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NOV. 8, 2016

“Be Nice” is Always the #1 Rule

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This past July, I began a new job at a high school in the middle of the city of New Orleans.  As a teacher, one of the best and worst things about changing schools is that you inherit a lot of unclaimed supplies and very blank wall space.  As I began to decorate my room with the jittery anticipation of all of the teenage learning that I would be responsible for in the months to come, I realized that one of the posters I hung would have to be the CLASS RULES.  And that I would have to come up with them.

Class rules might not seem like a huge deal (personally, I cannot recall any of the rules from any of my classrooms as a student), but I believe that they tell students a lot about what I expect of them and what they, in turn, can expect from each other and from me.  So there’s a lot of pressure to get the rules right, right off the bat.  How, though, can anyone both prioritize and convey–as plainly as possible– which behaviors are most important to learning?  Is it coming to class prepared?  Is it focusing on the work?  Is it showing perseverance?  Is it raising your hand to speak? Or staying in your seat at all times?

It is only because I have spent several summers as a counselor at Eagle’s Nest Camp that I knew exactly where to begin.

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As you may know, the number one rule at Eagle’s Nest is “Be Nice.”  Although it is a bit amorphous and can be tricky to enforce (what seems “nice” to you may not always seem “nice” to me), it is also what makes Camp a place where everyone, counselors and campers alike, feels at home– free and comfortable to be their very best selves– for one or two or three (or maybe even twelve) short weeks out of the year.  “Be Nice” sends the message so clearly: this is a safe place where, no matter what, you can expect to be treated kindly.

And that is the message, in my limited experience, that is foundational to learning.  I believe this because “Be Nice” is also the number one rule in my classroom.  I believe this because my students, all of whom are 9th graders who struggle with reading, know that they are not allowed to make fun of each other, no matter how innocuously.  And so each one of them is willing to take the daily risk of mispronouncing words or incorrectly answering a question.  Each one of them keeps showing up and keeps trying. They wait, patiently, whenever a classmate is working up the courage to read.  They help each other pronounce difficult words.  And they know, ultimately, that school– just like camp– is a place where they will simultaneously be accepted as they are and where they can practice being even better.

Becca Spiegel, Eagle’s Nest Camp Counselor and New Orleans Public School Teacher