Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Boot Camp Model for Deeper Informal Learning

A few years back, I read about the Fayetteville Free Library's forays into Geek Girls Camp--a weeklong summertime program during which the same group of girls came to the library every day to explore, learn, and build on what they were doing each day. It's an intriguing model: more sustained learning for a core group of program participants than a typical one-off program, with the resulting outcomes of greater increases in skill and confidence among the attendees.

Now I don't know about your library, but at mine, we'd have to majorly shuffle around our program schedule in order to offer even one single all-day, weeklong camp program like this one. Considering our already robust, well-attended program schedule, reducing typical programs to add one really, really big one like this just isn't feasible at our current levels of capacity and community participation. The idea kept rattling around my brain, though. After all, if there's a way to support deeper informal learning for kids in the library, it's something I want to seriously consider. And consider it we did.

That's no rave... that's a Robot Dance Boot Camp!

Starting with winter break of last year, we've made our own foray into the camp-style program for kids: boot camps. For us, the boot camp model means a few things in terms of program formatting:
  • Each boot camp program has a core theme, with all activities taking place during the sessions tying into that theme.
  • Each boot camp has an intended age of attendees that will facilitate age-appropriate peer learning. We tend to offer boot camps for grades K-2 or grades 3-5, not spanning the elementary age range too far in any single program.
  • Each boot camp meets at least two days in a row, potentially three. Depending on the age of attendees and content planned, each session ranges from 60-90 minutes long.
  • Boot camps take place during weeks school is not in session: winter break, spring break, and during the summer.
  • Boot camps benefit from multiple instructors: as a minimum, we try to have at least one lead instructor for all sessions on a theme with another staff member to assist each day.
  • The boot camp topic determines the ideal number of participants, with a standard range being 12-20 kids.
A lot of these best practices for our kids' boot camp programs came from years of learning what does and doesn't work in our community when it comes to programs in a series--which is essentially what a boot camp program is. In years past, we'd offered multi-week series programs; for example, a 3D printing program that met every Monday for four weeks. As you can imagine, even though interest was extremely high for these programs, attendance was rough--we found it was difficult for families to commit to attend across multiple weeks because family schedules just aren't that consistent. And so we developed a boot camp model with back-to-back sessions on consecutive days, making it easier for families to schedule their kids to attend all sessions.

We also require that all attendees participate in all of the offered boot camp sessions. That is, if it's a three-day boot camp, the registered child can't be planning to miss even one of the days. That's been something of a shift from our default attitude about program attendance--many families had gotten used to signing up and then deciding to show up on the day-of, rather than clearly committing to attend or canceling should they be unable. That more lenient mode works for us for one-off programs, where we then fill vacant spots with wait list or walk-in participants. Not so for multi-day boot camps, however, where each day builds upon the last. Kids need to be present for all days for the boot camp to be meaningful.

To that end, we employ two core strategies. First is very detailed reminder calls to all registrants. Our library's program assistants call every single family with a child registered for a boot camp, and during that call they remind them a) of the schedule and b) of the expectation that the child will attend all days. Then the program assistant asks, "Will your child be able to attend all sessions?" If the answer is "no" the program assistant once more explains the expectations before removing the child from the registration list. Any time we remove a child from a boot camp because they won't be able to attend all days, we follow that explanation with an invitation to attend a similar upcoming one-off program event. So while a child might not be able to come to a boot camp because they're not available both days, we still leave them with options for other library programs. (We do something similar if a kid shows up on day 2 having missed day 1.)

The second strategy to facilitate all-days participation: the coolest stuff happens on the last day. If it's a boot camp with a creative or art component, that means the core project isn't completed and ready to take home until the end of the final session. If it's a tech or coding program, that means we don't show off the programs we've created until the end of the final day. When all activities in the boot camp build up to a final product or show-and-tell, motivation to participate throughout is strong.

As I mentioned, we've been offering this style of boot camps for three school breaks now, with another set coming up this winter break. In all those camps, we've averaged one child dropping out after day one at each camp--usually a kid who wasn't interested in the topic, but whose parent insisted they try it anyway. The rest of the kids are in it for the long haul, really developing their skills, honing their creations, having conversations with their fellow attendees, and overall engaging in deeper learning than we can typically support in a standalone one-hour program.

Curious what topics we've explored with boot camp programs for elementary age kids? My colleague Amy and I have led, and written about, our Scratch Jr. Code Boot Camp (grades K-2) and our Robot Dance Boot Camp (grades 3-5). We also offered a two-day DNA boot camp this past summer (grades 3-5), and we're about to offer a two-day Baking Chemistry Boot Camp (grades 2-5), where we'll explore the chemistry behind basic baking skills while making three yummy baked goods. Other staff have also lead camps on puppetry (sessions for grades K-2 & 3-5); enchanted forest-themed games, crafts, and stories (grades 1-4); basic video editing (grades 4-6); 3D printing (grades 3-5); and simple sewing (grades 3-5). Some colleagues will also be offering a winter nature-themed boot camp in early January, with sessions for grades K-2 and 3-5.

We've found this boot camp model to be really successful at our library: there's always plenty of interest (so that we're thinking about when to repeat camp topics); staff are invigorated to create boot camp activities in areas of their own interest and expertise to share with kids; and kids themselves get elbows-deep in a topic they might be exploring for the first time. When a kid can walk out of the final day of boot camp excited about coding, or proudly holding a handmade puppet or terrarium, or with a link to the video project they made, they're leaving the library not only with a new skill, but with a new interest that can connect them to even more exploration and learning in the future. That's why we offer boot camps for kids.