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Thursday, June 28, 2007

On dealing with parents who cannot be pleased.

On the second morning of camp, a parent came up to me and my co-director and told us that her son came home from camp and mentioned that there was a basketball net in the schoolyard, and could we play basketball. “Of course” we reassured her, but she was not done. She went on to talk about how her son “always comes home” and talks about how all he wants to do is play sports at camp, but never gets to play “real” sports. Always, I thought? Wasn’t it just the second day of camp right now? Hadn’t we only had one day of camp so far? Regardless, she went on to describe for several minutes how all he wanted to do was play more sports, which he went home “every day” to tell her.

That day, we played more “sports,” (keeping in mind that we work with 4 and 5 year old children, many of whom just barely have the whole running thing down.)

However, this was not enough. At some point during the day or evening, the parent called the main office and spoke to both the director of early childhood programming and the director of the whole community center. She was still not happy with the level of “sport” playing going on at camp, and demanded that more sports be played because again, her child was coming home every day and complaining that he hated camp and all he wanted to do was play sports. This was after two days of camp.

The person directly in charge of me and my co-director told us to just keep playing more sports with this child, regardless of the fact that we usually wait until later in the summer to play “real” sports at all because, again, while some of the children are ready for real soccer or kickball, most are at the developmental stage of practicing different movements such as running, jumping, skipping, etc.

More sports were played. Later that day we were informed that the parent was trying to demand a refund and pull her child out of camp, wanting to put him in a different, expensive, private camp. Per rules of the community center, no refund was granted, but we’ll see whether she ends up pulling her child out of camp anyway.

The interesting thing is, when I work with this child, he is almost always having fun, running and playing with his friends. He’s not having a horribly bad time at camp. He is participating in all the activities, playing all the games regardless of whether or not they are real “sports” or just running/jumping/chasing games.


That all happened early last week. A couple days later the child did not show up at camp. Since I didn’t know the child was going to be absent, I had to call the child’s house to make sure the parent knew the child was not at camp. I called, no one answered, and I left a message, saying that I hoped to see the child the next day at camp. An hour later, the person one above me on the camp-hierarchy told me that the child’s mom had decided to send him to Private Camp for the morning to see if he liked that better and that he may show up in the afternoon.

Needless to say, he never came back. We are down one camper.

It was unfortunate because the children, in general, love camp. Of all the childhood programs I have worked at or observed this camp is the one that I almost always love. It has an incredible counselor to camper ratio. The children have the opportunities to do a large variety of activities. When the counselors are competent the campers are constantly busy and rarely seriously misbehaving. We don’t get many supplies, but we find creative art projects to do with the materials we are given.

I think that my biggest frustration with this though is the message it is teaching the child who left camp after less than a week. His parent began complaining the second day of camp, and essentially had made her decision at that point to move him to private camp. This is telling the child though, that everything should be tailored specifically to him. In his short tenure at camp, we were told that we had to incorporate more “sports” into the day, essentially changing the goals of camp, just because one child’s mother complained. The boy himself, while not the best listener, never complained about his dissatisfaction with the way camp was going while at camp, at least.

It’s a shame; the child had a lot of friends at camp that he will not see as often anymore. The plus side? A parent who was practically guaranteed to do nothing but cause problems is gone from the mix.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Responsibility in Storytelling

Last week I went to a Crisis Prevention training as a requirement for my camp job this summer. The person leading the training session told a lot of her personal stories. She talked about the experiences she has had with children, occasionally directly related to crisis prevention, sometimes tangentially related, and frequently not at all related to crisis prevention.

Throughout the training I sat, trying to absorb the information and take notes, but also observing the other adults in the room laughing at and thoroughly enjoying the tales the instructor was telling.

This "storytelling" made me uncomfortable. What was the the value of the anecdotes we were being told? Were they helping us learn how to deal with children experiencing stress, or were they simply "funny" and entertaining stories? In her book chapter "Are you makin' me famous or makin' me a fool?: Responsibility and respect in representation" Appleman¹ discusses the care that must be taken when writing about other people. Reading this chapter last semester impacted the way I have read, interpreted, and analyzed all subsequent books and articles. Appleman's reflective analysis of the ways she has used anecdotes in the past, and the impact this potentially has on those she is writing about, have subsequently reminded me to always take note of the purpose and effect of these types of stories.

When I write about an experience I have had with a child (or anyone, for that matter) what is my purpose? Am I attempting to reflect upon the experience, using written word to organize jumbled moments into coherent thoughts? Am I recording an experience in writing in hopes of having something to refer to later which may help me to deconstruct future experiences? Or, am I simply telling the story to laugh at something funny the other has said or done?

I feel that the woman in charge of my Crisis Prevention training was telling many of the stories she told solely to entertain. This is something with which I disagree. Whether or not this was her direct purpose, the only value I could ascertain was one of entertainment, and that makes me uncomfortable. The children she was talking about are real people with various difficulties and life experiences. I appreciate that she gave examples of times during which various crisis prevention methods should be used and other time during which crisis prevention should not proceed beyond a certain point. However, her details and stories were recounted to excess. These were beyond the point of what Appleman would call responsible storytelling. These anecdotes were meant to shock and entertain first, and perhaps teach and inform second. (Although I do doubt that some of these stores were told with even the intention to teach or model.)

Perhaps I am being oversensitive. After all, everyone else in the room seemed to be enjoying themselves - this included people around my age as well as people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Maybe the fact that I am still enmeshed in the world of academia, mentally if not physically, allows me the luxury of mentally critiquing a trainer who obviously has much more experience than do I. Maybe it's the idealism that I hope to hold on to as long as I can. Maybe it's just my continued striving to be the best educator/person I can, to tell stories only with a purpose and not to mock or exploit the children's actions. I don't know. I do know though that throughout the training I felt uncomfortable with the type of anecdotal stories being shared, and the ways in which the other adults in the meeting were reacting to the tales. I immediately thought of Appleman's book chapter, which has greatly impacted the ways I read ethnographic accounts and the ways I create (in spoken word or in writing) stories of my experiences with children. The fact that a professional seemed to break a rule which I have created for myself only makes me more aware of the importance of only telling stories in responsible and productive ways.

¹Appleman, D. (2003). “Are you makin’ me famous or makin’ me a fool?” Responsibility and respect in representation. In Greene, S. & Abt-Perkins, D. (Eds.), Making race visible: Literacy research for cultural understanding (pp. 71-84). New York: Teachers College Press.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

I am kind of a boss, and that makes me a little nervous.

I am going to be spending a lot more time around young children, as full-time day-camp (this needs a name, let's call it KinderCamp, as the campers are all entering Kindergarten in the fall) is set to begin soon, and the pre-camp mini-session has already has begun.

I have always liked, nay, loved KinderCamp more than I can possibly explain. KinderCamp was always the one place in which I felt totally and completely confident in my abilities. I am a good camp counselor. This is one thing I know. I have horribly low academic self-esteem, I often feel self-conscious around peers, and "grown-ups" tend to scare me. But at camp, I am a rock star.

Thus, it was a shock when, several years ago I was not promoted to a position with more responsibility, despite the fact that several people in high positions-of-power at the camp had told me the previous summer that I would most certainly be promoted the following year. Over the winter there was administrative readjustment, and the new boss didn't appreciate my years of experience (and seniority), excellent evaluations, or relevant academic coursework. The ensuing summers had other issues which resulted in me not being applicable for this promotion, so I didn't apply again until this year. After an interview, which concluded with the interviewer saying to me, "Well, you seem kind of passive, but I think we can work with that..." I was finally hired.

And then I began to question myself. KinderCamp is in Hometown, from which I feel more and more separated each time I return. I think I have more intense culture shock returning to Hometown from SchoolTown than I did going from Hometown to Mexico for my study abroad. Hometown is very privileged and white and the people in it kind of drive me crazy. (I know, I'm sure I sound like every college-student-returning-home-from-school. And all I can to that fact is, "okay.")

As I was getting ready before pre-camp mini-session today, the other counselors were all talking about their sorority houses and tanning and buying new SUVs and I was just sitting there (or rather, I was walking around the room putting up camp-decorations) listening and rolling my eyes (though hopefully this was a mental eye-roll, and not an actual eye-roll). All I could think about is how I am not, nor have I ever been that person. And my God, am I glad. I like who I am (despite my many neurosis).

But my big worry is, I am going to be in charge of a couple handfuls of these people this summer. I will be overseeing the counselors and I have to not let me disdain for the town and its (in my opinion) misguided values (ie: Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, Starbucks coffee, love of Suburbia) affect my perceptions of the ways in which they fulfill their roles as counselors. And really, I know I probably sound like a complete jerk writing this, however it is an actual concern for me. I am currently grumpy and stressed, due in large part to my constant worry about the Future and what I will do upon completion of my student teaching in December, and this is making me resent Hometown even more than usual.

Interestingly (to me at least) none of this is what I came here to write about. I think I came here just to mention that I'm a little nervous about being in charge of other camp counselors, because I have noticed that I am a bit controlling. Or rather, I hold myself up to incredibly high expectations when it comes to my job, and as the boss of others, I hold them up to these expectations as well. But really, most of these counselors are 15-year-old high schoolers. They aren't going to be perfect and I have to understand that. Though at the same time I do have to make clear my expectations and hold them to these expectations. When I was 15 I wasn't a great counselor either, it took me a few years before I really hit my stride. I've been doing this camp thing for 10 years now and I know a lot more than the beginning counselors. Therefore, while I am responsible for showing-through-example and verbally (and in writing?) setting expectations for these "beginners" I have to accept the fact that they are not me, nor are they me 10 years ago, nor will they be me 10 years from now. Okay, that's phrased strangely. What I want to say is, I am going to need to work to find the medium between letting my counselors put in the minimum of effort, and forcing them to meet my perhaps-not-quite-attainable sky-high expectations.

This new position is going to be more difficult for me in this regard than in the actual being responsible in more ways for more children, communicating more frequently and fully with parents/caregivers, and having more responsibility in regards to liability. These other aspects I feel prepared for, because they involve only me, and I know that I am responsible and competent. When it comes to the other counselors though, I have no direct control over their minds or their actions (though that would make the camp day a bit more interesting...). I must give up my desire for that type of control and allow them to be the individuals that they are, and this includes their weaknesses as well as the many strengths I'm sure they all have.