Children’s literacy camps have become an anticipated part of summertime in Eeyou Istchee, helping to nurture a lifelong love of reading while reducing the risk of summer learning loss. In this summer like no other, a very limited version took place in three communities.
“It was an experiment,” admitted program manager Mark Anto. “We usually hire 50-some staff, work in all nine communities, have hundreds of kids sign up. All of that shut down. Instead of having kids come to the camp, we brought the activities to them.”
Frontier College began offering these reading camps eight years ago in partnership with the Cree School Board, which have become more popular and enmeshed in the community with each passing season. This year, they relied entirely on local counsellors with a combination of online and in-person activities.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the green light for the camp came only in mid-June, forcing a last-minute scramble to find available counsellors. Four out of five were former counsellors, who organized activities in Waskaganish, Waswanipi and Mistissini.
“We just had enough time to see things through,” said Anto. “The counsellors were doing good work for the community, getting kids back in the routine a little without it being too much. It was something the kids really appreciated.”
While 557 kids participated last year, Anto estimated they reached about 75 this year in-person and another 150 digitally through literacy and numeracy challenges on Facebook. They also distributed close to 500 books throughout the communities as well as activity booklets.
“We had developed a 40-page booklet for kids to fill out with activities like crossword puzzles, what’s your favourite book, write a word with each letter of the alphabet,” Anto explained. “I think every parent was desperate for any kind of diversion at that point. I spoke to a few and they said, ‘Oh man, that thing really helped.’”
As schools were closed, halls were rented in two of the three communities, but most activities happened outside according to local distancing guidelines in a mix of English and Cree. With a limited number of participants and sign-in sheets to enable contact tracing, organizers made sure to err on the side of caution.
“It was a lot different this year but still fun,” said Waskaganish counsellor Constance Esau, who is currently distance learning at McGill University to become a teacher. “I really missed the original camp and all the other counsellors and kids who would be there. I had a good turnout of kids 6 to 9 years old. I think the older ones were sleeping all summer.”
Since few members of her group were able to read, Esau discussed stories they read together and led related activities. The kids were excited to meet each day in the schoolyard, weather permitting, exploring new ideas and playing with friends.
Online programming was expanded at all stages of this year’s camps. Counsellors were trained on Zoom, resulting in substantial cost savings, and integrated material from the Cree School Board’s online learning platform in their activities with the kids.
“It’s definitely a crisis but it is opening new opportunities and spaces for learning,” Anto said. There are opportunities to reorganize and make it more community-centric. A few counsellors cooked online and broadcasted on the Waswanipi group – they did a really good job of on-the-fly organizing.”
Frontier College based this year’s last-minute camps on similar community projects they organize across Canada, which derive programming from local resources and literacy gaps. The big difference is that those are year-round programs. Here they had six weeks – two weeks longer than the usual camps.
“We hit the ground running and tried everything,” shared Anto. “The Cree School Board was fantastic in trusting us. Down the road, this could be a good platform for literacy learning.”
With students tending to lose up to two months of reading and math knowledge over a regular summer break, literacy initiatives were perhaps more important than ever this extraordinary year. Just 15 minutes of reading daily can stop that summer slide – kids get three to four times that much at literacy camp.
“Since kids have been away from school for six months, teachers are just trying to play catch-up at this point,” Anto argued. “They usually say they can tell which students went to literacy camp. They have a quicker step in their reading. Teachers have told us if you can just keep the same reading levels to the next school year that would be amazing.”
Literacy levels are continuously improving throughout Eeyou Istchee, supported by growing capacity in the Cree School Board and initiatives like these summer camps. When Esau received two more boxes of books near her camp’s end, she donated them to a local mobile library run by Waskaganish teacher Annie Loyer called Together for Literacy.
While the pandemic limited how many books could be sent, the participation of guest speakers and other typical features of the literacy camps, early feedback suggests that communities were very appreciative that they happened at all.
“All in all, everyone was happy,” concluded Anto. “It would be nice to go back to full-blown programming next year, but we’ll see what Covid has in store for us.”