodies as well as our heads to learn things is well known in the world of elementary school, but I had seen it in action in Day Camps and that was a great advantage to me. I had practice.
     Practice, practice, practice is what Team membership provided, and with lots of different children with different abilities and gifts and personalities to contend with, sometimes all at the same time (and always all at the same time during the main presentation!). The most basic idea of repeating what a child has answered so everyone can hear it might sound obvious but it takes practice before it becomes second nature. Every single time I took an answer from a child over the years, and repeated it back, I remembered my time on team with a secret smile. As I did when a child gave an answer that was incorrect or not quite on target. Those of you who have been on Team joke about “that’s an answer to a different question” but actually, there is some profound teaching philosophy to think about here. How can I use that answer, no matter how incorrect, to teach and, very importantly, encourage that child and, in fact, all the other children listening? I don’t recall anyone every specifically talking about this as I went through many a course on teaching but I know that an incorrect answer in a group setting sets the learner on the edge of a precipice: if my response crushes the child, he won’t try again. And nor will any other child take the risk. Responding positively can make all the difference. A classic Day Camps scenario: During the Quiz on day one I ask “Who, in the Bible, was swallowed by a big fish?” Keen child answers: “Pinocchio”. If I say “no” and move on, and another child answers correctly, the learning ends there. But if I say “Pinocchio? You’re thinking of another really interesting story about a big fish. The Bible has a story too! Do you know who it was?” (as I have been taught to do during team training and over the weeks watching other more experienced leaders) so many things happen: the first child feels good that he knows about Pinocchio. Everyone who knows Pinocchio listens up because they’ve heard something familiar. They make a connection between a story they know and a story from the Bible. They all now listen to hear who this other person was, and wonder what this story might be. They’ve learnt something, they’ve connected it to their own experience, and they are ready to learn more. Now, when I ask children what “martial men” might be in our Tudor song, and someone suggests they might be aliens, I don’t just laugh it off, and I’m not just trying to be nice. I know from day camps that I can use it.  Asking good questions is something they talk about along in teacher training. How you respond it also important. In Day Camps I thought of it as being loving to the child, and not putting them down. That makes good teaching too! But later, I saw that it was even more than that.
There was always plenty of practice in learning how to explain things to children. From simple
things, like walking children through finding the Bible story of the day in an actual Bible and how to use chapters and verses, to the idea of taking one word from the Lord’s Prayer each day and talking about why we use it, to dealing with explaining deeper ideas (and what could be deeper than the nature of God, of Christ, and of our relationship with Him? We talk about a “special friend”, because this relationship is an essential part of our faith). Practice at talking with children about difficult words and ideas, and making meaning of things, is all part of being a leader at Day Camps. One of the challenges in teaching (and parenting, I have discovered) is to understand both what the child is actually asking, and how far to take an answer to their question. Our faith is at once simple and unfathomable. On the one hand, we have an answer, on the other, the truth of who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are, is a great mystery.  Once you’d tackled the nature of Christ in the corner of a church hall with 6 8-year olds, no scientific concept can seem too complex to attempt to explain in the classroom! I value so much the lesson I learned that children are capable of taking big ideas and mulling them over, that it’s okay to start them on a path of inquiry that they will walk along with others for a time into the future, that they can have their own insights.  I don’t have to do it all. I don’t have to know it all. This has been very freeing in allowing me to avoid feeling threatened by teaching topics I find challenging, or by the people I am teaching, We are in this learning thing together.
There was also plenty of practice getting in front of groups and hamming it up. This has helped me in the classroom, and it has been an amazing help at the museum where I was meeting new groups almost every session, and where there was often a public in the background for parts of the school visits where I was addressing the group. Leading a Main Presentation proved an amazing opportunity to learn how to speak in front of a group, to keep the attention of the children, to throw in the unexpected surprise to keep attention where I wanted it, to keep things moving along, and to have tricks up my sleeve to manage technical glitches. I learned the value of planning how the main presentation would unfold, and how that framework then allowed for spontaneity, too. 
Finally, I had to learn to work with other people as a team, both Traveling Team members and parish team members. To work with people I might find difficult. To work with people I wouldn’t choose to work with, sometimes in places where I wouldn’t choose to go. It was God who brought those people and situations into my life, and this was brought back into focus daily through the very work itself. Daily devotions with the team, with the children, and on my own meant that I could not ignore or forget who was in charge, nor forget my remit to see Christ in each person and situation. Most often, it turned out that the experiences were wonderful, and all the more so for their challenges. Most often, it turned out that the people who were difficult were actually some of the people the most worth knowing. And I learned that I was one of the difficult people, too! This has been invaluable to me in my life in general, of course, but also in teaching and in my later museum work. In my student teaching, at one point I had to work with a member of my class who was widely considered to be belligerent and difficult. Only because of my time on Day Camps, and that reminder that God had brought this person into my life, could I face that challenge with optimism. As it turned out, I discovered her to be a brilliant teacher and an interesting, strong, and compassionate person, and I still think of her often with real gratitude that I had the opportunity to look beyond the superficial impression the group had of her. It is by God’s grace that I’ve been able to look beyond the difficult side of people. Have I also failed at this? Plenty of times! I failed during the course of Day Camps, too, but again that lesson has born fruit in other ways, as I have been able to learn from those mistakes.  In fact, in many ways I am most indebted to Day Camps for the opportunity to make mistakes. On team, there is time for reflection and repentance, but no time for self-pity. There is no giving up, and the chance to try again is on you before you know it. It’s a spiritual and personal exercise, but it’s a lot like physical exercise. Just as the benefits of exercise carry one after you are finished, and even while you sleep, the benefits of being on team have gone on for me for 20 years.

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