Teaching English in the middle of nowhere
Updated: Jul 5
Shooting stars, s’mores, spiders and scary stories...
I have been an English teacher leading various kids’ summer camps organised by Alpha Beta for the past four years. From teaching at a cooking and experiments camp at NOI Tech Park’s Kitchen Lab to taking kids on the road and exploring Bolzano’s castles and caves, it’s been a lot of fun mixing things up in summer and having a little break from translating, copywriting and—most importantly—my computer screen.
This year, I taught at a five-day sleepaway camp for nine to 11-year-olds in Arco, located just above the north shore of Lake Garda.
When I pulled up to the meeting point in Bolzano where 16 small kids with big backpacks stood with their 32 curious eyes looking at me, I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" These were living, breathing beings that I would be responsible for returning back to their parents in one piece. Yikes.
Luckily, two other teachers were waiting for me in the sea of stares.
As I do with everything in life that daunts me, I tried to find a way to make the situation seem, well, less daunting. My inner-calculator started computing: 16 kids divided by three teachers... All right. That's doable, totally doable. We were back in business!
The kids said goodbye to their parents, and we took our places on the bus. Those who already knew each other sat together, and the ones who didn’t, sat alone—perhaps wondering the same thing I was when I first arrived.
We played a simple game to learn the kids’ names, and before we knew it, we were in Arco.
Balmy air greeted us as we exited the bus. We gathered in a circle for a few ice-breaker activities and then headed to the gelateria for some ice cream. With a little sugar kick, we began the trek from the village, past Arco Castle and into the woods to the remote campground where we would spend the next five days.
The hike allowed for some small talk to get to know the kids—to learn their names, where they were from, what language(s) they spoke at home and all the usual get-to-know-you A1 English chit-chat.
After trudging our way in the sweltering heat, we finally arrived at the camp. A creaking gate separated us from our temporary home.
Closing the gate behind us, it felt like we had stepped into a new realm. The jasmine at the entrance filled the air with the scent of a hot summer's day reminiscent of my childhood in California.
Camp Laghel was a paradise where everyday life ceased to exist. The kids were on their own, with no parents, no siblings, no familiarities, no stress, just room for them to be kids—to laugh, learn, discover and explore.
There was no phone reception, and there was no need for it either.
The secluded area offered places to play, ponder and relax. An ancient chestnut tree towered above, gifting a shady escape from the high sun. Hanging hammocks encouraged deep discussions and a firepit lured us in at night to sing, dance, tell scary stories, make s'mores and laugh.
After having lunch, the kids were divided into tents. Their polyester home-away-from-home for the next five days would be where they would learn how to live together, conquer fear and home-sickness and get to know each other—and themselves.
This was a new world that belonged to them with more freedom and, at the same time, more responsibility.
As you might imagine, the first night was filled with giggly energy and an unwillingness to fall asleep. But that was to be expected. It was the first time many of the kids were away from home, sleeping in a tent with unfamiliar faces.
Silence fell around 1:30 a.m.
Eventually, the sun rose, and with it, the little campers.
It was time for breakfast. For each meal, we chose two kids to be responsible for setting the table and washing the dishes. When we asked who wanted to be in charge, they all eagerly raised their hands. We were off to a good start.
Once the tables were set, the groggy kids ate breakfast and slowly but surely perked up. After the tables were cleared, I taught an English lesson until lunch. The first lesson was about respect and defining the rules together so as not to repeat the night before of kids yelling and laughing until the wee hours. Then we did an art project and had lunch. The afternoon was comprised of team activities, running around and playing with the hose to cool off.
Dinner came and went and then it was time to sit around the campfire, play more games and sing songs. The kids warmed up with the fire and also to each other.
The rest of the week flew by. Like clockwork, we woke up, had breakfast, learned English, had lunch, played games, had dinner and sat around the campfire. And each day, the kids grew closer to each other. Words of encouragement could be heard during each activity. When one was homesick, the other would reassure them that it would be okay. They would even help each other communicate. When one didn’t know how to say something, another would help. German, English and Italian whirled in the air in harmony.
On the last evening, we sat around the campfire and drew names from a bowl. The idea was that for each person we drew, we would go around giving compliments to that person in English. It was such a special moment to see the kids, who just four days prior were strangers, now give each other such heartfelt compliments.
"You are a super fantastic friend!"
"You make me happy when I am sad."
"You are so kind!"
"You are so good at speaking English!"
For each child, there was something nice to be said and my heart swelled with happiness.
The last day rolled around, and as the parents arrived one by one to pick up their children, the hugs and group hugs were never-ending. Learning English was the initial goal of the camp, but what they really learned was unity, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it.
Now back to my day job! ;-)