Sunday, October 6, 2013

Surprise, You're In Charge

Add three Peace Corps Volunteers to a mix of 52 Senegalese teenagers, three local English teachers, a dusty school building, heaps of sand and sun, and unrestricted creative potential, and what do you get?

A pretty unorthodox but successful (and fun) English camp in Dakar.

I’m still wondering how we pulled it off, considering I had never done an English camp before and the entire week was full of last-minute discoveries - such as: you’re in charge of planning and leading the entire camp! (We thought we would be assistants.) You’re on your own for printing any documents you need... and probably no one will help you! (You’d be amazed at the difficulty of cheaply and easily printing things in Senegal.) Naturally, you wait until just before camp starts each morning to buy any supplies needed – just send off one of the English teachers!

My closest PCV friend Faith and I fell into the leadership roles for this camp, so we both stepped up and alternated taking charge. Each night before the next day of camp, we brainstormed activity ideas and planned out the schedule, trying to make it as fun as possible for the teens.

The kids ranged from age 14 to 17, with English levels all over the spectrum. Some could barely form a sentence, while others could express their ideas and hold discussions. Some were shy, some were eager, some were cheeky. We had to come up with activities and games that would engage all of these levels.

In the end, it wasn’t too hard to think of ideas: we had already gone through the reverse cultural immersion ourselves, as new American volunteers getting used to Senegal and learning a new language. So we could put ourselves in their shoes. We figured they would want more talking and interaction games rather than writing. We guessed they’d want to get in the know on American pop culture, colloquial lingo, and how young people live in the States. We also figured they’d want to dance (Senegalese love to dance). Plenty music, check.

On the first day, we did a bunch of icebreakers and gave them each an American name, which was pretty funny. We supplied the last names (ranging from Martinez to Li to Jones), and they chose the first names (hence a boy naming himself Beyoncé).

First was Cross Culture day, where we talked about our own experiences with cultural transition, then did a True/False contest (we were intrigued to discover they didn’t know that American men propose marriage with a diamond ring... so naturally we acted out the scene for them). Next we had them make funny skits about some of the differences between our cultures. One of my groups made a skit about an American girl fending off marriage proposals from her taxi driver, which was hilarious and really does happen all the time. Another group acted out a Senegalese guy trying to bargain for items in America. One kid, playing an American, even shouted out “Are you kidding me?!”

On Pop Culture day, we played all kinds of American music and taught them our crazy dances (everything from the Cupid Shuffle to the Wobble and the Dougie). It was hilarious watching them attempt these dances – some kids inevitably held back, but a bunch of them got really into it. They didn’t like the Cha Cha Slide, but they rocked the Dougie.

Unlike American teens of the same age, these kids weren’t sarcastic or too cool for camp. They were young, so occasionally they got rowdy… but they were interested in learning and willing to try most things. If an element of competition was involved, even better. We did a bunch of outdoor games too, from egg races to musical chairs with Michael Jackson songs.

Geography Day involved stressing the massive diversity and regional differences of the United States. I drew a big map of the States on the chalkboard, and we passed out pictures of things representing each major region of the U.S., and we had the different groups present. Obviously this was very subjective… so there now exists a group of kids in Senegal who know about random things like chicken and waffles, Philly cheesesteaks, and bubble tea. But hey… America is pretty random.

On the last day, we had a party – music, talent show, prizes, food and all. “Talents” performed ranged from a group of girls singing “My Heart Will Go On” (they picked this on their own, I kid you not) to guys rapping in English and two comedy skits.

In the end, though it took a lot of work, the camp was deemed a success. In evaluation surveys we collected, every participant said they enjoyed the camp and would do it again, and everyone felt like their English had improved. Some of their responses were really sweet: “This English camp helped me to know more things that I didn’t know. It made me to be very happy and to feel better too.” And: “I would like to do [camp] again, and not just for the next year, but for every year.”

The funniest response to the question “Would you do English Camp again next year?” was scribbled in all capitals: “YES YES YES YES.” This was my first time ever planning an English camp, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat – hopefully with more prep time! But most likely, we’ll still end up running around last minute trying buy bottles of bissap juice while calling the school principal to unlock the gate, and by the way, where are all the chairs? T.I.S. (This Is Senegal).

Me with my team