Hands-on learning

Vermont Humanities Council day camp in Brattleboro combines food with reading, math skills

BRATTLEBORO — Children jostle to share freshly picked blueberries, measure cups of flour, or investigate a written recipe. Two teachers are alongside to help.

It may look like a simple cooking activity, but it's really teaching key math and reading skills.

It's all part of “Food for Thought,” a week-long day camp funded by the Vermont Humanities Council's “Humanities Camp” program. It was held recently at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

As implied by the camp's name, area youth, ages 11-14, went on an exploration of local food and culture. At the same time, children with a range of abilities get a chance to practice their reading and writing, discussion, and math literacy skills in a supportive environment through learning activities both inside and outside the classroom.

This year, Brattleboro Area Middle School eighth grade teachers Elizabeth Scanlon and Julianne Eagan served as camp directors.

It is their second year planning and facilitating the camp together, said Scanlon, an English teacher at BAMS. While facilitating the camp, Scanlon found that she was intrigued by “how much food impacts our lives, culture, and memories.”

“We had a very full camp this year, with five on the wait list,” said Scanlon. Twenty children in all were registered.

Each year, the Vermont Humanities Council chooses three or four themes, complete with assigned reading and learning goals. Then they invite teachers from public schools around the state to send in proposals, including a weekly schedule of activities and field trips.

Twelve other humanities camps are being held this year on themes such as “Ancient Egypt,” “Music Made in America,” and “Poetry: Sounds and Senses.”

Jan Steinbauer, director of literacy programs at the Vermont Humanities Council, is pleased to bring the camp to Southern Vermont and to see how these teachers are making the theme their own.

“Every school uses their own community resources,” said Steinbauer. “The teachers are what really make it fly.”

All programs the statewide nonprofit undertake advance its goal of supporting Vermont as “a state where people can read throughout their lifetime” and participate in ways that promote civil engagement, said Steinbauer.

The Humanities Council provides enough funding so that participants come away with books to refer to throughout the camp and then take home, said Steinbauer.

“We want to provide home libraries,” Steinbauer said.

Students from a variety of backgrounds are encouraged to register, Steinbauer explained. When choosing participants for the camp, the school's camp coordinators are encouraged “to pick kids who could use it the most” allowing what she calls a “good mix of camp population and reading styles.”

The school's staff themselves often suggest the camp to students who might benefit from the literacy and reading support provided by the camp, adds Scanlon.

The week's activities included creating a recipe booklet, comparing how families around the world construct a food budget, and creating presentations on the history of a particular food or regional dish.

Camp participants were also encouraged to submit personal writing to the Young Writer's Digital Classroom, part of the Young Writer's Project, of which Brattleboro Area Middle School is a partner.

To learn about area resources and illuminate area concerns such as hunger and food scarcity, students learned about local food banks and explored ways to donate food, by collecting produce surplus from area farms or by donating food of their own.

“Part of what we'll do today,” said Scanlon on the camp's final day “is provide cobblers made yesterday to Bridgid's Kitchen.”

Students had picked the blueberries themselves, as part of a field trip to Green Mountain Orchards in Putney on Thursday.

For some, learning about area resources is more than just an activity. “Some of these students have personal experience with issues like hunger,” Steinbuerger said. “But they may not be aware of the resources.”

Devin Roberts, who will be attending eighth grade at BAMS this fall, said he has found this camp helpful.

Roberts said he enjoyed the opportunity to cook and research different foods and their history. “I'm not the best at English,” Roberts said, but added that this camp has made him more excited about reading.

Holding the camp at BAMS allows students to “get the lay of the land” and create positive associations with what may be their new classroom or new teachers, said Scanlon. Many of the camp participants will either be incoming eighth-graders, or participated in the camp when it was held last year.

“Almost every ... student who was eligible to return did return,” said Scanlon. “They had a really good time.”

Scanlon describes the week as “intensive” for both camp participants and teachers.

Camp participants, according to Scanlon, are able to “gain confidence as a learner and also see writing and reading as an enjoyable activity; that it's not just tied to a grade.”

Scanlon hopes they will also walk away with more knowledge of the resources available regarding food scarcity in their hometowns and have the “reassurance” that those resources are available if they are needed for their friends, family, or themselves, said Scanlon.

Kayla Haskins, a camp participant, will be going into eighth grade at BAMS in the fall.

“We get a new book each day, pretty much,” said Haskins. “I really like this camp.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates