HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Deepening the Conversation About What Schools Can Learn From Camps

by Marc Baker and Becca Shimshak Issue: Formal-Informal Education

The authors describe four core principles for integrating the best aspects of camp culture into day schools.

Rigorous classes, holiday celebrations, sports, arts, boyfriends, breakups, SATs, bus rides, trips, shabbatonim, tefillah, Talmud Torah, Hebrew, English, Chinese, Israel, America...

We believe that there is a growing need to ground our work in theory and to develop a shared language about what it means to bring the best of the Jewish camp experience to our schools.

The conversation needs to start at a deep level that touches the heart of the mission and culture of our schools and our overarching goals for our students’ learning and Jewish identity. A starting place for developing this shared language is by exploring what we’re calling a “camp state of mind” and how this state of mind can infuse our schools.

During Becca’s time at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, she and her colleague Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow explored the notion that the core tenets of camp do not have to be bound by time or space. Camp can be a way of life. Camp allows you to explore your identity by experimenting with new ways of approaching social situations and doing what you love. In a place where the goal of each day is to learn by doing, children can focus on living in the moment and staying present with themselves. Being away from the structures of home, children need to be independent, and with independence comes the need to take risks. Children can feel confident taking risks knowing that their peers and counselors are there to support them and that everyone is focused on taking healthy risks.

These components of camp—taking risks, feeling supported, focusing on personal identity and gaining confidence—do not need to be limited to time of year or geographic location. People can live by a camp mentality throughout the year if they understand life to be about being present, reflective and supportive of themselves and others around them. Our homes, our synagogues and our schools can become camp-like and embody that same spirit felt when you walk through the gates of camp and children are expanding their understanding of themselves, of Judaism and of life.

Core Principles

We suggest four common principles or commitments that schools infused with a camp state of mind would share.

A holistic view of the child and of the child’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual development.

In some schools, experiential learning, advisory, down time, even arts and athletics are seen as distractions to students’ academic work. At camp, these “other” aspects of the educational experience are the educational experience, without the “distraction” of academics.

Day schools have the opportunity to take an integrated and holistic stance toward our students and toward our educational programs. We need to view our educational value-added as what we call the “all-systems-go experience.” Rigorous academic classes, holiday celebrations, sports, arts, boyfriends, breakups, SATs, final exams, long bus rides, long days, trips, shabbatonim, tefillah, Talmud Torah, Hebrew, English, Chinese, Israel, America—all of these factor into the educational experience that shapes our students’ hearts, minds and Jewish identities, and all occur under one roof, all part of one year, one week, one day. Day school educators need to be explicit about the belief that these do not take away from the academic experience, but rather all of these are the “curriculum.” When we do this, we can be more proactive and intentional about how we construct all elements of our school’s explicit and implicit curricula, and about our overarching learning and Jewish identity goals for our students.

Educators and administrators as role models who see their relationships with students, both in and out of the classroom, as essential to their roles.

When our alumni talk about what they love most about Gann or what aspects of our program had the most powerful impact on their learning and growth, they inevitably begin with their teachers, who they know “care about them not just as students, but as people.” Great boarding schools understand the educational power of informal teacher-student relationships and therefore embrace the “triple threat” model in which all teachers also coach sports and advise students. How much more critical it is in our schools, where Jewish identity development is such a central educational goal, that all teachers, administrators, coaches, rabbis, and other educators embrace the multiple roles in the lives of our students.

Educators must take seriously their responsibilities as both formal and informal educators. At Gann, one of the core responsibilities of all educators, across disciplines, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, includes the role of “Jewish identity or Jewish journey facilitator. “ This comes more and less naturally to different educators. Often, “camp people” do this intuitively or have an easier time with roles beyond the classroom. But we cannot settle for a faculty of those who “get it” and those who don’t. This must drive hiring and professional development, and must be incorporated into supervision and evaluation as well.

An avirah (environment, ambiance) of informality, relaxedness, freedom, positive energy and joy.

One of the most important pieces of feedback we hear about families’ experiences of Gann is simply based on how they feel when they step in the door and walk through the halls. “There is something about this place,” people often say; “it has an energy, a neshamah.” We identify this indescribable feeling with the camp state of mind. These elements of the school avirah can make school feel “not like a school.” Rugs instead of tile floors, large open areas full of light and intentionally designed spaces for students to congregate and to collaborate, for academic, extracurricular or social purposes, create a tangible sense of community. Seeing students and teachers sitting on the floor to review an assignment, students doing homework in the dining hall, or jugglers practicing in the hallway, not to mention impromptu Jewish a capella performances, creates a palpable energy.

When adults address students, how and what do they say? Are they able to connect with the students “on their level,” and are they speaking about matters of values, of purpose, of Judaism and of life, or are they sharing technical information such as procedures and rules? How frequent and vibrant are students’ voices heard in the school and to what extent do students, through their leadership and creativity, help to shape the school’s culture and programs? The answers to these questions make a significant impact on our students’ learning and on the overall avirah in our schools.

It starts from the top, with the vision, values and commitment of the lay and professional leadership of the school.

If the camp state of mind is going to become part of our schools’ mission, vision and culture, we need boards and heads who speak this language, share this vision, and are prepared to dedicate resources to the programming and personnel. We also need to promote and clarify this aspect of our schools to various stakeholders, especially parents and teachers. Many parents worry more about how many AP classes their children are taking than about their social and spiritual development. We as leaders play a vital role in educating parents about their whole children and the educational importance of the camp state of mind.

It is also our responsibility as leaders to clarify for our teachers and administrators what it means to be an educator in our schools. When Marc arrived at Gann five years ago one of the most common questions he heard from teachers was, “What do you expect of me?” The implementation of these four principles begins with leaders who make them explicit and who are willing to hold themselves and their schools accountable to them.


These principles are foundations upon which our work at Gann rests. Our goal is to link these critical silos in our students’ development in deep and meaningful ways. We believe it is essential for leaders and schools to articulate these or similar principles in order to harness the success of Jewish camps for a sustained influence in day school education.♦

Rabbi Marc Baker is Head of School at Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts. He can be reached at mbaker@gannacademy.org.

Becca Shimshak is Director of Jewish and Student Life at Gann Academy, and former Program Manager at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She can be reached at bshimshak@gannacademy.org.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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