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Monday, December 09, 2019

Ready for camping! Enter for excitement! Intelligent!

Really Excellent and Incredibly Interesting and Intriguing!

These were just some of the sentiments generated by my students about our January 15 trip to the REI store on Forest Avenue, about a ten minute drive from SINAI at RYNJ. REI—Recreational Equipment Inc.—sells high-end camping gear and equipment in stores around the country and on their website, including everything you would need to spend “a week in the woods.”

The SINAI at RYNJ middle school boys were reading “A Week in the Woods” by Andrew Clements. When searching for a new novel for my SINAI class, I make sure that it is very high-interest, includes themes, exposure and vocabulary that will lead to many “teachable moments” and is just above their independent reading level. This Clements novel was engaging to the boys from the get-go. It spoke to the themes of loyalty and preconceived societal judgements and was suitable for both choral reading in class and independent reading at home. The plot of “A Week in the Woods” appealed to the students’ sense of adventure and the students easily identified with the realistic depiction of the characters. We noted that the protagonist, Mark Chelmsley, purchased all of the camping equipment necessary for his class tripfrom REI…and that there was an REI store in our own neighborhood.

I contacted the store and spoke with store manager Beth Chesterson, who responded enthusiastically to my suggestion that I bring my students into the store for a field trip. Chesterson and her employees Michael and Ben, all seasoned outdoorsmen, read the book in preparation for our visit, and greeted us with big smiles at the door. They had set up a demo table of approximately 20 pieces of outdoor gear that were mentioned in the book, and Ben and Michael patiently and methodically explained the necessity of each piece of equipment and demonstrated its use to my students. They gave us a tour of the entire store and fielded numerous questions from the enthralled group of eight boys. The grand finale of our experience was pitching a tent in the back of the store together with Michael and Ben and then crawling in and stretching out. Chesterson reflected on the experience, explaining, “At REI we believe a life outdoors is a life well lived. When we were contacted by SINAI we saw an opportunity to connect the literature the class was reading, “A Week in the Woods,” to an in-store experience.” Chesterson was impressed by our students, adding that “it was our pleasure to share our gear knowledge and expertise with such an enthusiastic group.”

As with each of SINAI’s schools, the students at SINAI at RYNJ have a range of complex disabilities. It is so challenging to teach about largely unfamiliar topics such as outdoor camping to any group of children; this is magnified when children have special needs or learning challenges. I often ponder how difficult and frustrating it must be for my students who are bright and motivated to circumnavigate their formidable learning barriers. That is truly my joy in teaching them: knowing that I am part of a phenomenal team that is giving each one precisely the tools he needs to learn and succeed academically and socially.

As a result of this trip, my class was exposed to a virtual camping experience that was largely new and unfamiliar to most of them. It was a remarkable experience for students and teachers alike, bringing many aspects of the novel to life for all of us. Our field trip extended their life’s repertoire beyond the book. While camping for a week in the woods would have been impractical, SINAI’s 5S trip to REI brought the book they had been reading to life, and gave each and every student a wondrous taste of spending a day in the woods.

By Dena Mayerfeld


Dena Mayerfeld is a teacher at SINAI at RYNJ. SINAI operates seven inclusive special education schools for children with a wide range of developmental, intellectual, and complex learning disabilities. SINAI’s annual dinner will be on February 24,at the Marriott Glenpointe Hotel in Teaneck New Jersey. The annual dinner is the largest single source of scholarship funding for their students. Visit www.sinaidinner.org to donate or make reservations.