Involve the parents

Ben Laws
Deputy Principal, Bracken Ridge State School

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For this issue we had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Laws, Deputy Principal of Bracken Ridge State School in Brisbane.

Ben has been on field trips and field camps with Year 6 and (the previous) Year 7 classes for 15 years. Like many other Year 6 groups heading out Ben ensures that they engage in both leadership retreats and adventure retreats, with the former usually held in the earlier part of the year and the latter towards the end. Group sizes are commonly 45 – 60 students.

Working at a Brisbane city school Ben achieves both leadership and adventure experiences for his students by taking them into the surrounding regions. For example, the Alexandra Headland Surf Life Saving Club on the Sunshine Coast provides an excellent program incorporating leadership and adventure activities into a well appreciated surf awareness program. Their programs are simple but provide great outcomes said Ben.

In our discussion Ben elaborated on student perspectives. In any student population he said students have a diversity of needs, not all of which can be catered for in house. Thus well run field trips and camps are most valuable. Ben spoke on the improved behavioural standards that emerge. New friendships are created amongst students, more tolerance of diversity is expressed, and unknown skills are revealed and applauded bringing new self-belief, amongst other benefits. Whilst some of these behavioural changes are not permanent Ben says that he enjoys them whilst they last.

Ben disagrees with the perception that field trips and camps are difficult to organise or run especially if you involve the parents from the beginning. Basically he argued that it comes down to how well organised you are and how well informed the students are about the forthcoming experience. To this end he heavily involves the parents ahead of the trips by providing them with background and educational materials that they can discuss with and use to encourage their own children. This parental interest and involvement markedly improves the attitude of the group departing, as well as the eventual outcomes and learning experiences. Indeed this is just one strategy that Ben encourages amongst his staff to ensure that novelty effects (see this issue) are minimised and learning outcomes enhanced.

Growing experiences

Rick Tranter
Rivermount College, Yatala

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In this issue we explore the experiences of a camp coordinator from the Primary School ranks.

Rick Tranter has been engaged with Year 6 field camps for 13 years at Rivermount College, taking groups of 65-70 students on leadership, communication and personal growth experience camps.

Rick notes that Year 6 groups are not without their challenges, being as they are on the cusp of adolescence. Some have never slept away from home and some fear being far from parents. Some students are also still experiencing concerns regarding bed wetting. And given the diversity of maturity of the participants, peer pressure issues come forth at these times. For these numbers of students Rick says they take at least five teachers and three parent-helpers.  To enhance these ‘growth’ experiences the camps chosen are also sufficiently distant to take the students out of their comfort zone and no mobile phones, games etc. are permitted.

Fortunately Rick says that he came on board with an experienced camp organising team who had bookings and processes in place. It was also important to him that this age group experience a retreat (which for many would be their first) at an experienced and professional camp, with support programs, quality facilities, catering teams, security and the like. Though they travel by bus, they also ensure that one additional passenger vehicle is always available on site.

Rick spoke with passion and emotion over the benefits of a Year 6 field camp. He says that the 24 hour days shared strengthen teacher / student relationships.   Students are challenged by issues outside of school, and such camps become a catalyst for behavioural change. Students start to see that teachers are not just formal educators, but are people who are available and are someone they can count on. The teacher is now outside the box referred to as the classroom and is perceived as a caring adult – someone who barracks for them.

As a result of many years’ experience Rick strongly endorses Year 6 leadership, communication and personal growth experience field camps as a prelude to High School.

That is not surprising, as ‘growing experiences’ was a statement used many times by Rick, and a philosophy that underpins his passion for field camps.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Margaret Overs
Mansfield State High School

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Margaret Overs has been organising and participating in field camps for music students at Mansfield State High School for 22 years, and has overseen incredible growth in this program. So it was with great pleasure that we interviewed Margaret for this first edition of Teacher Talk

Margaret advised us that, not long after her arrival at Mansfield State High, the Principal of the day sought a growth model for students in the music program. A key component of this model was to take students on retreats. This was designed to combine groups, provide focussed training with guest experts, and to build relationships. Staff were also encouraged to undertake professional development with the experts whilst they were on site.

The results were outstanding! When they started this program there were 60 students. In 2015 there are now 700 students engaged. In May this year they took 265 students – 3 bands, 3 orchestras and 3 choirs to Alex Park.

When asked what has been the most important outcome of her camps Margaret replied that it brings the students and staff together, allowing student – staff bonding outside of their formal settings, and it also encourages students to express themselves. ‘The students look forward to the camp.  They plan their costumes well in advance and their outfits for bowling.  For many it is the highlight in the year.  For me it provides opportunity to chat with the students and to sit and eat a meal with my staff’.

When asked what has been the most challenging aspect of field camps Margaret was quick to reply that it is the legalities and paperwork. An important strategy in the face of this she says is attention to detail.

It was on these challenges that Margaret provided her most valuable comment – You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Her advice to novice field trip coordinators was do not struggle alone, but seek assistance from experienced staff. Yes it is time consuming and challenging first time out, but it quickly becomes more of a routine and is well worth the effort in the long term.

We would have to agree with that. Taking student numbers from 60 to 700 in the program speaks louder than words.