Heather Hardie

4th Year, Art Education Specialization 

Rebel Girls: Empowerment & Education at Rock Camp for Girls Montreal

Video 10 min. 28 sec. 2012


What sets this organization apart from other camps is the emphasis placed on building life skills, self-esteem and empowerment during arguably the most impressionable and formative stage of the campers’ lives. Music is the medium through which these transformations occur. Within this supportive and open space, incredible things happen over a very short period of time.

One of the biggest challenges facing educators working within traditional school systems is to deliver required curriculum content while engaging youth to become autonomous, motivated learners. Volunteering at Rock Camp for Girls over the past three summers has demonstrated to me that alternative forms of pedagogy can be brought into the mainstream school classroom. This text and video examine the ways in which Rock Camp for Girls serves as a successful model for alternative, anti-oppressive forms of pedagogy. I will discuss how the learning environment, methods of instruction, and assessment of learning used at Rock Camp may be applied to both community and formal learning centres.

The camp is a non-profit organization that brings together girls between the ages of 10 and 17 to collaboratively learn, create music, and explore their identities as well as their potential as musicians. The focus of the camp, female empowerment, is presented through instruction, workshops, and daily activities within a feminist framework. The Montreal branch of Rock Camp for Girls is one of many similar grassroots organizations around the world modelled from the original Rock Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon in 2001 (sts, 2008, p. 19).

Over the course of one week, campers learn an instrument, form a band, and write and record a song. Additionally, the campers attend workshops that tackle issues such as gender and identity, representations of women in media, skill-sharing, performance, and the logistics of being a musician. By the end of the week, all bands showcase their original songs during a performance for hundreds of spectators. What sets this organization apart from other camps is the emphasis placed on building life skills, self-esteem and empowerment during arguably the most impressionable and formative stage of the campers’ lives. Music is the medium through which these transformations occur. Within this supportive and open space, incredible things happen over a very short period of time.

Key components of the learning environment

It was established right away that the camp was a safe space for everyone by encouraging self-respect and respect for others. A collective agreement (for both volunteers and campers) was created at the beginning of camp to outline the ways in which people could work together in the most positive and productive manner. This set the tone and helped to create the notion of a safe space throughout the week. The camp focused on raising awareness of power structures, celebrating diversity, and engendering a sense of community. Volunteers and campers were encouraged to acknowledge personal biases and differences within a critical and constructive, yet supportive, framework. Individual strengths and talents were met by adapting to different learning styles, naturally promoting a process of empowerment.

The collaborative efforts of volunteers and campers alike made for the successful transformation of ideas and standpoints on women’s roles in music and society. As Asuncion M. Austria and Joy K. Rice (2007) write, “…collaboration is both a feminist principle and a feminist practice. Collaboration empowers women who might otherwise remain isolated, silent, and fearful. In a social system that encourages female passivity, collaboration brings women together to change the circumstances of their lives” (p. 159). Although Rock Camp is a gendered space, care was taken to refer to youth as “campers” and not “ladies” or “girls” so as not to reinforce the normative ideology that sex determines gender. To explain this notion, Andrea Doucette and Janet Siltanen (2008) write, […] society provides different gender roles or scripts, which men and women learn and follow. […] Social institutions – the family, schools, the media – acting as agents of socialization were said to reward boys and girls who behave in ways deemed appropriate to their gender and punish those who did not (p. 10).

At Rock Camp, volunteers worked against being a traditional agent of socialization by avoiding oppressive language and behaviour. Language plays a key role in this phenomenon, so careful use of personal pronouns, as well as using appropriate age and culture-specific vocabulary was set within the camp’s mandate.

As one might imagine, the dynamic of an entirely female space is quite unlike what occurs in most co-ed schools. Whether the campers realised it or not, their behaviour changed as early as the first day at camp. As Jane Kenway and Helen Modra (1992) write, “In allowing boys to dominate classroom resources, in setting different standards for and having different expectations of girls and boys with regard to achievement and classroom rules and speech practices, many teachers are seen to treat their students in ways that confirm rather than challenge conventional gender identities” (p. 147).

This is not to say that girls and boys should necessarily be separated in schools and summer camps, but rather that teachers/instructors/facilitators should be aware of any possible gender bias in their use of language, the behaviour they model, and the expectations they set for their students.

Transfer of knowledge and skills: Implications and applications

Instrument instruction and workshops were student-centred at Rock Camp; instructors assumed the role of facilitators who guided lessons rather than dictated them. A forum for skill sharing and peer learning placed importance on individual strengths and engendered a sense of community. These methods of teaching worked to level the power structures at camp and empowered youth to direct their own learning, regardless of age or ability.

A summer camp inherently lacks some of the rigidity and discipline required of youth in a traditional classroom, but it is important for educators and facilitators to identify and consider their roles as authority figures in either setting, as this positionality directly affects learning. In an essay on authority in feminist pedagogical practices, Dale M. Bauer (1991) writes, “Authority, like the word “power” […] suggests an identification with patriarchy, [and] is necessarily hierarchical and dispassionate” (p. 23). However, rather than reject the concept of authority for its inherent negative connotations, Bauer suggests that we embrace or “claim” authority as an “emancipatory strategy” (p. 25) to engender critical awareness in ourselves and in others. This means “treating students as if they ought to be concerned about the issues of social justice and political action” (Giroux, as cited in Bauer, 1991, p. 25) rather than simply telling them they should. In other words, this means meeting youth at eye-level, learning about their interests, and challenging them to consider the world around them with a critical voice.

Assessment of learning

Because there is no required curriculum, there is no need for campers to demonstrate that they have, for instance, memorized all of the female musicians and their birth dates from the Girl Rock History workshop, or be able to describe the scientific properties of a sound wave. As learning takes place on so many levels each day, assessment can occur before, during, and after the camp week, in many different forms. To many people, assessment is a way of judging whether someone has succeeded or failed – a test of “knowledge” or the ability to memorize information. Why not consider performances, portfolios, and participation as ways of assessing whether someone has grasped a concept, or grown as an individual? By observing and engaging with youth as they experiment and explore a subject area, one can learn many things: where the individual is coming from, where their strengths and needs lie, and what direction to suggest for their learning. These activities comprise a form of assessment that helps to guide the learning process, and most importantly, does not emphasize right or wrong. In fact, “failures” can be seen as starting points for something new and exciting, and should be encouraged! Assessment also lets the facilitator know if they have achieved their own personal goals for the program. It is a way to reflect on the structure of the program, to celebrate achievements and to make improvements where necessary.

By drawing on feminist pedagogical research as well as personal reflection, I would argue that many elements of the structure of learning that takes place at Rock Camp for Girls can indeed be borrowed and implemented in a traditional school setting. The act of fostering and insisting on anti-oppressive environments and adapting to diverse needs validates individual differences and creates a safe learning space for everyone. By considering alternative forms of assessment, one can use observation, reflection, feedback, performance, and participation as ways of encouraging and monitoring achievement.


Austria, A.M. & Rice, J.K. (2007). Collaborative leadership and social advocacy among women’s organizations. In Chin, J.L., Lott, B., Rice, J.K., & Sanches-Hucles, J. (Eds.), Women and leadership: Transforming visions and diverse voice (p. 159). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Bauer, D.M. (2009). Authority. In Crabtree, R.D., Sapp, D.A., & Licona, A.C. (Eds.), Feminist pedagogy: Looking back to move forward (pp. 23, 25). Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.
Doucet, A. & Siltanen, J. (2008). Gender relations in Canada: Intersectionality and beyond. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.
Kenway, J. & Modra, H. (1992). Feminist pedagogy and emancipatory possibilities. In Carmen, L. and Gore, J. (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (p. 147). New York, NY: Rutledge.
sts. (2008). Let there be rock. In Anderson, M. (Ed.), Rock ‘n’ roll camp for girls: How to start a band, write songs, record and album and rock out! (p.19). San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.]]>