Summer Camp at the National Defense University

Last week (7-11 July, 2010) was the summer camp for the first year students at the National Defense University in Beitou, Taipei. The students were freshmen (and women) who are now entering their second year of study.

The entire week was a surprise and a challenge for me. I was not sure what to expect from a summer camp as I had never done one before. The camp itself was an English summer camp, so the focus of the entire thing was on English and I was interested to see what the result of an English class combined with a traditional summer camp would look like. Although it was a summer camp (the temperatures confirmed it), it was not the outdoors kind, all of our lessons were conducted in the classroom. This was to avoid disruption of the other people on the campus as the other students were still doing their regular activities.

There were 12 classes in total with around 24 students per class, we were one shy of 24 because one of the students couldn’t attend for some reason or another.

Monday started off with a new class of mixed students. The class was bundled together from different students from different faculties, some of them already knew each other, but most of them didn’t. This day was about getting to know each other getting into the flow of the week.

The start of the day required us to make a war cry of sorts. Now I should of realized it, but later in the morning we had to perform that war cry for the rest of the classes at the school. But not having realized it, we got to the venue and then were escorted outside and told we had to perform, and we were first. So all of us were taken by surprise on this one, but managed to compose ourselves pretty well.

The rest of the day was devoted to activities in the classroom, or course all English related. I ran into the problem that I had underestimated how much extra time there would be and had to think on my feet to expand things and fill the available time.

The afternoon was also the start of practice for the show we would have to put on on Friday afternoon. We tentatively started to put it together, first trying to brainstorm as a class and figuring out what the topic of the show would be. This took quite a bit of time and there were only a few ideas put forward. This posed a bit of challenge as they got very excited about some topics, like a remix of The Three Little Pigs and Red Riding Hood. The problem would have been how to put those together into a show that was supposed to be only five minutes long. We left the discussion to be continued the next day.

The one thing that became very clear right away was the eagerness to do a song and dance. In contrast to South Africa where the men try to be quite “manly” the whole class which consisted of 16 guys and 7 girls were keen on doing a song and dance. There are few qualms with this and actually it’s pretty fun. The tradition of doing these singing shows starts from kindergarten and they get a chance to do these shows pretty much every year until the finish university. Funnily enough they still have some in companies as I witnessed at the year-end party at my company last year.

Tuesday was the first day of actual teaching. We had already started on Monday as there is always lag time built into the schedule. We focused on greetings and basic conversations. I had planned my lessons around teaching just what was in the book which turned out to be too little for the students as their ability was quite a bit beyond the chosen material.

Due to our slower than expected speed for choosing the show topic, and my being a little nervous about not finishing (after the scare of the previous day’s war cry) we started off the afternoon by choosing a topic. We finally settled on Cinderella and hastily started putting together a script and other stuff.

After asking for a little guidance on putting the show together I picked teams to do the different parts of the show. We had a group to put together the final song, choosing it, cutting it down, preparing the music and deciding on the actions for it. Another team was in charge of creating the costumes. The final group was in charge of preparing lines for the actors and how they would perform.

Wednesday was another filled with teaching and in the afternoon we hit the show again. Progress was again slow, so we put a concerted effort into finalizing and having a first run. Setting targets for a first run in the afternoon helped to speed up their progress and we ran through it as best we could. Afterwards we decided to cut the lines a bit and practice the actors roles more.

Thursday morning was probably the best of the English classes. After a week of being a little unsure of how to handle the class I did what I should have done all along and just approached it like any other class I would have had, I threw in a whole lot of games with a whole bunch of speaking and we finished off pretty well.

In the afternoon we had our materials for the show ready and got most of the props finished. The lines were pretty much done and the song “That’s How You Know” from the movie enchanted had been chosen as our final song. This song has been in the back of my head ever since then reminding me of the fun we had and bringing back memories of the week.

Friday was the wrap-up for the week and the morning was devoted to having some final time with the students, just chatting about stuff. We also had lunch together in the classroom, which was a bit of a treat for them as they have to get permission from their company leaders to be absent from their usual lunch with their company.

The biggest surprise was the twists and changes that were made to the show at the last minute. Cinderella’s shoe became her bra, the kids started making their own new lines and doing some impromptu acting. This got me worried a little about not having a perfect show, but I did have to realize that this was the aim of the show, to get them to just use the English they had learned and to feel comfortable using it. So I pushed any ideas about a perfect show aside and just let them flow.

The afternoon was awesome. Everyone was excited to a fever-pitch when the last of the shows started, the atmosphere became better and better as the evening moved on with cries of support and laughter during all the performances. Most of the shows were pretty darn good, and of course ours was not exception.

At the end of the day my students presented me with Cinderella’s pumpkin as a thank you card for the week. I got a few strange looks carrying a big pumpkin cutout onto the subway, but at the same time I was really proud of what my class managed to achieve.

Looking back there are a few things I would take away from this and apply the next time I do a summer camp.

Firstly I would prepare a lot more short activities. Perhaps my lack of experience with planning so many classes or confusion about the format of the week left me with gaps during the day. Next time I need many, short, easy to setup activities to fill in any quiet moments.

Secondly I would insist on English only from the start of the week. It was only on Thursday that I made a “punishment” for speaking anything but English. This only consisted of singing a song for the class, but was enough to get them to stick to this rule. It was not easy for all of them, but they all managed to get their meaning across in one way or another.

Thirdly, plan for any level. In a week, there is very little time to get to know the class. Sure, you’ll know each other better by the end of the week, but it’s very hard to adjust a schedule in such a short time. I would aim for all the basics and lots of conversational activities only. These always work and can be adjusted on the fly. Together with this I won’t be obsessed with the workbook, if we have to finish it for some reason, then just quickly finish those as a task at the end of the morning or something.

The week went by in a blur, I was quite ill at the beginning of the week, which improved by the end. The days were long, but the interactions with the students were great. On a side note it was an absolute pleasure staying at Paul and Queenie’s place for the week, two of the greatest friends anyone could hope for.

To my students: You guys rock, and thanks for making the week as great as it was. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you around.