In high school and into her first year of college, Meredith Laliberte enjoyed working summers at Dorman’s Ice Cream on Route 1 in Thomaston. “Seeing the joy in a kid’s eyes when that ice cream cone came out the window was special,” she says with a grin. But last year Laliberte decided it was time to make a summer-job shift and join the staff at Blueberry Cove Camp off Hart’s Neck Road in Tenants Harbor. She’s back working at the camp again this summer, too, because she’s found that this is a job that not only allows her to continue bringing joy to kids, but that also is having a significant impact on her professional future.
Laliberte will be entering her senior year at the University of Maine Farmington with a major in early childhood education this fall, so this summer’s work as “Educator for the First Mates,” day campers aged four to six years old, couldn’t be a better vocational fit. “Working at Blueberry Cove has been the perfect move getting me into my career,” she states with evident conviction. “Being in contact with the children here has given me clarity about what I want to do in life.”
Working with two younger counselors, Laliberte plans activities each week for the 15 or so children in her charge, making sure they are equipped with everything they need—including sunscreen and bug spray—for outings to the beach, the woods, or to the camp’s gardens and for art and other projects. “The four to six year olds like to explore, so the curriculum has to roll with what they find interesting,” she explains. “It is important not to be so goal-oriented with them. It’s about the process, not the product. They are wanting to figure things out on their own at that age.”
Laliberte cites an art project making hand prints during the week of July 4 as an example of what she means. “We usually have a camp-wide theme for each week, and that week it was the Fourth of July. So our art project was to use hand prints to make flags. So the question was, what do we have to do in order to make your hand print look like a flag? Maybe make one corner blue and make each finger a different color? But what they really liked was exploring what kind of difference it makes to open or close their fingers when making the prints. I was very happy with the results—the flags were really cool!”
Another example of building her First Mates’ curriculum from the children’s interests involved a week when her kids were spending time with the camp’s goats. “The kids love the goats! This particular week they were fascinated when they saw the goats pooping, so we talked about the fact that the goats eat things and then they poop, just like humans do. So that day the topic was poop!”
Laliberte says she finds it important to spend the beginning of each week getting to know the children in her group. “I’m interested in figuring out how they learn. Some of them need hands-on experiences to be able to learn, but others will use rest time to read about things like ocean life or different species of trees and things like that. Then they go out and identify what they’ve read about. Others explore and then look things up to learn more.”
Determining learning styles and how to work with them to help a student gain understanding is what turned Laliberte on to teaching as a career path in the first place.
“It was in my senior year in high school that I really found a strong urge for teaching—I started tutoring kids in math who were in the same classes as I was. I was tutoring two different kids in the same class and they had two different learning styles. One was more like mine and one was not like mine at all. To be able to have them explain their thinking to me for how they got the answer, it made me realize there is more than one way to solve problems, that just because I got the answer one way and I was the tutor that doesn’t mean that was the right way to get it, necessarily. For someone else it might be a different way. So the goal was how do I make that student successful? That’s the best feeling in the world, to see a student understand, to find the angle that will work. And I’m doing the same thing at camp.”
Laliberte’s tutoring experience in high school also led her to see the value of peer mentoring, something she enjoys seeing take place at Blueberry Cove. “I’ve really enjoyed going to the beach with my kids, especially when we go with the older campers because they learn so much from each other. I think it is really cool when kids can learn from each other and not have an adult facilitator do the teaching. I think it is more meaningful for them. They don’t have to please an authority figure when they learn from an older camper, and the older camper feels proud that they have something to teach.”
After the day campers leave for the day, Laliberte shifts her attention to the residential campers. “I get to hang out with the kids that stay, which I think is pretty cool because we build relationships with them as well. I was a camper throughout my childhood and I love the sense of community you experience at camp. I’m happy to be a part of that for some of the campers here.”
Asked if any experiences she’s had as an Educator at Blueberry Cove have taught her something about teaching that she has been glad to learn, she promptly admits to some valuable failures. “I have done some activities that just didn’t work for the kids, that either went right over their heads or that were too easy. That has helped me to learn how to figure out activities that work for different age groups. And I also now have activities that I’ve learned at camp that I can bring into the classroom.”—JW
PHOTO: Julie Wortman