Soviets Take Learning Leap at SuperCamp

Visiting students, Americans team up in program to improve academic skills. INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION

`TEAM ready?'' the leader calls. ``Yes!'' shout 20 American campers, eyes on their Soviet teammate, 14-year-old Karina Parfenova. She is strapped in ropes to catch her if she falls from the 25-foot pole she has started to climb.

Meanwhile, eight visiting Soviet teachers watch, holding their breath as Karina climbs. At the top she pauses, with nothing to hold onto except the small base under her feet. Her teammates call to her in English, ``You can do it, Karina!'' Another Soviet student shouts something in Russian.

Slowly she stands, knees wobbling, eyes straight ahead, arms groping for support that isn't there. The crowd cheers as she turns to look at the trapeze bar hanging eight feet away. She leaps into midair, grabs the trapeze, and smiles down at the group.

Campers have been mastering the ropes course at SuperCamp for eight years; it's the first step in the 10-day, accelerated learning program here. This year, six students from the Soviet Union have joined the 200 American junior and senior high campers.

``When somebody comes off the pole, they're feeling like they can accomplish anything,'' says Bobbi DePorter, founder and president of Learning Forum, a nonprofit foundation based in Solana Beach, Calif., which sponsors SuperCamp. ``When a student is in that frame of mind, we can teach anything.''

Among the skills taught are: speed reading, memory, ``mind mapping,'' note-taking, test preparation, communicating, writing, and doodling constructively.

Classrooms are lively, divided among junior and senior high school students. Teaching methods are all state-of-the-art; baroque music fills the room where green plants and signs on the walls reassure the students: ``Everyone has the Resources to be Successful.''

Teachers jump about enthusiastically, holding the students in rapt attention - firing questions as they toss beanbags to the student who must answer. Days are rigorous - from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

This summer, there are 18 of these camps in the United States and five other countries. The first year Ms. DePorter had 64 students; this year there will be 1,700, with a staff of 250. The cost of the program is $1,395.

The six Soviet students came on grants from the Soviet government. Eight educators also came to learn the SuperCamp teaching techniques. Next year, SuperCamp will go to the Soviet Union.

The camp is more than mastering ropes and skills. ``We're interested in making lifelong learners out of the kids, to make them excited about learning, and feel good about themselves,'' says DePorter. Feeling good means feeling safe with their peers, she says. Peer pressure often paralyzes students who are reluctant to participate for fear of appearing stupid in front of their classmates. The ropes course creates a strong feeling of team support. Then the students are free to master the learning skills.

Lamont Parker, a seventh grader from Chicago and the first student to come on a fully paid scholarship, found the ropes course helpful. ``I learned that if you put your mind to something, or you try real hard, put 100 percent in, you can do it. Whatever you want to.''

For Soviet 16-year-old Andre Speranti, building trust began on his first day when he arrived, speaking almost no English, and moved in with an American student. When his turn at the ropes came, his American teammates shouted to him in Russian.

One Soviet teacher, Natasha Barbakova, who is here with her daughter, is most impressed with the team feeling - ``the elbow of comradeship,'' she says with the help of an interpreter. ``You really feel that elbow. We say it in Russian. Maybe you say shoulder.''

DePorter says most students come at the insistence of their parents. Josh Lewis, soon to be a sophomore in Winchester, Va., says he had mixed feelings about coming to SuperCamp. ``At first I wanted to, but then I didn't.'' But he's happy to be here; he says he wants to cut down on the amount of effort he puts into getting good grades.

Some campers return as counselors. Twenty-year-old Mariah Lange of San Francisco was a camper four years ago; for three years she has been a team leader.

``When I was a camper,'' Ms. Lange recalls, ``I had a fear of talking to my dad ... of him not liking me for who I was.'' Doing the ropes course became a metaphor for overcoming this fear.

She remembers thinking: ``If I can do this ropes course, I can do anything. I can even talk to my dad, and show him who I really am. ... and I did it. We have an excellent relationship now.''

Meanwhile, a student misses the trapeze bar, is caught by the ropes, and lowered gently to the ground. She starts to cry, as her teammates assure her that she didn't fail.

Says DePorter, ``We tell them the story of Edison doing 9,999 experiments on the electric light bulb until he invented it. All that time he kept saying, `Here's another time that I successfully learned how not to develop an electric light bulb.' So if you persevere, if you keep your mind to it, if you focus, you will be successful.''

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