“Look at Me!”

By Gary Forster

There are many reasons we become camp counselors, program directors and camp directors. For many, the rush we get from “performing” in front of a group is a big one. Whether we have the chance to lead a camp song, make announcements at the flagpole, or act during Skit Night, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from connecting with an audience.

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For some of us, performing came naturally. Others only became good after years of practice (like those “overnight sensations” in the music industry). In either case, for many, the first chance to perform actually happened when we were campers, which is my point. As you plan out your summer performances, be careful not to shine the spotlight too high on the organizational chart. Just because a director can do it well doesn’t mean she or he should be the one to do so.

Camp Performance Dynamics
To decide who should do what and when, you first need to understand there are two dynamics at play.

First, this culture idolizes entertainment. We like to sit and watch stuff, the fancier the better--big shows, big stars, big movies. When we go to camp, it’s natural to think our campers want to sit and watch stuff, like they do at home. As result, we have counselor skits, staff talent shows, guest performers and (most unfortunately) movie nights.

None of these things (with the possible exception of movie nights) are bad. There is absolutely a place for terrific staff performances at camp--having a counselor who is an excellent singer perform a song to create an emotionally charged opening or closing day, or a camp director telling a heart-felt story of character and growth.

But, there’s a second point. Camp is supposed to be a place where kids and staff feel safe to try new things--easier than anywhere else. Those things can include singing, being a leader and serving others. For over one hundred years, kids and counselors have learned self-confidence through singing camp songs, performing skits and creating carnival booths. But at many camps this long-successful “participation” style is being replaced by “campers as audience.”

Let’s see if we can change that!

Counselor Spotlight Activities
Song Leading
This is tailor-made for young counselors. But, like all things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here’s the right way:

  • Only one person teaches a song at a time, none of this “Who wants to come up and help me teach this?” (The same thing goes for giving announcements.) A team approach only leads to, “Do you want to go first, or should I?”

  • If it’s the first time for the song, actually teach the lyrics. You can use a variety of techniques: repetition, a line at a time, overhead projector. Pick one and run with it.

  • Never start out a song with "Ready, one ... two ... three.” It's a clear give-away that you're not confident in leading it and are afraid to sing the first note. You're, in fact, not even going to sing the first note; you're going to let someone else sing it! That creates a huge mess because people start on several different keys, and it sounds horrible. So just start singing. The reason people don't join you on the first word is they have to hear you start to know the key. That's why it's such a good technique to start with a dragged-out first word, like "Ohhhhhhhh” or "Waaaaaaay," because it lets everyone hear the note and join in when you start.

  • Most important, keep it slow the first time through so kids can hear the words and keep up.

Remember, great songs can’t be sung too often, but they can be sung too seldom. A general rule should be at least one repeat for every new song taught.

Flagpole, Mealtime or Devotions Host
Acting as the host for flag raising/lowering, mealtime announcements or devotions is a great way for young counselors to learn the fine art of performing. Here are some suggestions to help them pull it off the first time:

  • Start on time, even if not everyone is there. Don't penalize those who are early by making them wait for those who are disrespectful and late. But don't put the most important announcements up front.

  • Follow the lead of concert promoters and have a "warm-up" act. Songs or a silly skit are perfect. You've started on time, with good entertainment, and those who are late will run because they can see they're missing something. Then go into your announcements, chapel service, etc.

  • The host should never have to discipline latecomers or noisy campers or staff in the crowd. That should be the job of the other directors present. They should quietly slip in behind the “trouble” spot and handle it with a simple hand on a shoulder, nod of a head, or raised eyebrow.

  • Try not to be too early or too late for meals. Have an extra song or song-leader "in your pocket" to fill time if you're early. (If you go to the dining hall early instead of singing, the kids are getting cheated.) Likewise, try not to be late, and figure how to keep things on schedule.

Camper Spotlight Activities
Why are we so naturally driven to keep control at higher levels? It’s rampant around us. “Helicopter parents” hover over their kids and shield them from any self-responsibility; risk managers would rather cancel an activity than find a safe way of doing it; this leads to a “not-me” generation that seeks blame for everything.

It didn’t use to be that way. When you were a kid, you heard your parents say, “He’s got to learn it for himself sometime.” The saying “getting back up on the horse” actually once meant that falling off the horse was seen as a necessary rite of passage, that small failures are not only unavoidable, but an important part of learning.

Unfortunately, with role models like their own parents, it’s easy to see why today’s camp counselors tend to have their own control issues.

For example, do you assign a camper group to raise the flag each day?

If so, watch how many times the counselor is the one who clips on the flag and hoists the rope. That’s not a counselor skill. That should be a camper opportunity, but we get impatient and fail to plan ahead.

Imagine it another way:

A counselor knows her group’s assigned day for flag raising/lowering is Wednesday. She tells them on Monday what an honor that is, and that she’d like them to be really good at it when they’re in front of the whole camp.

On Tuesday she schedules a block of time just for practice. They go to the flagpole, she explains all the jobs, she helps them pick their roles, and then they practice. They make mistakes: too slow, too fast, the flag touches the ground. They laugh, they get praised each time they get portions of it approximately right, and they get to the point where they can do it without any help from the counselor, not even getting the flag from the camp director.

Want to make it even more special? Get a bugle call recording (or have a counselor burn a CD), and have a camper push the button. Best of all options? Find out which campers play the trumpet, and ask them to do it live. Magic!

What else can we have campers do?

  • Announce the clean cabin award

  • Dismiss the group to lunch

  • Introduce the skits

  • Pass out the mail

  • Hand out sports equipment

  • Referee the staff soccer game

  • Take the photos for the Web site updates

Challenge your staff to look for new ways, and reward them for their initiative. The real rewards will come in the faces of the campers, and when they come back as counselors.

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.