It was the last week of July 2001. Six freshman boys from Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine, joined Ryan Mahan and Averill Lovely, teacher-consultants with the University of Maine Writing Project at Crawford Pond in central Maine. They were about to embark on a six-day wilderness experience intended to change their minds about the value of reading.
In addition to their gender and school, these boys shared another commonality: they had all failed freshman English. They were, as Ryan Mahan says, “the disenfranchised.”
What can be done to help such students? Jeff Wilhelm, former director of the University of Maine Writing Project and now director of the Boise State University Writing Project, thinks he knows. His research has led him to conclude that one way to reverse negative attitudes toward reading among students such as these six is to put them in a situation where they must read in order to do something they want to do, to connect reading with a sought-after activity.
Acting on this premise, Wilhelm and colleagues at the University of Maine Writing Project conceived the idea of a boys’ literacy camp that would put students into an environment where reading would become real. They applied for and received a minigrant from the National Writing Project to fund the camp and then to see what it taught them about engaging resistant adolescents in the act of reading. When the grant came through, Wilhelm contacted Mahan and Lovely, two high school teachers who knew about and loved the outdoors and had a special interest in “bright kids who flunk English,” as Mahan puts it.
Here is Mahan’s account of how that first camp progressed:
We were on the move. We canoed, hiked, camped, rafted the Kennebec River, and read, always for the purpose of connecting reading and doing. We read whitewater training manuals for the Kennebec, then we went rafting; we read how to read a field compass, then we went bushwhacking up a mountain; we read about canoe safety, then we paddled our camping gear across a remote pond in northern Maine. We read topographic maps, cookbooks, car manuals, food labels, vegetation guides, and pamphlets on the history of Maine.
All this activity was recorded on film and edited into a movie at end of the experience. A process that was preceded, of course, by much reading about how to shoot a movie and how to digitally edit one.
There were a few glitches. There were some meltdowns on a vigorous hike, for instance. “We realized that for the next time,” says Mahan, “we needed to do a better job of getting the guys mentally prepared for these conditions.” And there was a next time. The next summer’s literacy camp involved students from two high schools, more reading and writing up front, and some post-trip get-togethers.
The ultimate payoff from these continuing summer camps was a way for teachers to work through ideas about how to make reading itself seem an important, useful activity for students not willing to engage just because their teachers say so. The camps have also helped teachers shift attitudes toward students whose performance may not reveal their aptitude. Reflecting on how the camps change teachers’ minds, Mahan says, “The guys surprised me every day. When the purpose was clear and they made decisions that counted, it was amazing to see the teamwork develop.” And developing right along with the teamwork was a new understanding of the importance of reading.