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A summer's swim into learning

Kristen B. Morales

September 9, 2016

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As she applied small pieces of masking tape to an empty tea can, 11-year-old Talia Henderson admits that her summer plans did not involve spending time at Clarke Middle School.

Granted, the rising sixth-grader is happy to get to know what will be her new school in the fall. But until her mother stated that she would be attending Camp DIVE during the month of June, Talia's plans were decidedly less academic.

"I'd be on Musical.ly," said Talia, referring to a music- and video-based social media app on her phone. Her friend Ashari Potts, also 11, had similar plans. "I'd be at home watching TV and playing on my iPod," she said.

But the camp is a nice change of pace, they said. "I don't want to stay home and be bored until my mom comes home," added Joh'nae Thompson, 12.

The girls were among more than 80 Athens-area students to take part in the inaugural year of Camp DIVE, a free, daylong summer camp coordinated by the College of Education in partnersip with the Clarke County School District. Part of the goal behind the program is to fight that summer boredom through two-week classes in topics such as robotics, local history, food production and literacy.

The camp gives kids the chance to experience these academic topics in nontraditional ways, with additional literacy-focused programs to help give students a boost in their reading skills during the summer months.

"It has been so amazing to have two years of planning and preparation actually come to life, and wonderful to see kids engaged and having fun," said camp organizer and clinical associate professor Janna Dresden. "Those of us doing the organizing and teaching have already learned so much and are beginning to think about changes, both large and small, for next year. But our goal, of creating a community of learners, has certainly been realized as we are definitely learning along with the UGA students and CCSD campers."

But along with giving elementary and middle-school students a place to think, Camp DIVE also gives College of Education faculty a place to create lessons that push beyond what's found in a typical classroom, and a place for students in the College to hone their teaching skills. In this way, the camp extends the reach of the College's Professional Development School District partnership, a program with the school district that brings faculty and students into local schools.

Embracing the drama One morning, as middle-schoolers sat around a classroom in Clarke Middle School's C hallway, they are posed a question: What would you change in your community. But rather than write their responses in an essay, the graduate students teaching the "Youth!Athens" class encourage them to think of other ways to express themselves. Maybe the kids can use digital recorders to tell their stories? Maybe they can spend some time taking pictures of their issues, and present them to the class? Maybe they can act out a scene from their life, or create a video piece?

While the students digest this, the College of Education students teaching the class pay attention to their reactions. Some are hesitant to participate, while others are quick to embrace one technology over another.

And that's perfectly OK says doctoral student Jason Mizell from the department of language and literacy education. This is a time, too, to let students have space and find their comfort zone with their teachers.

"We gave (one student) space, but as we went through the activities, now he's stepped in and is part of the process," said Mizell. "So he's had a chance to build that trust with a teacher."

And because the students have different resources available to them and can choose how they tell their story, they are more engaged in the process. "It makes them want to learn," he added.

Community partnership The Camp Dive days are structured with literacy in mind, but also with an eye to different ways to engage the students. Mornings feature a community- and literacy-building activities, followed by the different classes. After lunch, volunteers from various community organizations come to teach the students about other topics or get them involved in other activities.

One afternoon, for example, Tyler Dewey, executive director of BikeAthens, worked with middle-schoolers on how to fix a bike. Down the hall, local artist and College of Education alumnus Jamie Calkin worked with elementary-age students on a mural. The kids drew pictures of friends and houses, with Calkin planning to incorporate them into his Camp DIVE-themed piece.

And on Fridays, the students get to go on a field trip. Locations are near and far—for example, the Georgia Museum of Art, the Athens Land Trust Urban Farm or the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.

In the end, says Mizell and his fellow grad students, he hopes the experience will not only help the kids stay engaged over the summer, but also show them that learning is more than sitting at a desk in a classroom.

"This keeps their mind working, but it's also letting them know they have a voice, and it is worth our while, as adults, to listen to them," he said. "For a lot of these kids, this is the first time they are in a school space where they have been asked their opinion and it's heard."