Image5Do you remember reading a new book over the summer and diving headfirst into a new world, time period, country, and stepping into the shoes of someone with a different perspective?

This summer SCORE had the opportunity to visit Camp Explore, a program led by Lipscomb University Associate Professor Jeanine Fain that aims to encourage young students to read. Camp Explore was selected as one of 12 programs receiving a sub-grants to improve early literacy, as part of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Read to Be Ready, an initiative made possible by a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

The all-day program at Camp Explore focused on heavily on reading and writing in the morning, leaving afternoons to enrichment activities – anything from science experiments to a musical petting zoo.

The morning SCORE visited began with a group reading of Pete the Cat, led by a Camp Explore student. Group readings allowed the kids to practice reading aloud, sharing the experience with fellow camp-goers. The students practiced with the book beforehand in anticipation for the group reading. After the big group reading, the students broke into smaller groups and headed into classrooms for more intensive reading work.

As the students went to work with their teachers, Dr. Fain took the SCORE team aside to explain more about the program. She emphasized the importance of summer reading programs in combating “summer slide.” Summer slide is what many parents and educators call the regression students, especially those from low-income households, experience during the summer months. The mission of Camp Explore is to keep the learning going through the summer.

Camp Explore taught reading skills from a variety of angles. In one classroom, a teacher read aloud to her students from a picture book on Dorothea Lange, a Depression-era photographer. The teacher asked her students to talk about the main themes of the novel, asking them to support their thoughts with the words from the book. Then, students wrote about the text, connecting it to their own experiences with the writing prompt: “If you were a photographer, like Dorothea Lange, what would you take a picture of and why?” The students scribbled their answers, all highly original. One little girl said she’d take pictures of flowers, “because the petals are so beautiful.” Another said, they would take pictures of his favorite superheroes, because “they are awesome.” And another girl surprised us with a two-word answer, “howler monkeys.”

From our vantage point, it seemed like Camp Explore had found a thoughtful balance between summer fun and academic practice. This balance was important to Dr. Fain, who noted that she wanted students to be engaged with the Camp in a way that led to real growth. To ensure the camp was growing or at least sustaining learning gains, Dr. Fain and her staff documented the students’ progress weekly to better understand the program’s relationship to improved outcomes.

Outside of that data-driven effort, Dr. Fain took special consideration with both student diversity, parent involvement, and staff selection. She selected J.E. Moss in part because parents there were engaged with the school. Parent buy-in for many of these initiatives was important, she stressed, because Camp Explore asked parents to take time at home to read to their kids. Also, Dr. Fain wanted to select a location that supported a variety of students – students from different racial backgrounds and students with multi-lingual backgrounds. Finally, the team alongside Dr. Fain at Camp Explore were current or future teachers. She hopes that the skills and insights in this program can inform their practice, allowing them to better serve all students.

Although it was just a half-day of observation, I could sense that so many of the students were beginning to develop a love of reading. They, too, were going to relish and remember cracking open books over the summer and learning something new. But even more exciting, these kids were growing, picking up a foundation of skills, so they could start the year off prepared. At Camp Explore, students were truly reading to be ready.