Summer reading camp beneficial for young students -- and their teachers

Jim Carlson
August 26, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If there’s one advantage to conducting reading camps for elementary students virtually, it’s that you can attract participants from Harrisburg to Howard and from State College to Starkville, Mississippi.

Nine Penn State College of Education graduate students completing their capstone course requirements for their Pennsylvania Reading Specialist certification mentored nine elementary students from here — and there — this summer, under the direction of Karen Eppley, associate teaching professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Caitlyn Ollendyke, an elementary teacher in the State College Area School District.

“This summer was different, of course, because of COVID limitations, but we were successful at creating an engaging, high-quality experience for campers that maintained the most important features of our former in-person camp,” Eppley said. “The online format allowed children to access the camp who otherwise might not have been able, making for a more diverse roster. The virtual platform also allowed for more individual learning for the Penn State students as well as the children.”

The capstone experience is worth six credits, three for planning the curriculum and three for the actual practicum when teachers are logged on with the children.

Ollendyke said the pandemic-induced restrictions did complicate the thinking about how to conduct the camp. “The traditional structure of the camp is that it's very emergent, it's very hands-on, and those kinds of things are harder to replicate in the remote space,” she said.

“It’s based on different limitations such as the resources, such as engagement … if you lose your internet for a second, you might lose an entire lesson. But it's how the Penn State students have been learning these last 18 months, so for them it was kind of a way of life.”

The intent, Ollendyke said, was to make the camp’s classes engaging and interactive for the students. Campers created a virtual museum and each camper chose an animal for their exhibit topic. The reading and writing that happened was in service of the creation of that exhibit.


Graduate student Jessica Gerhardt worked toward completing her Pennsylvania Reading Specialist certification during a summer reading camp under the direction of associate teaching professor of education Karen Eppley.

IMAGE: Submitted

Jessica Gerhardt, one of the graduate students involved in the program, said individualized curriculum and having flexibility as a teacher were key takeaways for her. “Our experience was not necessarily in the traditional environment we would usually work with students, but it allowed us to foster close relationships and get to know our students very well,” said Gerhardt, whose master’s focus at Penn State is curriculum and instruction.

“A natural result of this was the ability to design highly individualized lessons based on the learner's interests as well as their strengths and needs. I was able to pick skills that I know the student will see again in the future as well as design multiple exposures in the weeks we spent together. As a future teacher, I learned just how important it is to be prepared but also stay cognizant of the student's needs or tweaking things as you go to better fit the situation at hand,” she said.

Ollendyke said a Critical Friends Model was implemented to ensure that none of the Penn State graduate students were online individually with elementary students, but also to provide the teacher candidates with experience in a team-oriented supportive professional development model. 

“We used a Critical Friends Model where the Penn State students were put in groups of three, and they observed each other's lessons, met before lessons and had debriefs in order to support each other in their teaching,” she said. “They had two teachers observing everything they did, and they made a community within a community based on the Critical Friends Model.”

Gerhardt said having peers giving feedback in real time was constructive. “It was greatly beneficial to reflect on lessons to find successful aspects that I would continue to do, and even suggest ways for other teachers to try similar strategies, and brainstorm together how to make lessons even more successful,” she said.

“Watching what other teachers did with students did help give me ideas as to what I could tweak to fit my own student’s needs and even noticed things that were so individualized for the student at hand because all our lessons in our Critical Friends group looked so different. The diversity in planning goes to show how important it is to have highly individualized lessons that fit the learner's needs and interests when possible. Collaboration is a great tool that benefited us all through the structure of the Critical Friends Model,” Gerhardt added.

At the heart of the camp, according to Eppley, was the idea that readers read and write for authentic purposes. 

“The whole experience was focused on that production of an exhibit for the museum on a topic about which they were interested and wanted to learn more about,” she said. “One child read and wrote about dragons. Another one did bunnies. Another was very interested in French bulldogs. We followed the interests of the children to enable authentic, interest-driven opportunities to learn about their topic and share what they learned with others."

Eppley said each child read and wrote in different kinds of genres and then put that text together in a museum. “At the end, those individual exhibits were united under the topic of pets as a museum topic. Their contributions took the forms of poems, fact sheets, fiction stories, diagrams and drawings, and clay figures and models,” she explained.

Prior to the interaction with the elementary students, the graduate students explored particular literacy theories under the umbrella of socio-cultural theory and reviewed key literacy concepts such as fluency and comprehension. “Exploring multiple dimensions of literacy and them putting them into action in the camp is what the pre-teaching week was like,” Ollendyke said. “It was organized around an idea that literacy is multi-dimensional; it's not just socio cultural, it's not just cognitive, it's developmental and also linguistic.”

Eppley deemed the reading program a success because the children interacted with text in ways that centered on pleasure and agency. “The curriculum was emergent. It followed the children's interests, and for some children that was a new experience,” she said. “We were truly able to follow the child, and that lends itself well to kids working through their own curiosities and being able to follow their interests and working toward the production of an authentic literacy project that they wanted to share with others. 

“Campers often wanted to know if their words were spelled correctly, not because they were getting a grade on their writing, but because they knew that their families would be looking at their exhibit and they wanted to make sure the words were spelled correctly. That authenticity was really key.”

In terms of the teachers, Ollendyke believed that while some of the camp’s processes were viewed as limitations, in reality they were turned into affordances. 

“The one-on-one environment limited kids’ interactions with other campers, but the one-on-one environment allowed for a close relationship and close attention to detail with their teacher,” she said. “For the teachers, the technology enabled them to observe and learn interesting things about other’s teaching styles and point out things to their critical friends that would have been harder to do in another model. 

“At first, we had difficulty looking past some of the limitations of the remote space, but as we got started, we were surprised by other aspects, such as the ability to discretely coach the teachers in live-time; that actually worked really well. We used the use the affordances of the space the best that we could to meet camp goals, even in the remote space,” Ollendyke explained.

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Last Updated August 31, 2021