For the month of June 2007, ninety three elementary and twenty-four middle school students attended writing camps at Missouri Western State University. The camps were organized by Prairie Lands Writing Project and funded by the St. Joseph School District. The co-directors of the elementary camp were Christie Hofmeister, Terri McAvoy, and Joyce Finch, with assistance by Dana Adams, Mark Henderson, and Betty Stacey. The middle school camp was directed and taught by Kelly Lock.
The work for camp began long before June, as camp directors and PLWP staff began recruitment at the start of the year. All third through sixth grade teachers and all middle school English teachers in the St. Joseph School District received a nominating packet, in which they were asked to choose the top three writing students in their classes. At parent-teacher conferences, the selected students were given a brochure about writing camp and a letter to parents. Eligible students were required to turn in an application form, a letter about why they like to write, and a $20.00 materials fee, which included a writing journal and a t-shirt. Both camps saw record numbers of applying students this year, which resulted in our largest camps ever.
On the morning of June 5, both camps began as flocks of aspiring writers found themselves living the college life on the campus of Missouri Western. Each day of camp began with a writing prompt to get ideas flowing. The prompts were often inspired by the reading of a picture book or viewing of a piece of artwork. After a twenty minute writing session, campers were encouraged to share their pieces in an open mic reading. Many were hesitant at first to get in front of the class and read, but over time nearly every camper volunteered to share.
The campers also participated in literature circles as a way to keep their reading skills fresh over the summer and find inspiration from authors. The camp teachers read the books ahead of time and gave a book talk over each to get students excited. Campers then chose the book they wanted to read and formed literature circles with peers reading the same book. Each day, the circles met to discuss the reading from the previous day. The campers were given independence from the teachers in the execution of the circles. The members of the circle were given rotating roles. The “Discussion Director” was the leader for the day and was responsible for asking questions about the book to keep the group on task. The “Vocabulary Enricher” clarified word meanings and pronunciations from the book. The “Literary Illuminary” searched the text for figurative language, parts of speech, and vivid descriptions. The “Checker” was responsible for making sure the work got done and evaluated the contribution of each member. To aid the campers, daily handouts were distributed, which came from the ReadWriteThink web site.
Midway through the camp day, students were given an opportunity to clear their minds and re-fuel their bodies with an outdoor break. Following break time, campers divided into five groups and headed to breakout sessions. For the rest of the morning, students participated in workshops led by camp teachers that addressed specific writing issues. Among the issues addressed were: using sensory detail, personification, point of view, self expression, and using multiple voices.
The end result of camp was a writing anthology, which showcased the best writing developed by students. Each camper started with an idea, which became a story in a journal, then typed into a document, edited thoroughly, and finally published. The elementary anthology was distributed on the last day of camp to coincide with the reading of campers’ work in front of parents and teachers. A cover art contest was also held, with ten students displaying their artistic skills. The campers then voted for which design would be on the cover. The middle school camp chose to publish an e-anthology, which will be available for all to view on the PLWP web site.
While each day of camp had its special moments, there were two in particular that stood out. On June 21, campers left the comfort of the classrooms and participated in a writing marathon across campus. Among the sites visited for inspiration were the football field, the nature trail, the science building, the big theater, and the newly constructed fountains. On June 24, campers took a field trip to the Albright-Kemper Museum of Art, where they learned the similarities between the writing process and the construction of art. After a tour of the museum, campers had a chance to sit down by an art piece that inspired them and do some writing. Despite having such a large group, the campers were well behaved and received praises from the museum presenters.
In just a month’s time, over one hundred young writers improved their skills, found new inspirations, became published authors, and made plenty of new friends along the way. While many students were sad on the last day to see camp end, they were eager to return to school in the fall and show off their new found writing skills.