LAST WEEK, 150 sixth-graders from Oakland Mills Middle School set off on a three-day adventure. The purpose: to make new friends and become a team.
Mucking about a salt marsh is one way to make friends out of strangers. The squishy sound of boots being pulled out of mire and the smells of decaying sea life can get 10-year-olds to giggle and laugh together.
Making the transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult. Oakland Mills Middle draws from four feeder schools: Atholton, Talbott Springs, Stevens Forest and Thunder Hill elementaries. So 10-year-olds entering a new school are meeting new people, expected to do more and finding themselves at the bottom of the pecking order.
"We want these kids to get together, to knit together at the school," said Oakland Mills Principal Carl Perkins. "Instead of four groups, we want them to become one middle school unit."
Called Outdoor Education, the school program was adopted by Oakland Mills in 1980 when Jesse Scharff was principal. The program consists of three days and two nights of living and working together at Camp Letts in Anne Arundel County -- a 219-acre YMCA facility on a peninsula that juts out into the Rhode River below Annapolis.
Campers stay in modern cabins with bunks, heat, hot showers and plenty of windows. They participate in eight "activities," according to the Outdoor Education brochure distributed by the school: "canoeing, art, human relations, service projects, physical education, orienteering, initiatives and marsh exploration."
Lessons are woven into each activity.
"All the content areas are covered," Perkins said.
Small groups of campers -- usually eight boys and girls and an adult -- are together for an activity and then are reshuffled into new groups so each child can meet as many others as possible.
Students slogging through the fens of an area called Monster Island learn about the effects of tides and erosion, and the animal species that live there.
"Initiatives" are group exercises that require the children to think constructively and work together. In one initiative, an imaginary river full of piranhas and alligators must be crossed by swinging on a rope that hangs from a tree.
The first task was to get the rope, which hung down from a tree limb in the middle of the imaginary river. The group was allowed to use only the tools in a real bag of random objects. Together the children had to figure out what would work.
"We used a string and a FRISBEE," said Danny Keenan. "We tied the string to the FRISBEE and tossed it at the rope."
After several tries, the disc wrapped the string around the rope, and the kids were able to haul it in.
Next, each team member had to swing across. Successful swingers sent the rope back to the next in line. But if anyone touched the imaginary river on their way over, the whole exercise had to begin again.
Danny and his friend, Christopher Manis, both touched the river.
"I was disappointed," Danny said. "Everybody was trying to get across the river and I let them down."
There were no hard feelings. Team spirit and noisy encouragement helped get the group across in about 20 minutes.
Danny later earned an award for his speedy mastery of the art of canoeing.
As part of the art lesson, the youngsters made dream-catchers, a Native American web-like object used to ward off nightmares. Hung over a bed, the beaded and feathered net is said to catch the bad dreams and let the good ones go through.
First, campers tightly wrapped yarn around a small hoop made of pliable wood. Then, using thin fishing line, they wove a star-like design across the circle and decorated it with seashells and other objects they found.
Perkins visited the camp Thursday, playing tennis and kickball with the campers in between official duties.
"I like having time to talk to the students, to see them in a different light outside the four walls," Perkins said.
Assistant Principal Joanne Hutchens also spent a day at the camp.
Parents who volunteered there were pleased to have an opportunity to meet the school staff.
"At Back To School Night, they kept things moving along," said Jody Molchany, mother of Allison. "There was really no time to talk. This was nice. We could sit and chat and get to know each other better."
Allison, 11, had attended Thunder Hill Elementary School. She was afraid of finding bullies in middle school, she said.
She happily reports that she hasn't found any bullies at Oakland Mills, and that she made new friends with Danielle Walker and Melissa "Missy" Hawkes when they went canoeing together.
"Kids of that age usually stick with who they know; they start to form cliques," said Bernie Keenan, Danny's father, who is a psychiatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He conducts teamwork exercises with the hospital staff.
"If you break that barrier in the beginning," he said, "it no longer seems like an obstacle to talk to a guy you never knew to help you out. They begin to see themselves as peers, not strangers."
The Outdoor Education field trips have become a rite of passage anticipated by fifth-graders in the four feeder schools. Every spring, the next crop of newcomers gets an orientation on the program.
Holly Smith was a reading specialist at OMMS when Outdoor Education was proposed.
"The idea was that you could bond them [sixth-graders] as a group," she said. "Then they have a common bank of experience to draw from in all their classes."
Teacher George Clifford has been organizing the trips for 10 years.
Smith, now at Ilchester Elementary, remembers when Clifford began at Oakland Mills as a 22-year-old science teacher. Now he is sixth-grade team leader. He works closely with the team to plan the yearly outing.
Molchany says parents of sixth-graders appreciate the work that goes into making the camping experience a success.
"The most amazing thing out of the whole trip was how effortless it felt," she said. "It was planned so well by the staff that if there were any snags, I couldn't tell."
Forty-six parents volunteered to chaperon the sixth-graders. Clifford and his team were joined by 12 teachers and assistants. It took four school buses to transport the group.
Keenan sees great value in the adventure.
"This is a good way to prevent the sort of school tragedies that have shocked the nation in recent months," he said.
His son Danny added, "I was expecting that there would be kids I didn't know, and it would be hard to make new friends. But it turned out to be very easy."
Perkins appreciated the assistance of the volunteer parents. "I know they had a good time," he said. "We enjoyed having them there."