By REBECCA ISENHART
Pam Ober and her students have a way of communicating that requires a little magic — and preferably a lot of reading — to understand.
“Silencio!” shouted one student, pointing a homemade wand with a clay frog on the handle.
“You want me to be quiet?” Ober replied with a laugh.
The spell didn’t work. She was too busy helping students with broken wands, missing snacks and game setup.
To get the joke, you’d have to be a fan of the Harry Potter book series. Ober, her 29 campers and all three of her assistants certainly are.
“I love reading so much,” said Ober, who coordinates the Continuing Education program for the Niskayuna Central School District and still finds time to work at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady. “I love books so much, and I love to share that with children.”
She originally came up with the Hogwarts idea as part of the After-School Enrichment Program — Hogwarts is the school Harry attended. It has since grown into a summer camp program, several years running. In 2015, she’ll add a February vacation camp and an additional summer session to accommodate demand.
The imaginative program focuses on reading, art, creativity and even some math and science skills. Ober reads to her students each day and guides them through educational games, craft projects and hands-on experiments.
The activities also encourage important social skills that might not be a focal point for a typical class during the school year. Often, older campers role model for younger ones.
“Some of the kids who have only seen the movies, their parents will say that because of camp, they started reading the books,” she said.
That’s true for Ian and Zoe Caterina, 8- and 9-year-old siblings who dressed up as heroic wizard Harry Potter and brainy witch Hermione Granger for Halloween last year.
“We’ve read all seven of the actual books,” Ian said.
Then they went on to start reading companion books. At camp, he worked to create a powerful wand from the series called the Elder Wand to help him feel more like his favorite character, Harry.
“He’s really not afraid of much,” he said. “Well, he’s not afraid of anything.”
It turns out emulating the series’ fantasy characters can be very healthy for kids like Ian. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in late July revealed young kids and college students were more empathetic and tolerant after reading the Harry Potter books, especially if they related well to the main character.
News of the study didn’t surprise Ober, who is a strong believer in the power of books to bring people together.
“I always emphasize kindness. I think if I do that with every group that I have, it’s so important,” she said.
“We have some kids who come to this camp [and] don’t know anybody when they come.”
Educational, emotional and social development are wonderful selling points for parents, but the kids mostly just know the camp is a ton of fun, and that’s good enough for them.
Caitlin Cho is participating in the camp for a second year. She loves the games they play and enjoys doing crafts and making her own wand. Like Ian, she modeled her wand after her favorite character.
“There’s a girl named Cho Chang in the Harry Potter series,” she said, who wand is powered by a unicorn hair, so Cho put a makeshift one in hers, too.
“Her first name is my last name, and she looks a lot like me, actually,” Cho said proudly.
The spell she most wishes she could cast in real life, “glacio,” would have been useful after an exciting day of tag in the hot sun.
“It shoots water out of the wand and turns you into ice,” she said.
Ober is always happy when the kids let their imaginations run wild.
“I always say if they like it half as much as I do, they’re good,” she said.