Sixth Grade Camp
November 21, 2018
Each fall, a handful of buses carrying a total of 200 hyper sixth graders travel down to Sherwood Forest Camp. Sherwood is a non-profit organization located in Lesterville, Missouri – a short two hours away from Wydown Middle School. Around 30 students in eighth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades are already at the camp, finishing up their weekend of counselor training, consisting of team building and working on exercises to cope with students’ emotional struggles, such as homesickness.
Sherwood Forest Camp operates as a summer camp for children from families below or at the poverty line living in or around Saint Louis City, who do not have the extra money to spend on a month away at summer camp. For $75, a child from 3rd to 9th grade may attend a 28-day camp program, which includes canoeing at their onsite lake, camping overnight in tents, and swimming in their pool. Additionally, children in the foster care system are able to attend the camp for free.
The months when Sherwood is for-profit are when the camp is open for use by schools, such as Clayton’s Sixth Grade Camp program. Each Clayton sixth grader in attendance, which typically includes the entire sixth-grade class, pays $250. Any sixth-grade student who is not able to pay is covered by donations from parents or the school district.
The week before sixth graders and their teachers leave for Sherwood, most of the class time is spent on writing to cabin counselors, decorating name tags, discussing camp etiquette, and learning the history and science of Johnson Shut-ins, a state park 20 minutes away from Sherwood. High school counselors and eighth-grade counselors-in-training have almost no preparation for the long week ahead, except for a 3-hour session of doing name learning games and getting to know the other counselors and CITs.
In order to apply to be a counselor, the teacher of each of your classes must sign a sheet of paper saying that they will allow you to miss a week of school. However, some teachers tell students that being a sixth-grade camp counselor is a bad idea, because of all of the make-up homework and classwork that must be made up the weekend after you return.
The concern of missing a week’s worth of lessons and having a mountain of work to make up later has reduced interest in being a counselor.
So, why is sixth-grade camp so important to the Clayton School District, and why have we been taking two weeks out of the sixth-grade year to learn about the importance of teamwork, cooperation, perseverance, and integrity for 70 years?
Terri Lawrence is a now-retired teacher who has attended the camp for 26 years, but has worked as the overall Clayton Sixth Grade Camp director for 15. Lawrence believes that Clayton High School should be much more involved in this program. “The high school piece [of being a counselor] is super important to [this program. The sixth grade teachers] wish there were more high school teachers involved in [this program] to really bring it to the forefront of high school activities and curriculum. It’s a really big opportunity for leadership and growth and community service. But we don’t how much it’s really celebrated are valued at the highest.”
This year was sophomore Louie Van’t Hof’s first as a high school counselor, as the program currently does not allow ninth graders to apply. Louie was also was a CIT in eighth grade. “I think that being a counselor is important because it gives us a chance to give back to our school district, and to the experiences I had as a sixth grader. I try to accomplish this by giving a good experience to sixth graders and to help them have fun and keep them engaged while they learn about today’s world.”
Clayton and Sherwood Forest Camp take on a different approach to camp. Dr. Victoria Jones is the librarian at Wydown Middle School and categorizes camp as ‘field school’ because it is more of experiencing school in real life rather than in a classroom. At Sixth Grade Camp, students take a field trip to Johnson Shut-ins, a formation of rocks shaped by the Black River, causing some rocks to ‘shut in’ water, creating a maze-like array of rocks. Here, students are able to apply their knowledge of how energy moves through systems of water and rocks to the Shut-ins, rather than reading about it in a textbook.
Dr. Jones says “I personally think the more we can get kids outside of these walls, the more the learning feels real and applied, and [the more] they have to depend on themselves [and on] others. And I think the learning can be more authentic.” Additionally, Ms. Lawrence adds that “outdoor education offers the unique learning experiences that the classroom does not offer. This is probably why we started it, [and why this program continues today.]”
Sherwood Forest is not just about experiencing learning in different ways, it is also about team building and using communication and teamwork to problem solve.
Sixth grade is one of the biggest changes during a student’s school career. Merging last year’s fifth-grade class from all three elementary schools with the many new students transferring into Clayton School District allows for an abundance of new people to befriend one another.
In every cabin group activity, such as ascending the colossal climbing structure known as Tango Tower or conquering the low ropes course, there are hints of teamwork, communication, and problem-solving embedded into each task. These aspects, known now as the Wydown Ways, are not included in the activities coincidentally.
Dr. Jones agrees. “…Then they have to figure out, especially in the team building and the ropes, how are we going to solve this problem together, because many of those things you can’t do individually — you have to figure it out together. I think they start to understand the importance of listening to other people’s ideas [while in these activities].
“I think a mom said this the best to me… her son is a junior now. She said that ‘he went away a little boy, [a]nd he came back a little man.’ I think that [the students leave] as individuals, [and come back as friends.]”