Up, Down, Move All Around
By Louis B. Parks
A recharged Roundtable Themes Conference hot-wires leader enthusiasm with silly skits and serious intentions to make Cub Scout meetings more fun.
At 6:45 Saturday morning it’s not safe to stand still inside Houston’s Cockrell Scout Center. Not this Saturday. With just over two hours until the start of the Sam Houston Area Council’s annual Roundtable Themes Conference, the entry hall and meeting room define hustle.
“Watch out! Display table coming through.”
Hustle but no panic. Cub Scout leaders don’t panic.
The Sam Houston Area Council (SHAC), one of the largest in the nation, has 22 traditional districts spread across 16 ½ counties. The council has more than 99,000 youth served by Scouting and 22,000-plus volunteers.
Cockrell Scout Center, a ruggedly handsome structure, resembles a national park lodge. It opened in March 2003 and provides a visual invitation to Scouting located just 10 minutes northwest of downtown Houston.
This will not be your garden-variety roundtable. Think of it as an industrial-strength roundtable: Take one monthly roundtable, the kind held by Scouting districts across the country, feed it raw spinach like Olive Oyl stuffing Popeye, then stand back and watch the muscles pop out.
Attendees arrive by the minute and go right to work. No sightseers here. The attendees, mostly senior leaders in their own districts, are also the presenters.
After being discontinued years earlier, SHAC’s Roundtable Themes Conference was rebooted in 2006 to boost sagging attendance at monthly roundtables and hot-wire leader enthusiasm.
The theme conference, held in May, previews an entire year of Cub Scout themes and demonstrates how to bring them to life in ways the boys will find fun. It supplies take-home CDs of fresh, homegrown ideas to enrich 12 months of roundtables and pack meetings. Done right, it sends district leaders back to their own roundtables fired with an enthusiasm they will pass on to pack leaders and pack leaders will pass on to the boys in their dens.
In the spacious meeting hall, workers are setting up folding chairs. The 2007 conference attracted about 50 district leaders; organizers hope to do even better this year.
Twelve tables circle the room, sporting colorful homemade displays in varying stages of completion. Each display represents one monthly theme from the Cub Scout Roundtable Planning Guide (September 2008 through August 2009). Scout leaders swarm around the tables pulling posters and models and games out of sacks and boxes and crates.
Monthly roundtables aim to build camaraderie among leaders who can then share ideas and support. Roundtable conference is the same. District leaders learn the value of making contacts throughout the council. Back at their monthly roundtable, they teach pack leaders the value of contacts throughout their district.
Debbie Swenson and Linda Wilson of the Aldine Pathfinder District work the June 2009 theme, “A-Camping We Will Go.” Their display extols the virtues of Cub Scouts getting out of the house and into a tent, even if only in their own backyard. On a tall green cardboard display, they’ve pasted stickers and slogans over a huge tree.
“It’s about things they can do camping: the hiking, the games they can play, the camaraderie it builds,” says Swenson, starting a sentence that Wilson finishes for her, “and the food.” They glance at each other and laugh. “The S’mores!” they shout in unison.
Den leaders spend their own time and money on creating activities, so roundtable props and ideas shouldn’t be complicated or expensive. Almost everything on the “A-Camping We Will Go” display — as with most of the displays — was cut out or scavenged, borrowed or bought at a dollar store. The most elaborate item: an electric campfire on wheels, made by a team member, using logs, red paper, and a light bulb.
Roll it out, plug it in, and people start smiling.
“Our core value is resourcefulness,” says Garth Bragg of the Flaming Arrow District. The display for their April 2009 “Jurassic Pack” theme features pictures, models, games, and songs about dinosaurs. “We are going to exemplify resourcefulness by showing you can create all these crafts with zero money.”
The anouncement, “Thirty minutes to go; get ready” fuels the rush to complete displays, dress up in costumes, and recruit volunteers from other districts to help with games or skits.
Organizers wanted to create enthusiasm. Look around. Hurrying to finish their projects, attendees radiate high spirit. They want to be here.
“It’s a fun day that helps grown-ups understand what it is like to be a 7- or 8-year-old again,” says event chair Diane Ragan. “The kids aren’t going to Cub Scouts because it’s a meeting; they are going because it is fun.”
Not every display is quite perfect, but with a general drifting to the chairs the meeting begins.
Sixty-nine registered participants and 10 support and senior staff representing 18 of the council’s 22 districts crowd the room. A few Cub Scouts will drop in later to present the colors, but otherwise this is an adult event.
“We don’t let the children come to roundtable because it’s a time for us to practice being a boy,” says Ragan. “We act like kids.”
The conference has two sections: “The morning session is the theme, where we explore everything we will be teaching through the next year,” Ragan says. “The afternoon is the model. We actually execute a roundtable.”
The attendees take over. Each district with one of the monthly themes has 15 minutes to demonstrate all of the ideas they’ve cooked up for their chosen month.
First up, participants from the Polaris District lead a demonstration of their ideas for “New Buddies,” the roundtable theme for September 2008. They take the roles of den leaders with the attendees as their Scouts. Ten eager volunteers join in a flash card game: C-U-B—S-C-O-U-T-S-! A “welcome song” with silly lyrics follows.
“And what do Scouts do when we sing?” the leader shouts.
“They stand up,” all yell. And then they all sing. Loud.
The themes continue from table to table, group after group packing their quarter hour with games, jokes, poems, quizzes, and songs. Presentations are big on group participation. It’s up, down, move around, all morning long. At the end of each theme, someone pops up to give thank you “awards” to the presenters. The little gifts are mostly silly, but they’re received with much cheering and clapping.
The presentations share similar elements: fun mixed with teaching, a silly song or two with active hand gestures, a game that gets the audience jumping or shouting, and the mention of the appropriate Scouting core value. Each presentation is a treasure trove of ideas for district leaders to take back to their home roundtable and pass on to Cub Scout leaders who come to monthly roundtables.
“When I was a den leader,” says Ray Alverson, assistant council commissioner for SHAC Cub Scout roundtable, “the most terrifying words in the world were ‘Mr. Alverson, I’m finished. What’s next?’ ”
There’s no way anyone could remember all that’s being thrown at them today. Fortunately, no one has to.
“They’ll get a packet from [each] group, with all the stuff they can do,” says Jennifer Spangle of Texas Skies District. “Opening ceremony, closing ceremony, games, skits, songs, and crafts, everything you can think of. It’s done at different levels, so your Wolves can do it, or your Webelos Scouts, including a 10-page handout that will go on a CD each attendee receives.”
Lunch break, and it is welcomed. The morning has been fun, but squeezing a dozen 15-minute sessions into three-and-a-half hours was a marathon. (After the conference, Alverson said next year’s theme sessions will last just 10 minutes each.)
The morning session shared ideas to use in roundtables and den meetings. The afternoon session models how to conduct a roundtable. “It’s one thing to read about how to do a roundtable in the book,” says Steve Cannon of the George Strake District. “They come here and actually see one done.”
This model has a theme borrowed from the hit film series National Treasure.
Just like a good monthly roundtable, conference organizers run every event, joke, game, and announcement on schedule, from opening flag ceremony to closing remarks. At least 13 different districts have specific assignments in the model event, but no one present is spared from the cheering, singing, and laughing.
Attendees head to different rooms for “breakout sessions” that offer time for training on each Scouting level. Thirty minutes later, the meeting resumes in the main room with announcements, a run-on joke, a skit, and more. The energy level and enthusiasm remain high to conference end, shortly after 3 p.m.
It’s all over, yet attendees linger. It looks as if most are still basking in the event and saying farewells.
“If they can take that energy back to their district,” says Paul Cowan, adviser for roundtable commissioner training, “they can bring in a whole bunch of people.”
For Bob Lake, a district roundtable commissioner, “This was a reaffirmation that this is the way it should be done. You can do it with this quality and energy level.”
As the conference comes to a close, event chair Ragan teeters on the brink of tears — but not from sadness. “Everyone delivered,” she says. “The second year was like ‘Wow, this is working.’ This year was a bonfire. At one point I said to Ray [Alverson], ‘They’ve taken the bit in their mouth. Do not get in the way of the chariot.’ ”
Louis B. Parks, a former feature writer for the Houston Chronicle, lives in the Texas Hill Country near Wimberley.