The overnight residential planned by the students of REAL School aged 8–12 was a great example of children taking ownership of something substantial, and bringing it to life.
by Noan Fesnoux
From a Dream
In the run up to the start of this school year, the REAL School team spent some time searching for a project that would meet key needs of a new group of students. We had decided appropriately that all learning would revolve around the overarching question of ”How do we build relationships?”. This discussion led to an observation: a residential experience provides so many powerful moments to build connections between students, new and old.
Years ago, I recall a camp with Green School Bali where I took the Grade 8 students to a remote beach. There, around the campfire, a girl who had joined the school a few months before, expressed how lonely she felt. Even though it was late at night, the words acted as an awakening for the other children. From the next day forward her peers were inclusive and open to forming friendships. Her last 6 weeks of school were joyous and friend-filled, and in speaking with her she said her only regret was that she did not get to go on camp sooner. It was that immersive moment that paved the way for her to build new relationships.
With many such instances in mind, REAL School educators decided a camp would be the perfect way to highlight relationships at the start of the school year.
However, REAL School is not a “normal” school.
Beyond just attending a camp, we took the opportunity to hand over the planning of the camp to the students, as this indeed was an authentic project with tangible results.
It was a perfect way to kickstart the principles around Dream to Reality (D2R), REAL School’s action-oriented, project-based learning methodology. With the proactive decision of nearly half the school day committed to this form of learning, we felt confident that such a project could be taken on.
We knew we would have to cover some essentials, like location and transport, early on. Beyond that, we felt confident our students could deliver on a great meal plan, a solid and meaningful itinerary, and ensure they had completed risk assessments for the whole camp.
There was a lot of scaffolding we put in place to ensure kids would get a chance to practice a diverse range of skills, while working in a variety of team settings. My goal was to create a setting that did not limit creativity, while providing enough focus and support to allow the students to work independently on the camp plan.
As part of preparation for this project, we brought in a couple of key Project-Based Learning tools such as Project Tuning Protocol, and used the REAL School project design cycle as a backbone for the whole process.
To a Reality
The Meal Plan was the first order to tackle. I recognize that there is a near universal love of cooking among the students I have taught, and that hook is enough to get anybody excited about doing a project.
In the Dreaming and Planning, we imagined what could be possible in terms of food and put parameters around what we could actually do. Can we eat dessert before the meal? Of course! Can we buy caviar? Well, not if we want to eat anything else due to budget constraints and want to stay true to our plant-based principles. And what about palm oil? Better avoiding it due to its environmental impact. The children also learned what dietary restrictions there may be in the group and took those into account too.
After the children had dialed in some good concepts and scaled their recipes to meet our group size, we got to cook trial versions of the meals. Some had committed to making pancakes for the entire group, while others had chosen some really fancy spaghetti.
Making the prototype meal provided some crucial real life feedback. The fancy spaghetti involved WAY too many capers, and all but the hardiest of the adults (that would be me) felt it was excessive. The halloumi burger group realized that product selection could make or break their meal. They tried gluten free buns for their first run, and those turned out dry and barely edible.
After these prototype meals, recipes were adjusted and our vegan chef friend came in to make a plea to use plant-based products. Again, the recipes were tuned to meet these new needs.
The same process was followed a couple weeks later as we went through creating activities. This time , children formed pairs and had ample room to brainstorm. We came together and shared our ideas. So many were chase games. A discussion made us consider just how many chase games we could have in two days. We finally agreed on a good balance of outdoor exploration, chase games, and indoor activities (who knows how the weather would end up?).
After working on the activity plans, we shared them and got feedback from the whole group through a gallery walk. Each plan was laid out on the table to be read, and comments added around them.
Creating something is worthwhile, but being able to adapt your creation to feedback is a whole new level of awesomeness.
The children also wrote their own autobiographical stories after reading model texts to inspire them. They looked at events in the lives of others, then chose something memorable from their own life. This piece was drafted a number of times, with peer feedback and work alongside adults to get to quality. It was a delight that so many children were proud of their writing and as they told these at the camp, and later told a section of their story to parents, they came closer together as a tribe.
The children created masks for their storytelling after playing with materials and ideas and developed journals for their reflections. Each mask was so different and individual. Again, the process of making and remaking, left the children feeling proud of their achievements. They had turned ideas into something of quality that they probably didn’t feel was possible prior to the start of the project.
The final step in our camp planning was the risk assessment. We discussed which would be three of the riskiest events and then worked through the school’s procedure for assessing risk. The students did an amazing job in predicting what dangers may lurk, and it was a great practice in building awareness.
The day finally came. Children had expressed how excited they were about the camp… a feeling I believe was accentuated by being directly involved in creating the camp for the past 6 weeks. We went through the packing list compiled by our students, filled with groceries purchased by the students and activities planned by the students. Getting on the bus felt great… it was our first proof that the plan was now officially in action.
When we got to the site, normal excitement and anxiety was felt, but the children were unpacking with a mission. They had meals to cook, knew what lay in store for the coming days, and felt a collective responsibility to ensure that we could enjoy as much of what we had planned together as possible.
It did help that the weather was sunny, and we were able to frolic among the hills in the beautiful Hungarian countryside.
Equally positive was the response as we had brought people together to discuss how we would need to adapt the camp as times went awry, and the realities of an outdoor campfire seemed a little colder than we had anticipated. My feeling throughout the camp was that the children were part of the decisions, and had a deeper sense of understanding as to what goes into making them as the camp progressed.
We left the camp better fed than expected, full of stories and with a collective feeling of joy and success in pulling off our residential. We had become a tribe, a group of people who recognize their interdependence.
Back on school premises, we debriefed. The first question: When can we do that again?
I have had a great deal of experience planning and running excursions of all types, from single day hikes to multiple week trips to remote off grid locations. What I saw these children put together was pretty spot on, from the balance of activities to meals that would be generally accepted but also healthy.
I think that the magic in the whole experience was that we were part of it the whole way through. This was not some nebulous event planned by a third party, this was one which we had taken into account the needs and peculiarities of our group and came about with a plan that had achieved consensus.
As a project-based learning experience, it definitely had the impact element on our community. It was not without its challenges though… one was how we could corroborate the camp plan with the design process. We effectively went through a full design cycle (which includes planning) on a plan… a very metaphysical spot for a young child to stand on. The meals provided a far more grounded “doing” element than the activity plans. It would have also been amazing to have site visits earlier on in the process to help the students dream of what tools they may have access to in their activities.
The fact that we were designing for our own pleasure and the purpose to bring us all closer together was a very powerful device. I could see connections being made between students, deeper understanding of one another, and the wonder in watching children build friendships.
My only question is… when are we going to do this again?