dear kurtz

Dear Kurtz: How do I stop my staff from planning from scratch??

Dear Kurtz, The Real Wizard of Oz,

I give up. This is now my 10th summer watching our seasonal staff reinvent the wheel. Sure, they peppered it up with some streamers, put some new treads on it, and even took a turn with those fancy spinning rims. But it's still round and rolls down hill!!!

Each summer, I tell the program directors to document what they do so that we can do it better the next summer. Each fall, I try to decipher their notes and hold onto them for the next summer. Each winter, we start to get busy and lose track of the details. Each spring, we start planning from scratch.

I know, as the director, I am ultimately the one at fault here. But I've tried! We tried the Dropbox thing for a summer or two. Then it was GoogleDrive. I know there is probably some new technology that will help even more. But technology doesn't seem to be the problem, so what is?

Please help us move past the wheel and onto something new-fangled!

-Spinning Right Round

Dear Spinning,

I respect you and what you’re trying to do here.  I also think you are hilarious, my #1 fan and perhaps also known to this advice column as “The 102nd Dalmation” among other monikers.  But I’m going to say something right now that might surprise and annoy you, but please note that it comes from a good place: I think it’s a positive thing that your seasonal staff reinvent the wheel every summer.  That is part of the fun and the learning process your staff go through, and why working at camp is so educational and transformational for staff.

It does get difficult when we are full-time staff for awhile we have seasonal leadership that rotate through every couple of years.  It seems unproductive and silly to go through the same planning processes over and over again, especially since we know how things should be done.  We also sometimes feel like we are having the same conversations again and again (because we are) and wonder if we are progressing.  We are progressing as individuals—but our audiences are different.  And every few years, they start over again.  Even though we are in the same place, these staff groups are new.  And each staff group deserves to have the chance to create camp for their summer.

I arrived at camp in 2006 as a first-time counselor.  I was given access to a supply of drama clothes, gallons of (somewhat) washable paint, a lot of tinfoil and that’s about it.  I also had access to the amazing, creative minds of my coworkers.  I think if I were given a book of “how to do things”, we would have been stymied.  We wouldn’t have come up with amazing, creative ideas because we would have been proscribed a list of ideas from people we did not even know (I feel the same way about craft kits, but I digress).  My friend Kate and I were able to create an amazing evening activity in my very first year as a counselor with an Ancient Egypt theme—no one had thought of it before—because we were passionate about the topic and we knew we could make it come to life for the campers. 

We struggled, yes.  I’m sure our supervisors cringed at some of our mistakes. But they let us figure things out for ourselves because that’s how we learned.  We problem-solved when the walkie-talkies broke, when our hieroglyph was too easy and when our instructions were a little too confusing.  We overcame these obstacles and loved the challenge.  We felt important and affirmed because the idea was ours, and remained ours through completion. 

But remember, the ownership and leadership these types of experiences provide for counselors are some of the most influential development opportunities we can give them.

I also realize you want to be productive here.

There are some things you can definitely standardize: Think opening and closing procedures of camp.  Proper dishwashing practice.  Check in process.  These are things that you need to record and work on throughout the summer.  There is no chance in H-E-double-hockey-stick that you will be able to pin your program directors down in the fall and have them remember every detail.  My suggestion to you is this: take ownership over these projects.  Make a master list of these systematic camp things and work to gather/upload the information during the summer.

Try to create the documents immediately after the event or process happens.  For instance, at our first evening flag of each session, we have two series of announcements we always go through: one for the campers, and one for the staff at the staff huddle.  The announcements are always the same.  After the first staff flag of the summer, take your notecard that lists the announcements and take a picture of it (or create a typed file), uploading to Google Drive.  If you keep track of these little things as they happen, it is much easier than creating an archive in October when everyone else’s thoughts are on their econ midterm and their fall formal date.  You can even use digital tools to make it even easier—making an announcement in the dining hall?  Record a video and upload it to Google Drive.  It takes very little effort and you have a record of “how things are done.”

If you’re super ambitious, you can also think about creating reference pages for specific categories of camp projects, so more time is spent on the creative side of things.  Take evening activities, for instance.  We had a handful of evening activity styles at our camp: carnival games, station games, quest-style games, running games, etc.  If you have an outline for how each of these types of games and how they work, as well as some suggested themes, that’s enough for the staff to use as a reference.  They can then “invent the wheel” by innovating and adding their own themes.

Your job is to create overarching guidelines, and assist and support the counselors/seasonal staff as they get there on their own.  And remember, sometimes there is a deep and meaningful truth in those quotes that you probably had as your AIM Away Message in the early 00s.  I think this one especially applies:

 Happy camping.

Your friend,


P.S. If you have a question for me, please fill out this anonymous Google form!