English Camp: Cracking the Code

Guest Article by Elizabeth Soltan
Cornell University
ETA Elizabeth Soltan with her students
Recently I found myself, bleary-eyed at 7 am, tying blue string to curtain hooks at both ends of a room to create a “laser alarm system obstacle course” for Malaysian 12- and 13-year-olds. When I walked across the field at my college graduation, this was not what I pictured myself doing in one year’s time. But it’s all part of the unexpected, and often odd, life of an ETA.

Helping create the obstacle course was one of my duties as a facilitator for an English camp at my school, SMK Teluk Chempedak in Kuantan. Running an English camp involves a lot of cheerleader-style spirit, consummate attention to detail, arts and crafts skills, and the ability to corral large numbers of students. It’s a trial perfectly formulated to give a bookish, scatterbrained, sometimes-shy type like me hives.

This particular English camp had a mystery theme. The premise was that the students had to discover which of the dastardly suspects (the ETAs) had stolen the Sultan of Pahang’s family jewels. And how, you may ask, were they to solve this shocking crime? By successfully completing English language activities, of course—basically the same way the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot did it. (I give extra credit to Poirot, who, like our students, is not a native English speaker.)

At the beginning of the camp, with the “lasers” carefully strung and a big group of ETAs sporting pseudonyms like “Robin Banks” assembled, I couldn’t tell whether the students understood or were excited about the mystery theme. As far as I could see, they were still in the process of warming up to their unfamiliar group leaders, getting to know students from other schools, shaking themselves out of their morning daze, and adjusting to an English-only Saturday. That’s a lot to tackle all at the same time. When we broke for breakfast at 10 am, one of my students told me, “Teacher, I bored. Want to go home, play iPad.” My heart sank, but I just laughed and suggested that she pretend she had her iPad with her. I touched an imaginary screen and made beeping noises in the air. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Malaysia, it’s this: when all else fails, just act like you’re crazy and hope people are amused.

Matters improved after lunch, when students began rotating through a series of activities led by ETAs. I found myself manning the arts and crafts station, cursing whoever had assigned clumsy me this role—until I realized that I was the one who had matched ETAs to stations. I helped students use stamps to create pictures and spell words with their fingerprints while we talked about how fingerprinting works. ETA Shai Knight-Winnig came in with his group and shared some interesting facts about how common each basic type of fingerprint is. The students eagerly checked their own prints and compared them with their friends’. Next, ETA Max Fulgoni, playing the butler (spoiler alert: he did it) burst into the room with his group, full of energy as usual. He promptly stamped his blue thumbprint squarely in the middle of my forehead. My students retaliated by stamping their whole palm prints on the back of his white Fulbright T-shirt. Get ‘em, girls. As ETAs rotated in and out of the room, I thought about how lucky I am that this multitalented and wacky group of Americans abroad always has my back.
A student examining her fingerprint
By the late afternoon, students were dashing around like madmen in their haste to find the suspects. They dutifully decoded clues with small mirrors and played English games with abandon in the hopes of being the first to solve the mystery. When the camp concluded, students enthusiastically ran after the guilty butler and dragged him back to the “police chief.” Watching diminutive twelve-year-olds pull 6-foot-5-inch tall Max back onto the stage with all their might was an oddly satisfying culminating moment. If only the students were always this determined when it comes to learning English.

The next day, when I logged onto my “Cikgu [Teacher] Elizabeth” Facebook account, the reviews were in. One student had posted a picture collage of herself posing with various ETAs. Several girls wrote statuses about how much they enjoyed English camp. One of my favorite students wrote on my wall, “Teacher, I love it today.”

And what about our dear friend who missed her iPad? At school on Monday she rushed up to me to ask, “Teacher, when is the next English camp?”
How to get through to students is an ongoing mystery, but hosting a good English camp seems to be an important step in solving the puzzle. 
Participants of SMK Teluk Chempedak’s English Camp

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