The intentionality of happiness

The smell of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is around the corner, which means that it’s time for schools to begin. Administrators and educators are working diligently to reopen schools up around the country in a time when every day is more confusing than the last. At NCSY Camp Maor, we took cues from the way schools dealt with non-traditional learning to help create our program and now it’s time for us to return the favor. I believe that the lessons we learned in camp this summer can help schools support children’s Social Emotional well-being during the 2021 school year.

This summer our overnight performing arts camp, NCSY Camp Maor, pivoted to Maor@Home, a one month program entirely on Zoom. Campers and staff joined together from over 25 different cities in the US and Canada to join together as one community during our summer of “Gratitude to Greatness”. Our staff re-envisioned how to direct plays, teach harmonies and choreography and engage campers in experiential Torah study.  We even recreated interactive night activities just like we would have in camp. Some of our favorites such as Garbage Bag Fashion Show, where campers created unique fashions using only garbage bags as their “fabric”, and a Murder Mystery starring some of our very special staff members.

What was behind our success this summer? We used a three pronged intentional approach which unintentionally mirrored Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis. According to Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, there are three factors that contribute to a person’s happiness:

Improve your personal connections by showing gratitude.
Utilize your unique strengths at work.
Embed yourself in a community.
Improve your personal connections by showing gratitude:

The theme of Maor@Home was “Gratitude to Greatness”. When we understand that we all have much to be grateful for, even during a global pandemic, we have the ability to develop our best selves. During the first two weeks of camp we focused on being grateful for our families and friends. During the third and fourth weeks of camp we focused on the greatness of community and the greatness of Judaism. Anchoring our program by identifying that we all have many things in our lives that we can be grateful for allowed our campers after months of online school to open their minds to the exciting possibilities within the virtual world we created. This school year, take a few minutes of class time to reframe our thinking around non-traditional instruction (NTI). Using the start of the school year to intentionally reflect on what we can all be grateful for, will help frame the year in a positive way and lead our children down the positive highway to happiness.

Embed yourself in a community:

This summer, more than anything else, our campers needed to feel like they were a part of a community. Each day began and ended with games and activities in bunk time to create a sense of family and unity; something that the campers really missed by not having structured social time. One period per day was dedicated to special programs such as visits with Broadway stars, team-building exercises and Chessed activities. One of our most successful events was a joint dance class with students from a Performing Arts Middle School serving low income students from Brooklyn. How can your school create a sense of belonging and long lasting memorable experiences this year be it virtually or in person? Can you partner with another school to unite students of the same age around common interests?

Creating a calendar filled with special guests and unique opportunities especially during this year will help students bond over these positive shared experiences. Many artists, athletes and performers have reimagined their talents for the virtual space and are offering unique programming at reasonable prices. Consider surprising students with a theme day or school-wide fun activity. This can go a long way when children’s anxiety levels are heightened upon entering their classrooms this year.

Utilize your unique strengths at work:

The Performing Arts aspect of the Maor@Home program was designed to teach our campers to cultivate their skills and help them find talents they never knew they had. Through the discovery of their “unique strengths” the campers developed a heightened self awareness which ultimately led to increased self confidence. A crisis is a time for individuals to step out of their comfort zones and try new things. Challenge your staff to use their hidden talents and unique strengths to engage students in new ways. Additionally, while a particular child may not thrive in a standard classroom environment he/she may exceed your expectations in the 2020-2021 NTI classroom setting.

Here’s the bottom line: the secret sauce for our successful summer was the clear intentionality of our program, a focus on gratitude, cultivation of new skills and the importance of being a part of a community.  Our campers happily attended the program each day thereby achieving greatness through their personal achievements as evidenced in the Final Showcase.

Administrators and Educators, while the health and safety of your students and staff are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, please keep in mind that happiness for all your students will be paramount to their success. As you look upon the horizon that is this upcoming school year, remember that happiness is achievable with this simple three pronged approach.

About the Author
Sari Kahn lives in West Hempstead with her four children and is the director of NCSY Camp Maor, a performing arts overnight camp for Jewish girls. Ms. Kahn received her masters degree in Camping Administration and Leadership in 2018.
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