Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Catalyst Summer Writing Workshops

Hey! Spring is here, finally, summer is on the way...and we have tons of learning opportunities coming up here at Dodge, so don't blink. There's a Summer Dance Series (on the prairie!) and a Summer Concert Series (music in the gardens!). From the very young, to the very old, you are sure to find something that rings your bell. Check out the many public programs offered right through August. Plus, there are still Camp openings at the Preschool and the Nature Center.

And to toot my own horn, I am jumping into all this summer fun and offering a series of Writing Workshops on site. Check it out:

Marlais (me) Brand, Dodge teacher and writing teacher (I have some literature degrees, I've published a few things and I've led actual writing workshops for high schoolers, college students and adults).

Catalyst Summer Writing Workshops

"Let the landscape be your catalyst too.  Join me Tuesday nights for a mid-summer writing adventure. Each class will begin with a gentle early evening hike.  We will discover the hidden gems of Dodge Nature Center and focus on the flora and fauna that define this special place.  For the second half of each class, we will gather for a low-key, fun writing “workshop.”  Students will be invited to share their own writing for discussion and together we will read the work of various Minnescentric authors, taking a closer look at how they create a sense of place.  Participants are invited to write in any genre they like--narrative, memoir, fiction, non-fiction, poetry etc--no “nature” writing necessary, and no experience necessary.  

Writers we read may include Beryl Singleton Bissell, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Paul Gruchow, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Benitez, Vidar Sundstol and others."

Right here at Dodge Nature Center!
First class meets at the Preschool (1715 Charlton Street, West Saint Paul)
Subsequent classes meet at the lovely Lily property, in the gazebo (there's a fire pit too)

Tuesdays 6-8pm
June 24-July 29 (no class July 1st)

Why? will be an adventure, c'mon!

How Much?
Tuition is a mere $100
Dodge Nature Center Members and Preschool families get a $20 discount of $80

How to Register?
Contact me (Marlais) to register: or 612-978-9671

Don't forget to...
Bring a brief excerpt of your favorite writing about anything by any author to first class
Bring a notebook and pen or pencil and a sense of adventure
Wear shoes and clothing suitable for hiking (Mary Karr style heels are not a good idea)

You can also
Bring a water bottle
Bring bug spray (we'll be hiking in the early evening, remember)
Bring snacks (I'll bring some too)

*Added Bonus*
If you need childcare during class, we may be able to hook you up; an intrepid fellow writer of mine is trying to fund a trip abroad, just let me know in advance.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Friendship: The Ultimate in Experiential Education

Have you noticed that friendship is often forged in the fire of new experience?  When people, young and old, are thrown together in unfamiliar circumstances, they often bond, don't they?  Summer camp is legendary for friendship, among other things.  Kids meet other kids out of their usual context, and, as they work to sort out a new shared milieu, they sometimes embark on new relationships that end up lasting a very long time indeed.  From what I understand, many kids seem to find a particular joy in the special and separate friendships they establish outside of their "regular life."  My own kids have "camp friends."   Their camp friends are the kids they first met here at Dodge, the very first summer they attended camp.  And then, every summer thereafter, they have enjoyed re-visiting these friendships with the same little coterie of kids.  They've had some limited contact with these kids during the school year (they only live in the next town over), and mostly because life is so busy these days that maintaining friendships outside of your daily experience can be challenging.  Interestingly, at summer camp, kids just seem to pick up right where they left off, resuming that old friendship, and with very little baggage.  In a way, the friendship seems more accessible, as it is less complicated and likely based more on the immediate shared experience; kids are mostly living in the moment during summer camp, and they don't have the school performance pressure layered on top of that.  Maybe there is so much less at stake, that they can just relax into the shared fun.  And summer camp is not supposed to be work; fun and new experiences are sort of the stock and trade of summer camp-- friendship and activities are the priorities.  Summer camp is structured to promote activity and interaction, right?

I do think the structure of a new shared experience can be a handy excuse for pairing up or bonding in friendship.  We adults know that it is sometimes easier to meet new people when you go it alone in a new experience.  Travelling with collegial baggage can be great fun, but it can stand in the way of your reaching out to someone else too.  I think, however, that a new, shared experience itself can create enough camaraderie, that even when you are in the midst of it with friends, you end up relating or commiserating with new folks too.  Early this spring, in this blog, I detailed a frozen adventure Dodge teachers shared together.  We had great fun together, but we also enjoyed meeting new people during the expedition.  With people we had just met, we joked about apprehensions, bonded over shared fear of failure, and also wondered and gushed about all the beauty we found in the north woods.  The trip gave us an excuse to relate to these people.  Recently, at the May Day Parade in Minneapolis, my family held hands and sang, "You Are My Sunshine," with thousands of other people (I'm not a singer, per sae, and I certainly don't routinely break out into song in a public park; the occasion was the special excuse to relate to strangers).

Here at Dodge, whether at summer camp, or at the Preschool, we of course routinely see kids forge new friendships through shared experience; social relationships are certainly our stock and trade in early childhood education.  We see how important social scaffolding and a little bit of structure is for developing friendships.  Sometimes, in addition to promoting good manners, a requirement or an expectation imposed by a teacher or a particular project or program can sanction friendly relations and even sponsor true friendship.

Kids are often buddied-up to complete tasks at school, right?  Remember your high school lab partner?  Sometimes this pairing was loathsome, but sometimes it yielded unexpected results.  Sometimes you found out that a person you might never have found a reason to talk to was pretty interesting.  Some college roommates form lifelong friendships; sometimes they should go their separate ways.  In one of my classes, necessity and structure provided a fortuitous avenue to real friendship.

Here at the Preschool, we get to stick with many of our students for several years, following and supporting a child's progress over a nice chunk of time.  This year, I have followed and supported the social development of one student with particular interest and care.  Historically, this girl has struggled with feeling comfortable in her own skin.  She is so sensitive, in my opinion, that her hyper awareness of social situations has sometimes hindered her from taking social risks, from being unselfconscious and authentic.  In the past, she has made fun of the "girly games" some of her female peers play.  She has watched the "girly" play from afar and seemed to purposefully distance herself from it.  After digging around with her parents, we arrived at the idea that she desperately wanted to connect to these girls in her class, but was likely anxious about reaching out.  All thoughtful orchestrations around supporting interaction between this child and her female cohort seemed to backfire.  I had no idea that one simple, purely accidental action would yield the most terrific results for her.

One day, not so long ago, our entire class was setting out on a hike.  The kids were jazzed up and frankly rambunctious; it was the first really warm day and they were "off the hook."  Like so many spring lambs, they leaped around, over and into on another, running farther and farther afield and nearly out of earshot.  After racing to keep up with the group and issuing too frequent reminders to "slow down," I decided I just couldn't keep hounding the group to "stick together."  I made an executive decision and issued an edict:  break into pairs and hold hands.  I told them they were now "glued together," and it was their job to "stick together," no matter what.  Without thinking, I paired the girl in question with a girl who was the object of this child's most secret desire for friendship.  The two stayed glued together, hand-in-hand long past the time when all the other pairs of children dissolved.  They played through an entire afternoon, studiously holding hands, finding work-arounds when they had to scratch an itch, pull on a boot, take off a coat.  We marveled at their commitment and earnest mutual interest.  After some research with parents, we discovered that this was the best possible thing that could have happened for the girl, and for her new friend too.  The girl had been so loath to approach the child whom she desired for a friend, that my totally practical act of teacher desperation was a godsend for her.  From that day forward, the two proceeded down a wide avenue of friendship.  And from time to time, when she feels that things need a little push, my newly confident friend finds me with her eyes, cocks an eyebrow and says, "I think maybe we should buddy-up and find a partner today.  Things are getting kind of out of hand."  So now she and I both know how useful the excuse of structure can be!

Now we have an entire series of pictures of the new friends together in everything.  Weeks and weeks have gone by; the friendship is enduring.  My favorite recent shot shows the pair, chins up, Mona Lisa smiling straight into the camera's gaze.  I love the directness and confidence of their expressions.  Only after sharing this photo with colleagues, did I notice that the girls are still holding hands.

Of course, school, and most of our social institutions, are built around structures and conventions that are supposed to enhance how we all get along.  For the life of me, though, I can't think of a more elegant, more brilliant and direct example of how convention promotes friendship:  hold hands, be friends.  In these days of unmanned aircraft, robo checkouts, cash machines, texts and virtual reality, it is nice to see the power of the present and proximal in skin-to-skin, pulse-to-pulse relations.  Physical, close proximity contact with other people, just might be the best experiential education there is!

If you're young or old and looking for a handy excuse for a real time relationship with nature, or other people, try visiting Dodge for camp, or class or just a walk.  In addition to walking my talk at summer camp at this summer, I'll also be hosting a writing workshop here this summer; check it out!

Here's what some of our favorite folks are saying about Dodge summer camp and Adventures in Nature:

"My favorite part of camp is when imagination takes over and the campers practice magic, train to be a Jedi, or go hunting for Bigfoot."
--Mick Garrett, Naturalist and Camp Coordinator

"My favorite thing about camp is drop-off and pick-up time.  Seeing the excitement of the children in the morning about what they get to explore today, touch and smell.  Seeing parents leaving knowing their children are going to experience nature through environmental education.  Then at pick-up, hearing and seeing children excited to tell moms and dads about their experience, begging them to go on a hike so they can show them what they did and where they did it.  Absolutely awesome!"
--Jason Sanders, Executive Director

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Camp Happy

What is camp?

Camp can be a place where you temporarily live. Camp can also suggest a whole experience that encompasses activities, and maybe outcomes that we come to associate with immersion in certain meaningful pursuits.  We have a notion that camp is more fun than school, right?  Why?  Because it's outside?  Yeah, I think because camp is usually outside, or it was.

What is the history of camp in America?  According to Jon Malinowski and Christopher Thurber, people got "out of the woods" in the 19th century, and then, ironically, they yearned to "get back into it."  Malinowski and Thurber's musings about camp can be read online in, The Summer Camp Handbook.  In their, "A History of Summer Camp" chapter, they write:

"If you think about it, overnight camping is a somewhat strange concept.  As civilization evolved, people built shelters, walls, and eventually towns and cities to shield themselves from the savage wilderness and the uncertainty of nature.  Why, then, would people pay money to leave the safety of civilization and go back into the wilderness?  Because city folk increasingly appreciated the beauty of nature and the wholesome purity of country living.  Simply put, organized camping in the United States was a response to increasing urbanization.  Parents wanted their children to spend school vacations in lush natural settings that promoted physical health.  Also integral to a positive camping experience were upstanding cabin leaders who instilled solid values through their own sterling examples.  Although building young people’s character through organized camping began as a romantic notion, it evolved into a robust institution that truly practices what it preaches."

Organizations like The Girl Scouts, The Boy Scouts and YMCA have been largely responsible for delivering and shaping our notion of what social youth camping is.  Early camping was largely modelled on two big influences:  military and Native American culture.  Malinowski and Thurber:

"Bugle calls, uniforms, mess halls, and military-style daily schedules became part of most overnight camps.  These military traditions are still in use at many camps across the country.  Most camps that keep these traditions don’t try to be Army boot camps for kids.  However, the military legacies have survived because a regimented structure is indispensable to managing the activities and whereabouts of hundreds of children...The biggest proponent of Native American culture in camping was naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton.  Seton had been an early pioneer in the Boy Scouts, but after living with Native American tribes for many years he decided to pursue and promote a different approach to camping.  With the blessings of his host tribes, Seton took it upon himself to visit many camps and promote his “Woodcraft League of America.”  The Woodcraft League of America celebrated Native American values for all Americans.  Seton’s books and practices became well-known in the camping world, and at one point, the Woodcraft League of America was even more popular than the Scouts."

Fascinating to think about the emergence of camping in the context of our greater social direction-- industrialization and all that.  For some reason, my own young adulthood was peppered with movies about summer camp.  These movies were not works of art, but they seemed to reflect what we thought about camp in the era.  Here are some late seventies through nineties camp stereotypes from the movies:  rich kids go to la dee da camps where they wear expensive polo shirts, ride horses, water ski and are mean to townies, boys and girls get up to some serious hijinks at camp, camp counselors are either wackos or dimwits and serial killers tend to pop up at residential camps.  Bill Murray is synonymous with my own stereotypes about sleep away camp ( sorry, Meatballs).  A quick look at the Star Tribune's "Camp Guide" tells us that camp has come to mean so much more than mosquitoes and failing your swim test.  Nowadays, not only is every possible sport offered as a discreet camp experience, but most religions have their day in the sun as well, and not just in the form of good old Bible Camp.  Very specific disciplines and interests have camps devoted just to them.  Here is a greatly abbreviated list of diverse camps on offer in the metro area alone:

Advanced Mathematics Camp
American Fiddle Camp
Aviation Camp
Bowling Camp
Business Camp
Catholic Camp
Clay Camp
Circus Camp
Cooking Camp
Culture Camp
Fencing Camp
Goalie Camp
Irish Dance Camp
Jazz Camp
Journalism Camp
Llama Camp
Medieval Camp
Money Camp
Opera Camp
Scrubs Camp
Sewing Camp
Welding Camp

You get my drift, right?  Camping doesn't always involve anything like camping, and that's just fine.  But I would like to point out that here at Dodge, we hearken back to the early days of camping.  What we do here every day has a lot in common with actual camping, and what we are doing (working to connect people with our natural world) is most certainly a response to what can happen in our culture (people can forget that we are part of the natural world).  Our urge to spend a lot of time outside, educating our fellows about our world, stems from the knowledge that we are part and parcel of this world and it stems from our belief that, for the collective good of ourselves and our world, we do well to remember the fact that we are all connected, especially when it comes time to make decisions about how to share the planet.  So spending time outside not only feels good to us, it is good for us-- physically, psychologically and socially.  Camping seems to be about a conscious decision to live outside a lot, to find ways to have fun out there and to reap the rewards of that fun outdoor life.

That's why we made a camp with our afternoon Preschool class.  It doesn't have a name yet, but right now we're calling the place where we are having fun outside, "camp."  And we are calling that outside fun, "camping." Here's a recent e-mail from my colleague Amanda to our Spruce Room families and friends:

"May 2, 2014
This was one of those days that truly can’t be put into words.  It was that good.  We set up an entire camp.  An entire camp:  tarp awning tied in the trees, teeter-totter, balance beam, giant part of the old ropes course carted over for a stage, a stone-lined fire ring surrounded by a circle of logs, tables, chairs, decorations….oh my!  All throughout we discussed potential names:

Camp Playground
Camp Wet Feet (the 2nd)
Camp Teeter-Totter
Camp Dry Feet
Camp Sunny
Camp Dry
Camp Monkey Truck
Log Camp
Lake Camp
Bugs Camp
Camp Happy
Camp Dry Knees
Camp Dragonfly

Camp was a perfect place for snack, so good that we ate twice.  Corn chips and bananas half-way through and Lorna Doones to munch on at the end while Roland’s family joined us to read one of his favorite books, "Monkey Truck."  It’s also proving to be a perfect place for so much more-- camaraderie, ownership, teamwork, risk-taking, growth of all sorts.  I’ll let the photos do the rest of the talking:"

I think you can tell, just by looking at the photographs, that the kids seem to feel that this is their own special place.  They are excited, engaged, autonomous (but not lawless) and creative.  So far, the kids  are loud there, and also very quiet.  There is enough room to be together, enough room to roam within the safety of our view, and enough room to find a quiet spot to contemplate private things.  The kids are bonding over the space, relating to each other about how to use it, and, as of day two at camp, they are already creating their own rituals and routines in that place.  We take the same garden wagon to and from camp and we look for good logs and rocks on the way.  When we get to camp, kids sit at log "tables" and "chairs" in "the bakery" where they make dirt and leaf cakes and cookies to sell to each other.  We wash mud off in the pond.  There is one tall skinny tree and kids take turns testing their climbing mettle on it.  Kids take turns swinging three times from the same vine.  Everyone now calls hand sanitizer, "hanitizer."  We eat under the tarp tent.  The teacher sits on one particular stump when she reads.  We sing songs after our story.  Everyone jumps up on the old ropes course platform and dances.  This is a little village and we share it with the bugs and the birds and the frogs.

After a year together outside at Dodge Nature Center, we have bonded.  I think we are now enjoying some of that fabled sleep away camp effect.  Kids have bonded over a special experience in a special place.  It seems fitting that, here at the Preschool, at the end of a year, we are finally calling this "whole child" outdoor experience what it might be most similar to:  camp!

And camp never has to end!  Dodge Nature Center not only offers exciting camps to kids of most ages, the Nature Center itself is free and open to the public year-round, People.  Make Dodge your camp, formally or informally.  Grown-ups, you want in on the camp action?  Make it happen. Visit Dodge or any wild place with friends.  Keep visiting the same spot, develop some routines-- you don't have to hoist a flag or toot a bugle, but you can hike, picnic, play a guitar, tell spooky stories, hunt for bugs.  Heck, you can host any old formal or informal get together outside, you know.  Make it a habit.  Make it a year-round habit.  Take it outside.
FYI:  MAY 31st is Spring Camping for Preschool families here at Dodge; call 651-455-4555, sign-up and pitch your tent with us!