By S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - For the second year in a row, students of Sacred Heart School in Lincoln returned to school for a week-long summer reading camp that is broadening their experiences with literature.
Funded in part by a grant from the Dillon Foundation and staffed by professional teachers from the school, the camp is an opportunity to help kids continue to develop good reading and writing skills over the summer.
“The camp helps students see the fun and excitement and beauty in literature and creative writing,” said Katie Zach, Sacred Heart’s middle school English and reading teacher.
For a five-day camp the $25 price tag on Sacred Heart School’s Summer Reading Camp is by far one of the most affordable summer enrichment programs available to Lincoln children. But even so, if a family can’t afford the tuition, scholarships are available.
Zach teamed up with Amanda Lowery, another Sacred Heart teacher for this year’s camp. Lowery taught the kids who were going into first through third grades, while Zach led the students going into fourth grade on up.
The teachers craft their own curriculum, drawing from their own favorite books and genres and combining creative writing, art and even theatre.
As the campers paused to eat the sack lunches they brought from home, Mrs. Zach talked about how her experience teaching in Catholic schools has made her comfortable with designing learning experiences that match the needs and interests of her students.
“Teaching in a Catholic school, I have the freedom to meet the students where they are,” she said.
For the summer camp, she comes into the first day of the week with a general idea, but rapidly adjusts once she meets the students.
“I narrow my expectations and guidelines when I see what the kids need,” she explained.
The one constant is that each of the books used in the Summer Reading Camp includes themes that build faith and morals.
“Even when we are not talking about God, the students are seeing Him in these virtuous, upright characters and in how those characters encounter evil and conquer it,” Zach said. “There are Christ figures, there are stories of resurrection and redemption and forgiveness, and the kids see that.”
During the week of June 23-27, the students read historic fiction. Last week – July 13-18 – the theme was fantasy fiction. In 2013, the camp met one week and focused on mysteries.
Zach has found that her personal fondness for certain literary genres is a big help for both her and the students.
“I love the freedom to design a unit around fairy tales and mysteries,” she said. “These are stories that I’ve loved and they can see that.”
In addition to reading, the students also have art projects and writing journals. For fantasy week, Zach raided her parents’ collection of kid-sized costumes so her students could put on a play.
Activities that help students creatively look at literature, she said, helps each student become personally invested in the stories.
“I think that it helps them take ownership over their own reading and writing,” Zach theorized. “It teaches them to think independently as opposed to thinking about what the teacher wants them to say or what the right answer is.”
The students met in Sacred Heart School’s portable classrooms, but both teachers also included plenty of time outdoors. Zach brought her students to the playground to work on their assignment: selecting one sentence out of their books to turn into a poem.
“I like this setting because the students are more relaxed and more open to school-based activities,” she said.
Another advantage from her perspective as a teacher is that even though the kids range in age, grade level and reading/writing skills, there are fewer of them.
“A smaller class size gives me the chance to have more one-on-one time with students,” Zach said. “It also gives the students chances to talk to each other and have discussion. That’s not doable with 24 kids in a class.”
Last autumn, she saw a “deepened enthusiasm and more acceptance for doing some class activities” among the Summer Reading campers when they returned to school.
“My hope is they develop a love for reading and find that same appreciation for literature that all of the great authors have found,” Zach said. “Not because they were forced to but because they found meaning in it.”
Zach would encourage other schools to consider the advantages of hosting a summer reading camp.
“It keeps students involved over the summer, keeps them active and thinking critically,” she said. “Our Summer Reading Camp gives our students ideas of what they can do at home besides watching TV or playing video games.”