(Re)Discovering Our Confidence in the Jungle

I never really know what to expect when it comes to English Camps. There are so many factors to account for. My head is filled with questions:

  • How will the students act outside of the classroom? 
  • Is the venue I selected appropriate for my camp? 
  • Are all of the facilities well maintained and safe to be used by my students? 
  • Will my kids fully commit themselves to the camp activities? 
  • Did I successfully establish a safe and welcoming camp community where my students feel comfortable taking risks?
  • Are the activities I planned interesting and relevant to the students? 

In my time in Malaysia, I have hosted two English camps and been to nearly ten hosted by other ETAs. In my experience, a camp can go one of two ways. Either all of the questions above are fulfilled and the camp is an enormous success, or none of them are and the camp can be equated to a train wreck.

I believe that part of the reason for this extreme success or failure scale is that camps are contingent upon the students. While this may seem like common sense, secondary school students can be all over the place. After all, serious developments in their social and emotional lives occur during these years.

However, a camp can be planned and implemented in such a way that encourages wholehearted participation. Activities must be relevant to both the camp’s theme and to the students’ lives. The selected activities must also balance familiarity with the unknown. In other words, camp activities should be new and exciting to grab students’ attention, but they also should build upon familiar concepts used in class to encourage full participation. In addition to a camp’s activities, the level of success of a camp also hinges upon the level of enthusiasm of the teachers involved. If spirits are high and the teachers fully commit themselves to participating in the activities, the students will follow suit. If teachers are skeptical or hesitant to take risks out of fear of embarrassment, the students will notice and may not fully immerse themselves.

The most successful English camps address both of these aspects.

Setting goals for English camp.

My second and final English wrapped up a few weekends ago. The camp was held at Putera Valley Resort and Training Centre (PVTC), a beautiful facility located just over an hour south of SMK Badak. All sixty of my students, forty from Form 4 and twenty from Form 6, slept in the facility’s recently renovated quarters and all meals were provided by the camp staff of the on-site canteen. As part of their camp package, PVTC sponsored and carried out three activities: an obstacle course, a water confidence course and a water crossing challenge.

As I mentioned earlier, an English camp’s success is dependent upon the activities and the teachers’ enthusiasm level. For my camp, half of this formula for success was out of my hands. I was not responsible for planning the obstacle course, water confidence course or the water-crossing course. Each of the three activities was an hour-long and the entire day was structured around them.

In the weeks leading up to my camp, I had used these three activities as bargaining chips to help convince hesitant students to sign up for my camp. Therefore, I needed these three activities to blow my students away or my camp would almost certainly be the biggest train wreck to date.

Even if the obstacle course was a let down, I determined that I could still salvage the camp by boosting my enthusiasm level afterwards. Walking towards the obstacle course I tried my best to push these thoughts to the back of my mind. Unfortunately, they all came rushing back to the forefront of my conscience the moment I saw the barbed wire fence, the mud and the fire hose. What had I done? I had just convinced my students that English camp would be the best two days of their young lives and I had used these three activities as evidence to support my claim. Goosebumps crawled up my spine as my eyes shifted from the obstacle course, to my students blank faces, to my teachers’ horrified faces. What had I done?

I watched with building eyes as my boys fought for the opportunity to be the first under the barbed wire. I watched with my mouth wide open as my girls, without hesitation, screamed and dove headfirst into the mud. I could not believe the scene that was playing out in front of me. What I had done was provide my students with an opportunity to forget about any perceived social boundaries and fully express themselves like never before.

The joy that I witnessed during that hour was unparalleled. I had never seen a group of reserved young people act so confidently. They challenged and encouraged one another and even chased me around the field with muddy hands trying to get me dirty. (Full disclosure: I did not participate in the obstacle course because I was holding my girls’ gold bracelets and my boys’ watches. I was not avoiding the situation because I did not want to get muddy!)

I don’t need your help, Mr. Max. Just hold my bracelet and get out of my way!

If I had attempted an activity like this earlier in the year, the experience would have been entirely different. My students’ were able to get the most out of the activity because they were used to challenging themselves around me. While my classes and lessons draw from the textbook, I never have my students sit passively and work through problem sets. They read texts aloud, they analyze characters, they link themes and they present their findings to the class. In other words, I expect them to challenge themselves whenever they are in my class. In the moments leading up to the start of the obstacle course, I think most of them realized that what was laid out in front of them was nothing new. Although the activity may have been physically challenging, the mental barriers that may have existed were far from insurmountable.

After the obstacle course was over and we had all laughed with one another, my students set their sights on the water confidence portion of the day. As a lifelong swimmer, I was looking forward to the chance to get into the water and avoid the suffocating heat and humidity. For all but a handful of my students, this activity could not have been more challenging. Despite the fact that they all wore life jackets, nearly every single one of my students did not know how to swim. In fact, most of them had never set foot in the ocean let alone submerging themselves in a lake. Again, I feared for the worst.

In the same way they shocked me during the obstacle course, my students rose to the challenge again. I watched as groups of three stepped onto the floating platform and performed a “trust fall” into the water, falling backwards into the lake. I can honestly say that if I had not grown up in the pool, I would have not participated in this activity. But this is why my students are better people at their age than I was as a secondary student and why I am so inspired by their actions.

As I watched them fall backwards into the water, some of them fighting off tears as they visibly motivated themselves to push past their fear, I was fighting back tears of my own. My students’ transformations this year have been the greatest I have ever witnessed in my teaching career. When I first arrived at SMK Badak in January, my female students used to shake uncontrollably when I would kneel next to them during class and my male students would sit in silence and refuse to make eye contact with me. While some of their growth can be attributed to my persistence and skills as an educator, most of the credit needs to go to each one of them as individuals. Without their conscious buy-in, this growth would not have happened. Period.

All smiles before everybody realized they would “trust fall” into the murky lake water.

Floating in the water alongside my students, I was able to meet them when they were most vulnerable. The interactions I shared with my male students were truly special. Although most of them were terrified, my presence made them relax and slowly enjoy the feel of the water around them. They laughed and we shared many a “first bump.” By the end of the activity, they were splashing one another and refusing to get out of the lake!

Swimming over to my girls, it was clear that they were struggling more than my boys with acclimating to the water. I will never forget swimming alongside one of my shyest girls to encourage her and ask how she was doing. Before I realized what was happening, she had reached out and clinched my hand. Her eyes were wide and tears were fall down her face. I was taken aback. Touching members of the opposite sex is usually not okay under normal circumstances. At the end of every class, I shake my male students’ hands and give my girl students each an “air high five.” And now my student was gripping my hand. Clearly, this was not a normal circumstance. I spent the next few minutes calmly reassuring her that she was safe and teaching her the proper way to float in the water. Slowly her grip loosened and she eventually let go completely.

It was not until much later that I was able to unpack and process those moments. What I did not realize at the time was that, even though my student’s reaction was subconscious and a survival instinct, she still knew that I was a male. And yet, she did not hesitate nor did she seem to care. This interaction is the greatest evidence I have to prove that I have made a difference in the lives of my students. My student trusted me with her life in that moment. Even though she was wearing a life jacket she was still visibly terrified of the water pushing in around her. And yet she felt comfortable enough with me to take my hand. She trusted me. That is progress on an unprecedented scale.

From pure joy to “get me the heck out of here.,” my girls’ faces say it all.

The rest of my English camp was an enormous success, my students continued to build upon the momentum provided by the obstacle course and water confidence activity. They fully committed themselves to every activity and, as a result, I was able to challenge them academically and socially. While they all gained new knowledge, most of them walked away from camp with invaluable confidence boosts.

If I had not received a grant from the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to support the financial costs of the camp, my school could not have afforded to stay at PVTC. My students’ would have never had the opportunity to participate in the obstacle course or water confidence activity and I would have never bonded with my students the way I did during those two hours. In other words, if it weren’t for the U.S. Embassy’s grant, my students’ academic and social growth would have stagnated. Studies have shown that an individual’s academic successes are often linked with their confidence levels. If an individual is not confident, they will not take the necessary risks to excel in the classroom. However, when a student possesses that confidence, they can make enormous gains academically.

Over the course of the two-day camp, I was able to express my hopes and dreams for my students as individuals and they were able to prove to themselves that they were worthy of that praise. Although I have encouraged them all year, working with them in a non-traditional academic setting was powerful. I believe that this English camp was the boost that they needed to catapult themselves into the upper echelons of academic and social success. I hope they will look back on their lives in the future and remember the time they crawled in the mud overcame their fear of the water and started down the path towards lifelong success.

A special group of students!

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